It’s night 47 in quarantine, and it’s time for my before-bed routine. Some lemongrass tea, a hit of my favorite hybrid vape, an overwrought skincare regimen and finally some toggling between Instagram, TikTok and Pornhub until the sandman carries me away. But this particular night I’m hoping for a different type of erotic stimulation—one that’s a bit meditative rather than the usual vigorous and frenetic. I open the Dipsea app, something that’s been bouncing around on my self-pleasure to-do list for months and that I finally have time to pursue.
I pop on my headphones and find an entire library of audio erotica, heavily curated according to sexual scenarios, identities and “heat levels.” To be clear, I rarely engage aurally with adult content. For years I watched porn on mute after a horrifying college incident when I realized too late that my earbuds weren’t plugged in. I had trained my brain to get off on visuals alone, so I wasn’t expecting a lot from an audio erotica app.
The first story I randomly click on is a 15-minute narrative about a tattoo-shop visit turned hookup. I push “play” on the next scene, a yoga session that’s hot in more ways than one, and move on to a wet and wild adventure in the rainy Irish countryside. I feel transported each time, and before I know it I’ve spent an hour swiping through scenes, spellbound.
Wanting to know more about the minds behind this sexual innovation, I decide to call Dipsea co-founder Gina Gutierrez at home in San Francisco, where she’s currently quarantined with her partner. I find out Dipsea began—like many great ideas—around two in the morning with close friends and a bottle or two of wine.
The Dipsea engineers curate the experience down to the most minute details: the crinkle of a condom wrapper being ripped open, the soft whoosh of a gown dropping to the floor.
“To me, sex is so psychological,” says Gutierrez. “The big miss was that people weren’t talking about sex in any way related to the mind. It’s always very physical. What are you thinking about when you’re having sex? What are you thinking about when you’re touching yourself?”
Gutierrez began asking her female friends what kind of sexy content they commonly found when they went searching for it. The answers were grim.
“A friend was like, ‘I’ve searched the internet top and bottom, and it’s scary out there. You find a lot of stuff that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, and it makes you not want to keep looking.’ Those were the kinds of answers we were getting. The problem was so pervasive, and Faye [Keegan, Dipsea’s other co-founder] and I just kind of got obsessed with the idea.”
The fact that most adult content caters to a male gaze is no secret. (Anyone who has seen long acrylic nails in lesbian porn knows this.) Companies such as Bellesa and X-Art strive to make “porn for women,” but the entire genre still assumes that all women get off in the same way: from what we see. Not everyone processes stimuli in the same way, and given how nuanced and layered women’s sexuality can be, Gutierrez wanted to completely reimagine what it means to consume erotica.
For the seminal 2011 book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam examined the internet-search histories of 650,000 people. They discovered a psychological chasm between men and women in terms of how they experience arousal. Men tend to be turned on by visuals and graphics, while women desire more of a narrative connection to the content. Gutierrez says this book became the “foundational document” behind Dipsea and that it’s still required reading for all new employees.
“What if we just stopped saying women should be sexual like men?” she asks. “What if we said, ‘Maybe there’s another way to approach it’? And what if we took a mind-first approach to sexuality?”
They decided audio would be a natural fit.
“There’s a quote I read recently that I love—something along the lines of ‘Audio is so intimate because it’s so closely aligned with how we think our thoughts.’ That starts to tap into how personalized the experience can feel, how intimate it can feel, how immersive it can feel, and that’s why we decided to tell these stories in audio.”
Visual porn places a heavy emphasis on appearance, age, race and body type, splintering off into a million subgenres. It’s accommodating in that no matter what you desire, you can likely find visual stimuli for it, but it’s limiting in that you can’t always employ your imagination. Watching porn for me is like staring at a completed piece of art hanging in a gallery, while listening to audio erotica is more akin to being given a blank coloring book and filling it in myself. I can stay inside the lines or scribble outside them. Both types of consumption are normal; it just depends on what floats your boat.
