A cultural history of the ‘nude selfie’

By: Holly Williams

As a new book is released exploring the modern, smartphone-facilitated phenomenon of ‘sending nudes’, Holly Williams reflects on the lineage of naked self-representation it continues.

“Love, lust, pleasure, desire, beauty, anatomical study, self-expression, egotism… The impulses behind sending nudes are many. Creating nudes and sharing them seems to be part of human nature.” So begins Karla Linn Merrifield, in the first contribution to a new anthology entitled Sending Nudes. A collection of poems, stories and memoir on the subject, it takes a long hard look at the contemporary – and seemingly timeless – habit of sharing images of the naked human form.

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The idea came to editor Julianne Ingles after a short story entitled Send Nudes was submitted for a previous anthology she was working on. “I thought [the topic] could be explored, that other people would have stories and poems,” says Ingles.

In Bronzino's 1530 portrait of the admiral Andrea Doria, his subject chose to be depicted in the mostly-naked, muscular form of the sea god Neptune (Credit: Alamy)
In Bronzino’s 1530 portrait of the admiral Andrea Doria, his subject chose to be depicted in the mostly-naked, muscular form of the sea god Neptune (Credit: Alamy)

“Sending nudes” is more of a live topic than ever, chiefly because the ease of taking, replicating and sharing naked images has led to anxieties about everything from revenge porn to celebrity sex tapes, hacked private images to sexting teenagers. But since the advent of smartphones, sending nudes has also become normalised incredibly quickly: any woman who’s been on a dating app in the last decade will likely have been asked to share nude pictures with eyebrow-lifting speed. 

But Ingles reminds me that sending nudes isn’t really new: “When I was in my early twenties, I sent nudes to someone – this was before the internet, so it was Polaroids”. It’s just that it used to be a private, little-spoken-of activity, rather than part and parcel of digital dating and contemporary life.

Its increasing prevalence as a phenomenon is neither a simply “good” or “bad” thing, Ingles – and the writers of Sending Nudes – suggest. While the potential for coercion, abuse and shaming are high, sexting can be a fun, consensual way to develop intimacy. During a pandemic, it’s also become almost a practical necessity for many – a way of keeping sexual fire alive, over enforced distance.

The artworks of our era?

Arguably, there are also positives to having a greater openness and diminished prudishness about real-life, normal human bodies. But then, few people sending nudes traffic in realism. Seductive nude selfies are usually staged and carefully framed, albeit often within the confines of a bedroom or bathroom; dressed up for as well as undressed for. Posed and carefully lit, cropped and filtered to flatter, they are crafted for the imagined appreciation of the viewer. In that way, are nude selfies part of a lineage of naked representation that runs back through art history?

Certainly, you could argue the selfie – including the naked one – is the artwork of our time. It’s estimated that over a million selfies are taken every day: self-portraiture meets self-promotion. We’re more aware than ever not only of our own image, but our presentation of it – how we make ourselves appear to the eyes of the external spectator. And nowhere is that more carefully manipulated, surely, than in the nude snap.

The art world is increasingly taking note of the selfie form. In 2017, Saatchi Gallery in London opened a show, From Selfie to Self-Expression, drawing the line between traditional self-portraits through to the humble camera phone shot, from Rembrandt and Van Gogh through to Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama. “Everything can be art if it’s followed through by the maker with enough conviction and coherence,” commented Nigel Hurst, CEO of Saatchi Gallery. “We’re not saying that the slideshow of a teenager trying out various poses is as significant as a work by Rembrandt, but the art world cannot ignore this phenomenon.”

Egon Schiele was among the artists who in the early 20th Century turned their gaze on their own bodies – though their depictions were rarely flattering (Credit: Alamy)
Egon Schiele was among the artists who in the early 20th Century turned their gaze on their own bodies – though their depictions were rarely flattering (Credit: Alamy)

That same year, the Sexting Art Festival was held at the Littlefield Gallery in Brooklyn. The organisers wanted to redress the lack of conversation, analysis or display of the “wide spectrum of work” that constitutes sexting, by showcasing it in all its forms, visual and otherwise.

Meanwhile in 2016, the National Portrait Gallery had a show called Exposed: The Naked Portrait, which revealed just how acceptable – fashionable, even – it’s become for celebrities to strip off for their own professional “selfies” – “revealing” and “honest” photographic portraits by the likes of Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, Norman Parkinson, Mario Testino, and Polly Borland. 

From buxom fertility goddesses through to heroic Greek gods, the unclothed human body has been recreated from the moment we could carve rock

The pervasiveness of the “nude selfie” is just the latest step in our ever-evolving relationship with the naked image. From buxom fertility goddesses through to heroic Greek gods, the unclothed human body has been recreated from the moment we could carve rock.

While it was the muscular, well-proportioned male form that was celebrated in Ancient Greece, once we came to the Renaissance, the focus began to shift to women. Hunky, idealised nude male figures from myth or the Bible still occupied artists’ imaginations (think of Michelangelo’s David, or depictions of Adam) – but a new fondness emerged for the reclining female nude.

Artists rendered the nude “respectable” in various ways: they painted goddesses or biblical figures as anonymous, generalised images of “beauty”, rather than portraits of specific or identifiable women. Painted in supposedly modest poses with hands delicately placed to notionally conceal their genitals, they also trafficked in idealism, not reality: no pubic hair here.

But rarefied and legitimised as they might be, such nudes also – inevitably – carry an erotic charge. These supine naked women invite the eyes of the – imagined male – viewer to travel all over their curves. Many entrenched ideas of what feminine sexuality looks like – a certain languorous passivity, simultaneously coy and come-hither – are codified here.

The first "nude selfie" by a female artist is thought to be Paula Modersohn-Becker's Self-Portrait Nude with Amber necklace (1906) (Credit: Alamy)

The first “nude selfie” by a female artist is thought to be Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait Nude with Amber necklace (1906) (Credit: Alamy)

Of course, the erotic intent of nudes before the 20th Century was almost always that conjured by male painters catering to wealthy male buyers. In the art critic John Berger’s hugely influential 1972 essay Ways of Seeing, he argued that, historically, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at… The surveyor of woman is herself male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” He proves this via examination of the frontal female nude in European art: the female subject, painted by a male artist, offering themselves up and out as an object, to be looked at by heterosexual men. For hundreds of years, women were only able to see external representations of their gender filtered through a male gaze, and therefore internalised that way of looking at themselves too. 

Nudes with agency 

I asked Frances Borzello, art historian and author of The Naked Nude, if there are any examples of pre-20th Century nudes expressing women’s agency – for example, portraits commissioned by a wife or mistress of themselves in order to please or tantalise a partner or lover? “I don’t know,” she says. “They would hardly advertise this though one assumes it must have happened – occasionally!”

She brings up Goya’s La Maja desnuda: a famously frank nude, who unabashedly eyeballs the viewer. Not that the model commissioned or owned her own image – it’s thought the painting was made for a man’s private collection of nudes – but art historians have speculated that it is at least an explicit, realistic portrait of one specific and willing female subject, who might have been Goya’s lover. “The striking features are the opposite of the bland and often hazy features of the ideal nude,” Borzello says. 

Artists turned their gaze on their own bodies, though they rarely recreated them in flattering or well-mannered images

In terms of self-promotion, commissioned portraits of the wealthy and powerful were usually, for reasons of respectability, fully clothed – both men and women – but there are rare exceptions. These include a wonderfully eccentric 1530 portrait of the admiral Andrea Doria, painted by Agnolo Bronzino as Neptune, complete with trident and naked torso; and a 1670 painting of Nell Gwyn, an actress and also King Charles II’s mistress, in which she is posing topless.

But it is at the start of the 20th Century when the naked self-portrait exploded in popularity. In this period of great artistic and intellectual change, artists turned their gaze on their own bodies, though they rarely recreated them in flattering or well-mannered images. Anguished mental states seem to thrum off the canvases, as in the harsh, blue-toned naked self-portraits of Richard Gerstl, the scowling, disturbing contortions of Egon Schiele, or when Edvard Munch painted himself “in Hell”, his haunted face surrounded by flames.

Tschabalala Self's erotic mixed-media collages bear a selfie-like aesthetic (Credit: Tschabalala Self, courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Tschabalala Self’s erotic mixed-media collages bear a selfie-like aesthetic (Credit: Tschabalala Self, courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

All these naked self-portraits were painted within the first decade of the 20th Century – and rather set the tone for the rest of it. Such paintings were possible, writes Borzello in The Naked Nude, because these artists had “no-one to answer to but themselves… These naked portraits follow no tradition. They are new. They make the private public. And they left a legacy.”

