The O Project: Exploring Female Sexuality Through Art

Why is the exploration of female sexuality important? Well, for starters – it makes up 50% of sexual experiences on the planet. Additionally, honest discussions of female sexuality helps to disrupt mainstream sexualization of women.

According to a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association (APA), Sexualization occurs when a “person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making,” Sexualization of girls and women takes place in such moments as when we imbue a child with adult sexuality or we set unattainable definitions of sexiness.

During Lips’ Sex Positive Art Pop-Up Gallery, we were introduced to “The O Project” –  a photography series produced by Smile Makers in collaboration with photographer Marcos Alberti. In the series, over 20 women are photographed before, during, and after self-pleasure while using a vibrator made by Smile Makers. All four frames of each woman were shot from the neck up, leaving everything below the waist hidden from view – even from the photographer.

Projects like these help us to understand the difference between sex-positive and sexualization. In the O Project, women are not sexual objects – they are in charge of their sexuality, demonstrating personality and pleasure.

Smile Makers took some time to chat with us about this project and their work to promote women’s sexual health.

Could you talk a bit about the O Project and Smile Makers?

Smile Makers is on a mission to normalize the perception of female sexuality. We accomplish that in two ways: first, we offer our 100% body-safe vibrators and lubricants exclusively in fashion, beauty & health stores, including Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Goop. Second, we conduct social impact work on a global scale through educational initiatives, charitable donations, and medical partnerships. 

What was the inspiration for this project?

Driven by our mission, we wanted to bring the conversation about female sexuality and pleasure out into the open in a tangible way. At this time, we came across Marcos’ 2016 “3 Glasses” project which normalized drinking in moderation. We were inspired by his similar methodology and goal to destigmatize a behavior that is largely criticized in the public and reached out to him.

After we explained our mission to him, he was more than happy to partner with us, and we’re so glad that he did. The final images he shot are fun and provocative, but also empowering, for both the viewer and the women photographed. Through seeing the final frame of each woman grinning into the camera and after speaking with the women afterwards, we discovered that they felt more confident in their bodies and sexuality after participating. We hoped to get the same positive reception from those viewing the project.

Why does Smile Makers support erotic art as part of it’s educational work?

We believe in the transformative power of art, how it can spark dialogue and incite change. Art, especially of an erotic nature, can depict and inspire new ideas on controversial topics. Through their work, artists can parcel their thoughts in a tangible package that can be easily shared, commented on, and liked.

For instance, “The O Project” was covered by over 300 publications in 40 countries, and this massive reach was caused by pure interest – we didn’t spend a dime on media investment. Seeing as conversations around sex are often fraught with anxiety, we were thrilled to see that our photographs could transcend boundaries and spark dialogue, increase awareness, and educate. 

Who are a few artists you would recommend to our readers? 

We’re particularly smitten with a couple artists who paint in watercolor, including Noomi (@eroticwatercolor) and Tina Maria Elena (tinamariaelena.com). Our interviews with both of them can be found on our blog here and here.

Could you talk a bit about your pleasure workshops and sex education classes you provide to rural communities?

We know that sexual well-being is an essential part of overall health. However, many people around the world don’t have access to correct information on the subject. We thus make it part of our mission to equip those on the frontlines of patient care with the knowledge to best assist underserved communities in sexual health matters.

This involves us travelling to a rural family planning clinic in Malaysia to demystify female pleasure and sexual pleasure products to 60-year-old nurses so that they in turn are more informed to provide marital counselling to patients. We also conduct talks on female sexual pleasure at hospitals and universities, including the International Islamic University Malaysia.

There, we worked with religious authorities to address public concerns on the intersection of faith and sexuality. By being on the ground and partnering with health professionals, we push the needle even further about sexual health. More information about our social impact work can be found at wearesmilemakers.org

What are some upcoming projects?

We are underway with a new art project in collaboration with artist Anne-Laure Herrezuelo and Asia’s first sexual wellness festival, SPARK Fest. Without spilling too many details, I can say that the project does involve interviewing a range of men and women about sex, such as how they perceive it and what prior sex education they received. At the same time, we are hoping to bring The O Project to as many gallery exhibitions as we can. Most recently, the photos were on display at the Lips x Future of Sex pop-up in New York.

On the social impact front, we are continuing to conduct our sexual pleasure workshops with one of Malaysia’s largest family planning organizations. In addition, we are forming long-term partnerships with multinational NGOs with the ultimate goal to normalize the perception of female sexuality around the globe.

Lips is a digital platform and community art project that encourages readers to express their sexuality (whatever it may be) openly. Our goal is to start discussions that empower female-identified and marginalize individuals to express themselves and to inspire others to listen.

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