The Ohnut wants to take the shame out of painful sex. Is a product all it takes?
N aturally a conversation starter, entrepreneur Emily Sauer and I chat on the phone one afternoon having the conversation she’s spent years wanting to have. One that was difficult to start, even for her. For 10 years, Sauer experienced painful sex and never brought it up to her partners. When she finally tried to seek help from medical professionals, she was dismissed. The feeling is not uncommon.
My own painful sex journey started years ago, when I continued to have pain with sex after a yeast infection had cleared up. After a few appointments, my gynecologist said, “I don’t know what to tell you,” in a frustrated tone of voice that I knew was inappropriate. I’ve since learned that it’s not uncommon for medical professionals — including gynecologists — to not know how to handle pelvic pain that can’t be visually diagnosed. Many of us end up feeling betrayed by our bodies and alone in our pain, and Sauer was no exception.
“I never felt further away from everybody than when I was experiencing painful sex,” she says. Thankfully, research of and knowledge surrounding pelvic pain has advanced a lot in the last few years. Still, Sauer couldn’t find exactly what she needed, so she created it herself — Ohnut, the “intimate wearable redefining painful sex.”
Many of us end up feeling betrayed by our bodies and alone in our pain.
The creation of this product is as much about starting that conversation as it is about finding a potential solution to a problem approximately 75% of women will experience in their life. Creating Ohnut gave Sauer an excuse to talk to others about painful sex, and it gave them the chance to open up to her as well.
“It was both heartbreaking and hopeful to find out every single one of these people felt like they were struggling alone,” she says.
Ohnut is a modular device made up of stretchy rings — yes, they look like doughnuts, hence the name — that fit at the base of the penis or dildo. The idea is to provide cushion upon penetration and to be able to customize the depth of penetration as well.
Ohnut’s Kickstarter launched on May 15 and during the first half of the campaign, backers raised over half of the total goal. However, strict social media guidelines threatened to set them back. YouTube removed the promotional video for Ohnut just one day after the Kickstarter launched.
“When YouTube pulled the video down,” Sauer says, “it was shocking. The first message I received [said] that it wasn’t compliant with the community guidelines of sexual content.” While YouTube won’t approve videos with pornographic or sexually explicit content, their guidelines clearly state that a video that “contains nudity or other sexual content may be allowed if the primary purpose is educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic, and it isn’t gratuitously graphic.” Ohnut’s video for a product that helps make sex less painful doesn’t include any graphic explanations or visuals. This reason for removal didn’t make sense.
The second message Sauer received from YouTube said that they remove videos that take viewers to a third-party site. Thinking this was because of the link to Kickstarter, Sauer uploaded a second video on a different account with slightly different footage, no tags about sex, and no mention of the Kickstarter. The video was pulled in under five minutes.
“YouTube taking the video down,” Sauer says, “is part of a systemic problem that is holding our sexual education back.” Indeed, many sex educators and even sex therapists have had trouble with videos or ads being flagged for sexual content. Cartoonist and sex educator Erika Moen, well-known for the Oh Joy Sex Toy series of comics, recently had ads for her latest sex education book, Drawn to Sex, rejected by Facebook and Instagram, despite following content guidelines. Moen says Patreon — where folks can support her work — is an interesting case, too. “They have all ‘adult’ accounts hidden on their site,” Moen says, “so people can’t search for them. A Patron has to manually type in the URL of the account they want to support.”
Therapist Ruby B. Johnson received an alert from Google saying her business ad was disapproved. Reason: “non-family safe.” The ad listed her practice’s name, address, and phone number, and simply said, “We can help! Call today. Sexuality Counselor and Educator.”
Many blame this on the passage of SESTA/FOSTA. But in the case of Ohnut, with Twitter on her side, Sauer appealed the removal of the video and five days later, it was approved. The video can now be viewed on the Kickstarter page as well as on YouTube.
‘YouTube taking the video down is part of a systemic problem that is holding our sexual education back.’
