the vr experience 'lube river' is undoing the stigma around sex toys

Become a 'sexplorer' riding a vagina-shaped gondola.

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May 30 2018, 5:01pm

Imagine your sex education experience: white walls, stuffy classroom, an awkward instructor, and no sense of understanding pleasure (and sometimes enforcing abstinence). Now, let’s reimagine that experience but in virtual reality. It looks like a river made of lube, rotating sex toys with animated voices, colorful forests, a vagina-shaped gondola, and an in-house event with workshops and raffles. That’s what the digital art lab, Motherlode, is all about. The collective, which includes Isa Ghaffari, Carol Civre, and Leah Roh, is based in New York City at New Inc, the New Museum’s artist incubator. The trio has designed an immersive digital series called Pillow Talk with its first installment, Lube River, launching June 3rd at the women-owned sex toy shop Babeland in SoHo.

The launch of this first series will guide users through demos of sex toys, identity, solo, or partnered pleasure while also being playful and educational. i-D talked to Motherlode artists and developers Leah and Carol on the phone about their launch, the future of sex education, and their inclusion of LGBTQ identities.

Let’s start with your backgrounds. How did you meet?
Leah Roh: Motherlode was started by three people who are all cis women, New York City-made, and have very different backgrounds. Mine was more within interactive 3D animation. Isa Ghaffari, who is not on the call, has a film and animation background.

Carol Civre: I have a visual art background. We all were working at a VR lab and the environment was not really conducive to our happiness. It was really male-dominated. We just didn't feel like we were being represented as artists. That’s how we all got together. One day we were just like, “Oh, let’s get out of here.”

Leah: We wanted to create more virtual reality content but the company that we were working for was not prioritizing that because they were very much within the game world. Not so much about storytelling, human experiences, or educational experiences.

Carol: VR is pretty new as a medium when it comes to the art world. I think that what we are doing is not even exactly art. We create experiences and they definitely lead to the more artistic side. Things have to be visually pleasing, that’s important to us and the user experience. We are using the medium for something that isn’t done very often. It’s kind of a cross between experiential gaming and art installation.

Leah: We want to educate users in something that we value. Which, as of now, is our virtual reality passion project, Pillow Talk. We’ve been developing it for the past year out of New Inc.

Can you talk about the first installment, Lube River ? What is the experience like?
Carol: One thing that people complain about VR is how isolating it is. We kind of thought, ‘How do we take that and turn it into something positive?’ In something like sex education, having that intimate space is a positive aspect — being in your own world where no one else is there. That’s why we thought that sex education would be so good when mixed with virtual reality. In addition to that, learning through gaming or hands on learning is really effective.

Leah: In our experience you’re going to be going down a river of lube. You can look at sex toys and get a better idea of how they would look like in person, how they would be used. We are trying to incorporate other information from the manufacturers and people who are developing these sex toys. People think that sex toys are only for women and it’s just vibrators, or just dildos. That’s definitely not true. You can be of any sexual orientation, any gender, and experience these toys in a way that people don’t initially assume in the first place. You can use them with your partner. There is a toy for everybody.

Carol: Yes, part of the experience is for people to learn about these toys and get people who wouldn’t be into sex toys in the first place interested in that option but also, we are really using sex toys to get people to explore pleasure in more general terms with masturbation and enhancing pleasure with a partner. Yes, it’s about sex toys but it’s also more broadly about pleasure. Learning and thinking about pleasure is posed as a playful and positive thing that you can have fun with. Sex makes everyone giggle and that’s okay. That’s what we hope the experience does on the broader scale. You’re a sexplorer on a vagina-shaped gondola riding down the lube river in this really colorful forest. It’s funny. That’s a big part of it. It makes the conversation more accessible because it takes the taboo and shame around masturbation and has fun with it. Another thing that is funny and cute is that you're in the forest but then we will have a couch here or a shower head.

Leah: It’s a nod that yeah, a lot of women do start masturbating with just random objects.

Carol: They shouldn’t feel ashamed about that. Their pleasure is not weird. Self-pleasure is normal for every person.

Can you talk about the importance of discussing sexual identity for marginalized voices?
Leah: One of our partners for this project is Babeland because we are very conscious of companies that we include in Lube River. We want their value’s to align with ours and Babeland is a great resource for teaching workshops and having a diverse range of toys. We want the first launch to be at Babeland where educators can present and host a workshop to all of the guests and talk about the toys in more detail.

Carol: Throughout the experience we don’t use the term gender at all. We mention body parts. For example, this is a toy that someone with a penis can use. Vibrators can be used on a penis because it’s made of the same skin as a clitoris. We are trying to break these barriers and present toys as something that can enhance anyone's pleasure. If there is a part of your body that you want to stimulate, then you can probably use it. Not only alone, but with a partner. Whatever that partner also identifies as.

Leah: We don’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes or include any characters that have any certain characteristics that people may assume are of, for example, a gay man or a woman. We wanted to try to only include computer-generated props or characters or assets that are as inclusive as possible.

Carol: And we want to stray away from the pornographic aspect. A lot of men say, “Oh cool! Is this VR porn?” And we are like, “Noooo…” We really did everything we could to make it as unsexual as possible, as weird as that is, because it is about sexuality. All of the sex toys, when you pick them up and experience them, they talk to you. They tell you what they are and tell you what they do in a first-person perspective in these cute voices.

Leah: And the experience is surrounded by lube because it’s something that everyone should be using. It’s basically for any body.

Following the launch of Lube River, what are some other exciting things happening in the future?
Carol: Lube River is the first part of a larger project that we want to work on. That’s very much going to be based on how we find funding. Lube River was self-funded mostly. Pillow Talk is a series of virtual reality experiences that talk about different topics of sex education. Lube River is about pleasure and masturbation and there are two other parts that we want to make. One is based on consent and the other is based on gender and sexual identity. We have those planned out, we know what we want them to look like. It’s going to be a lot of looking at how we’re going to find the money to exhibit them. But, overall we want to show these experiences and installations. Not necessarily all at Babeland. The installation can move around but to us, it’s important to have this event and installation aspect to virtual reality because it’s more than a game.

Leah: Ideally we would love to be bringing it to high schools, not necessarily for Lube River per se but definitely for the consent education, and especially for the gender and sexual identity installment. That is important to be teaching at a younger age.

Carol: And not necessarily classrooms, you know.

Leah: We are all New York City-based and we grew up in progressive and liberal environments that give us more access and opportunities to see virtual reality experiences. We know that high schools in more rural areas definitely have the least amount of access to this type of education and that is the most important thing that we are so aware of that. It’s just a matter of [getting] the funding. That is the end goal of this. Sex education is such a topic that is constantly evolving.

You can purchase tickets to experience Lube River at Babeland's SoHo location, June 3, here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.