(c) 1998 by D. Williams, MD
1) Why Electrostimulation?
Most people have played with some kind of vibrator. Do you remember the first time you applied one (or had one applied) to your genitals? Felt pretty good didn't it? At the least, it was something new and different. Electrostimulation is a lot like that only even more unique. It's a wonderful way to add some new fun to your sex life. The proper electric current causes both the stimulation of nerve endings and involuntary muscle stimulation. Both of these effects can be combined for a very erotic experience. Some people also use electrostimulation for S&M play. It's an excellent way to explore the pleasure/pain boundary without the usual risks of damage or lasting pain to the body. It can be precisely controlled and when it's over, the one submitting to the stimulation is none the worse for the experience (something that cannot be said for most kinds of S&M play).
2) Common Myths
There are a lot of myths out there about electro play. First, the sort of play I'm talking about is very different than being shocked by household current or an electric fence. Unfortunately, such things are often the only point of reference a lot of people have when it comes to "feeling" electricity. Proper electrostimulation is done with devices made for use on the human body and feels entirely different than what a novice might imagine.
Another common myth is electro play can force someone to have an orgasm. While it may certainly assist in having one, an orgasm cannot be induced against someone's will. It's true some people can orgasm from just electro play but most require additional stimulation or at least the electrostimulation must be part of an erotic situation. There are ways to electrically stimulate the prostate in most males to produce an involuntary ejaculation, but the procedure is more painful than pleasurable (it's usually done under anesthesia) and doesn't really qualify as an orgasm.
The final myth is that the nipples are a good area for erotic electrostimulation. Nothing could be further from the truth! Please see Section 5 on Safety.
3) Types Of Electrostimulation
There are 3 broad categories of stimulation as follows:
A) Pulse Based Stimulation:
Here a device specifically made for stimulating the body is used. Common examples are TENS and EMS units as well as a few devices sold for erotic purposes. These devices all output a pulse type waveform that is designed to safely stimulate muscles and nerves. This is arguably the safest form of electrostimulation.
B) Electrostatic Stimulation:
Here very high voltage devices are used to generate a spark which can be made to jump to the body. The most common example is the high frequency ultraviolet wand. Safety of these devices is questionable. They work by ionizing the air between the device and the body. This small amount of superheated air is both very hot and contains a lot of ozone which is very reactive and destructive to human tissue. Most of these devices also give off intense ultraviolet light right next to the skin which is known to cause damage and skin cancer. These devices typically leave red marks where they're used from the (hopefully) temporary damage to the top skin layers. The sensation is generally a lot like walking across carpet and touching a metal object except it can be sustained. The more these devices are held in one area (concentrating the heat, ozone and UV), the more dangerous they are. At least they don't generally represent a risk to the heart but they still shouldn't be used by those with a heart condition.
C) AC/DC Stimulation:
There are a variety of devices in this category such as cattle prods, batteries, hand crank generators, home stereos and various other adapted or homemade devices. In general, these are the most dangerous forms of electrostimulation. They were not designed for use on the human body and typically can generate far too much power to be safe. Many are also not properly isolated. They can cause burns, electrochemical changes in human tissue, muscle damage and even be fatal. The effect is also often far from erotic.
4) Basics of Electricity
Assuming we're using a pulse type device, the current must flow between two places on the body. The contacts are often called electrodes. Some devices use a monopolar (sometimes called unipolar or monophasic) output and some are bipolar (also called biphasic). With a monopolar device, the current flows mainly in one direction and will generally be felt more as it enters the body compared to where it exits. With a bipolar device, it will be felt more equally in both locations. The current will generally follow the shortest possible path between the two electrodes.
Dry skin has a fairly high resistance. Most electrodes do not work well on dry skin and if they do, the effect will usually be rather sharp and painful. It's best to wet the skin first. Plain water is usually sufficient although electrode gel or adding a tiny bit of baking soda to KY or water is usually even better. The better the contact, the more deeply the current will usually be felt (which is generally much more pleasurable).
