Healing sexual trauma | Design & Mental Health

What can design do for people who suffer from Alzheimer's, sexual traumas or those in need of (online) empathy? Eindhoven alumni tackle the social taboos after having studied them for their graduation - often inspired by a personal experience. In this series, we talk to Eindhoven alumni about design and mental health. The first episode is all about Nienke Helder and 'her' Sexual Healing.

Graduation project 'Sexual Healing'

Nienke Helder is a 26-year old designer from Eindhoven. She designs products for women suffering from a sexual trauma. As an alumna of the Design Academy Eindhoven, she presented her graduation project ‘Sexual Healing’ to the public during last years Dutch Design Week (DDW). Her presentation during the week resulted into international media attention and new connections. In May, she will fly to San Francisco, where she will meet with a possible development partner. A big step towards bringing her products to market.

Designing from a personal experience

“If it were up to me, I would sell right away. I got a lot of reactions from people around the world who would like to order the products”, Helder says. Helder designed the products from a personal experience. She suffered from pelvic floor dysfunction and, in her search for the solution, paid a visit an urologist, gynecologist, sexologist, physiotherapist, and a pelvic floor muscle therapist. More often than not, these were unpleasant experiences. Once, she lay open and exposed on the treatment table while five students were observing. She was also told her problem was untreatable.

Against all odds, she recovered. Not because of medical treatment, but because her ex-boyfriend who, after she told him about her problem, asked if she would end the relationship if he had an erection problem. “That was such a nice reaction, all of my tension disappeared. He told me we would find other ways. To hear him saying that was so much better than hearing it from a doctor.”

Focus on the mental aspect

She came up with the idea a week before she had to pitch her graduation topic. “I thought: I know a lot about this issue. I know how and where it goes wrong. And I have ideas about how to solve it.” In the medical treatment, the focus is on the physical aspect of sex; the penetration. “I think this is stupid. The cause is often psychological, a trauma. Why not start there?”

Her many visits to specialists came in handy for her graduation project. She called all  doctors and therapists who had treated her over the years and asked them which books to read, which documentaries to watch and which podcasts to listen to. And she asked them if they wanted to work together. “That is what I do as a designer: working together with people in science. Together, you come up with new ideas. As a designer, you sometimes look at things in a more naïve way. This can lead to ideas that do not make sense at all ór ideas of which people think: why didn’t I come up with that myself?”

Reprogramming the subconscious

Two of the five products that she designed are sensors. You put one sensor on your abdomen, and the other measures the pressure in your pelvic floor muscles. These sensors provide feedback and visualize the processes that take place in your body, Helder explains. “This way, you get to see what happens in your body. And you can link it to a certain feeling. Your breathing changes because you are tense, but in which situation does that happen? When your partner enters your room, when he/she takes off his/her clothes, or when you take off yours? Or when you see him or her naked? You can reprogram your subconsciousness, at home, in a safe environment. And not in some clinical treatment room.”

Commercial and idealistic

Even though there is high demand, Helder cannot simply go and market the products. Not through the medical route, because in that case one has to meet all kinds of requirements. There are so many disciplines involved that it is simply impossible to prove the effectiveness of the products scientifically. “I have abandoned this route on the advice of doctors, who said that in the end, my idea would look completely different.”

“A commercial partner is also an option, but such a partner would ask for a business model immediately. Which can take me away from my idealistic point of view. So I am looking for a partner with a commercial approach and who, at the same time, allows himself to be idealistic.” After the 2017 Dutch Design Week, she received an email from a sexual education platform in the U.S.. “They wanted to interview me. I happened to be in New York at that time, so I paid them a visit. Through them I got in touch with a company based in San Francisco. They market a vibrator that measures your orgasm with a sensor. An app that helps you find your perfect orgasm.”

San Francisco

She flies to San Francisco on May 9th. Mainly to improve her prototypes but also to investigate whether there is market for her products in the States. “If there is, I might be able to convince them to invest. But I might also return from San Francisco saying it was fun but there is no budget.”

Her role as a designer will be visible when she can get started with her products. Now, she sees herself as an activist: “I want to create awareness on what a sexual trauma is and that it isn’t just something physical.”

Image: Nicole Marnati, Nienke Helder, Boudewijn Bollmann