In Silicon Valley, erotic podcasts specifically aimed at women are the latest hot investment. Julia Llewellyn Smith talks to the two millennials behind the raunchy audio app that's leading the way
I'm in the kitchen, slicing aubergines while listening to Tulum, a story being broadcast from my iPhone about Cee Cee and Noah, an American couple who've just arrived at their Mexican hotel. "This place is insane," declaims the actress playing Cee Cee, who's raspy and slightly smug-sounding. "Noah walked ahead of me into a giant room, absently dropping his bag off his shoulders to the floor. It was a treehouse on the beach with dark-wood floors and walls and furniture made with what looked like twisted driftwood …"
Wait, where's the pause button? This isn't what I was expecting. I'm listening to Dipsea, a new app that – according to the blurb – delivers "sexy audio stories that set the mood". But this is more like a holiday brochure than the smut I was hoping for.
I press play again and, while searching for coriander, listen to Cee Cee rave about the hot tub on the deck overlooking the white-sand beach. Finally Noah starts running his fingers up and down Cee Cee's spine under her T-shirt. This is a bit more like it. He carries her to "our palatial bed". Hooray!
But then … fade out. Next thing I know, Cee Cee is waking up. By now, I'm stir-frying paneer and thinking I'd find more filth if I switched over to Radio 4's PM. Still, I persist as she explains they've chosen a resort with a nudist beach. Oh, hello! Cee Cee has a naked swim during which she spots the man staying in the neighbouring cabin, who's "ripped like some player on a Brazilian soccer team" and has a "Penelope Cruz lookalike" girlfriend. By the time I'm putting on the rice, all four are in the tub, drinking champagne and getting frisky. "I watched Noah's eyes close in pleasure as she lowered her mouth on to his … "
"Mum!" bawls my 12-year-old, marching into the room, oblivious to my frantic attempts to turn down the volume. "I need money for mufti day."
In Silicon Valley, audio porn specifically aimed at women is the phenomenon du jour, with a whole new range of apps harnessing the ever-rocketing podcast craze to seize their portion of the £76 billion (NZ$140.5n) global porn industry.
In April, 22-year-old Caroline Spiegel, sister of Snapchat boss Evan Spiegel, launched Quinn in the US, intended, in her words, to be a "much less gross, more fun Pornhub for women". From France comes Voxxx, a podcast collaboration between feminist pornographer Olympe de G and porn star Lele O, who writes and voices many of the episodes (some in English). With names such as Tendre Gang-Bang, they've each been listened to between 15,000 and 35,000 times.
Meanwhile, in late 2017 Audible launched romance audiobooks that allow listeners to skip straight to the dirty bits, just in the way the cracked spine on the copy of Shirley Conran's Lace that had been passed round and round the classroom brought you straight to the infamous goldfish scene.
But for now, the leader of the pack is Dipsea. Its founders, Gina Gutierrez and Faye Keegan, both 29, won't say how many visitors the site's attracted since its US launch in December (it arrived in the UK in February), but they've raised an impressive $8 million from investors.
The app's origins lay in a late-night, giggly conversation around Keegan's kitchen table, where her and Gutierrez's gang of 20-something girlfriends began discussing the time-travel TV drama Outlander (streamed here on Lightbox and Netflix), whose steamy sex scenes have a cult following.
"It struck us that Outlander was the only piece of erotica that our friends were able to bring to the table," Gutierrez tells me from her home in San Francisco. "It's such a different conversation when you're asking someone about a vibrator – then they say, 'Oh, I have one I love,' or, 'I wouldn't recommend this one.' But when it came to sexy content, you might hear about a book you picked up in high school and still have on your night stand, but generally the pickings were very slim."
Over the next few months, Gutierrez, then working as a designer, came to several more realisations about how women might be able to enjoy more erotica in their everyday lives. (The friends avoid the word "porn", which doesn't go down so well with investors, although Gutierrez says, "If people want to use that term, that's okay.") "I was listening to the meditation app Headspace and was really struck by what a powerful medium audio was for storytelling, how its super-immersiveness could really allow your imagination to run wild."
The "seminal" inspiration, however, came from Keegan reading the book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, an investigation by neuroscientists into sex-related terms entered into internet search engines – the idea being that people were far more likely to be honest with the internet than with a researcher with a clipboard. This showed what Gutierrez calls "a psychological abyss between the sexes", revealing that whereas men searched for "graphic, visual stimulation, women preferred stories, preferred more chemistry and connection".
Women were desperate, the friends concluded, for female-friendly "sexy short stories". So they wrote a handful, found some voice actors and – with Keegan in the role of sound engineer and Gutierrez as director – recorded them in Keegan's kitchen.
They uploaded 6 stories to a website, alerted 200 acquaintances and overnight found the site had registered 1200 unique visits. Convinced they were on to a winner, the pair then spent some frenzied months creating and recording more stories. (They now employ a team of freelancers with a range of sexualities and erotic proclivities – "to understand the experiences of as many people as possible" – not to mention voice actors "from all over the world, who can work remotely".)
