Article Thumbnail

Who Killed the ‘Female Pleasure Button’?

In 1998, a North Carolina doctor accidentally discovered a device that could make women cum at the drop of a hat. Two decades later, we've got nothing to show for it. This is the long, strange story of the Orgasmatron

Despite the fact that sex is a basic instinct and a near-universal experience, we know remarkably little about it. And so, this week, we’re teaming up with our friends at Futurism, oracles of all things science, technology and medicine, to look at the past, present and future of pleasure from a completely scientific perspective.

If you were writing a screenplay for a science-fiction porn film, it would likely go something like this: A male anesthesiologist is “gowned and gloved” as he stands over a female patient. Lying on the operating table in nothing but a hospital robe, the woman suddenly lets out a breathy moan. “Where did you feel that?” the doctor asks coyly, to which his patient responds, “You’re going to have to teach my husband to do that!” Critics will say the script needs work, but the joke’s on them — these are the alleged real words a woman said when she had an orgasm during a medical operation in 1998. 

In the late 1990s, when other entrepreneurs were inventing Google, Furbies and the BlackBerry, a North Carolina doctor accidentally discovered the seemingly undiscoverable — a device that makes women cum at the push of a button. Dr. Thomas Stuart Meloy was inserting a spinal stimulator into a patient with intractable leg pain in Winston-Salem when he made the surprise breakthrough. The implant was supposed to send a low level of electricity into the spinal cord, relieving the patient’s leg pain, but instead, when the electrode was switched on, she climaxed immediately. Meloy realized that because the positioning of the device must have led to the mistake — the implant worked as planned when moved — an orgasm could be replicated in other patients. And voilà, the “female pleasure button” was born. 

Dubbed the Orgasmatron — a reference to the fictional orgasm-inducing device in Woody Allen’s 1973 film, Sleeper — the device was patented by Meloy and his co-inventor W. Joseph Martin in 1999. The aim was to forgo the implant’s actual purpose — alleviating chronic pain — and instead use it to treat orgasmic dysfunction in women. As reported by the L.A. Times in 2008, the Orgasmatron worked by stimulating nerves “from the pelvis that enter the spinal highway near the tailbone,” which “shoots pleasure signals straight up to the part of the brain that processes information coming from the genitalia.”

With his “sex chip” in hand, Meloy conducted an FDA-approved pilot trial, in which 11 women were implanted with the Orgasmatron. The doctor allegedly told them to see their gynecologists first to “try to deal with the root problem of orgasmic dysfunction” — those who still reported a problem were then offered the chance to take part in the trial. The lucky winners had the device inserted into their backs at the bottom part of the spinal cord. The operation took half an hour, cost $3,800 and the implant was taken out after nine days. There were also reports of a permanent placement, which would take an hour, cost between $25,000 and $27,000 and would be inserted in the upper part of the buttocks. In both instances, the patient would receive a remote control to enable them to turn the stimulator on and off.

In the results of the initial trial, published in the journal Neuromodulation in 2006, Meloy and his co-author Joan Priddy-Southern reported that 10 out of 11 participants “described a greater frequency in sexual activity, increased lubrication and overall satisfaction.” Among the women, five had previously had orgasms and then lost the ability, while six had never climaxed before. Of the former group, four out five were able to cum again. However, none of the six who’d never cum were able to climax. That said, all of the women who used the device said it felt like their clits and vaginas were actually being stimulated — some reported their foot muscles clenching, which Meloy believed was linked to the orgasmic description, “My toes curled.” He also implanted the Orgasmatron into two men struggling with impotence, both of whom subsequently achieved erections and “powerful ejaculations.”

The device was widely reported on at the time, and gained traction again in the mid-2010s after the story went viral on Reddit. But nothing has been heard about it since, despite the initial trial being successful and there appearing to be at least some demand for it. Meloy’s 2014 round of press also seems to be the last anyone has heard from him. In the years since his sudden and short-lived rise to fame, the anesthesiologist, still based in Winston-Salem, has founded a company called Advanced Interventional Pain Management (which appears to have now shuttered) and worked as a surgeon at Piedmont Anesthesia and Pain Consultants. (Despite several attempts to contact Meloy, Joan Priddy-Southern, W. Joseph Martin and those who reported on the Orgasmatron at the time, we were unable to receive a response.)