Modernism continued to effectively kill off the idealised reclining nude, as messier, more complicated images of naked bodies proliferated. Both in artists’ naked self-portraits and in nude portraits of others, a concern with the body’s less-than-picturesque aspects remained ascendant – from Picasso’s shattered forms to Lucian Freud’s lumpy flesh. 

How women reclaimed their image

But the story of the 20th Century nude is also the story of women, finally able to paint themselves. The first “nude selfie” by a female artist is thought to be Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait Nude with Amber necklace, in 1906, where she paints herself pregnant, despite not being so. It’s an imaginative take that’s about female identity – not the male gaze.

For many female artists, creating their own take on the nude becomes a way to reclaim the stereotyped image of woman from the masculine traditions of Western art history. Florine Stettheimer’s 1915 A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) cocks a snook at the traditional reclining nude: Stettheimer paints herself with a knowing smile, proffering her own colourful bunch of flowers like a magician’s trick – an active riposte to Edouard Manet’s infamous, unimpressed-looking 1863 nude, Olympia, which features a white sex worker being brought flowers from a suitor by a black servant. 

Whether in advertising, pop culture, or pornography, the naked body has become defined by its attractiveness as a monetisable object.

For women, as much as for men – perhaps even more so, given they were actively trying to counter hundreds of years of artistic airbrushing of their bodies – naked self-portraits became concerned with conveying uncomfortable truths about what it is to have a body. From Frida Kahlo’s symbol-laden portrait of her own miscarriage to Jenny Saville’s close-up rolls of flesh and Tracey Emin’s scratchy masturbation paintings, the “nude selfie” became truly unfiltered.

But if the pendulum swung away from the notion of the idealised nude in Western culture, it eventually swung back, albeit in a new form. Whether in advertising, pop culture, or pornography, the naked body has become defined by its attractiveness as a monetisable object. And that’s a paradigm that has been picked apart by Pop Art, post modernism, and beyond. In general, contemporary art is more likely to use an idealised naked body to critique attitudes towards sex, pornography and consumption than it is to plainly ape them – although viewers of, say, Jeff Koons’ super-glossy soft-core staged photographs with his then wife, adult film star Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina), might be forgiven for feeling otherwise.

Erin M. Riley's tapestries explicitly recreate nude selfies, based on real images she finds online (Credit: Courtesy of Erin M. Riley and P·P·O·W, New York)
Erin M. Riley’s tapestries explicitly recreate nude selfies, based on real images she finds online (Credit: Courtesy of Erin M. Riley and P·P·O·W, New York)

However some nude images channelled eroticism in a way that was truly radical. Consider Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs of naked gay men, including himself, engaged in BDSM and sex acts, which caused such a furore that Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery cancelled a show of them in 1989. Then, bringing such kink into the light was shocking; today, the controversy has dimmed, and Mapplethorpe is subject to major, respectable retrospectives.

The language of the smartphone nude

When it comes to the advent of the smartphone-facilitated nude selfie, meanwhile, the question is: how have we absorbed this language and grammar of nakedness? It’s something that artists are certainly exploring, recreating the camera angles, the up-close poses and pouts, the partially-pulled-down underwear on gallery walls.

Ghada Amer embroiders works that, beneath their fine surfaces, recreate the codified poses – the hand on the stuck-out bum, the coyly pulled-down bra strap, the over the-shoulder inviting look – of the nude selfie. Tschabalala Self’s mixed-media collages stitch together exaggerated images of black female bodies that speak to the way they can be both sexually empowered, and crudely sexualised, in contemporary visual culture. “The fantasies and attitudes surrounding the black female body are both accepted and rejected within my practice,” she has said. Erin M Riley’s work explicitly recreates nude selfies – but immortalises them within tapestries. Based on real images she finds online, she includes details like a mobile phone reflected in a mirror or the familiar hand-held camera angle, looking down the body.

Some artists have gone further, literally using other people’s Instagram posts. David Trullo turned Instagram posts of men photographing themselves nearly-nude in bathroom mirrors into bathroom tiles. Meanwhile, for his New Portraits series, controversial painter/photographer Richard Prince left suggestive replies below people’s Instagram selfies, often those of young women and sexily posed (if not fully-naked), then blew up and printed out the posts. But if the series was intended as some kind of satirical comment on how we’re all obsessed with crafting our own attractive self-images – and giving them away for free to anyone who cares to look – then that was mostly obscured by his co-opting and profiteering from women’s images without their consent.

One subject, Zoë Ligon, told ArtNet that she thought the work “resembles revenge porn and harassment more than anything else”; explaining that she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and her “sexy selfies” were a way of reclaiming her sexualised image, she said she felt “violated” by Prince’s use of one.  The issue of his appropriating women’s pictures was brought into wider consciousness when model Emily Ratajkowski wrote about buying one of Prince’s works using a post from her Instagram, within a potent, widely-shared piece about not having control over her own image last year.

Absolutely, I think the nude selfie can be an art form. It’s nice to see that thought and reflection. It shows the person respects themselves – Julianne Ingles

While Prince’s work inadvertently highlights very serious questions about how the selfie can be appropriated unethically, it is also clear that it is a medium which deserves artistic interrogation. Here is a striking, thorny new form of communication and self-presentation – and one that is, after all, purely visual. Nonetheless, in transposing that visual language into a new medium or context, artists are both reflecting on and actively removing the primary function of the private nude: they are not seeking to turn the viewer on. “I honestly don’t know of artists who would admit to intentionally titillating,” says Borzello.

In his work, David Trullo has turned Instagram posts of men photographing themselves nearly-nude in bathroom mirrors into bathroom tiles (Credit: David Trullo)
In his work, David Trullo has turned Instagram posts of men photographing themselves nearly-nude in bathroom mirrors into bathroom tiles (Credit: David Trullo)

But does the nude selfie, in its purest state, have the potential to be a new art form? Ingles thinks so. “Absolutely, I think that it can be an art form,” she says. “It’s nice to see that thought and reflection, not just snapping a photo – people taking time to do the lighting, your hair and make-up. It shows the person respects themselves.”

Which brings us back to Berger’s formulation of how, when a woman imagines themselves through the eyes of the external, male viewer, she “turns herself into an object… of vision: a sight.” Fifty years on, women are still more judged on how they look than men, and the tyranny of that internalised male gaze persists. But it also seems that anyone engaged with visual digital culture – anyone posting selfies and in particular anyone sending nudes – is today actively participating in turning themselves into an object of vision

The irony is, perhaps, that the filtered, posed, explicit images we now so easily recognise as a smartphone nude might have come full circle – bringing us back to the aesthetic of the traditional respectable art historical nude: codified, safe and strangely conventional. Designed to be gazed upon. Designed to please the viewer. Designed to turn our complicated and messy bodies into the ideal object. 

The dark side of believing in true love

Old-fashioned romantics might have the wrong idea about love. Strong beliefs in true love could be blinding you to both the good and bad in your partner, with sometimes toxic results.

Have you ever explained issues you have with your partner to your friends, only for them to think they are not worth worrying about? Or have you seen a friend start a new romance with someone you think is completely unsuitable but they seem to go from strength to strength?

Psychologists have found two scales that influence how we start and maintain relationships.

One measures how much importance we put onto first impressions and early signs of compatibility, while the other measures how likely we are to work through problems in relationships. They are called implicit theories of relationships (because we don’t often talk about them). We might intuitively think of ourselves as more or less likely to believe in true love – but this is not something that we openly discuss with others or are conscious of when we start new relationships.

Together, these two scales can tell us if we are more likely to avoid talking about issues with our partners, look for faults where they might not exist, and ‘ghost’ our way out of relationships. Differences in these implicit attitudes can also help us understand the reasons that others’ romantic choices often seem inexplicable to us.

Do you believe in love at first sight? Or does it grow over time? (Credit: Getty Images)
Do you believe in love at first sight? Or does it grow over time? (Credit: Getty Images)

To find out how you score, take the two quizzes below.

The Soul Mate scale

Answer the following questions on a scale of one to seven, where one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree.

1. Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on whether the people are “right” for each other.

2.  There is a person out there who is perfect (or close to perfect) for me.

3.  In marriages, many people discover (vs. build) a deep intimate connection to their spouse.  

4. It is extremely important that my spouse and I be passionately in love with each other after we are married.

5. I couldn’t marry someone unless I was passionately in love with him or her.

6. There is no such thing as “Mr. Right” or “Ms. Right”.

7. I expect my future husband or wife to be the most amazing person I have ever met.

8. People who are searching for a perfect match are wasting their time.

9. The reason most marriages fail is that people aren’t right for each other.

10. Bonds between people are usually there before you meet them.

Now for scoring. First add your answers for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10. For questions 6 and 8, you need to subtract each answer from the number 8 and use the new number as your answer for that question. For example, if you answered “6”, add a 2 to your total. Once you have your final total, divide by 10 to get your average for this scale.

