We live in one of the most sexually liberated times in history. Yet the stats show we're having less sex than ever before. Keen to reset their own lowered libidos, one writer and her partner agree to put tech to the test - and see if there really is an app for that
Words: Vikki Sullivan
I used to wonder how anyone could fail to prioritise sex. Surely it was as essential as eating, as breathing? Why would anyone put it off? Well, fast forward seven years and things have changed. I still enjoy sex, but as the stresses of life have ramped up, my libido has slowed down. Where once I relished the prospect of new positions, fresh sensations and role play, now, after a ten-hour day at work, I’m often more excited about kicking back on the sofa and scrolling through Instagram. In bed, it’s easy to reach for the familiar, the comfortable, the fastest route to orgasm, and usually I don’t have sex more than once or twice a week.
I’m not the only one: the average Brit makes love five times a month, according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Personally, I was delighted when I heard about real-time love-making advice app Pillow Play, which aims to change that. ‘Pillow Play is designed to reconnect busy couples to the art of intimacy,’ says the app’s co-founder, psychosexual and relationship therapist Kate Moyle. ‘I work with young couples who complained that work, the constant burr of their smartphones and social media were getting in the way of quality intimate time. So I decided to make this problem the solution. I decided to use technology to help people bring a sense of play, of adventure, back into the bedroom.’
The app offers a series of episodes, written by sexperts, which issue sensual suggestions to you and your partner. In the name of science, I suggest a week-long trial to my boyfriend of seven years, Rob, and he’s thrilled. Of course he is. ‘You don’t think it’ll be weird?’ I ask. ‘Who cares?’ he grins. ‘It could be interesting.’
Phase 1: Tantra techniques
The start of our seven-day adventure is not exactly seamless. We rendezvous in a candlelit bedroom, but the app won’t turn on. After some (highly erotic) playing around with the Wi-Fi connection, at last we’re good to go. We choose ‘gentle awakening’ as our first episode, composed by a tantra specialist – hey, who doesn’t want to know more about tantra? Unfortunately, the new-age soundtrack irritates my inner DJ, and as a voice suggests we breathe in time with each other, it’s hard not to feel foolish. But as our breathing synchronises, my mind stops pinging around (the email I have to send, whether I’ve got anything clean to wear for a big meeting) and I’m soon in the moment. Then something special happens. I feel Rob’s body heat. I notice the stubble along his jaw, the line of his shoulders, the green of his eyes. It’s sexy. It’s like the early days, when he was all that mattered. Before the end of the episode, we’re wrapped around each other – the same moves as usual, to be honest, but far more keenly felt. ‘When it started, I was unconvinced,’ Rob tells me afterwards. ‘I’m not sure how much it did for me, except for building a bit of anticipation. But I’m open to most things and I was impressed by the difference it made to you.’
RATING 8/10 We had that welded-together love making where nothing else matters – more intense than usual.
Phase 2: Tantalisation sex
This is all about anticipation. It’s easy to be seductive in the first flush of love, but seven years down the line, tantalisation is often overlooked. With Rob’s consent, I follow the instructions and blindfold him. ‘To begin, kiss your partner on the lips softly, gently and seductively,’ the app intones. ‘Move to sit on top of your partner.’ Obeying the voice, I start to stroke Rob’s face. I pull down the covers ‘to reveal the top half of my partner’s sexy body’ and continue to stroke. Sure, it feels a touch staged, but that doesn’t really matter. Soon we’re totally into it. I surprise myself, rediscovering more of my inner temptress as we go on, and by the time we reach the end of the episode (the instructions still leading me nowhere near the genitals), we’re realising that the spark is still there. This episode was far more to Rob’s liking. ‘Making us both wait while we followed each set of instructions really added to the experience,’ he says. ‘Of course, I loved receiving, but I also can’t wait to do it back.’
RATING 9/10 A time machine that took us back to our early days of playing and teasing.