Another important thing to remember is the current is spread out over the area of the electrode. Small electrodes concentrate the current making it feel much more intense. Large ones distribute it over more skin. If one electrode is larger than the other, most (sometimes all) of the sensation will be perceived in the smaller electrode.
Electrodes may be wired together to distribute the current and/or help balance out a larger one. For example, if a large ring is used around the base of a male's genitals, two rings connected together on the shaft of the penis might form the other electrode. This will result in the current being felt at all three locations instead of mostly just in a single, smaller, electrode on the shaft.
The most important thing to remember is to NEVER create a path for the current anywhere near the heart. See the next section on Safety for more information.
OK, please don't skip over this section! The heart, being a powerful muscle, is sensitive to electrostimulation. If current is passed through the heart area, it could cause ventricular fibrillation, cardiac arrest or other serious heart complications. A person can easily die if medical personnel are not present to set things right. So, the most important rule is to never get the current near the heart and electrostimulation should never be used by someone with a pacemaker or other heart condition.
Sometimes it's easier than you might think to inadvertently pass current through the heart area. For example, if one electrode is attached your genitals, and you pick up another electrode with your hand while the unit is turned on, guess what path the current follows? It travels along your arm, through your chest and down to your crotch. Another example would be from one hand to the other. You should always make connections with the unit turned off, and in general, the connections should always be below the waist.
It's generally not safe to try and wire up two people to one device. Trying to put one electrode on each person is inviting trouble. It's too easy to have inadvertent contact with the other person causing current through the heart area.
I get a lot of questions about nipple electrostimulation. In general, the short answer is DON'T DO IT! To pass current between the nipples or from a nipple to nearly anywhere else, gets dangerously close to the heart. A few companies sell something called "bipolar nipple clips". These have two electrodes each, and used properly, most of the current will be confined to the very small bit of flesh trapped between the clamp's jaws. In theory, this is relatively safe (and often painful I might add). The problems is some electrical devices do not have fully isolated outputs. This means current can flow BETWEEN the two outputs. If you wire up both nipples, you can get current flowing between them (and past the heart) even though you're using the special bipolar clips. In summary, these clips are only safe if you're sure the device you're using has fully isolated outputs or you stimulate only one nipple at a time or you use two completely separate devices--one for each nipple. If you have any doubt about what you just read, or the equipment you're using, just stay away from the nipples (and upper body) all together.
Another safety concern is the powerful muscle contractions that electrostimulation devices can create. In general, this isn't a problem when the unit is connected to the genitals, anus, etc. But if electrodes are used elsewhere (say on the legs) it can be. Slowly increase current levels to avoid sudden, surprising stimulation. This is especially important if you're applying the stimulation to someone else. Don't stimulate say the legs if someone is standing up--you could cause a fall. If bondage is involved, keep in mind what muscles could contract and if that might create any problems.
ALWAYS use only devices made for use on the human body. NEVER try to adapt other devices such as animal training products, stereo equipment, telephone equipment, train transformers, electric fence units, etc. In general, it best to use devices powered from a small 9 volt battery (such as TENS units). The amount of power available from such a battery is inherently limited even if something should fail in the device. Even though they were made for use on the body, I'm not a big fan of ultraviolet wands. They were invented a long time ago before the dangers of UV, free radicals and ozone on the human body were well understood (see Section 3).
Finally, this is not a common issue, but electrostimulation should NEVER be used on the neck or head. There are some very good medical reasons as to why not. If you follow the "always below the waist rule" this is, of course, not an issue.
6) Pulse Type Device Choices
As stated in Section 3, pulse type devices are by far the best choice erotic play. The safest and perhaps best all around device is the battery powered TENS unit. TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation and was developed by the medical community for therapeutic purposes. These devices generally output a pulse type waveform that is adjustable in current (level or amplitude), pulse width (energy) and frequency (rate). The more advanced (and expensive) devices offer a few different modulation options to vary the output. Nearly all TENS units are limited to a maximum output of 80ma (which is 0.08 amps) and have a bipolar output. This is enough current for most electrostimulation needs but more advanced practitioners may desire more (especially for anal or vaginal stimulation in S&M scenes). TENS units are available from several sources and usually start around a few hundred dollars. They typically offer two isolated channels so you can wire up two different areas of the body at once and independently adjust the level to each.