The Work-it-out scale

Answer the following questions on a scale of one to seven, where one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree.

1. Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on how much people try to make the relationship work.

2. In marriage, effort is more important than compatibility.

3. In a relationship, love grows (vs. love is found).

4. If people would just put in the effort, most marriages would work.

5. I could be happily married to most people, if they were reasonable.

6. The reason most marriages fail is that people don’t put in the effort.

7. How well you know someone depends on how long you have known him or her.

8. If I were to marry a random person, I would be satisfied.

9. Only over time can you really learn about your partner.

To find out your score, add together your answers and divide by 9.

The questions in this quiz are taken from the Relationship Theories Questionnaire used by Renae Franiuk, of Aurora University, Illinois, in her research into implicit theories and relationship satisfaction and longevity. Franiuk uses ‘Soulmate’ and ‘Work-it-out’ to describe the two scales. Other researchers use ‘destiny’ and ‘growth’ to describe similar scales.

When relationships are struggling, people who score more highly on the 'growth' scales cope best (Credit: Getty Images)
When relationships are struggling, people who score more highly on the ‘growth’ scales cope best (Credit: Getty Images)

If you scored highly for ‘soulmate’ beliefs and are surprised by this, Franiuk says you won’t be alone. “People have a tendency to think they will be a ‘work-it-out’ type but we see pretty high endorsement for ‘soulmate’. When we hear about the theories on the surface, ‘soulmate’ turns people off because it’s not scientific but it’s just a word. We could call it something different to make people want to identify with these romantic beliefs. It’s not surprising that we want to believe these ideas when so much in Western culture pushes people towards them.”

For people who score well on the growth scales, a conflict can improve the strength of the relationship

Now you have your score, what should you look out for? When relationships are struggling, people who score highly on growth scales cope best. In fact, the presence of a problem to work through can improve the strength of the relationship; couples who score highly on growth scales actually report feeling better about their relationship after a conflict has been worked through. For these people, it might be necessary for small, fairly inconsequential, issues to arise in the relationship to keep the couple focused on working together. The more investments a couple make, the more committed they feel. They enjoy the challenge.

For these reasons, growth believers will overlook big differences in compatibility. For them, compatibility might become more aligned with time – and that is something that is worth being worked on.

When they realise that someone isn't their soul-mate, "destiny" believers may abandon the relationship and "ghost" their partner (Credit: Getty Images)
When they realize that someone isn’t their soul-mate, “destiny” believers may abandon the relationship and “ghost” their partner (Credit: Getty Images)

The opposite is true for people with strong destiny beliefs, with some potentially toxic consequences.

Particularly in the early stages of a relationship the presence of an issue can precipitate a break-up, as the destiny believer realises that their “perfect” soulmate is fallible. The destiny believer may argue that their partner “never really understood me” or that a small fault is “evidence that we’re not really compatible.” This is the case even if the couple are relatively well matched, Franiuk has found.

People who believe in true love are more likely to ‘ghost’ their ex-partners

Worse still, they may exit the relationship in a less-than-charitable manner. People who believe in true love are more likely to ‘ghost’ their ex-partners – avoiding contact until the other person gives up speaking to you. Perhaps because the ghoster does not feel it is worth the investment to try to maintain the relationship if the other person is not ideal for them and does not see the benefit in providing feedback. “They don’t see it as a negative thing to do,” says Gili Freedman, a psychologist at St Mary’s College of Maryland, who studies social rejection. “Your score on the growth scale had less of an effect overall, although, if you scored highly for growth you were more likely to feel negative about ghosting.”

People with "destiny" beliefs about love tend not to discuss their relationship issues, which can lead to growing resentments (Credit: Getty Images)
People with “destiny” beliefs about love tend not to discuss their relationship issues, which can lead to growing resentments (Credit: Getty Images)

If they don’t break up over an issue – and still believe that they’ve found their true love –  the destiny believer may simply overlook the issue altogether. “Destiny believers tend to be more forgiving of a partner and more likely to avoid a fight because they want to believe that this person is their soulmate,” says Franiuk. That could be positive for minor disagreements. “But if you’re avoiding big conflict you end up staying with someone who is not good for you.”

And the consequences can be extremely serious. Destiny believers who have been together for longer are more likely to overlook issues, fooling themselves into thinking they are a better match because of the amount of time they have been together.

“We found that the longer destiny theorists stayed in relationships with someone who is not the right person, the more they reported violence,” says Franiuk. “They downplay problematic relationships. They might give someone a longer chance than other people might. Some might see warning signs early and end the relationships, but there will be some who don’t believe they are in a relationship with the right person but for economic reasons they remain and their personality traits make them more forgiving, which puts them in dangerous situations.”

It would seem that romantic beliefs remain fixed over time. So, once a destiny believer, always a destiny believer. “These theories are deeply held. Once people hit their 20s and 30s personalities are pretty stable. Like personality, relationship building is developed at an early age – children form these ideas based on the relationships around them,” says Franiuk.

The "growth" beliefs about relationships tend to lead to better communication and greater long-term satisfaction. Problems can even make the couple stronger (Credit: Getty Images)
The “growth” beliefs about relationships tend to lead to better communication and greater long-term satisfaction. Problems can even make the couple stronger (Credit: Getty Images)

The two implicit theories do not need to be mutually exclusive, though. “You can have beliefs that relationships improve when couples work on them together, but [still believe] there is still the ‘right’ person out there for you,” says Freedman. “There are not going to be many people that think that no growth is possible. And we can still alter the ways we express those beliefs. We would expect that past experiences will shape how we approach new relationships.” So just because you believe in romantic destiny, you might end the relationships in a more compassionate way, rather than ghosting, or you might make a more conscious effort to work through problems rather than overlooking them.

They say the course of true love never did run smooth – but a greater awareness of our own romantic tendencies might just help us navigate those bumps and turns along the way.

By: By William Park

‘When are you getting married?’

Be “softer” and “more humble”, a work client told happily single Tulanana

The pressure to marry is something many people know only too well.

“It’s coming from family, friends, people you work with, people you go to church with – and It can be quite intrusive,” says 27-year-old lawyer Ebunoluwa Tengbe.

Colleagues in her office in Freetown often tell her she spends too much time working and should be out meeting people instead.

“I am happy – I don’t feel incomplete, until those questions start coming up so often that you start to doubt yourself,” says the young Sierra Leonean.

It’s a similar story in Tanzania, says journalist and media entrepreneur Tulanana Bohela.

On one occasion after a workshop, a client questioned why Ms Bohela wasn’t married and suggested she become “softer” and “more humble” to bag a husband.

“I’m one of very few cousins or family members to have not moved from my father’s house to another man’s house,” she tells The Comb.

Instead the 33-year-old lives alone, which she says raises eyebrows in her “conservative” country. She’ll often tell people she lives with her brother to put them at ease.

Source: The Comb (BBC)

Can online sex build intimacy?

Social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for people keen to explore physical intimacy. Is virtual sex enough – or do we need to be touched?

About three months into lockdown in the UK, 26-year-old student Emma signed into a Zoom meeting with a group of people she’d only ever met through online chats. Organised by Killing Kittens, a company that, pre-Covid-19, hosted in-person sex parties with an emphasis on women’s empowerment, the “virtual house party” kicked off with drinking games. It was unlike anything she’d ever attended.

“We played ‘Never Have I Ever’,” she says, “and [the organisers] asked us questions like, ‘Which celebrity would you most like to see at a Killing Kittens party?’.” It got attendees talking about their fantasies and preferences – a smooth segue into the less structured part of the evening, during which some participants “removed clothing”, says Emma. “It was just a really good, quite sexy interaction with other people.”

It was the kind of connection Emma had been craving. With her one housemate staying with family, and having lost her job in March, Emma has spent much of the pandemic physically isolated. “There were points at which it got quite lonely,” she says.

Though she’d attended sex parties in the past, Emma had only just joined Killing Kittens in November 2019. “I was a little nervous to get properly involved,” she says, and when the pandemic hit, she worried she’d missed her chance. Instead, she joined one of Killing Kittens’s singles chat groups and started making close friends, which made her feel comfortable enough to try a virtual party on for size.

During the pandemic, social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for both individuals and couples hoping to explore physical intimacy. While recreating the tactile experience of sex online isn’t straightforward, virtual experiences – from dirty-talk Zoom workshops to sex parties like the one Emma attended – have helped fill the intimacy-shaped void felt by so many. To a certain extent, at least. For attendees and organisers, online sexual encounters can ‘mimic’ in-person experiences and offer much-need psychological relief, but there’s no direct replacement for physical touch.

