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Hacking sexual pleasure: a hard, slippery problem

3001: A Pants Odyssey

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Better vibrations

Simple shaking can be fun - women routinely use their Rabbit vibes to destruction, month after month - but a vibrator isn't much more sophisticated than raw electricity, since it has the simplest possible motion: back and forth at a single frequency. Neurologically, that's pretty predictable and boring. So the most popular vibes are built into dildos, allowing the basic buzz to be modulated by manual dexterity (position, angle, pressure, and motion); the human touch still counts for much of the success.

Is there a path to improving vibe-like stimulation? Maybe, at least if tinkerers can be more creative.

For example, the single-point, single-frequency shaking of a vibrator might be replaced by a closely-spaced matrix of gentle activators (like a Braille touch-pad). A set of wave-like input signals on the grid could simulate motion (side-to-side? circular?); synchronous inputs could simulate tapping or pulsing. Even random signals might have a pleasant effect. It is already an open secret that the near-random, quickly-varying turbulence of a gentle stream of water can be far more physically exciting than a constant, regular buzzing (water is a famous female masturbation trick).

Could that sensation be simulated by a toy? It would be difficult, because synthesizing high-frequency random motions is a mechanical challenge, and distributing them in patterns across a centimeter of skin would be harder.

Robo-tongue

Even the ultimate mechanical transducer could not have the subtlety and sensitivity of a human fingertip, much less a mouth. Imagine the technical specification: a highly flexible, self-articulated annular pressure zone ("lips"), multi-joint articulated "tongue," highly variable suction, and self-lubrication. Not to mention sensors, with built-in adaptive signal-processing, to detect not only the skin they touch but the effect on the owner. And really, really good driver algorithms.

Fat chance.

Trying to reduce pleasure-generation to simple mechanics and signal-processing is geeky and - worse - wrong. Pleasure is as much about psychology and anticipation as it is about simple mechanical signals. Sometimes a signal which is hard to anticipate (like a random or human-driven one) is more exciting than a something regular. And intense isn't always better; gentle sensations, especially in sensitive areas, can further heighten sensitivity (tickling, for example).

Perception is a mental process; as with yoga and meditation, persistent focus on a sensation can matter as much as the stimulus.

Hacking without technology

One group is pushing the "hack sex" principle to its limit without any technology at all. A so-called "sensual community" in San Francisco, based around The OneTaste Urban Retreat Center, has a yoga-like practice of "Orgasmic Meditation" involving long periods of gentle clitoral stroking, a sort of prolonged genital tease (the group is run by women, so don't blame men for that apparently frustrating discipline).

Perhaps it's the women's influence which also makes them place such heavy emphasis on the psycho-dynamics of giving and receiving sensual pleasure; they hack the social and psychological aspects of sex too.

Women's sexual responses, especially, are constrained by communication and expectation: unspoken assumptions and anxieties can crowd out and suppress the actual, physical sensation. For example, expectations about having to "put out" can dampen enjoyment of foreplay; alternatively, one partner may feel obliged to induce an orgasm, the other may feel obliged to reach or fake it, and both can end up feeling disappointed or inadequate.

Professionals who actually know and teach about sex - therapists and coaches, for example - are unanimous that communication and trust is far more important than mechanical technique. Yet there is no consensus on what pleasure really is.

Some people want to "get off" quickly, while some want to prolong the intense feeling of incipient orgasm. Some want control of the stimulation, some want reckless abandon, some want to be actively dominated, some want to dominate. Some want a connection to another person, some want raw solo sensation. And some want each of these at different times.

So no amount of new electro-mechanical technology is likely to make up for understanding how sex works and how our minds create and appreciate it. Of course, if there is an effective new way of turning people on - a new drug or futuristic Orgasmatron - some fanatic tinkerer will doubtless stumble across the principle, create a prototype, and market it.

If it really works, we'll all know soon enough.®

Bill Softky has written a neat utility for Excel power users called FlowSheet: it turns cryptic formulae like "SUM(A4:A7)/D5" into pretty, intuitive diagrams. It's free, for now. Check it out.

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