Another option are the various EMS (Electro Muscle Stimulation) units available. These range from cheap Asian made units (sometimes called "electro massagers" or "body toners") to high quality professional grade devices. The latter, in particular, typically have much higher current output than TENS units. They're available with anywhere from two to eight channels. Unfortunately, they typically don't offer much variety in their output. The pulse width is usually fixed, sometimes the frequency is fixed, and only the level and on/off cycle are usually adjustable. Still, some find them suitable for erotic purposes, and those who want more power than a TENS unit, have few other choices. Current output ranges from around 50ma for the inexpensive units to over 200ma for some of the high powered ones. The cheaper ones are usually monopolar while the better ones are bipolar.
The final option are devices made specifically for erotic play. These include the P.E.S. box, Folsom Electric PSG-202, Folsom "Max", Sexi boxes and the "Shock Box". Most of these devices offer two channels which may or may not be isolated (see the Section 5 on Safety). They generally have adjustable frequency, level and on/off rate. Some have other adjustments but they're otherwise a lot like EMS units. All of them, to the best of my knowledge, are monopolar (which is a disadvantage). One advantage many of these have is using a standard jack to make connections. Many TENS and EMS units use their own proprietary connectors which makes them more difficult to use with erotic electrodes.
I've tried all the erotic units list above and the PSG-202 is perhaps the most pleasant feeling but also one of the weakest (less current than a TENS unit). Most people eventually turn it all the way up and still want more. The Max and Shock Box are much more powerful but best suited for S&M rather than pleasure stimulation. The Max, in particular, feels quite rough and sharp. The P.E.S. Box falls in-between in power level but is somewhat overpriced for what you're getting. P.E.S., however, makes some great electrodes. The Sexi box I tried was rather weak and not as pleasurable as some of the others. Again, if you can only afford one device, I'd probably pick a TENS unit (but then again I'm an MD). [N.B. The Eros Tek units did not exist when this article was written. LAS]
7) Male Electrodes
Companies such as Paradise Electro (P.E.S.) and Folsom Electric sell a number of electrode products for use on (and in) male genitalia, the anus, etc. The penis is the most obvious site for male electrostimulation. Electrodes can be improvised, but in general, it's best to use products designed for the purpose. Various kinds of electrified cock rings and ball electrodes are available. There's even a new cock/ball board that's oriented more towards S&M play. If you must improvise, try wrapping wires around a small strip of cotton cloth that's been soaked in a weak solution of baking soda and water. The wires themselves shouldn't touch the skin. Also make sure there are no sharp ends that could cut or puncture the skin. Never use lead or other metals that are toxic to the body.
Some men find it very pleasurable to use one ring at the base of the genitals and another just behind the head of the penis. The current, in this case, will largely be confined to flowing along the shaft of the penis where there are many nerve endings (consider using two rings on the shaft as described in Section 4). Others prefer to confine the stimulation to the balls, leaving the penis free for other things. Some target just the shaft. Current applied to the testicles can produce a variety of sensations depending on how the electrodes are arranged and the settings on the stimulation device. The sensations can range from a very pleasurable buzzing to one more like they are being squeezed or pulled. One thing to avoid is sharp or sudden stimulation of the groin area in men. It's not likely, but if someone has a borderline hernia condition, a sudden strong stimulation of the muscles in the area could aggravate the condition.
Catheter style electrodes are also available for use in the urethra. Unlike a catheter, these are not (or at least should not) be inserted fully into the bladder but a sterile procedure should still be followed. They produce a very unique (and often very intense) form of electrostimulation that is usually more suited to those seeking S&M style play. They are only a single contact so they must be used with at least one other electrode. Some men find an anal electrode to be the best compliment. The combination targets the current in the prostate area which can be very erotic. If you're not familiar with the safe use of catheters, you should research that before using an electrocatheter.