As they meet new people and date, many singles have acknowledged that 'digital intimacy' is important during the pandemic (Credit: Alamy)
As they meet new people and date, many singles have acknowledged that ‘digital intimacy’ is important during the pandemic (Credit: Alamy)

However, beyond just acting as a stand-in for sex during the pandemic, these virtual experiences may also be showing us what’s important in intimacy writ large – both while we’re in isolation and once we can touch each other again.

Discovering digital intimacy

Almost a year into the pandemic, many have found ways to date and form relationships online. Dating apps such as Bumble now let users indicate “virtual only” or “socially distanced” dating preferences. According to a Bumble representative, in-app video calls were up by 42% in May 2020 compared to pre-lockdown March.

But replicating a first date via video chat is a far cry from recreating sexual experiences over the web. Key elements – physical touch most prominently – don’t have a straightforward, online substitute.

Still, people are getting virtually intimate. In October, hard-seltzer company Basic surveyed 2,000 single under 35-year-olds in the US, and found that 58% had had virtual sex during the pandemic. Of those, 77% did so with someone they’d never had sex with in person. Per a Bumble survey of 5,000 UK singles, 32% said “digital intimacy” was important in a relationship “both during lockdown and when measures lifted”.

There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched – Emma

For Emma and others who’ve dabbled in online sexual encounters in the past year, things like virtual sex parties, educational Zoom workshops, remotely controlled sex toys and simply engaging in sex-positive communities have proven to be both sexually fulfilling and antidotes to physical intimacy. “There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched,” says Emma, who describes herself as an “exhibitionist”.

Plus, watching real couples have sex is different from watching pornography. It’s personal – and the connections Emma’s made in these sex-positive spaces are, too. She and other single attendees have formed “tight bonds”, she says, “because we’ve all shared this experience on a very similar level”.

In London, David runs the brick-and-mortar adult lifestyle club Le Boudoir. In October, when he started hosting virtual sex parties with other London lifestyle clubs such as Purple Mamba, he noticed first-time attendees behaving like they would in physical spaces. Instead of huddling in the corner, they’re initially hesitant to virtually chat with others, but “you can literally see them warm throughout the evening”, says David.

Like Killing Kittens, these events start with icebreakers and performances (i.e., erotic dancers), which help get people in the mood. The progression of the parties looks a lot like it would in real life. “That’s technology mimicking real life,” he adds.

Along with individuals, some couples are also exploring outlets for online sexual interaction (Credit: Alamy)
Along with individuals, some couples are also exploring outlets for online sexual interaction (Credit: Alamy)

The element of safety

The online nature of these events also expands attendee demographics, so they span more locations, age ranges and experience levels.

People attend Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s events from Israel, South Korea, Australia and the US. A party that starts on Saturday evening, UK time can roll into evening on the US’s East Coast and across America. Sayle has also noticed virtual events attracting younger attendees – not only because they’re more online and “that’s how they communicate”, says Sayle, but also because online events remove the financial barrier to showing up at a physical party. Online Killing Kittens parties cost £20 ($27), while in-person ones can cost £350 ($480).

Emma, who doesn’t live in a major city, likes that she doesn’t have to spend money on travelling to an event in London, which would include putting up for a hotel, meals and new clothes. “As a student, that’s quite nice,” she says.

Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s virtual sex parties now attract around 150 attendees on a given Saturday. About half are first timers. Sayle sees a similar split at Killing Kittens’ events. “A lot of [attendees] are totally new people who would never have thought about [attending a sex party] before,” says Sayle. There’s a “safety element” to showing up via video chat, she adds: “You can close the screen at any point.”

That’s exactly what made UK-based couple Matt, 31, and Emily, 29, feel comfortable about going to their first-ever sex party during the pandemic, with Boudoir and Purple Mamba, online. “You’re in your own house,” says Matt. “It’s the safety of it.” Though they would have likely gone to an in-person event eventually, “it would have taken longer,” says Emily.

Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person – Megan Stubbs

So far, the online events have let them explore their sexuality and relationship. Everyone’s “different styles” come through, says Matt, which creates a real, shared experience with another couple – one they didn’t think they’d want to experience before the pandemic. They’ve since changed their minds. Virtual encounters have also helped Matt and Emily put language to their desires. Because they’ve had to clearly communicate with others remotely, they’ve learned certain terms that describe their preferences.

This fits with a trend Michigan-based sexologist Megan Stubbs has observed. “I see more avenues of communication being open. People are talking more and getting more specific about their needs.” Distance necessitates this. When you’re not in the same room as your sex partner(s), you can’t rely on body language and subtle cues. But, she adds, “Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person.”

‘Touch deprivation’

Still, experts and people having virtual sex agree nothing can completely substitute for physical touch. As Sayle puts it, “You can’t recreate an orgy online.”

Virtual boudoir parties have drawn groups from around the world and across different demographics (Credit: Alamy)
Virtual boudoir parties have drawn groups from around the world and across different demographics (Credit: Alamy)

This is, in part, because of the cellular processes that take place when a person is touched. Tiffany Field, who heads the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, explains that “moderate pressure touch” stimulates pressure receptors under the skin. “That sets off a chain reaction,” she says, that slows the nervous system. “The heart rate slows down, blood pressure slows, and brainwaves change in the direction of theta, which is a relaxation state.”

Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that kills immune cells, also decrease when we’re touched, while natural killer cells (which kill bacteria, viral and cancer cells) increase, according to Field’s research, which specifically examines massage therapy. “It’s ironic, during this time when there’s a lot of touch deprivation going on,” she says, “that we don’t have the protection of the natural killer cells killing the viral cells.”

Based on her research of “moderate pressure touch,” Field says people living alone can still help stave off touch deprivation through “self-touch”. That even includes simple activities such as stretching and walking, which stimulate pressure receptors on the bottoms of our feet. Engaging in virtual sex surely falls into that category, if participants are willing to get active.

A deeper appreciation

Of these online-sexual-experience organisers and participants, all say they’ll likely continue with virtual experiences even when it’s safe to mingle with strangers. Digital intimacy offers something unique – the ability to stay at home but still engage in a fulfilling activity, with a geographically wider array of people, for minimal or zero cost.

In-person events, though, will likely boom. “Thousands of years of history of what happens post-pandemics and post-war show that people start shagging,” says Sayle. “It’s going to happen.”

The pandemic could also have another effect – it may make us all realise how touch-deprived we were to begin with. Before Covid-19, touch expert Field and colleagues were conducting a study in which they observed how much people were touching one another at airport departure gates. People were touching, says Field, only 4% of the time. Sixty-eight percent of the time, they were on their phones. Online platforms and social media were driving us physically apart pre-pandemic. Now, they’re facilitating people being together.

“I think what Covid has done has exacerbated [touch deprivation],” says Field. “Maybe [people] are beginning to appreciate that they’re missing the touch they did have.”

By: By Jessica Klein – BBC

Orgasm!!! The wicked adrenaline in man

Look, we all wanna know how to have an orgasm that blows our freakin’ minds, every time. But unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.

Research shows that only about half of women consistently have a happy ending during partnered play and 9 percent have never-ever orgasmed during intercourse. (Worth mentioning: The percentage of pleasure-seekers who do consistently O during sex is significantlyyyyy higher for women in same-sex relationships).

Not to worry. Here, sex experts explain everything you need to know to have an orgasm, whether you’re trying to ring the bell for the first time or take your big O to another level of pleasure.

What’s an orgasm, exactly?

Let’s start with a definition, shall we? An orgasm is “a feeling of intense pleasure that happens during sexual activity,” according to the National Health Services.

But Taylor Sparks, erotic educator and founder of Organic Loven, the largest BIPOC-owned online intimacy shop says the definition is even broader than that! After all, orgasms can happen *outside of* sexual activity (looking at you, coregasms). Orgasms, she says, are simply an involuntary release of tension.

“For vagina-owners, orgasm typically feels like a period of tension where your heart beats faster, breath hitches, and muscles tighten followed by a release of that tension,” she explains. “Often, people will even have what feels like a rhythmic pulsing in and around their genitals.”

While orgasms vary in intensity, Searah Deysach, longtime sex educator and owner of Early to Bed, says that “for the most part, you’ll know when you’ve had an orgasm.”

