"It's full of paper here," said Matteo Bormetti, speaking of the layers of flyers and posters covering every vertical surface around the Austin Convention Center during South by Southwest. Bormetti and his business partner Matteo Sarzana were in town from Milan to promote their mobile site, nipple.io, which is designed to track and quantify users’ sexual experiences. "We have to do something special, something strange, to take the attention of the people."
For Nipple, that something special is large, bright pink posters. One shows a Fitbit-wearing penis and says, "You quantify everything, start quantifying your sex!" On another is a vulva with a beer bottle pointing toward it. It reads, "Free beer will increase your chances to have sex, but won't help you to remember it!" It will definitely take the attention of the people.
The poster quite possibly reads differently in America than it does in Italy. There were negative reactions to it on Twitter, and a Jezebel reader disapprovingly sent in a photo. There's no way around it; if you suggest to a woman that she woke up with gaps in her memory, she’s probably going to associate that with the possibility of rape the night before.
The Matteos expressed a lot of surprise at this notion. "A couple people on Twitter saw the girl one, the one with the vagina and the beer, as an incentive for rapes,” said Sarzana. “But then sometimes there are cultural nuances that we don't understand. The text says, 'Free beers will help you get laid tonight but you won't remember,' which was like, If you want to, keep track of your sexual activity on Nipple. It's not at all an incentive for rapes, of course."
In Italy, Sarzana said, "it doesn't happen so often that people get drunk or they're on drugs and they are raped or lose consciousness and don't remember." So if someone had forgotten about the sex they had the night before, whether or not it was consensual wouldn't be a primary concern? "No, you would see it as, 'OK, I had sex yesterday, I was a little bit more than drunk, but I was conscious when I decided to get laid.'"
Being so drunk you forget what happened the next day might also mean being too drunk to remember to use the site, so maybe a wearable tracking device would be more helpful. But the Fitbit of sex doesn't exist yet. The poster depicting an activity tracker on a penis is more like wishful thinking. Sarzana was wearing three activity monitors while we talked, two on his wrist and one in his pocket, and said none of them reliably track activity during sex.
"When you have sex with the Fitbit on, the algorithms cannot recognize what you are doing, so it really looks like sleeping," he said.
"Maybe because you are asleep," said Bormetti.
"Or she sleeps," said Sarzana. "Think about all the positions—you are not moving your arm. Unless you are masturbating."
Masturbation, by the way, can also be tracked in Nipple.
It was the “quantified self” movement that made Sarzana start thinking about creating a sex tracker in the first place. "Right now, you can track mostly everything in your life,” he said. “The places where you have been with Foursquare, the places where you have flown to, the steps that you do every day. But there's nothing which can let you track how much sex you have done in your life."
Sarzana demonstrated the app, which is still in beta, having just launched on Monday. Using various icons (and a few choppy translations like “insert you nikname”), you can input a sex act, where and how it happened, how long it lasted, and the method of birth control/STD prevention used. The end result is a sex recap in graphic—as in “visual,” not as in “explicit”—form. They tried their best, they say, to make sure the icons and descriptions wouldn’t be interpreted as pornographic or offensive.
Nipple users can also indicate whether their partner is a man, a woman, or transgender, and the partner’s race and nationality. These gender and race options raise their own questions of cultural translation/sensitivity.
"The race, we tried, this has been the most difficult part, and I'm not sure that we got it right,” said Sarzana. “But these are the descriptions we have found on American websites where they ask you which race are you." They also consulted with women and gay friends. "When you go down describing the [partner's] characteristics, most of these are categories we would not have considered, like noisy or hairy or boring. This is stuff which came out by talking to our girlfriends or gay friends."
Last year at SXSW, the big sex-related app was Bang With Friends (Now Down, after settling a copyright lawsuit with Zynga), which helped users find out which Facebook friends were DTF. Matteo 1 said Nipple tried to purchase an ad campaign on Facebook prior to this week's launch, but the social network didn't approve them, in keeping with its caution in matters related to adult content.
The site thus far does not have a built-in network or social sharing aspect—a wise choice for users who wish to use a mobile site to track their sexual activity but have concerns about privacy. "We're not considering it because that opens it to huge problems," said Sarzana. "Let's say that I have a public profile and I put in your name, and you discover that...I'm sharing a sex story about someone I have never been with." They wouldn't want to allow users to make any assertions about the sex lives of other users, or create false bedpost notches. There is an option to have a public profile, though, where readers can review public user's sex histories.
So far there's no option for multiple partners or a sexual wish list, but those are among the features the Matteos are interested in adding, along with potential sponsorships for the Protection, Location, and Items Used categories. They also mention a potential feature that would warn users about risky behavior: "Maybe come back to people and say, 'It's four times in a row you're having sex in an unprotected way. Is that because you are having sex with your wife? Otherwise you should consider protecting yourself against STDs.’"
Those bright pink posters were still up and turning heads the day after SXSWi ended. As for the critiques of the beer bottle/vulva poster as an image with nonconsensual implications, Sarzana said, "We always have to learn, and we are not American, so that was something we did not consider.” He’d received much more positive feedback than negative at the festival, though, and estimated that for every one complaint, he heard a hundred compliments: “It was a marketing technique, let's say. Maybe the wrong one?"
Previously: The Women of True Detective
Susan Elizabeth Shepard has two jobs and lives in Austin, TX.