Many men enjoy anal electrostimulation. In fact, for many (heterosexual and otherwise) it's their favorite. One reason for this is are the fairly large muscles around the anus that are stimulated by the current. With the right stimulation device, extremely pleasurable rhythmic contractions can be created. Here, there is no easy way to improvise an electrode. You should purchase a device made for the purpose. You ideally want one that has two contacts that run in strips along the length of the device. They are available in various sizes and shapes. These produce different effects as they are rotated in the anus. You can also use it as a single contact in combination with with an electrocatheter or cock/ball electrode. Just make the connection to one of the two electrodes (and orient it so that it's facing up--closest to the penis). Treat anal electrodes with care as they're somewhat fragile. Ideally they should only be used on one person, but can probably be safely used on multiple people if they're properly disinfected and allowed to dry between uses. Inspect them periodically to make sure the electrode strips are not pulling away anywhere. If they are, it can create a sharp edge that can cut the fragile lining in the rectum. Always follow the directions that come with your electrodes.
Finally, the pads that come with most TENS units and the smaller EMS pads are also very useful. These can be attached to the genitals, buttocks, inner thighs and other interesting areas. Remember if you want to feel the sensation equally in both electrodes, they should be the same size and in similar locations on the body. Also, keep in the mind the path the current will take. It can often be felt all along the path and not just at each electrode site. This is why the inner thighs, for example, can be interesting. Also, various muscles can be stimulated if desired.
While it might be tempting to use genital (or other) body piercings as electrodes, it's not recommended. Such piercings usually confine the current to a very small area. This is both intense, and with the higher power devices, may cause localized damage to the tissue if you crank up the current too high.
8) Female Electrodes
With women, please read the above section on Male Electrodes first. Many of the same guidelines apply with the vagina being the most obvious target for electrostimulation. The same electrodes that work in the anus can be used vaginally (suitably cleaned, of course, if they're also used anally). There are also a few female specific electrodes available that are designed to target the labia and clitoral areas. Likewise, the electrocatheter can also be used. Obviously I cannot personally vouch for the sensation these various electrodes produce, but know that various combinations are popular with different women. As with men, some experimentation is best.
First of all, ALWAYS MAKE ALL CONNECTIONS WITH THE POWER TURNED OFF. Otherwise, you may get a nasty (or even fatal) surprise. See Section 5 on Safety.
If you purchase devices made for the purpose, they often come with (or the same dealer sells) the leads necessary to connect them up. Unfortunately, most TENS and EMS units use different connectors than the erotic devices. Further, not even all TENS units or EMS units use the same connectors among themselves. I've found it best to standardize on one type of connector for the toys and make up adapter cables to connect them to various stimulation units. Most of the erotic accessories use a 3.5mm mini plug so I simply purchased (or had made) adapter cables that go from say my TENS unit to a 3.5mm mini jack. That way I can plug in any number of different accessories without needing special cables for each one. Again, if you're buying any of the erotic accessories (anal electrodes, etc.) the dealer should be able to help you out with cables. If you're using an erotic "box" you probably won't have any compatibility problems or may only need a simple adapter..
If you're improvising with electrodes, or wiring together more than one electrode in combination, you might want to purchase a set of "clip leads" from your local electronic supplier. These are short wire leads with an insulated alligator clamp at each end. They're very useful for more advanced electro play.
Some devices can be damaged if the output is shorted out (i.e. both leads touch each other). The better engineered devices will survive such treatment, but some of the erotic toys and cheap offshore EMS/TENS units have been known to fail. This is another good reason for having the device turned off while connecting (or disconnecting) things.
10) Adjustments, Etc.