Still, it begs the question: Why did the “female pleasure button” not come to fruition? “Insurance companies will not pay for anything considered experimental or investigational,” Meloy told BBC Future in 2014, adding that he can fit the device for pain management, but can’t implant it for sexual dysfunction, as that would go against medical regulations. To get FDA approval, he would have needed to conduct a “pivotal trial” at the cost of $6 million. “That’s money I don’t have right now,” he told New Scientist. Even if Meloy did track down the cash, he may not find himself inundated with volunteers, either. In 2003, after getting FDA approval (for the study eventually published in 2006), Meloy revealed that he was “struggling to find” willing participants. “I thought people would be beating my door down to become part of the trial,” he said.

Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and the host of the Sex and Psychology podcast, says he isn’t surprised that volunteers were hard to come by. “While the preliminary data looked promising, it’s expensive and invasive, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about long-term effects and potential risks,” he tells me. Also, while the device may be of “great value” for those with disabilities or “significant and persistent difficulty orgasming,” it doesn’t address any of the interpersonal, cultural or environmental factors that prevent climax (communication issues, shame and sexual anxiety are particular culprits). “The concern is that biomedical devices that facilitate orgasm could potentially just become another Band-Aid solution,” Lehmiller explains.

This is particularly relevant given that aside from allegedly encouraging his 2006 trial participants to seek therapeutic advice before turning to the Orgasmatron, Meloy never made much — if any — reference to the possible psychological reasons behind orgasmic dysfunction. “Noting other areas where women’s lives might be enhanced — sex education, relationship therapy, partner education, using sex toys or addressing other barriers to desire, such as body image problems or health conditions — weren’t explored alongside the device,” recalls social psychologist and sex educator Petra Boynton. “A surgical intervention would be meaningless without ruling out other causes. The Orgasmatron is very much part of an early 2000s view of ‘perfect sex’ that, in some ways, feels old fashioned now.”

This idea of “perfect sex” — often buoyed by free, mainstream, heterosexual porn — centers on the cis male-esque climax, and the widely-held view that sex ends — and is “good” — when one or both parties have cum. Holly Richmond, a sex therapist and somatic psychologist, says that this perception is still held today, albeit in a slightly different way than 20 years ago. “There’s the old, male cisgender mindset that they were just in it for their own pleasure,” she explains. “Now, there’s the 20- and 30-something ‘woke’ men, who are like, ‘Oh my gosh, if my female partner doesn’t cum, I’ve failed.’ This mindset puts so much pressure on the female partner to have an orgasm, and that’s just not what the sexual experience is about.” 

I ask Richmond if she thinks today’s young, “woke” men would like the idea of Meloy’s Orgasmatron. “Do my male clients who see their partner’s orgasm as so important wish they had a button? One hundred percent,” she says. “Because it would take the pressure off them to perform. But again, we’re completely missing what sex is about. This determination to get their partner off is more about the male ego than it is about their partner’s satisfaction.” For truly satisfying sex, Richmond says partners should be “present, curious and focus on pleasure not performance” — it’s about sustained pleasure and exploration, not flailing around as a means to an end. 

Not everyone is down on the Orgasmatron, though. While psychologists and sex therapists might see it as a hollow distraction, some biohackers find it revolutionary, particularly for its time. “It’s amazing,” biohacker Rich Lee tells me. “[Meloy] was working with technology over 20 years ago, and was tickling nerves just right. With the equipment he had, that would be like trying to tap a thumbtack into the wall with a wrecking ball.”

In 2011, Lee created a device called the Lovetron9000, which can be inserted beneath the skin of a person’s public bone to make their penis vibrate — kind of like an internal cock ring. As reported by SEXTECHGUIDE in 2018, the Lovetron9000 can be implanted in less than 15 minutes, is ready to use two weeks after installation and can be charged wirelessly. It offers a range of textures, speeds and vibrations, which can also be synced to music. 

