Since the dawn of time — er, at least since the dawn of Big Pharma — countless conditions have been medicalized in order for companies to turn a profit. One such example is female sexual dysfunction — think low sexual desire, difficulty in achieving orgasm, pain during sex — which has, in recent years, driven “solutions” like “female Viagra” and even MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. These kinds of offerings — the former in particular — aren’t particularly effective, most notably because orgasmic difficulties and low sexual desire are issues too nuanced to be solved with a magic pill alone.
Nevertheless, hopeful companies continue to spring up, looking to achieve their own runaway success in the burgeoning market of sexual dysfunction treatments for women. These brands often position themselves as really, really interested in starting a female pleasure revolution, but, even if that’s true, they’re often not based in much science.
Cliovana — a 2020-launched venture that purports to offer women a “non-invasive, pain-free treatment designed to help with painful sex, lubrication and improved orgasm frequency and intensity” — arguably falls into this category. The procedure involves using soundwave technology to encourage the creation of new blood vessels, improving blood flow to the cliotoris and, in turn, increasing sensitivity and “long-term sexual responsiveness.”
Although sound-wave treatment for sexual dysfunction isn’t new — therapies like GAINSwave have become increasingly popular for erectile dysfunction in the last decade — Cliovana claims to be the first company to develop this technology for women’s sexual health. More specifically, the treatment was invented by Robert Gordon, a Toronto-based surgeon and the former president of the International Society for Medical Shockwave, who, according to Cliovana’s CEO Greg MacDonald, “developed it from scratch.”
MacDonald explains that Cliovana differs from shockwave treatment for erectile dysfunction because it uses “three modalities,” as opposed to one. The first is cupping, in which a suction cup is placed onto the clitoral hood, “engorging the whole area with blood” to prepare it for treatment; next comes the sound waves, which are applied to the clitoris via a “penis-shaped, vibrator-looking” device. Finally, another device issues vibrations alongside sound waves (which the patient self-administers because it can induce orgasm). The procedure takes 10 minutes per session, and you supposedly need a total of four treatments over two weeks to complete the course and feel Cliovana’s full effects. It’s hard to find the exact cost online, and treatment prices vary by city and clinic, but a Denver spa offering the treatment does so for roughly $2,000.
It’s not just about physical treatment, though. MacDonald says Cliovana also aims to normalize conversations about female sexual wellness, and “educate women” — patients and doctors alike. When I ask what kind of education that involves, MacDonald responds: “It’s really about [making sure that] people feel comfortable talking about it. We’re literally fighting thousands of years of history here. And it’s perfect timing given women’s empowerment and, you know, it’s well overdue.”
But while there’s no denying that some of that is true — female orgasm and anatomy have been willfully misunderstood for centuries — MacDonald is certainly an interesting figurehead to lead up the “women’s empowerment” movement. Dubbed a “woman’s man” in a press release, he’s the former CEO of the fast-food brands Quiznos and Tokyo Joe’s, and is described on his LinkedIn as a “highly experienced executive who has a proven track record of successfully leading diverse teams of professionals in a highly competitive and fast-paced environment.” Not exactly the background in women’s health and pleasure you’d expect from a company committed to “closing the orgasm gap.”
Why, then, did MacDonald want to get into the business of clitoral pleasure? After a brief back-and-forth about this, MacDonald explains, “There are two reasons for it. One is that there’s an incredible need for women, [which raises the question]: Why have we not addressed [female sexual dysfunction] before? We’re certainly starting this revolution. When I saw how well Cliovana worked, and how it changed people’s lives, I couldn’t get involved fast enough.”
“And then, as a business person, I also saw a huge opportunity — I saw an incredible market to grow,” he adds. “We hope other companies come in and do this too — we [welcome] competition.” According to the aforementioned press release, MacDonald has grown Cliovana over 100 percent each year since 2020. It wouldn’t be outlandish to assume, then, that the former sandwich CEO has a financial incentive.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have good intentions, and there’s no reason to think he and the Cliovana team are solely interested in profit. But still, it’s worth asking: Could Cliovana just be yet another business attempting to capitalize on the overly medicalized — and therefore still technically untapped — market of female sexual dysfunction?
To answer that question, it’s first worth taking a look at female dysfunction itself. For years, experts have contested its validity, citing the medicalization of female desire and orgasm as the reason for its existence. Writing in a 2005 article, health journalist Ray Moynihan described it as “the next big profitable ‘disease,’” adding: “This condition is claimed by enthusiastic proponents to affect 43 percent of American women, yet widespread and growing scientific disagreement exists over both its definition and prevalence.” Moynihan also says the “meaningful benefits of experimental drugs” are “questionable” due to the extensive “financial conflicts of interest of experts who endorse” the so-called condition. An earlier study put it even more succinctly: “Is a new disorder being identified to meet unmet needs or to build markets for new medications?”