OK, assuming you have a suitable device and electrodes all wired up, now what? Turn the level control(s) all the way down and turn the device on. If it's wired to you, slowly increase the level until you can feel the current. If it's wired to someone else, you hopefully have practiced on yourself first so you know what effects the various controls have. Different level settings are required for different electrodes (and people).
You'll find that as time goes on, the body adapts to the stimulation and the effect is usually less intense. You have to keep increasing the current to maintain the same effect. Another option is to move the electrodes. In the case of an anal (or vaginal) electrode, just rotating it so the conductive strips contact different areas, will cause the sensations to greatly intensify. Beware of this if you've been slowly turning up the level as you go. If you move the electrodes to a new area, the current will likely be suddenly too strong.
Units that offer a varying output waveform work better for longer stimulation sessions. The body does not adapt as easily to more complex stimulation. It's somewhat like listening to the constant noise of a fan running in the background, which the brain can easily "tune out" compared to listing to something more interesting. This is one big advantage of devices that offer modulation options like the better TENS units.
You'll also find as you turn up the current you usually reach a point where just a little more current dramatically changes the sensation. This is often near the threshold where pleasure becomes pain. This is due to how the nerves and brain react to the stimulation. It's like perceiving something as being comfortably warm versus dangerously hot. So, especially if you have someone else wired up, beware that once you get to a certain point, turning that level knob up just a tiny bit more can put someone over the edge in a bad way (unless it's an S&M scene in which case it might be in a good way). With electrostimulation, more isn't always better. It's worth noting that even painful electro stimulation, when using the proper equipment, is not generally dangerous. The nervous system is essentially being fooled into thinking something bad is happening when in reality, the current is harmless. This is why it can be ideal for S&M play. There's minimal REAL trauma to the body, but endorphins are still produced.
If you have a TENS unit, you'll find the lower settings of the pulse width control are not terribly useful. Most TENS units don't have enough power to do much with a narrow pulse width. While this is useful for therapeutic purposes, it's not especially useful for erotic electro stimulation except perhaps with very small electrodes. If you find yourself running out of power with your TENS unit, make sure the pulse width is turned all the way up. The frequency control has a more interesting effect. At lower settings, you'll be able to feel the individual pulses, and if muscles are involved, they may "vibrate" in sync with these pulses. As you increase the frequency you'll reach a point where it smoothes out into what feels like a continuous flow of current. In reality, there are still pulses, but they are close enough together the body can no longer detect them. Usually this occurs somewhere around 100 - 200 Hz. If your TENS unit has adjustable modulation, try different settings to see how they feel. Some are usually more erotic than others.
If you have an erotic device, such as a Folsom box, you should still be able to adjust the frequency but probably not the pulse width or modulation. If you have an EMS device, you're probably faced with even fewer adjustments. You can experiment with the controls on your particular device. Some units have options on how the two (or more) channels interact. They can be in sync (synchronous or together), out of sync (asynchronous or alternating) or sometimes have other options.
11) Side Effects
Most people don't have any significant side effects from electro play when the proper equipment is used. Some experience some redness in the areas of the electrodes. This is often more from the electrode itself (and/or whatever was used to wet it) than from the current. If there is significant muscle stimulation for any length of time, the muscles may be sore afterwards or even a day or two later. The soreness is much the same as if you had worked out in a gym. Of course, electrostimulation can target some muscles that don't normally get that much exercise. Heavy electro stimulation may also leave the area feeling somewhat numb. This is because the nervous system adapts to the stimulation and when it's gone, it takes a while to adjust back to normal sensitivity (much like your eyes adjusting to the dark when you've been in bright light). Some people also experience an increase in random muscle twitches that can last for a few days after the electrostimulation. None of these things are generally anything to worry about. If you experience other significant problems or lasting effects, you may want to see a doctor.
So, in summary, erotic electrostimulation can be a lot of fun when it's done properly using the correct equipment. For those of you who haven't tried it, if you get a proper demonstration, I suspect most of you will end up enjoying it. If you already have tried it, I hope this guide has been helpful in furthering your knowledge. Be safe and enjoy!