How does real sex look? These sites show the awkward truth

Does uncovering the vulnerable, clumsy sides of sex make you better at it? These “social sex” companies think so.

In the sunny living room of a Mediterranean-style house in Oakland, California, Rosalind sips coffee through a straw. The 24-year-old research assistant wears a thin green utility jacket and has large brown eyes and dark wavy hair with pin-up-girl bangs. Sitting on a couch as SLR cameras record her, she gets ready to tell nine people, none of whom she’s met in real life before, about the first time she masturbated.

“I can’t believe I told you guys about the shower masturbation,” says Rosalind (not her real name). “That’s literally the first time I have ever said that out loud.”

A few crew members chuckle. They’re filming for OMGYes, a site that hosts a series of online videos about how to sexually satisfy a woman. OMGYes is one of a number of companies ushering sex education for the 18 and older crowd into a new era. Serving a space somewhere between the staid, impassive lectures many sat through as students and a pornography industry that values entertainment above all else, these companies use interactive and user-generated digital media to explore the more emotional, intimate and vulnerable sides of sex. “The internet has offered, along with a lot of really disturbing images and ideas, a lot of potential for positive education,” says Peggy Orenstein author of “Girls & Sex” and “Cinderella Ate my Daughter,” which examines how modern culture sexualizes young girls. Sites like OMGYes, Orenstein says, “have the opportunity to do an end-run around traditional sources of education — and miseducation.”  
On the set of OMGYes. The company is in the process of producing its second season. Lynn La/CNet

Can't Keep My Hands to Myself

Launched in 2015 by U.C. Berkeley graduates Lydia Daniller and Rob Perkins, OMGYes is a startup dedicated to “the science of women’s pleasure.” Its videos feature one-on-one interviews with women like Rosalind who share their sexual history and favorite techniques. Other videos are interactive.

Viewers can, for example, use their fingers to rub and tap digital renderings of female genitalia on a touchscreen. These images are created from thousands of composited, high-definition photographs stitched together from some of OMGYes’ interviewees, who range in race, age and body type. As you touch, a voice-over softly guides you where to touch and how fast. The lessons end when the screen fades to white. If you do everything “right,” the voice lets out a satisfying sigh. If not, she suggests you stop and take a break.

Online videos have attempted to educate about sex before. In addition to the YouTube channels Sexplanations and Hannah Witton, there’s Laci Green. The 27-year-old YouTube personality has talked about sex and dating since 2008, and has over 1.5 million subscribers. But while videos by Green and others simply require passive watching, OMGYes infuses its tutorials with a level of visceral interactivity and immediacy that video blogs, books and magazines can’t offer.Though the tutorials can be titillating, OMGYes is serious about the facts and techniques it presents. In partnership with Indiana University and The Kinsey Institute, it gathered feedback from more than 2,000 women, ages 18-95. With this information, OMGYes offers a platform for women to talk about a subject that at worst is seen as taboo, and at best, unimportant. “Why aren’t we talking about pleasure? Like actual pleasure,” says Sybil Lockhart, lead researcher at OMGYes. “When we went to look up what the research was on pleasure, we found that there really wasn’t any. What gets funded generally is pathology. It’s anorgasmia or dryness or soreness.”

The first season of OMGYes is currently available for a $40 flat fee (about £30 or AU$50), and includes lessons about delaying and intensifying orgasms, stimulating the clitoris and communicating in the bedroom. For its 200,000 current users, OMGYes wants its upcoming second season, which doesn’t yet have a release date, to cover internal vaginal touch. It brought in Rosalind to talk about experiences including female ejaculation. After Rosalind wraps up her onscreen interview, the team breaks for a late lunch of Chinese takeout. Later, Rosalind will shoot her touch-and-talk scene, where she’ll masturbate on camera and narrate what works.At the end of all this, she’ll fly back home to DC and return to her job at a university. She hopes her contributions to the project will help form a more sensible, but still joyful, narrative around sex. “Having more resources like this gives [people] a positive interaction with the actual ins-and-outs of human sexuality, rather than the facade we see in pornography,” Rosalind says. “Fantasies are great, but demonstrate them in a way that are actually attainable.”

 

Women talk frankly to the camera for OMGYes.

Let's Make a Movie

The “facade of pornography,” and its entertaining but often unrealistic depictions of sex, motivated Cindy Gallop to find Make Love Not Porn (MLNP) in 2012. A former publicist and marketer who now heads her own consultant firm, Gallop is everything you’d expect an ad exec to be — fast-talking, blunt and charismatic. She created the site after discovering many of the men she slept with made false assumptions about what she wanted in bed. “Porn, by default, becomes sex education, and not in a good way,” Gallop says. “But the issue is not porn. The issue is that we don’t talk about sex in the real world.” The combination of free streaming online pornography and society’s reluctance to talk openly about sex, Gallop says, results in people taking their sexual behavioral cues from pornography.

To counter this, MLNP encourages users to upload and share videos of themselves having sex or masturbating. Subscribers can rent videos for $5 (about £4 or AU$6, converted) and stream them for three weeks. MLNP has two requirements for submissions: all those involved must consent to the whole process (the recording, the submission and most importantly, the sex itself) and participants must be having the sex they’d have in real life.One video shows a woman getting into a coughing fit while her partner rubs her back and offers a tissue. Another features an orange tabby cat jumping on the bed, indifferently watching its owners have sex and walking to the foot of the bed to lie down. There is small talk. There is silence. There are women with body hair. There are naked men wearing socks.MLNP doesn’t consider its videos to be pornography or even amateur, and to label them as either would be a bit reductive. These videos don’t feature professional actors contractually paid to have sex. The stars are everyday people experiencing genuine sexual connections. “It’s not performing for the camera,” says Sarah Beall, MLNP’s curator and community manager. “What we’re doing is creating a space to show that real-world sex comes in all different varieties and it isn’t less valuable, pleasurable or worthwhile.”