It’s difficult to refute this question in the case of Cliovana, as there is no publicly available data to base its effectiveness on. “There is some published research supporting low-intensity shockwave therapy for erectile dysfunction in men; however, the data are limited and there’s still a lot we don’t know about long-term effects and for whom the treatment is most likely to work,” says Justin Lehmiller, a Kinsey Institute research fellow and host of the Sex and Psychology Podcast. “We know even less about this treatment as applied to the clitoris to enhance female sexual function. I was unable to locate a single mention of Cliovana in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, so I’m unable to comment on whether the technology itself actually works. It’s certainly possible, but I would want to see the data before drawing any conclusions — and I think consumers deserve to see the data before shelling out thousands of dollars.”
Lehmiller also raises questions about one of the key statistics on Cliovana’s website — that, during penis-in-vagina sex, 70 percent of women don’t orgasm. The statistic is attributed to a 2017 study into differences in orgasm frequency among LGBTQ+ and heterosexual people. But according to Lehmiller, “What this paper reports is that just 33 percent of heterosexual women say they always orgasm during sex.” So, he adds: “67 percent don’t always orgasm. But it’s not the case that they never orgasm. When you combine the heterosexual women who say they always orgasm (33 percent) with the number who say they usually orgasm (32 percent), you actually end up with 65 percent saying they orgasm most of the time. In fact, just eight percent of the women in this study said they never orgasm.” (At the time of writing, Cliovana hasn’t responded to my request for clarification on these statistics.)
Stats aside, though, MacDonald says that Cliovana has conducted private research into its treatment and that it “certainly provides” this to its practitioners. Again, this research isn’t publicly available, and MacDonald tells me he’d have to “think about” sharing it with the media. Still, he adds, Cliovana has “true pre- and post-data of women scoring from lubrication to frequency and intensity of orgasm before the treatment to after the treatment, and we’ve probably treated close to 4,000 women in the past three years — with spectacular results.”
This is interesting, because despite being touted as a revolutionary treatment, there’s very little talk about Cliovana online outside of anonymous medspa testimonials and sponsored posts. Aside from my own posts — which didn’t receive any comments — there’s nothing on Reddit about the procedure, nor Twitter, aside from a smattering of articles about it. This stands in stark contrast with other female sexual dysfunction treatments, like Addyi (the “female Viagra”), which sparked heated discussions on social media, and ammassed widespread media attention.
It could have something to do with the fact that Cliovana was only launched in 2020, as well as its eye-watering price: 100 times the monthly cost of Addyi (which is $20 a month with insurance coverage). To be fair, anything dubbed “female Viagra” is sure to attract more headlines than “clitoral sound wave,” but even so, the lack of online conversation about the procedure, particularly in women’s spaces, does stand out.
In fact, the only non-sponsored reviews I could find online was in a 2019 Glamour article, in which the journalist who underwent the treatment offered this feedback: “Unlike women who can’t experience orgasm or who struggle with medical issues like pain during sex, I tried Cliovana as an experiment. So far — two weeks out from my final appointment — I haven’t noticed any changes. Sex with my fiancé is as fun and tender as always, but my orgasms, when I have them, feel the same. [My doctor] said it can take about three months to start feeling the impacts of Cliovana, and the results can last for a year or more. She suggests a yearly maintenance appointment ($500) to keep any heightened feelings of arousal, well, heightened.”
That said, there is a sponsored review on the travel, lifestyle and motherhood blog According to D that calls it a “freaking blessing” and a “possible solution” to the sexual obstacles that some women experience postpartum. Another blogger — who received the treatment for free in exchange for a review — also found it to be very helpful with postmenopausal dryness. Then there are the testimonials on Cliovana’s website, which MacDonald assures me are “unaided” and “aren’t scripted.” Reviews describe the treatment as offering “significant, noticeable enhancements,” “incredible results” and “a totally pain-free experience” that “transformed my sex life.” One even paraphrased what MacDonald describes as Cliovana’s aim: “To bridge the orgasm gap between men and women.”
With this in mind, it’s hard to say whether Cliovana’s really all it’s cracked up to be. At the very least, the cupping, sound waves and vibrations the procedure doles out aren’t vastly different from what certain sex toys might provide, so it’s unlikely that it would be harmful, if you can front the cost. Still, with a big-business boss at the helm and no public research to suggest that it actually works, it’s worth taking a second look at Cliovana before you shell out the thousands of dollars it costs to undergo the procedure. As Lehmiller says, “[Companies like this] are claiming great benefits and charging high prices, but there’s a huge absence of evidence in many cases, so it’s vital for consumers to do their due diligence and proceed with caution.”