Different kinds of orgasms:

“Stimulating different parts of the body can result in orgasms that feel different from one another,” Deysach explains. Each is named for the body-part that needs to be stimulated in order for them to occur, including

  • Clitoral orgasm: The clitoris is the small, nerve-dense bud at the apex of the labia that serves no function other than to provide sexual pleasure (!). When orgasm happens as a result of clitoral stimulation—be it from your partner’s hands or tongue, or a clitoral vibrator—it’s called a clitoral orgasm! FYI: This is the most common type of orgasm for women, says sex therapist Ian Kerner, PhD, author of She Comes First.
  • Vaginal orgasm: A previous Women’s Health survey found that a substantial 37 percent of vagina-havers can orgasm from penetration of the vaginal canal alone. That’s a vaginal O!
  • Cervical orgasm: Your cervix is the vaginal canal’s anatomical stopping sign. Located at the wayyy back of the vaginal canal, the cervix is what separates the vagina from your reproductive organs. But beyond just what keeps tampons from traveling into your bod (#bless), the cervix can also bring on some serious pleasure when stimulated.
  • G-spot orgasm: Often described as feeling more full-bodied than clitoral orgasms, G-spot orgasms occur from stimulation from the G-spot, a nerve-packed patch of sponge located 2 (ish) inches inside the vaginal canal.
  • Nipple orgasm: A nipple orgasm is “a pleasurable release of sexual arousal, centered on nipple stimulation and not caused by stimulating the clitoris [or penis] directly,” as Janet Brito, PhD, a sexologist and clinical psychologist in Honolulu previously told Women’s Health.
  • Anal orgasm: For some, this means stimulation of just the external anus (for instance, during rimming). And for others, it means stimulation of the internal anal canal (for instance, with anal beads, a penis, or finger).
  • Blended orgasm: Any orgasm that comes from stimulating two or more body parts. Nipples + anus= blended orgasm! Clit + vagina? Also a blended orgasm.

Important: The goal in differentiating the many types of orgasms *isn’t* to create an orgasm hierarchy (lol). The goal, Deysach says, is to encourage people to experiment with their bodies to discover what feels best for them. Noted!

“If you can get off from nipple stimulation alone, that’s great,” she says. “If you need vaginal, clitoral, and anal stimulation all at once to have an orgasm, that’s awesome too.” Every human body is unique and will respond differently to sensation. “So keep an open mind, find what you like, and go with it,” she says. “After all, an orgasm is an orgasm is an orgasm.” True that.

How to have an orgasm:

Achieving consistent, mind-blowing orgasms is kind of like winning the lottery. Sounds amazing, but basically a pipe dream, right? With these little tricks, it doesn’t have to be.

1. Prioritize cuddling.

In the name of boosted oxytocin, rather than saving spooning for after sex, spend some time snuggling up pre-play.

Known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin might be the key to better orgasms, according to a study in the journal Hormones and Behavior. The study found that couples who received oxytocin in a nasal spray had more intense orgasms than couples who took a placebo.

Since you probably don’t have oxytocin nasal spray on your nightstand (lol), try giving yourself the same jolt of the hormone naturally by hugging, cuddling, or making other gestures to show your love to your partner. Your post-cuddle O will surprise you.

2. Don’t skip right to penetration!

According to Kerner having an orgasm requires a few key ingredients.

  1. Vasocongestion (i.e. blood flow to your pelvis)
  2. Myotonia (muscular tension throughout your body)
  3. The brain’s natural opiate system being turned on (because it triggers oxytocin)

The best way to get these ingredients? “Gradual[ly] building up arousal rather than a race to orgasm,” he says. In other words, slow down. Trust, the end result will be worth the wait.

3. Focus on the clitoris.

Jennifer Wider, MD, suggests focusing on sex positions that directly stimulate the clitoris during penetrative sex. “That can provide a consistent orgasm in the majority of [vagina-havers],” she says. Try rider-on-top, which allows you to grind your clit against your partner, or rear entry, with you or your partner stimulating your clitoris.

Another option: Stick to your fave sex positions, but get your clit in on the action with the help of a clitoral vibe. Or, take matters into your own hands by bringing your digits downstairs.

4. Use a vibrator.

Vibrators are literally made to help you orgasm, after all. “Vibrators increase the frequency and intensity of orgasms—whether you’re alone or with a partner,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast. She suggests starting with a vibrator that will target your clitoris, G-spot, or both. A few to get you started.

15 Clit Vibrators That’ll Make You Come In Minutes

Ultimately, though, the type of vibrator you try will depend on the type of stimulation you enjoy—and the type of orgasm you’re interested in exploring. A vibrating butt plug or string of vibrating anal beads will bring whole of “oh baby!” to your backside. While vibrating nipple clamps will make you tingle and giggle without any between-the-leg lovin’.

5. Think about your cycle.

If you feel like your orgasms have been meh or not even there lately, consider trying to time sex around your cycle. Generally, your libido peaks during ovulation— that’s about two weeks before your period shows up—so the chances of having an orgasm will go up during this time period, Wider says.

FYI: This is especially important if you’re exploring cervical orgasms. That’s because, as O’Reilly previously told Women’s Health, some people are more likely to have cervical orgasms during ovulation. If having your cervix touched feels ouchy but you’re still curious, try it during a different time of the month to see if it feels better.

6. Don’t hold back on the lube.

No matter what sexual acts you enjoy, lube is a pretty handy tool to have in the bedroom. It reduces uncomfortable friction and allows you to “safely engage in a wider range of acts, techniques, and positions,” O’Reilly says. Not only that, it also “leads to higher levels of arousal, pleasure, and satisfaction,” she says.

For anal play, so long as you’re not using a silicone-based toy, Deysach recommends a silicone-based lube, which is thicker than water-based ones. For all other acts though, a water-based lube is perf.

Oh, and don’t snooze on lubes’ utility for nipple play. A little dab of lube on your finger can be the difference between hand-on-nipple stimulating feeling irritating and feeling ah-mazing.

7. Whip out a fantasy.

Adding a little psychological stimulation to the equation can help enhance physical stimulation, which is why Kerner recommends fantasizing on your own or with your partner. “Fantasy is also a powerful way to take your mind off other stressors or any other anxieties you may be experiencing,” he says. And, for the record, “it’s okay to fantasize about someone other than the person you’re having sex with,” Kerner says. (Maybe just keep that info to yourself.)

8. Try sensation play.

“The simple act of turning off the lights, closing your eyes, using a blindfold, or wearing sound-canceling headphones can help you to be more mindful and present during sex—and lead to bigger, stronger orgasms,” O’Reilly says. “This is because the deprivation of one sense can heighten another, so when you remove your sense of sight or sound, you may naturally tune into the physical sensations of the sexual encounter.” Before you tie an old tube sock around your boo’s eyes, just be sure to ask for consent first.

9. Feel yourself up in the shower.

Sure, you shower to get clean, but take a minute or so to embrace your body when you’re in there. “It’s very simple: As you shower, rather than touching to wash yourself, take one minute to touch for sensuality and pleasure,” O’Reilly says. “Feel your skin, take a deep breath, and bask in the heat and warmth that surrounds your body.” This can help you de-stress and get in touch with what feels good to you—and that can do you a solid when you’re in bed later, she says.

10. Forbid orgasm from happening altogether.

“If you’ve struggled with achieving orgasm, you may find yourself in a cycle of being anxious about having an orgasm, which makes having an orgasm even more difficult,” says Deysach. Sighhh. So while it may sound counterintuitive, taking orgasm off the table (er, bed) altogether “can give your brain a rest and allow your body the opportunity to enjoy the sensation without the pressure of feeling like you need to ‘achieve’ orgasm,” she says.

Worth a try, right? As she says, “You never know, maybe not thinking about orgasm will make it easier for you to find your way.”

11. Take an orgasm ‘break.’

On a similar note, “sometimes taking a masturbation and orgasm break for a day or two can be a good ‘refresh,’” Kerner says, noting that people sometimes “report stronger orgasms during masturbation after taking a short break.” If you can, try taking sex or solo love off the table for a day or so and see where that gets you. A simple reset may be just what you need to ramp things up.

LGBT asylum seekers: Call for dedicated housing in Wales

A Moroccan man seeking asylum in the UK over alleged mistreatment due to his sexuality has said he faced homophobic abuse while housed in Wales. 

Abderrahim El Habachi, 28, said he felt “unsafe” living alongside some men from North Africa and the Middle East after he arrived in Cardiff in 2017.

He called for dedicated LGBT housing. 

The Home Office said it required accommodation providers to “take account of any circumstances and vulnerability”.

Mr El Habachi’s application for asylum in the UK and a subsequent appeal have been rejected and a new application is pending.

He said being gay in Morocco was difficult, he felt his life was in danger there, and he was constantly playing a game of “hide and seek” with the police.

“‘Who’s the man and who’s the woman? What’s your girl name?’ – I heard this daily from the Moroccan police,” said Mr El Habachi.

