Tech + Health

03.27.14

Why Tracking Hookups and Orgasms Like Footsteps and Calories May Not Provide You with Personal Insight

A new sex tracking app, Nipple, made waves with its controversial ad at South by Southwest, but will it really teach us anything new or useful?

Scissoring for less than five minutes without orgasm with “Hunky,” a non-binary gendered Indian person from Cyprus, while using Nutella, earned me 110 points. At least according to the sex-tracking app, Nipple, it did. Titillated? Shocked? Confused? You're not the only one.

In the age of the Quantified Self Movement where it’s taken for granted that we track our locations, exercise routines, and diets, Nipple has entered the app scene to monitor our sexual exploits. “People can track every single aspect of their lives,” says Nipple’s founder, Matteo Sarzana, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “People should see their sexual life as one of the activities they do as part of their normal lives.”

Nipple launched earlier this month at Austin's South by Southwest in a manner that could be described as unceremonious at best, and offensive at worst. The initial responses to Nipple didn't seem to be so much about the app itself, as much as its terrible grammar. Reading “Oral sex it's made by 3,5 billion people” on Nipple’s homepage may cock-block users from taking the app seriously.

Nipple also earned notoriety for its giant poster of a beer bottle about to penetrate a vagina, with the text “Free beers will increase your chances to have sex, but won't help you remember it!” Unsurprisingly, American feminists didn't smile upon the creepy non-consensual undertones and the jokey tone in regards to getting girls drunk to coerce them into sex against their will. “I would call that a cultural mistake,” Sarzana says. “If you want to put the blame on us, fine. We need to learn the nuances of every country.”

Nipple also posted the rather regressive question “Did gender equality go to far?” on its Facebook page with a picture of a bored-looking woman sitting on a toilet and a blissfully ignorant man shaving his legs in a tub, implying that challenging traditional gender norms and conceptions of femininity leaves women unhappy. To say that Nipple appears to misunderstand women and their sexual desires is an understatement.

But Sarzana is open to changes. He says user feedback has helped him to expand Nipple's sexual and gender descriptions to better accommodate a more diverse range of acts and peoples. For example, in addition to describing a hookup partner as a woman, man, or transgendered, you can now add “non-binary” for people who do not identify as either male or female. A lesbian suggested Sarzana add scissoring and a gay man suggested he add rimming, both of which are now among the plethora of sexual positions available to check off.

“Sex may be a basic life function, but perhaps it cannot be tracked in the same way our exercise, eating, and sleeping patterns can – or at least it shouldn’t be.”

But as my initial fake (very fake) example with “Hunky” demonstrates, Nipple may aim to be Foursquare for blowjobs, but there is such an overload of information to submit that it manages to make sex as exciting as penciling in a questionnaire at the DMV. Even if you manage to avoid technical difficulties in the bedroom, they're impossible to evade on Nipple. When you want to enter a sexual experience, you're presented with an array of options. Your experience must be categorized as sex, oral sex, masturbation, kissing, or “petting”—a term that hasn't been active in the sexual lexicon since the Eisenhower Administration.

Even more frustrating, users have no choice but to enter a race for the person you hooked up with. If Nipple is going to mandate that, it should offer more options than black, white, Latino, Asian, and Indian. What if you hook up with Manti Te’o? Derek Jeter? The cast of Shahs of Sunset?

Moreover, not every section applies to a sexual experience. Even when you've just entered your activity as kissing, you have to answer whether you used no protection or condom, pill, or coil before it can be submitted into your Nipple record. If you choose oral sex, you're still given the option to check off traditional missionary as your position, which does not really apply. But creating these sexual Mad Libs doesn’t lend itself well to genuine data collection. User have extra incentive to select racier accessories and include more outlandish details because Nipple awards you points based on how exciting or outrageous your sex act is.

Personally, I had a lot of fun playing around with different scenarios and discovering I would earn more Nipple points for masturbating on a motorcycle using handcuffs, rope, and a mask than oral sex with a transgendered person in the comfort of my own home using latex. It suffices to say that the temptation to just mess around and enter ridiculous scenarios is incredibly high, though Sarzana believes users will be deterred because “if you keep adding fake experiences, the data won't be accurate to you.”

However, that operates from the presumption that people believe they can gain genuine personal insight from tracking the race of a sex partner, the accessories used, or the location of the act. Sex may be a basic life function, but perhaps it cannot be tracked in the same way exercise, eating, and sleeping patterns can – or at least it shouldn’t be.

Sarzana says it was important to him that Nipple includes a way for people to not only enter data, but to evaluate and reflect on the experience. “The very last question is about your personal point of view,” says Sarzana. Nipple users are given six options to rate the sexual experience: top, amazing, good, normal, bad, and fail.

But, do these choices, let alone any single-word descriptions come close to accurately conveying a sexual or romantic encounter? Sex can stir up any variety of emotions, and conflicting ones at that. To steal from Facebook, it's complicated: if we're being honest with ourselves, sex can never be described in just one word. That's in part because so many factors go into creating a positive or negative sexual experience. Sarzana says he includes the personal evaluation question because “You may have had sex with the most beautiful guy ever, but if you haven't had an orgasm then it's terrible.” But is it, necessarily? Valuing sex by only sheer physical pleasure is also an incredible narrow way to boil down a sexual experience.

One last but highly problematic aspect of Nipple: users can choose to go public with their profiles and, in fact, are implicitly encouraged to do so because those with the most Nipple points are posted on the homepage. Though Sarzana claims Nipple “better helps you understand what your sexual life is about,” when an app encourages sexual rewards and competition among users, the potential for genuine personal insight is completely decreased, if not fully diminished.

Despite the laundry list of technical issues with Nipple and the fact that it has just 2,000 users at the moment, the biggest problem is conceptual. Even the best, most racially diverse, and grammatically correct app will not manage to account for the intangible, indescribable factors that make sexual and romantic experiences enjoyable. It’s not Nipple’s fault, but maybe certain things can't be quantified, or at least not in a way that's of personal value.