Let’s talk about masturbation – womxn or people with vagina masturbation, to be exact.
This is a topic I thought I’d never write about, but have always been curious about – haven’t we all? As we explore different forms of love and expressions of love in this issue, I wanted to learn more about sexual health. I am fortunate enough to have a mom that felt comfortable talking about sex and how to be safe when I was growing up. Of course, it wasn’t easy (for either of us), but I knew what it meant to use a condom. Beyond that, there wasn't not a lot of guidance.
I went to school with Anna Lee, the co-founder of vibrator company Lioness. Her company created and sells the first and only smart vibrator that lets you see data on your orgasms. I spoke with Anna to learn more about self-love and sexual health.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I'm Anna. I was born in Torrance, but actually moved to Korea when I was a baby, lived there for 6 years, and then came back to Torrance. I grew up living the LA life until I turned 18 and got into UC Berkeley, where I decided to study mechanical engineering. After that, I joined Amazon Lab126's concept engineering team. I feel very lucky to have found that space. It was a big corporate setting, but it gave me the taste of how to iterate quickly, do concepts, and pitch. My biggest thing was feeling that my Korean immigrant parents came to the U.S. with nothing, and did it to give us opportunities, and the one thing I had to do was have a corporate job and be there for 20 years or 30 years and retire. I should provide for my family and give that return to my parents, and that was a big weight that I carried, and I think I still carry that now. So I did it for a couple years, and I thought if I have to do this for another 30 years, am I going to feel fulfilled?
What brought you to create Lioness?
It was one of those beautiful, lucky things where you meet the right people, who are my co-founders now and are working on this project. I never thought I would do anything in the sex toy industry. I think I was scared of my own body for like 20-something years. It’s one of those funny life happenings where things collide in the way where it’s where I am now, and I can’t imagine doing what else I’d be doing at this point.
What is a smart vibrator?
We go back and forth a lot. We really try to re-brand ourselves outside of calling it the “smart” vibrator. There is “smart” everything at this point, and it feels a little like “what’s the point?” What is the point of having something “smart?”
We are the only vibrator in the world that uses technology previously used only in research labs that can give you biofeedback. It is physiological reactions to how your body is reacting during arousal and orgasms. Pelvic floor movements that are contracting and relaxing is one of the best indicators for arousal and orgasms. We embedded that sensor technology in the vibrator.
You use it like a regular vibrator, but what’s magical is that you can pair it to your phone afterwards and just like a FitBit, you can see the data that comes out. For example, what’s working for you, what’s not, what makes a difference. Our biggest encouragement is this is a tool for self experimentation. It goes anywhere from drinking a pot of coffee, changing partners, or your fertility cycle that might affect your data. We had an athlete that had a concussion and she saw a huge difference in her orgasms.
Knowledge is power. We are so limited, in terms of the research, around sexual wellness, especially for women. We are really trying to expand on that knowledge so that people feel confident. The biggest questions we get are “am I normal?”, “ is my body normal?”, “do other people’s bodies react like mine?” We wanted to create a “smart” vibrator that can tell you that you are totally normal, and here’s your data. You build upon your own data, and you do not compare to other people.
What can we learn from the Lioness vibrators? How can we use that data to improve our orgasms, and why is it important?
We have a saying at our company: “Never measured never improved.” One of the most prominent studies in female sexual function was done in the 1980s and it was a sample size of 25 women. All the things that we’re learning about female sexual function is based on 25 women back in the 80s. We don’t know anything. A lot of people are like “why do we have pains,” “why does it feel different after birth,“ and "why does it feel different after menopause?” No one really knows those questions, and we are stuck in this “it is what it is” rhetoric. OBGYNs typically only get 1-2 days of training on sexual pleasure. There is so much stigma and taboo around sexual wellness for females and people with vagina wellness that it is important for us to learn as much as we can about our bodies to feel confident.
It is important to be able to understand your body and talk to your partner about your likes, dislikes, and what you’re feeling. The hope is to continue expanding the research around that. Because we have all this amazing anonymized data, we’d like to have medical and academic researchers do more studies and push out more things that cater to the entire world. Women and anyone with pelvic floor movements or vaginas are such an underserved community that we really want to help learn through data.
Getting into deeper stuff - how did your family and friends react to creating Lioness?