In 2017, he decided to flee Morocco for the UK and ended up in Cardiff, housed with men from a similar culture who he said had the homophobic and transphobic views he had tried to escape.

“I had fled a country that was dangerous for me, because of who I am, and I was put in an environment that felt more dangerous than the situation that I left,” he said. 

He was initially housed in accommodation provided by the National Asylum Support Service.

“I only spent 50 days there, but it felt like a lifetime,” he said, explaining that being placed alongside some men from North Africa and the Middle East with homophobic views created “instability” for him. Mr El Habachi said when he asked about living accommodation for LGBT-asylum seekers and refugees, he was told none existed. 

“I felt so unsafe and vulnerable, I thought I would come here and be able to embrace myself but instead I was feeling very insecure.

“It was as though there was no effort to make LGBT people welcome, the drop-in centres for asylum seekers and refugees weren’t LGBT friendly, they were mainly aimed towards cis men. I was made to feel unwelcome,” he said.

Abderrahim El Habachi dancing
image captionMr El Habachi was told Morocco was a safe country for LGBT people

Mr El Habachi said his interview with the Home Office in relation to his application to remain in the UK was traumatic with lots of “intrusive” questions about his sexuality. 

“This added so much more pressure to the interview. Was I saying the right thing? Was I giving enough detail? From a life in Morocco, where I was pretending to not be gay in order to avoid any issues, I was now having to openly talk about my homosexuality in great detail, something I wasn’t comfortable with,” Mr El Habachi said.

His application was rejected, with Mr El Habachi told Morocco was a safe country for the LGBT community – a conclusion he found unbelievable. 

“I have been persecuted as a gay man in the country, so for them to say I can go back and live openly as a gay man is ridiculous,” he said.

His subsequent appeal against the decision was also rejected.

Homosexuality is illegal in Morocco and victims of abuse and harassment can expect no support from police or the government, human rights groups have said.

Official figures show there were 1,212 asylum applications lodged in the UK in 2019 where sexual orientation formed part of the basis for the claim. 

Over the past three years, the refusal rate for sexuality-based asylum claims increased from 61% to 71%, according to Home Office figures.

Mr El Habachi said he was ready to give up but, with the support from the LGBT community in Wales, he decided to make a new application, which is pending. 

He said his time as an asylum seeker might be “shrinking” and he hoped he would get refugee status but he feared the “nightmares I have of living in persecution, having to hide who I am will become a reality”. 

Charity Stonewall Cymru said many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were forced to flee their countries because they experienced “violence and rejection by their family and society”.

“They come to the UK looking for safety and to lead a life where they are free to be themselves. Sadly, the harrowing experience of this individual shows that the UK has a long way to go before LGBT+ people seeking asylum get the support and protection they deserve,” a spokesperson said. 

Abderrahim El Habachi at a Pride Event
image captionAbderrahim El Habachi arrived in Cardiff after fleeing Morocco in 2017

The Welsh Refugee Council added: “We know that those seeking sanctuary who identify as LGBTQI+ face specific challenges when claiming asylum. We continue to press for safe, secure accommodation for all those seeking asylum in Wales.”

The Home Office said the UK had a “proud record” of providing protection for asylum seekers fleeing persecution. 

A spokesman said: “We provide LGBT+ asylum seekers with details for a range of organisations which can provide support from the point of their claim. We also require our accommodation providers to take account of any circumstances and vulnerability, with two of them offering designated accommodation for LGBT+ asylum seekers. 

“Every asylum claim is considered carefully, sensitively and on its individual merits by caseworkers who receive extensive training.”

Disability and lovemaking: ‘Why do people think I’m my boyfriend’s carer?’

Dating is complicated at the best of times, but social stigma means dating someone with a disability is rarely discussed. After Hannah and wheelchair user Shane Burcaw spoke out over online comments dismissing their relationship, we spoke to other couples about their experiences.

After Hannah and Shane recently tied the knot at an intimate home ceremony, they shared a photo of the day on social media.

“We’re husband and wife!!!!” wrote Hannah. “I’m incredibly lucky to now be married to the greatest guy I know.”

But they were met with messages like this:

“For real though… does she also have another partner for having sex with?”

“Is he rich or something?”

“Oh my God… this must be photoshopped.”

Image of trolling comments received by YouTubers Shane and Hannah on Instagram

The reason, YouTubers Shane and Hannahbelieve, is because he’s disabled and she’s not. Shane has spinal muscular atrophy and has used a wheelchair since he was two.

The couple, who live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, tell BBC Three that the knee-jerk response reflects how misinformed many people still are towards disability and dating.

“Our society tells us that disabled people aren’t worthy partners,” she says. “There’s almost no positive representation of disability or dating with a disability in our media, so many people think that disabled people couldn’t possibly be in a healthy, wonderful relationship.

“This means when they see Shane and I, they invent conspiracy theories to try to reconcile our relationship with what they’ve been taught.”

‘The media makes disability undesirable’

One survey, from 2014, suggests that 44% of Brits sampled wouldn’t consider having sex with someone who had a physical disability, while 50% wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

Shane, 28, says the lack of positive representation often made him feel like he “would never find a partner”.

“The things I saw in the media made disability out to be extremely undesirable,” he says.

“This led me to believe that most people would not want to be bothered with dating someone who had a disability.”

Hannah, 24, says that while Shane’s disability never bothered her (they got chatting after she saw one of his vlogs online), she’d equally “never met anyone who used a wheelchair or had a physical disability.”

Illustration of a cuddling couple with one of the couple leaning on a crutch

There’s also a debate about how disabled and non-disabled couples describe themselves.

In the US, some couples, including within the disability vlogging community, have started to use the term “interabled”.

But it’s not widely accepted. Some feel it’s an unhelpful reinforcement of narrow-minded, medically-orientated thinking.

“It’s inaccurate and focuses on the physical or mental differences between the two people (or more) in a relationship,” says disability campaigner and broadcaster Mik Scarlet.

“Disabled people spend far too much time trying to get wider society to understand the ‘social model of disability’, which suggests we aren’t disabled by our bodies but the way society treats us, so when a concept like ‘interabled’ takes hold it undoes so much of that work.”

BBC Three spoke to other young couples about their experiences…

‘People assume we’re siblings’

Charlie and Gina

Image of Charlie and Gina, Gina is sitting on Charlie's lap

Charlie says…

I have cerebral palsy due to lack of oxygen to the brain at 10 weeks old. I mainly use a wheelchair as I have problems with balance and use of my lower limbs.

Gina and I have been together for just over three years.

Gina’s never been fazed by the disability. She did ask a lot of questions at the beginning of our relationship, but I didn’t mind that. Since she knew that I was disabled from the beginning, and we developed our relationship online, by the time we met in person we were already quite committed and it didn’t matter at all.

In terms of social perceptions, it’s interesting that people often assume we’re siblings. Sure, we’re both ginger, but I think it’s easier for people to assume a disabled person would be out with their family instead of having a partner.

We also get a lot of people thanking or praising Gina for being with me, which makes me sound like a booby prize or that she’s settled for something she shouldn’t have to put up with.

People also seem to think it must be a very one-sided relationship, with Gina doing everything for me. The opposite is true: it’s a two-way street just like everyone else’s relationships. Yes, she may help physically day-to-day but I support her through mental struggles and everyday life.

If there’s one thing I want people to understand it’s that relationships are relationships. They have ups and downs, responsibilities, and care and understanding for each other. Having a disability doesn’t change that. If you’re in a relationship with someone with a disability, it is just that. No ulterior motives.

Illustration of a couple, with one of the couple using a cane and wearing dark glasses

Gina says…

When we first started chatting, I asked Charlie if he minded if I asked some questions… ice-breakers, life questions. I said he could do the same, and we turned it into a fun, silly game.

A lot of mine involved questions about his disability, but I had said that if I asked a stupid question or one he didn’t want to answer, he didn’t have to. It helped to get a lot covered, so nothing felt awkward when we met.

Fast-forward three years. When we’re out, I’ve got used to the shocked, sympathy look I get when I mention my boyfriend is a wheelchair user or that I have to assist him with certain tasks. People say, “that must be a lot for you… I bet it was difficult to decide whether you wanted to move forward with the relationship.”

The answer, bluntly, is no. I always reply with a compliment to Charlie or explain that no, I am not in a burdensome one-way relationship, but rather with him because he is an amazing, loving and caring person.

I think a lot of the misunderstanding comes from people believing that helping a disabled person can only be a chore – the duty of a paid friend or assistant.

What they fail to understand is that, actually, when I help Charlie, it doesn’t weaken the relationship and take the love away. If anything it heightens it. I never use the word carer for this reason, I am Charlie’s partner through everything.