Other services have goals similar to MLNP. The YouTube channel Fck Yes, for example, shows how people can seek and receive sexual consent. There are only four complete episodes so far, and while the videos use explicit language, they’re relatively safe for work and don’t depict actual sex.MLNP videos include actual sex, and that they are crowdsourced and shareable online is key to MLNP’s overall mission. Anyone with the moxie to whip out a phone and record themselves can spontaneously upload a video and share it with MLNP’s 400,000 subscribers. In the five years since the site launched, 200 users have submitted 1,500 videos. The company likens users uploading their sexual adventures to MLNP to social media users posting their latest meal on Instagram or vacation photos on Facebook. “We’re building a whole new category on the internet called ‘social sex,'” Gallop says. “Our competition isn’t porn. It’s Facebook and YouTube. Or it would be Facebook and YouTube if they allowed sexual expression.” By making more down-to-earth depictions of sex as accessible as possible, Gallop hopes sex will be viewed not as something scandalous or fantastical, but as something intrinsically human.“Nobody ever brings us up on how to behave well in bed,” she says. “But they should. Because there is empathy, sensitivity, generosity, kindness. All those are as important [in sex] as they are in other areas of our lives where we’re actively taught to have those values.”

Love You Better

Empathy, sensitivity and kindness aren’t terms usually used to describe pornography. But porn production company BaDoinkVR hopes to change that. Founded in 2006 and based in Rochester, New York, BaDoinkVR specializes in virtual reality porn. Although the majority of its content falls into what you’d typically see on a porn site (blond, blowjob, threesome), two of its videos, “Virtual Sexology I” and “Virtual Sexology II,” aim to educate viewers about sexual positions and techniques through a first-person point of view.

On the set of Virtual Sexology II.

Viewers are in the front seat, engaging in foreplay and having sex with an encouraging partner. Sometimes, an omniscient female voice-over gives tips, chiming in about the benefits of pelvic exercises or sex toys. During one scene, when the actress is on her back in a missionary position, the voice cuts in to remind viewers that “pulling the legs back to the chest or close to the ears can create deeper penetration, which can be uncomfortable or pleasurable depending on her body preference.” “The porn industry’s primary objective is to entertain viewers,” says Dinorah Hernandez, a producer at BaDoinkVR and director of “Virtual Sexology II.” But porn can also be used to educate viewers, she says, adding that in the end, “Virtual Sexology” was created to “help people become better, more confident and more attentive lovers.” BaDoinkVR isn’t exactly alone in its endeavor to educate within the industry. The video streaming service PornHub, for example, launched a sex education and sexual wellness portal in February 2016. But while the portal functions more like an info center, BaDoinkVR is creating original and engaging video content.

   
A voice-over gives full context of a sex toy that actress August Ames introduces in “Virtual Sexology I.”

Geared toward straight men, “Virtual Sexology I” has been downloaded over 50,000 times and was BaDoinkVR’s most downloaded video of 2016. For the sequel, which is about female arousal, Hernandez enlisted Holly Richmond, a psychologist who specializes in sex therapy and supervised the techniques and advice featured in the video. “VR will be a paradigm shifter,” Richmond says. Because of its level of immersion, it “gives us the opportunity to teach empathy, facilitate connection and feel more relational” compared to 2D content.

“Virtual Sexology” is still pornography, and it features attractive actors who moan, squirm and gyrate in all the right ways. But they also do things you don’t usually see in porn. For example, the (male) actor begins the video by looking into the camera and saying, “I know we’ve been through some hard times with our sex life, but I strongly believe that we are on the best way and path to improve.” They also go through breathing exercises and politely thank “you” after orgasming. BaDoinkVR hopes to add installments that tackle more complex issues like fear of intimacy or erectile dysfunction. “These are serious issues for many, and more often than not, people are either too embarrassed or too afraid to admit to them,” Hernandez says.

Tell it like it is, and how it could be

As a porn company, BaDoinkVR benefits from its other, traditional content too, and was able to make “Virtual Sexology” free for download. But services like OMGYes and MLNP don’t have the advantage of working within a multibillion dollar industry. They face an uphill battle, as it’s difficult to get potential investors and partners to distinguish the difference between porn and more nuanced adult content.

One major operational challenge for MLNP was payment processing, due to PayPal’s policy against “sexually oriented digital goods or content delivered through a digital medium.” Email marketing service MailChimp also prohibits sexually explicit content and it took MLNP four more tries to find an email partner. You’ll also never see MLNP or OMGYes in the Apple App Store or Google Play because of strict rules against sexual content. With such operational roadblocks, it’s hard for companies to get sexually explicit but educational services off the ground. As such, there’s less choice and variety for people looking to learn about sexual behavior, intimacy and well-being. Not only can this be a detriment to individual consumers, but, some would argue, to society as a whole. “We live in a media culture that is absolutely saturated in sexuality,” Orenstein says. “But we’re utterly silent about what healthy sexual behavior ought to be. That is the real bizarre discontinuity with our culture right now.”

By 

Holly Richmond, PhD

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