When I first was working on Lioness, I was still full-time at Amazon. I went to work during the day at Amazon, and then went to Berkeley to work on Lioness when it was a start-up, and I would come home at 3 AM. I would do that every day. There was a day where I woke up at noon, slept through all of my alarms, and was like “this is not a sustainable way to live.” At that point, I was like, I have to decide what I want to do full time. I actually didn’t tell my mom when I first quit my Amazon job. It was the feeling of an Asian parent that's given you as many opportunities as they could, and it felt like a huge let down to say “I’m going to work at this start-up, I am not getting paid, and I am not getting health insurance. It’s going to be fine!” Plus, to be working in something so sexual, it was tough.
Eventually I did tell her I was working at a start-up but didn’t tell her specifically what I was doing. One day she wanted to come and visit, because I am here in Northern California, and just to make sure I was doing well. I thought that this would be the time to tell her. When she came, I took her to our start-up office, which was just a desk in a sea of desks at Sky Deck. When she came, I showed her prototypes and in my best Korean I explained why it was so important to me. The big thing was that she knew that I had sexual trauma when I was a kid. I don’t blame her, she did the best she could, and no one is equipped to help kids navigate that. It was like the traditional routine of us slipping it under the rug, and we didn’t talk about it again.
After I explained why it was important she was really quiet. I was nervous she was going to be upset. But she said “when I was younger I used to have a vibrator.” And then for the next two hours she was telling me about her sex life, and it was the most beautifully disgusting conversation I’ve had with my mom. We’ve always been close in the sense that I respected my parents, but I didn’t tell them everything about me, but this was a moment where we got to share such an intimate conversation. At the end, she told me she wondered for years if I was okay. This made her feel like I was. At the same time, I told her I was doing well, and that was the most important thing for her, being well in my adult life.
How does your team normalize talking about masturbation?
The common misconception our team gets is that we are super sexually open and the type of people to talk about it with everyone. We grew up in conservative families, and are pretty regular people, so we are just trying to normalize discussion around it.
Our passion is to normalize discussion away from the common concept that people believe which is that female masturbation is gross. Everyone does it. It’s part of your wellness, it’s good for you to not feel ashamed, and the biggest thing is to unlearn what we know and feel confident in our bodies.
For me, I try to talk about it as comfortably as I can just to make other people feel open and welcoming to talk about it. Not all my friends are excited to talk about it, but as the years go on, they warm up to it and ask what they think they should get. I like to be able to give knowledgeable and good data driven feedback for what I think versus something you might see in movies that’s more pornographic.
It comes from the historic thing of the sex industry being very male dominant and led by men. I met a CEO of another sex toy company and I asked him, “how do you know that what you’re building is good for women and people with vaginas?” He told me there is an industry standard where you put the vibrator to your nose and that’s what a clitoris feels. I could not believe that’s what people do.
This new wave of making women-led or people with vagina-led, or LGBTQ+ led products is becoming much more of a conscious design. I think it’s now becoming so much more sex positive.
What, in your opinion, is self-care/self-love?
A lot of people ask me if I should get a sex toy and, as much as I want to push my own product, I actually think that it is really preferential. It really is about feeling good and confident about yourself.
I have imposter syndrome - I always wonder, am I qualified to do this? People always ask me how I got my own start-up. I don’t feel like there’s anything more special sauce that brought me to this. You just fake it until you make it, and then you get to a point where you feel that you can do it.
It’s the same with anything sexual pleasure. Go to what you feel comfortable with. It may start at being able to look at your body in the mirror and feel good about it. I think that is a huge step that a lot of people don’t do. The common thing folks are told to do is to get a mirror and look at your vagina. Look at everything, learn what it looks like, love it, and even that is really hard. I was scared to do it. It’s so cringey, and I felt so nervous. But even being able to do something like that, and feeling confident about it is great.
All of this doesn’t mean anything unless your mental health is being worked on, too. Whichever way works best for you, meditation, therapy, picking up a hobby, there’s no specific way to do it, but it is all so critical.
Lastly, doing things out of enjoyment can be a hard thing for many of us to do. I talk to my therapist about this a lot. It feels like everything we do needs to have a purpose or achievement, but just doing things because you like it is actually a pretty hard skill to achieve. I think that is the purest form of self-love.
Right now, Lioness is launching a research platform. Researchers can jump on the platform and potentially have the largest study on sexual function. Lioness users can opt-in to these studies (the only time your data will be shared is with permission), so researchers can study and learn beyond what we know now. Click here to learn more about this new launch!