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How smart is your vagina? Stylist explores technology’s new (private) frontier…

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From smart vibrators to clever kegels, Silicon Valley is taking charge of our vaginas. Stylist explores technology’s new (private) frontier…

Words: Zoë Beaty

Take a look at your phone.  Right now, that little gadget can probably tell you how many steps you’ve already taken today, your resting heart rate and current weight  and how many hours’ sleep you got last night. You might have an app that can list exactly how many biscuits have passed your lips this week, and another that can  track your anxiety levels and tell you whether you’ve been mindful enough today. In 2016, we can, and do, monitor every part of our bodies. Yet, one area is consistently overlooked – our reproductive  organs.

That is, until now. 

Over the last 12 months, women’s bodies have been at the forefront of developments in the digital revolution. From tampons that send you notifications when they need changing to digital fertility monitors, so-called ‘fem tech’ is one of the fastest growing sectors in Silicon Valley. In fact, period and fertility trackers are now the  second largest category within health apps, second only to running. Venture funding in the health tech sector grew by 200% in the five years before the end of 2015, with 30,000 investors pouring more than £9.18 billion into the industry. 

It’s about time too. Historically, women have been consistently sidelined when it  comes to new developments in technology.  You only have to look as far as Apple’s faux pas with the 2014 release of its much lauded Health app to see it. While collating wide-ranging data about our bodies, from body fat percentage to how many flights of steps climbed, it failed to mention anything about menstrual cycles. It took the company a year – and a not-so-subtle reminder from the internet, via a plethora of angry articles and social media posts, that women account for more than half the world’s population – to update it. 


"A 2014 study found that the number of women employed in key roles  in the sector had remained static at 14% for 10 years."


But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised,  given the dearth of women in tech roles.  Sure, we dominate social media (81% of Pinterest users and 68% of Instagram users are women) and – according to research from the Entertainment Software Association  – twice as many adult women play video games as adult men, but women are still vastly underrepresented within the technology sector.

A 2014 study found that the number of women employed in key roles  in the sector had remained static at 14% for 10 years. Apple still employ just 22% women,  and consulting firm Deloitte Global predicts that there will be fewer than 25% of IT jobs held by women as 2016 comes to a close.  Meanwhile one research study revealed earlier this year that in the U.S. only 88 start-ups are run by black women. Full stop. 

"It's finally from the perspective of women"

"It's finally from the perspective of women"

“It’s the final frontier of Silicon Valley,”  explains Cindy Gallop, sex tech entrepreneur and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn. “There’s very little funding for anything that relates to women’s sexual health or sexuality. Typically Silicon Valley welcomes anything else but that. You can’t get stats on funding [in the women’s sector] because there simply isn’t enough funding. It highlights the gigantic gap in the market.” 

Yet, finally, that is beginning to change, says Tania Boler, co-founder and CEO of  female tech company Chiaro, who developed  the ‘smart Kegel’ exerciser, a digital pelvic floor exercising device called Elvie. “Anything ‘below the belt’ has been taboo until recently,  and that coupled with the negative assumption that women don’t appreciate good technology, means that tech for women in the past has meant little more than making an iPhone case pink,” she says. “It wasn’t dealing with real issues that women face.” 


“There’s very little funding for anything that relates to women’s sexual health or sexuality. Typically Silicon Valley welcomes anything else but that."


Now, crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter are allowing women to finance their products on their own terms – some  products, like the smart menstrual cup, have raised more than $150,000 in funding – and consumers are backing them fervently. 

"Now, there’s a growing realisation that  women consumers can’t be overlooked,”  Boler adds. “Over the last few years, there’s been a huge feminist surge, which has  opened up the conversation – women want to embrace their bodies and enjoy them.” 

And in the last 12 months, technology has finally started reacting to that shift in attitude. “Before, when companies designed tech products for women they did it from a male perspective without addressing what  women actually want,” says Boler. “Now tech is listening to women, more women are designing tech than ever before and the industry is waking up to women’s needs.” 

Now you can keep track of your pelvic floor exercises as easily as you can count  your steps each day and, should you feel it necessary, have an app on your phone to  tell you when your menstrual cup is full. 

“There’s been a huge increase in technology for sex and women’s sexual health recently,” agrees sex educator Alix Fox. “Some of it is fantastic. There are some developments, like smart kegel exercisers, that can improve our ability to orgasm and how strong they feel, as well as helping with serious issues like incontinence. It’s liberating and empowering – it means women can take control of their pleasure and sexual health.” 

It’s liberating and empowering – it means women can take control of their pleasure and sexual health"

It’s liberating and empowering – it means women can take control of their pleasure and sexual health"

However, it’s not all straight-forward. 

“Many of the things I find really worrying,”  says Alix, “are the devices and apps that could raise a culture of self-diagnosis.  “For instance, the Looncup – a crowdfunded menstrual cup – uses silicone embedded  sensors to measure your period, in terms of volume and colour. The device analyses the data and can suggest whether you might be anaemic, for example, based on that analysis. But none of us should be relying on an app rather than seeing a doctor.” 

It’s a similar story for the Gaga vibrator –  the device that allows you to take a “selfie” from inside your vagina and, should you so wish, project the photo onto your laptop screen. “It was dubbed the sex selfie stick,”  adds Fox, “but when it was first launched in its parent country, Sweden, it was marketed as a device for women to watch for changes in their cervix and monitor their sexual health.  Again, the danger with that is the potential to put women off going for smear tests.”  


...the most liberating thing for women - emotionally, physically and sexually – is to change the way we think about our bodies and remove the shame associated with them...


Despite these concerns, and the fact some innovations feel like inventions purely for invention’s sake, many are elevating women’s pleasure and prioritising female sexuality in incredible ways. Take omgyes.com, for example, a website and subscription service which counts Emma Watson as a fan. It uses video tutorials of real women and real vaginas that respond in real time when you touch your phone or tablet screen – the first of its kind. Men and women looking to learn about eliciting female pleasure can use it, as well as women who have difficulty climaxing themselves. It’s modern sex, honestly, and finally from the perspective of women. 

Women’s tech has the potential to revolutionise our relationship with our bodies, says Boler, who adds that “the most liberating thing for women – emotionally,  physically and sexually – is to change the way we think about our bodies and remove the shame associated with them”.

We’ve certainly come a long way since the days when so-called fem-tech was little more than an embarrassing omission on an iOS update.  And while we as consumers work out whether we truly need sensor-laden tampons, there’s no doubt this is an exciting time for women’s technology – but with a long way to go.

Let’s hope in the near future, the digital gender gap is closed for good.  

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