Creating Technology for Social Change

Narrative Objects: Sexual Healing

Note: This post includes content about sexual trauma.

This is the first in a series of posts about Narrative Objects: physical artifacts — from the speculative to the functional — that tell new stories about the world we live in.

Sexual Healing is a collection of sensory objects for people who experience sexual problems after a traumatic experience, focusing on individual agency and the reclamation of pleasure, rather than clinical treatment. These objects are meant to be functional at the individual level, and also serve a broader purpose of changing the way we collectively talk about sexual trauma and healing. I was lucky enough to chat with Nienke Helder, the main designer behind the project, about the public narratives she hopes to change, the challenges of inviting people to engage in participatory design processes that involve sensitive and traumatic topics, and the importance of invoking joy and play, even for such a difficult issue.

Over the past several years, my own work has been shaped in part by a fascination with design that involves taboo, stigmatized, and marginalized topics — particularly those topics that relate to female bodies and our collective discomfort around talking about the various fluids that they might produce. Most recently, I worked with a wonderful team of women to bring together a diverse community to hack technology, policy, and systems in support of breastfeeding parents and their babies. We produced a series of hackathons (and a policy summit) called “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!”in 2014, and again in 2018. Rallying designers and technologists around developing new ways to support people who breastfeed was initially a difficult feat, and our design process had to accommodate that — candid conversation about the stigmatized topics of breasts and breastmilk made some people uncomfortable, and breastfeeding is not a topic typically seen as worthy of innovation and investment. One of our key strategies was to use humor, joy, and play to create pathways for people to sidestep stigma or awkwardness in order to take part in conversations around breastmilk, as well as to engage in the often uncomfortable work of confronting issues of racial and socioeconomic inequity that influences who does and does not receive support to breastfeed in the United States. We also conducted interviews with breastfeeding people around the country in order to produce a book of stories — called “Speaking Our Truths: 27 Stories of What It’s Really Like to Breastfeed and Pump in the United States” — that helped shine light on a topic that is rarely spoken about publicly.

In addition to being subject to stigma and marginalization, sexual trauma is an extremely sensitive and deeply personal issue, which required Nienke to take extra care in the design process for her object collection. While Sexual Healing began as her thesis project at Design Academy Eindhoven, Nienke has recently begun to put new versions of her original prototypes into production. I’ve long been inspired by this project — not only are the artifacts beautiful and functional, but they also offer alternative narratives about how we might approach sexual trauma as a society. Through her objects, Nienke argues that what has historically been treated as a medical and physical issue should also be explored with a goal of centering emotion and even pleasure.

Each object in the collection has a different function, intended as a set to bring multiple complex issues into view:

  • Brush
    Serves to get used to touch. For those who are looking for a ‘gateway’ to direct skin contact, it helps to tickle yourself. It also serves as an invitation to involve your partner into the process, and you can use it as a tool to research what arouses you.
  • Mirror
    Helps you to get to know your body. It lights up in the dark, so you can discover your body in a non-confronting way. The theory behind it is based on a research that shows that regularly looking at your vulva will increase your body positivity.
  • Stone
    Works with a breathing sensor to guide you in the relaxing process. With a simple form of bio-feedback, the object communicates when you respond with tension and helps you to get back at ease, which is very important during sex. This object is a non-invasive way of measuring the tension in your abdomen, which helps you control your pelvic muscles as well.
  • Pelvic Sensor
    As a next step, the ‘Pelvic sensor’ helps you to understand what happens in the pelvic floor. It shows you how you can relax enough in an ‘intimate’ situation to experience it with pleasure.
Sexual Healing Collection (clockwise from top left: Brush, Mirror, Stone, Pelvic Sensor)

These objects represent a very different approach to sexual trauma, which is often treated as a clinical problem. People who experience sexual trauma may have difficulty relaxing, being touched, experiencing penetration, controlling pelvic floor contractions, or having an orgasm. These are often dubbed “sexual dysfunctions,” and can also be experienced by people who have not also experienced sexual trauma. Many current treatments for these issues focus on treating physical manifestations of trauma, and people may be pointed towards physical therapy or even medication (for example, to increase libido or to reduce vaginal pain). Clinical therapy, (for example, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which involves developing skills related to emotional regulation and coping) is also an approach doctors may recommend. Each of these solutions, even those that focus on the mental and emotional dimension of embodied issues, take place in a medical context — in physical therapy offices, on exam tables, and at the pharmacy. Often missing from the conversation about sexual trauma is an explicit concern for an individual’s sexual pleasure; rarely does the medical approach focus on recovering an individual’s ability to approach their sexuality with fun, joy, and play.