Shuhan, a Dipsea user in New York, says the app has helped her come to terms with her body in a new way. “As a woman from a conservative culture, to acknowledge and accept the healthy sexuality of a female was hard,” she tells Playboy. “Dipsea helps me to explore and understand the most natural and beautiful part of me. I now use the stories to enjoy alone time and even time with my husband.”
She adds, “Many times I share the app with my husband, and we use the stories as foreplay. Sometimes it’s more of an educational experience you get from guided sessions or informative stories.”
The app can also be a boon to those who can’t be physically near their partner, providing new ways to connect or just remain sexually satisfied on their own terms. “I’m in a long-distance relationship, and I have my own personal sexuality to tend to,” says Aalia, a Los Angeles–based fan of the app. “I was never into erotica, and Dipsea has definitely changed my habits. They’re really creative with the scenes they come up with and the quality of the acting and the writing. It’s just something I can connect with: It helps make self-pleasure more of an imaginative space.”
As Aalia points out, when it comes to creating these audio narratives, there’s a high level of production involved, from the scripts to the actors who bring the scenes to life. The Dipsea engineers curate the experience down to the most minute details: the crinkle of a condom wrapper being ripped open, the soft whoosh of a gown dropping to the floor. Combine that with a beautifully designed interface, and the result is an enthralling user experience. Dipsea currently has 230 stories live on the app, with new ones being added each week.
Ellen Ford, an L.A. fashion designer who collaborated with the Dipsea team to write a steamy narrative based on a tailoring appointment, says the main benefit of Dipsea’s writing process is “a collection of stories where you see yourself reflected but also feel safe in exploring new genres.”
“There’s nothing like this out there; nothing comes close,” they say of the app.
In addition to erotic storytelling, the app boasts a large collection of sex-education resources from top authorities in the field. There’s a how-to on dirty talk hosted by well-known kink educator Tina Horn, an intro to BDSM by professional dominatrix Yin Q and an orgasmic meditation class led by yoga expert Eva Kaczor.
Similar to my experience, more people are beginning to notice the godsend of Dipsea in quarantine. Company stats show that downloads are on the rise and that March—when most states went into lockdown—was the highest-usage month Dipsea has ever had, with a growth of 44 percent from the previous month. As of now, the app has more than 400,000 downloads.
The conversation Dipsea has sparked goes beyond just getting off; it could completely change the way our society looks at sex. Sex is often seen as a vice, something that needs to be measured and moderated. That’s why sex toys arrive at our houses in discreet packaging and why we opt for the self-checkout option when buying lubes or condoms at the pharmacy.
Says Gutierrez, “Our job in the past year and a half at Dipsea has been to try to pull sexuality out of vice and push it into wellness. How do we take a space that’s loaded with taboo and bad design and bad expectations and male gaze and directly address all of them? Imagine if we talked about sex not in the same category as guns and nicotine but in the same category as meditation and exercise—as things that make your body feel good.”
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, this undertaking has faced serious challenges since its inception. Sexuality, especially as it pertains to women’s pleasure, has always been heavily policed, with extra scrutiny thrown in if your sexuality is anything but heteronormative. This is no different in Silicon Valley. In October of last year, Dipsea was kicked out of the Google Play store due to what Dipsea felt was a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what the app is all about. As of February Dipsea is available to Android users once again, but the incident pushed the startup to create a web version of the app that can be used in any browser, making it less reliant on the fickle ecosystem of app stores.
In a more enlightened world, Gutierrez hopes an app like Dipsea would be seen as the hot-and-heavy version of Headspace, the popular mindfulness app.
“Our brains are bombarded in all moments of the day, by all sorts of media, by texts and TikTok and the news,” she says. “A lot of people feel stuck in their heads and disconnected from their bodies. Tapping into desire is actually a really interesting way to remember the connection between your head and your body.”
The biggest sex organ will always be the mind, and Dipsea allows one to engage with it in a captivating new way. By making the journey of self-knowledge and carnal knowledge one and the same, the app is helping to sculpt a future in which we feel more secure with our bodies and, by extension, ourselves. All we have to do is listen.