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Destigmatizing Sex With an Orgasm-Tracking Vibrator

Liz Klinger is the co-founder and CEO of Lioness, the first smart vibrator for self-experimentation. Along with co-founders Anna Lee and James Wang (who also happens to be Liz’s husband), the Lioness team is on a mission to destigmatize honest conversations around sex and give individuals the power to better understand their sexual preferences and pleasure.

You created a new vibrator for women. Why?

Honestly, Lioness grew out of my own needs initially. I had a lot of questions about sex growing up, but like many of us, I grew up in a family where we simply didn’t talk about sex. We weren’t super religious, we just didn’t talk about it—at least not beyond, “don’t get pregnant.”

I also had various issues with my own reproductive health that were dismissed by OB-GYNs as “normal.” As a teenager I had an ovarian cyst the size of a kiwi that caused pain and irregular periods. I didn’t know it was a cyst at the time, but I knew it hurt a lot—so much so that I occasionally couldn’t get out of bed. Despite this, I couldn’t get doctors to take me seriously. My mom had to call nearly every single OB-GYN she could find until one over an hour away from us was willing to squeeze me into her schedule a few weeks out to discover the cyst.

That experience made me so angry because it felt like anything outside of pregnancy and STIs was unimportant to health providers. Even if it isn’t malicious, it’s not surprising we have so many hang ups and misconceptions around sexual health, which involves so much more than just those two aspects. As I began to dig into this issue, I realized sexual pleasure was particularly diminished in this paradigm. Sex plays a huge role in most people’s lives, but there are few readily available places to turn if you have questions—especially if you are a woman.

Lioness vibrator data

Image courtesy of Lioness

After a short stint as an artist and then an investment bank analyst, I began selling intimacy products (basically, peddling vibrators) and that experience very quickly affirmed that I was not the only “weird” person who had  questions about sex and pleasure. As it turns out, whether a person is 18 or 108, everyone has questions about sex.

I was a young 20-something who really didn’t know that much, but I found myself to be the first person many of these women asked deeply intimate questions about pleasure and sex—questions that significantly affected their self-confidence, health, and relationships. Just by being present, I created a space for discussion. Everyone’s questions and situations were so nuanced and so dependent on their own unique bodies and experiences. I realized there had to be a better way—to teach women about sex, to allow them to explore their own bodies on their own terms. These conversations—and the questions from which they were born—became the basis for Lioness.

One of Lioness’ key features is that it actually captures data. Can you speak to how you came up with the idea and what the development process looked like? Why is this of interest to you?

Creating what Lioness is today certainly wasn’t an overnight realization. It took a lot of iterating and feedback from thousands of individuals, from all sorts of backgrounds, until we got to something people wanted.

We started with the question, “How can we improve sexual experiences?” and went from there. The data aspect wasn’t even on our radar until we were well into our development. It was our users who ultimately led us to the data.

Our first iteration of Lioness was a vibrator that adapted to your body and preferences. It was as simple as pressing a button, easy to use, and you could just sit back and enjoy. The problem with that was, while many people find the idea nifty at first, most folks have one or two go-to settings they always return to.

But what was interesting to folks was the ability to get “feedback” from their own body—I think we described it as something really unsexy like “statistics about what your body does during arousal and orgasm.” We asked because we had the ability to see that with the technology we were building. And even though it was described in such a boring way, people’s eyes lit up—they started asking really specific questions unique to their own body—questions they hadn’t before realized they could ask or explore. Basically, they were asking the same sort of questions, with the same sort of urgency, I’d get when I was selling intimacy products.

Lioness

Liz (bottom, center) and the Lioness team

Can you tell us more about the data aspect of Lioness? And in a perfect world, how do you imagine this information will be used?

As we began to explore the idea, we were shocked by how little data there is available about sexual pleasure—especially for people with vaginas. Some of the primary tools of research and measurement haven’t changed since the days of Masters and Johnson—and that was in the Mid-20th century. The last major research on arousal and orgasms took place in the 1980s—when researchers measured the vaginal activity of just 11 women. We consulted with doctors, therapists, and researchers, and they agreed this was a field sorely in need of more concrete information and less speculation.

Having access to this knowledge could open up so many doors to better understanding sexual pleasure, including how sexual pleasure plays a role in other aspects of our health and lives. Our aim, first and foremost, is to provide individuals access to knowledge about themselves. Everything we’ve built has been around making that information as accessible, as private, and as anonymous as possible. We don’t keep any personal identifying information—even we don’t even know who is who from looking at the data. This can make make in-app improvements harder, but it adds a layer of privacy and security that is incredibly important.

Looking ahead, we’re really excited to combine our technical capabilities with healthcare professionals who want to study and expand their understanding of sexual pleasure. The latter will take some time because we want to maintain privacy and anonymity for our users above all else. But if we ever do any studies that require participation from our users, we’d be sure to ask and require explicit and enthusiastic consent. Not only is it ethical, but also we’d rather have people who are excited to participate in studies about topics they care about.

You just recently married your co-founder (congratulations!). Is it ever hard to separate what happens at work from what happens at home?

Of course! We’re both somewhat Type-A individuals (at least by Bay Area standards, maybe not so much by East Coast standards!). It’s tempting to brainstorm when one of your business partners is across from you at the dinner table.

Liz Klinger, Lioness

Liz and James on their wedding day, officiated by co-founder Anna

However, we’ve been together for over 12 years at this point—our relationship has been around far longer than Lioness. We also make sure to reserve weekends (and most evenings) for non-Lioness things unless absolutely necessary. Establishing boundaries has been key to not burning out.

If you could change one thing about our current sex culture, what would it be?

I wish more people realized just how much we don’t know—and how much opportunity there is to explore pleasure—whether you have questions, want to improve, or already have a solid sex life. Even though we’ve made tremendous progress on issues related to sexuality and body positivity, we still have a long way to go for normalizing sexual pleasure and satisfaction. Gathering data on the vast number of ways people subjectively and objectively experience orgasm, or how things like concussions, cannabis, or edging can affect sexual pleasure, are just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do.

One of the things that grinds my gears is when someone suggests that a product like Lioness is only necessary if you’re having trouble orgasming. I have to try my hardest to not quip back, “You need this, too, you know,” since, the thing is, everyone can do better. Just as an award-winning Olympic athlete can improve their technique, their time, and their enjoyment of the sport, so too can we improve our own understanding of sexual pleasure. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have nothing new to learn, improve, or try.

People buy our smart vibrator for all sorts of reasons, not only for improving their orgasms (or having one for the first time). Sexperts, swingers, porn stars, grandmas, moms, men, young women, trans individuals, and non-binary individuals from all over the country (yes, even in the Midwest and South) have bought Lioness.

It doesn’t matter how much you already know, anyone can benefit from some sexual exploration. A willingness to be curious, learn more, and expand our minds would do us a lot of good in matters of life and sex.

Featured image by Cora 
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