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The quantified sex life? Not so fast

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Most of the best things about sex aren't amenable to data collection — but that's not stopping sex apps

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As Fitbits and Apple Watches have become de rigueur devices, the quantified life movement has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Fitness, nutrition, and sleep have all become data sets to be quantified and analyzed, so it’s only to be expected that some enterprising entrepreneurs would look to extend our passion for tracking to, well, passion itself. Yes, the quantified sex life has arrived, and with it, promises of better sex through algorithms.

Yes, the quantified sex life has arrived Recently, a number of quantified sex apps (and at least one gadget) have been introduced. The apps differ in certain respects: Nipple relies on user reported data while Spreadsheets generates data collected through motion sensors; Lovely collects its data through an enhanced cock ring. But they’re all driven by the same basic principle: the more you know about the sex you’ve had in the past, the better sex you will have in the future. By tracking metrics like frequency of sexual encounters, duration of sexual activity, and speed of thrusting, quantified sex apps promise algorithmically enhanced pleasure, improving intercourse through sophisticated data analysis. It’s an alluring proposition — who among us doesn’t want better sex? — but there’s just one problem: there’s no indication that any of these apps actually work.

spreadsheets interface

Generally speaking, we know that consuming a reasonable amount of calories and increasing physical activity will lead to a healthier lifestyle; a corresponding science of sexual pleasure has yet to be mapped out. There’s no optimal level of speed, force, or sexual frequency that’s guaranteed to increase happiness in the bedroom; even trends that have been observed in research won’t necessarily make your sex life better. Studies have shown that happier couples have more sex, but merely increasing your instances of intercourse won’t bring happiness into your bedroom. Similarly, merely increasing the duration of intercourse, or upping the speed of thrusting, won’t guarantee better sex (as chafed ladies everywhere can attest). Optimizing sexual pleasure is a highly subjective — and incredibly personal — process; what matters more than data analysis is simply communication.

What about eye contact and dirty talk?Even if sexual metrics can’t point the way to a universally optimized sexual experience, there’s always the possibility of using it to track individual preferences and optimize from there, right? After all, if a couple notices that increasing the duration or speed leads to better orgasms for the both of them, that’s useful data — or it would be, if there were a guarantee that what works in bed one day is guaranteed to work the next. And what of those whose sexual pleasure is correlated to more intangible qualities like emotional state, eye contact, or dirty talk? Motion-based apps won’t be able to capture that data — and that makes their concept of a sexual experience hideously limited, focused solely on intercourse’s mechanical aspects at the expense of essential components like trust, emotional connection, and intimacy. A program that could get couples talking about sex — especially people who are easily embarrassed — could do a lot of good. But it’s not entirely clear that any of these existing sex apps will do that. You can only quantify what you can measure — and that sets up a specific vision of what makes good sex that’s already reinforced by countless porn scenes. Couples are already bombarded with the message that sex is all about rapid thrusting, superhuman stamina, and insatiable libidos. Apps that favor that view of good sex may prevent real discussion of what participants prefer, especially if those preferences are different from preset expectations of what sex is "supposed" to look like.

lovely app

Beyond being merely unhelpful, there’s a chance that these apps might actually hurt some couples — in particular, ones who are coping with troubles in the bedroom, the very people who might turn to these apps in search of a fix. Couples looking to increase frequency or duration or speed may similarly find that focusing on the destination, rather than the journey, makes it harder to end up somewhere happy. There are a number of ways these apps could harm couples’ communication, says sex coach and educator Charlie Glickman. "I see lots of opportunities for shaming and bad feelings and getting so focused on getting the numbers up rather than doing something that makes your partner happy," he says.

Sex apps might result in worse, not better, sexual experiences By placing focus on metrics, rather than pleasure itself, sex apps might result in worse, not better, sexual experiences. A man struggling with premature ejaculation might end up more stressed out by quantifying the length of his lovemaking, exacerbating the issue, or even making erection impossible to achieve. To illustrate his point, Glickman mentions a couple who tried a lower-tech version of quantified sex. "They were trying to figure out what was causing difficulties in their sex life, and so one of them started tracking how often they had sex, who initiated, and how often one of them initiated but then the other didn’t respond," he says. "They were just looking for patterns, but the result of it was that both of them ended up feeling all of this pressure because they didn’t want to get a bad mark on the spreadsheet."

Glickman does have some advice for couples looking to improve their sex through data analysis: "The only metric [that matters] is how wide someone’s smile is" at the end of the experience. If we spent our sexual experiences working to optimize that, rather than whatever data our phones might be able to tabulate, we’d likely all be having better sex — even if we don’t have the fancy graphs to prove it.

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