Massage oils, sex toys, and whips and chains can stimulate the most erogenous zones in our body, intensifying the pleasure — and the pain. Vibrators can provide a shivering, tingly tickle down our spine by targeting the most intimate areas, but adding electricity, specifically erotic electrostimulation (electrosex), into the mix can electrify our experience. This high-tech form of sex could send shockwaves in the bedroom, generating a lot of buzz between the sheets.

But, how exactly can electrical currents get us to charge, in order to discharge, in the bedroom?

Whether their use is for health reasons or sexual pleasure, e-stim devices deliver a variety of impulses, from a gentle tickle to heavy throbbing throughout the body. The electrodes, which are placed on our most sensual areas, connect to the device via wiring, allowing us to feel sensations that go beyond the electrodes themselves to areas like the genitals. This fairly new kind of stimulation can provide an exciting alternative to vanilla sex, but misuse could lead to a shocking fatality.

The Shocking History Of Electrosex

Electrostimulation has been widely recognized for treating pain, muscle problems, and even body fat. The 1950s introduced us to the Relax-A-Cizor , a device designed to stimulate the muscles as we relax. It used electric currents as a form of passive exercise via contact pads. In other words, it was marketed as an easy way to get thin while we sleep.

To use the device, people would place the contact pads on their “problem areas;” inevitably, the device that sounded too good to be true was banned. The Relax-A-Cizor was taken off the market in the 1970s after multiple people complained about a wide array of injuries, including a young woman who suffered a miscarriage after placing the pads across her abdomen. Customer testimonies led to an FDA lawsuit against the company which argued that it could lead to horrible health problems, such as hernias, paralysis, miscarriage, and loss of consciousness, among other issues.

The “slimming” device made an appearance decades later on the show Mad Men when copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) had to come up with an ad campaign for the “Electrosizer” (Relax-A-Cizor), later discovering it could double as a masturbation tool. The device was a pink plastic belt shaped like women’s panties with a small control box and electric cord.

Olson awkwardly shares with Don Draper what she’s learned about the Electrosizer, telling him it’s something she felt that most women would like to feel. "It vibrates, and that coincides with how you wear it," she says. "It's probably unrelated to weight loss.” Some consumers used the device the same way as Peggy — and got an informal introduction to electrosex.

The early device was marketed for weight loss, but new developments in the 1970s, including the FDA-approved medical TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator) and EMS (Electro Muscle Stimulation) units, were designed to treat several medical issues by producing temporary pain blocks in nerves and causing muscle contraction, respectively. These medical therapy devices are less powerful and have levels of control and modes that would not be suitable for sexual pleasure.

EMS for upper arms. Photo courtesy of Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0

In addition, these models have a treatment timer, usually of 30 minutes, which can pose a problem if used for a purpose other than medical therapy. They tend to have unusual connectors that make it harder to use different electrodes — the objects that transmit the impulses from the device to the nerves.  

Different electrodes are used for electrosex, such as specially designed vaginal plugs, vulval skin electrodes, anal plugs, cock rings, catheters, cock-and-ball torture (CBT), and board, among many others. These electrodes usually require an electrically conductive gel to be applied before being connected to a device. However, lubricants containing silicone should not be used since silicone is an insulator, therefore reducing conductivity.

The Titillator and the Pleasure Box (PES Power Box), were the first analogue devices intended for erotic electrostimulation in the 1980s, with digital devices shortly following in the 1990s.

Typically, the portable setups usually consist of a "box" and electrodes connected by wiring, and can be powered by batteries or come with built-in rechargeable batteries. These devices can be connected to remote operators via an Internet-connected computer, or controlled via radio frequency key fobs.

Electrosex: Shockwaves Through The Body

The idea of using electricity on your body for pleasure isn’t as unusual as we think. Our body constantly uses electrical impulses to exchange information between nerve endings in the brain. Without these electrical impulses, we wouldn't be able to feel when we hug, kiss, or even have sex. Our skin is conductive, so if we’re sitting next to our partner while connected via wires, the second we touch, we feel a cool, tingly sensation that’s completely different from that of vibration or spanking.

With TENS units, they send soft electrical impulses, reaching the spinal cord, and ensuring there is no room left for pain information. This means the positive sensation of arousal is processed more quickly and felt more intensely.

The electrical impulses transmitted to the nerves by e-stim devices have three properties that can be regulated with the device, including width, rate, and intensity. The width of an impulse will determine the duration of that single impulse, and varying the width along with the intensity of the electricity will allow the stimulation of other nerves.