Nienke’s thinking on these topics began with her own personal experience finding it difficult to enjoy sex and intimacy after a sexual assault. After her assault, penetrative sex was painful, and she saw a variety of different doctors to help address the issue. Some of her treatments included physical therapy, as well as a painkiller injected into her vagina (while five male medical students looked on). None of these approaches helped her reclaim her ability to enjoy sex and intimacy, and eventually Nienke’s doctors told her nothing more could be done.

Nienke grew frustrated with this failure of imagination. “What we know about female sexual health is so behind compared to other fields of research,” she told me, “When I was still a patient, I heard so often that there was no solution and that I had to find a way to accept that. At some point I thought — the fact that you don’t have a solution, doesn’t mean there isn’t one (or more) at all. We just didn’t try hard enough yet.

Motivated by her own frustration, and knowing that there are a multitude of other experiences people have with sexual dysfunction, Nienke decided to jump into conducting further research. She contacted the doctors who treated her, and she also began to pull together a group of women to help her begin a design exploration around sexual healing. “Finding women as experts by experience was a bit more tricky [than recruiting medical experts],” she said. “I knew of some women who had dealt with similar issues, but not all of them felt comfortable working with me.”

In addition to finding people to engage in participatory design processes that involve sensitive and traumatic topics, it can be challenging to set the frame for a new project and figure out methods for inviting participation. “The first time we met,” Nienke says “I realized that it’s very difficult to ask for input when there is nothing there yet…So I started with basing things on my own experiences, preferences, and assumptions and then provided that information as a starting point each time we met up. They then could say whether they agreed with my standpoints or not, if they liked the same colors, materials, ideas, approaches, etc. As soon as the concept slowly started to evolve, their input became much more in depth.” Nienke’s personal experiences and willingness to give form to her assumptions and ask for feedback allowed her to create a set of objects that ultimately serve a variety of needs beyond her own: “I was very used to getting feedback on my work from my tutors and fellow design students, who instantly go crazy with input if you only give them one sketch…In the design field I think sometimes we have a tendency to design things for other designers, but of course that should never be the point. Working so closely together with these women and the medical field was really refreshing.” Open-ended conversations can be difficult, and it is often the role of a designer to help people’s ideas take form, and to use feedback on these forms as a way of continuing an ongoing conversation.

Nienke’s objects are both functional and symbolic — and their symbolic nature tends to invite conversation. Nienke spoke about the unexpected challenge of producing objects that invite others to share their own personal narratives: “Sometimes at exhibitions, people start sharing their personal stories, which is at times a bit overwhelming, because I’m not a therapist, so I’m always a bit afraid to say something stupid, but I also feel really honored that the project brings out those stories, and that people feel welcome to share them.

Nienke believes the playfulness of her objects to be key to their usefulness to people and to their ability to help change narratives around sexual trauma: “Fun, joy and pleasure are so important to this project because it’s all about respecting your own needs and listening to your body…why have sex if you don’t enjoy it? It should never be a mandatory activity. It’s so great if you learn to understand what you like, and amazing if you find ways to communicate this with a partner. To me, that’s a wonderful way of self-respect.”

As with our efforts to “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!,” Nienke considers her project to be in dialogue with contemporary political issues, and believes that leveraging media attention around the designs themselves can be a way of changing the conversation around sexual trauma and healing. Of the project, Nienke says: “Of course, I do this from a feminist standpoint…After the storm of media attention connected to #metoo, I realized that I can use this project as a tool to bring awareness to this topic. By being the designer and expert by experience, the project becomes a sort of platform for other stories as well.

This is the first in a series of articles I will be writing about Narrative Objects: physical artifacts — from the speculative to the functional — that tell new stories about the world we live in.

As I explore the worlds of Narrative Objects, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to get in touch and share examples of objects you’ve encountered (or created!).