‘There’s a taboo around disability and sex’

Lucy and Arun

Image of Lucy and Arun posing for a photo with a beautiful mountain view behind them

Lucy says…

I have fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disability. Symptoms include chronic pain, brain fog, chronic fatigue and probably the one that affects me most – mobility. I regularly require the use of a stick or other support.

I met Arun over two years ago on an exchange programme in Los Angeles. As I’m so open, he fell in love with me knowing about my disability.

Arun understands that my body is very different and unpredictable – he’s not only the most caring person but also the most supportive.

On a day-to-day basis, I need quite a lot of help to stay mobile as I struggle with public transport, can’t walk very far and unfortunately cannot drive at the moment (a lot has to be taken into consideration). I am lucky that Arun drives and will help me run errands like shopping.

The fact that fibro is invisible means we are initially perceived as a couple without the disability, but this means it can come as more of a visible shock to some people.

It’s frustrating, as Arun gets inundated with lots of questions. In public I tend to brush it off a lot more whereas he can get quite hot-headed sometimes. However, at home, I have a lot more panic attacks and breakdowns because it gets incredibly overwhelming.

I wish people would understand that my disability doesn’t entitle you to any more information about my private life compared to anyone else.

That said, there’s definitely a taboo around disability and sex, in that people think you cannot have both.

While this may be true for some cases, I feel people who are disabled have a much deeper appreciation about what it means to be intimate and have sex. It’s not just about penetration (sorry to be so blunt), but I think more about the feelings and emotion, the foreplay and the pleasure.

It’s a whole experience that I think some non-disabled couples would say that they are lacking.

‘Care should exist in all romantic relationships’

Lorna and Rob

Photo Lorna and Rob posing for a selfie in front of a lake

Lorna says…

I’ve been with Rob for 11 years, and married for four. We’d been together for about seven years when I was diagnosed with ME, which causes severe fatigue and leaves me often using a wheelchair and housebound most of the time.

It also means Rob has to help me with some personal care, such as showering and other day-to-day tasks.

I would say it absolutely brought us closer as a couple, and continues to do so. I think care within a relationship, although often tricky to navigate, can be so intimate.

This isn’t to say it’s been an easy adjustment, for either of us.

The transition has been difficult for me, as my life has changed so drastically. I had to forgo my career as a teacher and that really impacted my sense of self-worth.

However, I’m lucky that I was able to access some therapy on the NHS and my therapist and I did a lot of work on this. The main thing that helped was reframing what we consider to be “helpful”.

So although I may not be able to do the hoovering or the cooking, I listen to him when he needs to offload about his day. I do the meal plans to ensure we’re both getting a healthy, balanced diet.

The fact is, care of some form should exist in all romantic relationships – abled and disabled – otherwise what exactly are you doing with each other?

Illustration of a couple and their pet dog, with one of the couple in a wheelchair

In terms of life beyond the home, having a fluctuating condition and chronic fatigue means that we can never really make any concrete plans.

Obviously we still have our moments of frustration, but I would say that it’s actually taught us both to be way more flexible and laid-back, and also to live a little more in the present and appreciate the smaller things that are still accessible to us.

Plus, that guy is like, obsessed with me or something, he’s happy just being with me! Our sex life is strong, mainly because we communicate.

As a society, we still fail to see disabled people as fully realised human beings with the same spectrum of emotional and physical needs as anyone else.

This needs to change. I lost all my confidence and I worried that my husband wouldn’t find me desirable anymore, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Plus, I still fancy the pants off my husband, so that always helps.

By: Alex Taylor

Every question you ever had about female ejaculation, answered

Warning: sexual content 

Where does it comes from? Is it pee? And how might I make it happen for me? Here’s the lowdown on ‘squirting’: the expulsion of fluid from a woman’s down-belows around the point of orgasm.

The first time Gilly, 41, squirted, it left her on a high. “I was awestruck; it felt incredible, a huge release. I took a photo of the wet patch so I could reassure myself that it really had happened.”

Tash, 26, was a bit more floored – and worried about the carpet. “I was using my vibrator and sitting with my back to my bedroom door in case someone tried to come in, when suddenly there was a spurt, and I freaked out thinking I’d wet myself. It was the weirdest sensation; I felt a bit panicked and ashamed because I didn’t know what was going on. I mopped up the rug, then had a google.”

We’ve known for a long time that some women can produce notable amounts of liquid from their genitals – in some cases supposedly shot out with water blaster force – during sexual excitement or orgasm. Hippocrates and the Kama Sutraboth reference female ‘semen’ (the former thought it helped to create children, the latter containing a detailed description of when it should be expected and why). In the 17th Century, Dutch anatomist Regnier de Graaf wrote a groundbreaking treatise, Concerning The Generative Organs Of Women, describing the fluid and linking it to an erogenous zone inside the vagina that was much like male prostate.

But it’s still unclear how many of us actually are squirters. Modern studies estimate the phenomenon is experienced in some form by anywhere from 10-54% of women and, according to a 2013 study of 320 participants, the amount of ejaculate released can range from approximately 0.3ml to more than 150ml. That’s anything from a few drops to half a cup.

This broad spectrum of findings is partly due to differences in how studies are conducted and definitions; but many specialists view female ejaculation and squirting as distinctly different things.

 It’s a hotly contested topic – and one that’s receiving increasing attention as our understanding of the female body grows.

Let’s dive in.

So, what is the liquid produced during ejaculation and where does it come from? 

Two flasks in a lab

One of the biggest questions surrounding squirting is whether the mysterious fluid produced is simply urine. And certain research hints it could just be wee.

In one 2014 study, a sample of women were asked to go to the loo prior to sexual activity and then undertake ultrasound scans to prove their bladders were empty. After the women became sexually excited they were given a second ultrasound, which showed their bladders had re-filled significantly. Finally, a third scan after they’d squirted revealed empty bladders again, suggesting the liquid they’d released came from this source and was likely to be pee (or at least partly so).

“Squirting probably originates from the bladder, as there isn’t any other structure within that area of the female anatomy that’s able to hold that much liquid, or propel it with that much strength,” asserts pharmacist Abbas Kanani. “During orgasm, the muscles relax and make it difficult to hold in urine, so it’s released via the urethra.”

Yet plenty of other researchers think it’s wrong to write off squirting as being so straightforward.

Scientific analysis of expelled fluids conducted by American sexologist Beverly Whipple in the early 1980s (and then subsequent studies by others) discovered that urea and creatine – chemical constituents of pee – were only present in very low levels. They also detected additional substances which you wouldn’t usually expect to be present in a puddle of piddle. One of these was prostate-specific antigen, or PSA.

In men, PSA is produced by the prostate. Women’s bodies contain prostate tissue too, in structures known as the Skene’s glands or paraurethral glands, which are located on the front wall of the vagina, and some studies show they drain via ducts into the lower end of the urethra. Some specialists now believe these glands play a crucial part in helping to create the juice that’s set loose during squirting.

“The varying levels of development and size of these glands between individuals may partially explain why some women experience dramatic ejaculations while others don’t,” says sex educator Samantha Evans.

“But the psychological fear of being seen to have wet themselves is what holds a lot of women back from squirting, rather than there being any physical obstacle stopping them from doing so. The liquid passed tends to be clear, not yellow, and doesn’t have the same smell or taste as wee. As a former nurse, I’ve had numerous close encounters with urine and I don’t think it’s the same stuff!”

Anecdotally, scores of women who squirt agree. “There are instances where I’ve squirted and still needed a wee afterwards,” muses Hazel, 30. “My squirt fluid is colourless, even if I’m pretty dehydrated, when my wee looks more like Irn Bru,” adds Rashmi, 25.

Scientists have even suggested that squirting may have a purpose beyond pleasure: to keep women peeing painlessly post-sex. Some scientists have hypothesised that ejaculatory fluid could flush harmful bacteria out of the urethra after they have made their way up there during intercourse, helping prevent uncomfortable urinary tract infections.

Ultimately though, however the body squirts, what it squirts out and whether or not this has bonus benefits – why should any of that matter if it feels good?

Agreed. I want to try it! But how…?

A hand turns on a tap

Many women who do ejaculate say that what gets them there is stimulating the G-spot: an area about 5-8cm inside the vagina. It’s on the front wall (so towards your belly button, not your back) and sometimes feels slightly rougher or more textured than the surrounding flesh. Rather than existing as a discreet anatomical structure in itself, the G-spot is now widely considered to be more of a ‘zone’, through which the Skene’s glands may be massaged, along with internal, hidden parts of the clitoris. And this we now know to be like an iceberg: the hood and head you can see on the outside of the body are merely the tip of a much bigger organ that extends downwards around the vaginal passage.