Named in honour of a San Francisco walking trail, as well as signifying "this idea of diving into a sea, that moment when you feel exhilarated", today Dipsea – which sits on my phone next to my supermarket app – contains 120 stories, each between 5 and 20 minutes long. There are searchable themes including group sex and dominance. Three new stories are added each week, to which you can listen as much as you like for, in the UK, £8.49 ($15.70) a month.
In the depths of a so-called "sex recession" (American research shows that in 1990 the average adult had sex 62 times a year, but in 2014 the figure was down to 54 times), perhaps Dipsea is just what we need to start the juices flowing again. Gutierrez concedes that some women will be using the site as a masturbation aid (there are "guided masturbation" clips to tell you what to do), but claims that many will be listening – through headphones during the evening commute – "to help transition your frenetic work brain when you don't even want to engage with the idea of having sex with your partner. It's those shifts that women have a hard time with, but a sexy story can really help with that".
As with anyone flogging sex to women, Gutierrez uses words such as "empowerment" to describe Dipsea's "mission". But justificatory waffle apart, it's extraordinary that when the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has sold more than 125 million copies (in general, erotic fiction is the biggest driver of the publishing world), the porn industry has so far done so little to win the cash of 49.6 per cent of the population.
Like many women of my era, my pornographic imagination was shaped by the oeuvre of Jilly Cooper. Web porn, on the other hand, is my antithesis of erotic, involving – in my limited experience – videos of hard-faced actresses, who I'm sure are either drugged or trafficked or both, usually having degradations heaped upon them.
Such thoughts, Gutierrez explains, typically impede female arousal, since our desire tends to be "responsive", depending on multifarious factors such as mood, room temperature and whether our partners have done the washing-up. Hence Dipsea's emphasis, as in Tulum, on creating atmosphere, with background effects of waves crashing on the shore and all the descriptions of hotel fittings, which bored me silly but obviously work for some. In contrast, male desire is more "spontaneous, so if men see something that's a turn-on, then out of the blue they're like, 'I'm horny'."
It's a fascinating theory, but – according to Cindy Gallop, a British former advertising executive, who now runs Make Love Not Porn, a crowdfunded website of videos of people having what she calls "real world" sex, "It's f***bollocks – and you can quote me on that.
"The presumption that women are not turned on by visual porn is part of a huge body of received wisdom that operates around sex because we all feel shame telling the truth, so it's much easier to default to a stereotyped version of femininity that women only like porn with narrative and emotion and white curtains fluttering gently in the breeze," she tells me. "Well, I know just as many women who like hardcore and violent porn as men do."
This isn't just anecdotal; there's plenty of research to support this. One study, for example, employing thermal imaging to monitor rising temperatures in genitalia, showed that both men and women took more or less exactly the same time – 10 minutes – to reach peak sexual arousal. But Gallop argues that society doesn't want to acknowledge such facts "because that doesn't fit in with the patriarchal 'nice girls don't' mythology".
So what about my argument about not finding young people with dead eyes gang-banging an aphrodisiac? The problem, Gallop explains, is that I'm looking for porn in the wrong places.
"We all watch porn but we don't talk about it, so it tends to exist in a shadowy universe, with no socially acceptable navigation and curation," she says. "It's okay to come in the office and stand by the water cooler and say, 'I'm bored with the restaurants I'm eating in. Can anyone recommend a new one?' But you can't say, 'I'm bored with the porn I'm watching. Who can recommend new porn?' I have female queer friends making innovative, disruptive porn that I guarantee you'd love. The problem is, no one can find it."
In contrast, it's a doddle to download the well-financed Dipsea. "Audio start-ups are instantly more palatable to investors than what I'm doing, because they're not actually showing anything, which makes everyone feel a whole lot more comfortable," Gallop says, sighing.
The Times sex columnist Suzi Godson is more sympathetic to Gutierrez's arguments. "Text and audio work for women because they can be the central character," she says. "When they're looking at an Amazonian big-breasted blonde, there's always more of a disconnect. It's hard to visualise yourself in the story," she says.
My disconnect to Dipsea is that I'm a good decade older than its "sweet spot" audience – women aged between 25 and 35. Unlike them, I rarely have the necessary privacy to listen (even with headphones on, I can't imagine listening to Show Me What to Do with teenagers barging in demanding that their top is ironed). Nor, sadly, do many of the stories – flatmate romps and hikers' woodland frolics – resonate with my experiences. Currently, Dipsea's most popular serial is Hot Vinyasa, in which Laura and Mark, a former Marine, get bendy during yoga class. "I mean, that's a hyper-relatable experience. We all know what it's like to be in this hot, steamy room, seeing someone taking their shirt off and thinking, 'Wow, that's a really attractive person,' " Gutierrez says.
If only I did, but never mind – Gutierrez promises me Dipsea plans to add content for women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Then there's the question of accents – I tell her that the millennials asked by the Times to test-drive the app mainly liked the idea, but were put off by the transatlantic nature of it all. "I would never say 'nasty girl' while having sex. Maybe it's an American thing," was the reaction of one 34-year-old man.
"We're going to be adding as many accents as possible," Gutierrez promises. Including British? "Including British." While I wait, I'll be watching Outlander and downloading the audiobook of Riders. I just hope Audible's software lets me jump straight to the bit with Billy Lloyd-Foxe and the dock leaves.
Written by: Julia Llewellyn Smith
© The Times of London