When I point out to Lee that his and Meloy’s implants differ in their uses — the Orgasmatron seems to focus on instant gratification, while the Lovetron9000 is about mutual pleasure and what I call “the journey of the orgasm” — he disagrees. “With Meloy’s device, there’s still a journey,” he says. “He had one patient who instantly went into orgasms, but other people had to work up to it. If you wanted to edge your way there [with the Orgasmatron], that’s completely within the realm of possibility, technologically speaking.”

Lee adds that an updated version of Meloy’s device could drive mind-blowing advancements for sextech today. “With the right sensors, it could be an A.I.-driven device that senses pleasure and hacks [its users] to know exactly what to do,” he says. “Let’s say I’m performing oral sex and my partner’s sensors are detecting how much they like it — there’s no conversation involved, but I would know how to switch up my pattern [based on what they’re] feeling.” 

He says that with the right technological upgrade, the Orgasmatron could even facilitate “massive multiplayer orgies,” where users could feel the pleasure that other users were feeling via their spinal implants. “You could have what your partner’s feeling added to you and then send it back to them,” he explains. “It would be amazing to have a bunch of people plugged in and feeling what multiple people are feeling at once. It’s got a lot of weird and awesome potential.”

Like Meloy, however, Lee hasn’t been able to get his Lovetron9000 off-the-ground. “You’ve got to spend millions of dollars to create a medical device,” he explains. “And so, not only do you risk not having an adequate return on your investment, but in mine and Meloy’s cases, these aren’t things the FDA would see as medical devices. They’re behind the times in their way of thinking with sexual health.”

Male sexual health has long been prioritized over women’s, with things like Viagra being recognized as a medical need. This was starkly exemplified in 2019, when New York’s subway system allowed ads for erectile dysfunction but banned billboards for women’s sex toys. “There’s still a lot of stigma, bias and lack of resourcing in health care for female sexuality,” says Liz Klinger, the CEO and co-founder of the Lioness smart vibrator. “Even if a device did pass clinical trials and get FDA approval, the current environment means that it likely wouldn’t have a clear path to insurance reimbursement. Whatever you think about the controversial Addyi [‘female Viagra’], you have to note that it only got approved under a massive PR and pressure campaign.”

Despite being approved in 2015, as of June, Addyi is still facing numerous setbacks. “Research involving physiological measurements of sexual function for women and people with vulvas has been extremely difficult to get approved for various reasons,” continues Klinger. “One being that sexual function still isn’t considered a legitimate medical need worthy of providing resources to.”

While the widespread dismissal of women’s sexual health, needs and desires likely did play a role in the failure of Meloy’s Orgasmatron, Richmond doesn’t think a fairer medical system would necessarily help the device go mainstream. “It’s missing the point of female arousal,” she asserts. “Like male arousal, it’s not just a matter of blood flow or nerves — sure that’s a part of it, but it’s just a tiny percentage of the big picture.” 

Nevertheless, Richmond is confident that developments in sextech — when used alongside communication and education — will have a positive impact on our sex lives in the future, particularly for those for whom other methods haven’t worked. “There’s going to be some people who need their sexuality to be mediated by technology, and who are more comfortable using dating apps or pleasure apps,” she says. “Then there will be people who are like, ‘I can’t imagine meeting someone online or using a vibrator.’ And that’s all fine, but we have to be inclusive in our conversations.”

Meloy, a small-city anaesthesiologist, never intended to be involved in the sextech market, and so may not have even considered the interpersonal, cultural and environmental reasons behind the need for the Orgasmatron, nor how he could develop its technology to address them. You have to wonder, though, what the device would be like if it was created or approved for use today. 

“I’d hope there’d be some way that stories and images could be attached to it,” says Richmond. “Because we’re completely missing the desire point. There has to be a cultural conversation; it’s not just about prioritizing performance and orgasm. As we continue to break that down and make the conversation about sexuality richer, we’ll be moving in the right direction. Any kind of Orgasmatron would have to provide this complete experience.”