Sauer had the idea for Ohnut in late 2016, and prototyping began in 2017. She was always a creative thinker, but had never physically created her own product. “I spent hours on the phone with a little company in Pennsylvania learning about silicone and got in touch with some 3D printing companies to learn about 3D printing,” she says. The design developed over the course of a year and originally looked nothing like it does now.
“The product started out as 100 percent silicone,” Sauer says, “but I started hearing from medical providers that women who had certain sexual challenges are often recommended silicone lubrication.”
I can vouch for this — my physical therapist suggested the same for me and I’ve since become a silicone lube convert. Sex toy nerds will know the biggest downside with silicone lubricant, however, is that it’s not always compatible with silicone pleasure products, as it can damage the toys and make them unsafe for use. To solve this issue, Sauer and her team adapted Ohnut and created a body- and skin-safe, food-grade polymer blend that can be used with silicone lubricant. It is antimicrobial and can be washed with soap and water and left out to dry, and though it can’t be completely sterilized like something made of 100 percent silicone (which you can just pop in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes), the decision wasn’t made lightly.
This past February, Sauer attended the annual conference for the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH), a medical conference for sexual health therapists, gynecologists, and leaders and pioneers in scientific and academic research in women’s sexual health. It became clear to her that there was not only a mainstream demand for a product like Ohnut, but Sauer was met with overwhelming support from the professionals at ISSWSH, which gave Ohnut even more momentum leading up to the Kickstarter launch.
Though Ohnut was developed with the help of a team of medical professionals, including pelvic pain specialists, physical therapists, and a gynecological surgeon, it isn’t a medical device. Sauer points out that it also isn’t a sex toy, which is why she coined the term “intimate wearable.”
Dyspareunia is a medical term for painful sex and can be caused by a number of factors, such as childbirth, a sports injury, physical (and/or emotional) trauma, or varying infections, like yeast infections or UTIs. Ohnut isn’t a cure for all types of painful sex caused by pelvic pain. It is, however, filling a very real need for many people. Furthermore, not everyone who experiences painful sex has an end goal of penetrative sex — and not everyone who uses Ohnut will even use it for sex. Ohnut can be used on dilators, for example, which many people with varying types of pelvic pain use.
Products like Ohnut that start difficult conversations are often hard to market. They are pulled between being inclusive of different bodies and sexual experiences, or appealing to a heteronormative mainstream so they don’t get censored by YouTube. The language used to talk about pelvic pain is commonly heteronormative and relies on the gender binary. Sauer recognizes that Ohnut’s current language isn’t much different. The video, for example, explains that Ohnut is worn at the “base of the male shaft,” which Sauer says is obviously not the only way Ohnut can be worn, which is why future packaging for the product will be less gendered.
The language used to talk about pelvic pain is commonly heteronormative and relies on the gender binary.
“There are a lot of trans women with neo-vaginas,” she points out, “who go through a lot of different dilator therapies in order to maintain the elasticity of their new vaginal canal. Ohnut can be helpful for pain with deeper penetration in this instance as well. [It was] designed with all bodies in mind.” Sauer says Ohnut is already setting up feedback channels to gauge the product’s efficacy for trans women and for anal use.
“Down the line,” she says, “we hope to do a more formal clinical study with referrals from doctors for post-op trans women. Right now there is very little support from surgeons regarding maintaining sexual health — both physically and mentally — post surgery, and we hope that Ohnut will encourage that conversation between patient and doctor.”
As much as Ohnut advances the conversation surrounding painful sex, it’s important to remember that people of any gender or genital makeup can experience pelvic pain. People with penises can have issues with the foreskin or frenulum, for example, or pelvic floor dysfunction, which is even less likely to be diagnosed for them as it is in people with vulvas.
Perhaps with Ohnut taking the lead on the pelvic pain conversation, it can be a starting point for a much larger conversation about painful sex and sexual health in general. Even if Ohnut itself doesn’t or can’t work for someone, Sauer hopes that it at least encourages communication between partners. “There’s a fear of judgement,” she says, “a fear of the unknown and a fear and anticipation of pain. Oftentimes, [the pain] is exacerbated by stress. Ohnut gives you the opportunity to say something.”