Meanwhile, the impulse rate, or frequency, refers to how often electrical impulses are released to the skin measured in Hertz (Hz). According to Mystim, a company that produces e-stim devices, setting a frequency at 80 Hz or higher will deliver a tickling, vibrating sensation. A lower frequency, 10 Hz or less, allows a user to detect the individual impulses as they come in contact with the skin.

Lastly, the intensity controls the strength of each impulse. We sense impulse strength differently due to the variation in tissue resistance, thickness of skin, and other factors. The intensity should be chosen so that the impulse is felt as thumping or tickling, but never uncomfortable or even painful.

The Science Behind Electrosex

E-stim can give us a hands-free orgasm with little effort, but it also has some surprising health benefits. Researchers have discovered e-stim is useful in treating medical issues that prevent normal sexual functioning and reproduction, including: infertility, erectile dysfunction (ED), female dysfunction, and even disabilities that prevent someone from having sex, such as paralysis.

Electroejaculation has been used by humans to address issues related to ED, according to Weill Cornell Medical College. A electrostimulation probe is inserted into the male’s rectum to produce ejaculation in cases of ejaculatory dysfunction for both animals and humans. This fertility treatment is best for men with a high sperm count but low sperm quality.

An NIH study found the use of electro acupuncture — when an electrical current is used through acupuncture needles and inserted into the skin — can treat ED when the perineum and penis were needled. The researchers applied a low-frequency electrical stimulation to four acupoints for 30 minutes before the e-stim was done and all the needles were removed. Men who tried it reported significant improvements: 15 percent experienced improved erections and 31 percent reported an increase in sexual activity.

A similar 2008 study found percutaneous electrostimulation of the perineum (PESP) — stimulating the perineum, the region between the thighs inferior to the pelvic diaphragm — can induce an erection in men who have a spinal cord injury and ED. Electrostimulation led to a much greater likelihood of an erection in healthy patients and those with a spinal cord injury and ED.

It’s (Risky) Electric!

Healthy people who use e-stim for sexual pleasure usually place electrical currents on their genitals, including the penis, scrotum, clitoris, and vagina. However, placing the electrodes on certain regions of the body could lead to complications, and even be fatal in extreme cases.  

Black plugs. Photo courtesy of Pexels/Public Domain

E-stim may be pleasurable, but users should only experiment with toys and devices designed specifically for that purpose. Using homemade e-stims (and homemade sex toys in general) is dangerous; the devices can deliver too much of a jolt, burn tissues, and ultimately damage nerves.

April Masini, relationship expert and author, believes electrosex takes “safe sex” to a whole new level.

“If you thought condoms were an important item to keep stocked in your nightstand, to prevent against sexually transmitted diseases, better load up on surge protectors,” she told Medical Daily.

The general rule for electrosex is only do it below the waist. Burned tissues are bad enough, but the heart is particularly sensitive to electrostimulation. If a current passes through the heart area, it could lead to ventricular fibrillation, cardiac arrest, and other serious heart complications. The device should never be used by someone with a pacemaker or other heart condition.

Gadgets designed to stimulate areas above the waist, including the nipple, require extra precautions. Some electrical devices do not have fully isolated outputs, which means current can flow between the two outputs. So, if you wire up both nipples, you can get current flowing between them (and past the heart), even if you’re using the special bipolar clips. These clips are safe if the device being used has fully isolated outputs, or only one nipple is stimulated at a time, or two completely separate devices are used — one for each nipple.

Should You Electrify Your Orgasms?

Electrosex can muddy the pleasure/pain boundary, and result in serious complications, such as damage and lasting pain to the body. Mixing electricity with genitalia inevitably comes with crazy risks, like burns, electrocution, and potentially death. However, the fearless few who are willing to sexually experiment with high-tech gadgets and gizmos should know exactly what they’re getting into.

Couples curious to add some spark to their sex life should heavily consider all their options. Masini suggests the shock value of e-stim is not needed in the bedroom.

“[W]hen you start to cross the line where you’re really introducing a dangerous element like electrical currents on your body, with less and less coverage — the way a vibrator protects the body from the actual shock of electricity — this isn’t about sex” she said.

Masini recommends safe alternative practices for prolonging orgasms, such as tantric sex and yoga, to eliminate the risk of electrocution, or worse death.

E-stim devices can be safe if they’re handled in a mature manner, but remember the rule of thumb — if you don’t feel comfortable with electrosex, don’t do it.

Exploring our sexual canvas, such as our likes and dislikes, can help us hone in our innermost sexual desires. High-tech gadgets already influence many aspects of our lives, such as how we talk, what we see, and what we learn. E-stim may be able to reveal just how kinky we are in the bedroom, and lead us to new insights about ourselves — if we dare.