Phase 3: Role play
Late on a Tuesday night, after a hectic day at work, we embark on the role-play phase, stepping into the shoes of an imaginary couple, Ryan and Emma, who meet in a bar. Role play isn’t new for us – we used to meet in public as ‘other people’ early on in our relationship. Those days now feel far away, but Pillow Play seems like a low-stakes way back in. The app tells us we’re at a party and about to make initial eye contact. As Emma, I catch the eye of a handsome stranger and imagine ‘the stranger’s hands on my body’. Contrived as it is, this is hot. Next, Ryan introduces himself and Emma touches his hand by mistake: ‘He imagines it on more of him than just his hand, and grits his teeth,’ the app narrates. ‘As they chat, the tension builds… with a small space between them, his masculine scent wraps around her, and she yearns for him to touch her.’ It’s surprisingly immersive. ‘Many women are distinctly tonal, which means that hearing is their dominant sense,’ tantric coach Elena Angel tells me. ‘Sounds can keep a woman connected to her partner, and being “taken on a journey” is a common female fantasy. This kind of narrative is a way of taking a journey of the imagination without leaving the bedroom.’ Soon, Emma and Ryan are kissing: ‘He tugs her toward him. He looks at her a moment longer, her cheeks flushed. Their lips press together, closed at first. Liquid fire burns through her veins; his tongue darts inside her.’ You get the idea. The language is a bit flowery for my taste, but I’m transported and we’re both turned on. Later, Rob confesses to preferring the tantalisation phase. ‘I could have done with a bit less of the “tongues dancing, warm and wild”,’ he says. ‘Particularly in those American accents.’
RATING 7/10 A bit corny. I was more into it than Rob, but it certainly added a little zest and humour to proceedings.
Save or delete?
Pillow Play’s real-time advice is great for reawakening an emotional connection (the app’s stated intention). ‘I see a lot of people who have lost intimacy,’ says psychosexual therapist Krystal Woodbridge. ‘Pillow Play might be helpful as it can be hard to know where to start and specific guidance can be useful. It’s about doing something small on a daily basis to reconnect.’
But I wonder if there’s also a market for an app that offers more genitally focused, hands-on instruction – I’m talking ‘do this, touch here, keep going for two minutes’ type of stuff. ‘Maybe,’ says my friend Anna, 29, when we meet for a debrief over drinks. She’s trying for a baby and finding that the necessity of sex is messing with her mojo. ‘There’s plenty of advice on technique online, but the main thing for me is figuring out a way to get in the mood,’ she adds.
This is common. As Emily Nagoski writes in her book Come As You Are (£12.99, Scribe), most women experience ‘responsive desire’ (where you feel turned on in response to stimulation) as opposed to ‘spontaneous desire’ (more common in men). Pillow Play is a wonderfully gentle way to bring your mind and body to a state of glorious, passionate arousal. Other friends of mine say the app helps them forget what’s going on outside the bedroom and focus all their attention on their partner.
This was the biggest benefit for me: stepping beyond the everyday and into an erotically charged headspace. I don’t see Pillow Play revolutionising my sex life, but I will keep it for weary days when I’m up for the idea of love making but need a little help to get going. Surely that makes it one of the most useful sex aids you could have?
Download the app at pillow.io
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Niamh McCollum is Features Assistant at Marie Claire UK, and specialises in entertainment, female empowerment, mental health, social development and careers. Tackling both news and features, she's covered everything from the rise of feminist audio porn platforms to the latest campaigns protecting human rights.
Niamh has also contributed to our Women Who Win series by interviewing ridiculously inspiring females, including forensic scientist Ruth Morgan, Labour MP Stella Creasy and ITV’s former Home Affairs Editor Jennifer Nadel.
Niamh studied Law in Trinity College Dublin. It was after enrolling in a Law & Literature class on her year abroad in Toronto that her love of writing was reignited. In no particular order, her big likes are Caleb Followill, hoops, red wine, sea swimming, shakshuka and long train journeys.
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