“I get my partner to rub my G-spot with their fingers, using a ‘come hither’ motion and firm pressure,” says Saffron, 34. “Specially angled sex toys make it easier for me to achieve the same effect alone.” 

“If I carry on using my vibrator after I’ve climaxed, that can make me squirt,” reveals Daphne, 23. “It’s an intense, almost overwhelming sensation though; I have to push through what feels like an urge to urinate, but after that I love how primal and freeing it feels to have this mad nectar fly from my noo-noo!”

Other hot tips? Put a towel down first. And, as we’re all made differently, remember that not everyone actually likes this kind of stimulation. In fact, some of us find the hunt for the G-Spot to be positively uncomfortable – make sure you’re experimenting for your own pleasure, not because you feel pressured. And definitely stop if you’re not having a good time. 

Oh right, so is there pressure on women to perform squirty tricks?

A female circus performer

Some women feel there are expectations placed upon them to summon up Niagara Falls from their nethers by partners who might have watched squirting-themed pornography. “I’ve met guys who think girls can produce geysers on demand because of what they’ve viewed in adult films,” says Tash. A search for ‘squirt’ on one of the biggest porn sites brings up more than 110,000 results, although interestingly, the company reports females are 44% more likely to look for such material than males – research, perhaps?

Adult actresses themselves report that there’s growing demand for them to be able to ejaculate. Silvia Saige has worked in porn for four years and says: “It’s increasingly being asked for, and a woman’s career can take a financial upswing if she manages to squirt. I don’t get hired for jobs specifically featuring this act because it’s not something I can guarantee will happen with my body.”

Other performers who similarly can’t be sure they’ll squirt on cue fake it by drinking lots and urinating, or using vaginal douches: filling themselves with water, then contracting their vaginal muscles to catapult it out theatrically. So what viewers see on camera – and try to copy at home – may not be fully feasible.

Women may also feel they have to become high-pressure hoses because they or their partners mistakenly believe that squirting is ‘superior’ to other types of orgasm, and an ultimate sign of carnal achievement. “Some folks unhelpfully see female ejaculation as the Holy Grail of sexual pleasure,” says Karen Gurney, clinical psychologist. “This reflects our historical relationship with sex as a society: we often see it as goal-based; something to achieve or a skill to be practised, rather than something to experience and enjoy.”

But while some people are desperately chasing waterfalls because they’ve seen it in X-rated movies and think it makes them A+ lovers, and stress that they will be ‘less’ if they can’t conjure it up, others are holding back or feeling mortified when it happens because of stigma and fear. 

“I’ve met women who are deeply ashamed of the fact that this happens to them, as they feel it’s unusual and have a sense that partners will be shocked or turned off,” reflects Karen. “They’re scared lovers will think they’ve wet themselves, and sadly, it can add to the distress and shame that some women already feel about their bodies and sexuality.” 

The lesson? There’s nothing wrong with squirting, and there’s nothing wrong with not. Wetter isn’t inherently better, nor worse. Approach it with a sense of open-minded fun, not obligation or stigmatisation.

Anything else I water…sorry, oughta know?

A water gun over a heart

A final note on squirting in porn, and the law. Because debates still rage over whether female ejaculate is urine, or how much of it is urine, material showing women squirting may be considered to be ‘water sports’ or urolagnia – a fetish for urination – and so potentially illegal according to UK obscenity laws.

“The British Board of Film Classification is currently responsible for reviewing what is permissible in porn, and there’s an ongoing Crown Prosecution Service consultation to try to refine how female ejaculation should be regarded legally, amongst other acts,” comments Myles Jackman, a lawyer specialising in pornography and obscenity. “At present, it’s a sketchy area.”

Lily Allen launches sex toy, encouraging women to talk confidently about pleasure

Lily Allen has teamed up with a German sex toy brand to launch her own sex toy — and start a discussion about female sexuality.

The British singer announced she is partnering with sex tech company Womanizer to release the “Liberty” — a sleek hot pink and orange product retailing at $99 — in an Instagram post on Thursday. How innovative design is reshaping the sex tech industry.

In addition to the release of the vibrator, Allen has been anointed chief liberation officer at Womanizer, and is heading up the company’s #IMasturbate campaign, encouraging women to embrace their sexuality. “Sex toys are still seen as a taboo subject because they are, you know, related to masturbation and female pleasure. I think female pleasure in itself is a taboo subject,” Allen said in a video, adding that the first time she tried sex toys was “groundbreaking.”

“The only way to make taboo subjects no longer taboo is to speak about them openly and frequently and without shame or guilt,” she added.

Lily Allen has joined forces with German sex toy brand Womanizer.
Lily Allen has joined forces with German sex toy brand Womanizer. Credit: WomanizerWomanizer are one of many brands working to revamp the aesthetics of sex toys.

In the past decade, a new crop of sex toy start ups have been working to offer consumers innovative and distinctive designs, and in some cases, challenge taboos around sexuality.

The sleek hot pink and orange product retails at $99.
Credit: WomanizerDevelopers have been experimenting with product design, engineering and branding to create colorful, appealing, and even wearable technology which they hope are both marketable and loved by customers.

The sleek hot pink and orange product retails at $99.

“I hope that this collaboration will lead to people feeling that they can talk more freely about masturbation and if somebody like me can talk openly about it without shame then they might feel inclined to try it out for themselves — a whole new world awaits,” Allen added.

Written by: Amy Woodyatt, CNN

More intense exercise linked to a better sex life, exploratory study says

(CNN) – There’s really nothing better for your health than exercise — and that applies to your sex life’s health too.

“Men and women who are healthy tend to have better sexual function,” said Dr. Lauren Streicher, the medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine. “Because almost any medical illness can impact normal sexual response.”

Aerobic exercise is especially good at improving cardiovascular fitness, which stimulates blood flow throughout the body, including the genital area.

“Anything that supports the cardiovascular system is going to support a man or woman’s sexual response,” said sex therapist and educator Laura Berman. “The healthier your blood flow, the better your arousal.”

In women, blood flow is “crucial,” said Berman, “because it’s the fundamental component that creates lubrication. So better blood flow helps with engorgement, sensation and lubrication in women as well as erections in men.”

Just how much exercise is needed to keep you healthy? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week. Brisk walking or light biking are two examples of moderate exercise; vigorous movement would be jogging, fast cycling or participating in a basketball or soccer game.

Now, a new study published in the August volume of the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests higher levels of aerobic exercise may further improve sexual performance, stamina and desire in active men and women.

“What’s interesting is that we found a dose relationship … in that more exercise, especially in women, resulted in more benefit,” said lead author Dr. Benjamin Breyer, chief of urology at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

Participants were recruited from running, swimming and bicycling clubs, Breyer said, so they were all amateur athletes who were “really active, really interested in sports.”

“This is a special cohort of people,” Breyer said, “so it’s not the average person. This is a pretty physically fit group.”

Men who ran a 7-minute mile pace for 4½ hours per week saw a 23% reduced odds of erectile dysfunction.

But the results were even more striking for women. Running the same 7-minute mile pace for only 4 hours a week was associated with a 30% reduced odds of female sexual dysfunction.

“Women who were the most fit reported the least sexual dysfunction,” Breyer said. “They had the least difficulties with arousal, the least orgasm dysfunction.”

Breyer points out that the study was only exploratory, as it was conducted online and relied on self-reported levels of exercise and sexual dysfunction.

“We can’t conclusively say that one causes the other,” Breyer said, especially since so many things can also impact sexual satisfaction, such as self-esteem, good sleep and the quality of a relationship.

What about us couch potatoes?

So, does this exploratory study apply to the majority of us who are … ahem… a bit less fit? Perhaps, experts say.

Exercise has been shown to improve psychological sexual arousal in women and erectile dysfunction in men, said Raleigh cardiologist Dr. Kevin Campbell, who was not involved in the study.

In one study, sedentary middle-aged men assigned to participate in a vigorous exercise program for nine months reported more frequent sexual activity, improved sexual function, and greater satisfaction,” said Campbell. “Those whose fitness levels increased most saw the biggest improvements in their sex lives.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone should start high intensity training, Campbell cautioned, especially without a doctor’s advice.

“The study shows us that there is an association, but we do not exactly know if ‘more is better,’ ” Campbell said.

“Do you need good cardiovascular health in order to have an orgasm? Yes. In order to have arousal? Yes, because you need good blood vessels,” said Streicher. But she stresses that if a woman has painful sex or can’t have an orgasm, that’s not likely to be fixed by more exercise.

“If you have a specific sexual problem, the solution is not to exercise,” Streicher said. “The solution is to see someone who is an expert in that so that you can get the help you.