Wellness

Caroline Spiegel Knows What Gets You Off

She started audio erotica network Quinn with women in mind, but men are catching on.

Ivan_Shenets/Shutterstock, Taylor Hill/Getty Images, Jovo Jovanovic, Bonnin Studio, Alexey Kuzma, Danil Nevsky/Stocksy Images, Margaret Flatley/Bustle
By Nona Willis Aronowitz

It was 3 a.m. in an extremely air-conditioned room in Palo Alto, and Caroline Spiegel was attempting to rub one out. She’d set the mood — pink floral sheets, glass of wine — but nothing was working. The stuff she found on Pornhub and in Cosmo’s erotica section were failing to get her off. It was her junior year of college at Stanford, where she was studying computer science. She had just returned from academic leave to treat an eating disorder, the physical and emotional effects of which had taken a toll on her sex drive. Not only was it harder to get wet, she also felt disconnected from her body.

Finally she stumbled upon the audio section of Literotica, a long-running, Web 1.0-esque site specializing in non-visual porn. She selected a “guided masturbation” MP3 by a user named JayMasters45. “I want you to lie down on your back completely naked,” he instructed in a breathy voice, bossy yet patient, while audibly jerking off. “You can hear how badly I want you.”

“I literally just immediately orgasmed,” Spiegel tells me over the phone in June. That late-night victory “made me think there was a big opportunity for better sex content for women.”

That’s the philosophy behind Quinn, the audio porn platform that Spiegel, now 23 years old, founded about a year ago — a platform that now attracts hundreds of thousands of users per month. Audio porn has been a quiet presence on the internet for years, thriving in corners of Reddit and Tumblr and Patreon. It ranges from people reading erotic stories, to voyeuristic recordings of sexual scenarios, to tracks where the performer is talking right to the listener, Headspace-style, like in the JayMasters45 file. But recently sex tech companies like Quinn have applied the women-friendly marketing concept of a “clean, well-lighted place” to audio porn, trying to do what $100 non-phallic vibrators did for sex shops. Incidentally, the term, borrowed from an Ernest Hemingway story about a cafe that facilitates lingering, was the motto of the pioneering feminist sex-toy store Good Vibrations in San Francisco.

Spiegel describes Quinn as the digital equivalent: “Our tone is basically a clean, sexy place for women,” she says. Quinn offers “content that really takes the user seriously.” She wanted to offer an alternative to the internet’s ocean of “exploitative, tacky, uninteresting visual porn,” though she admits there are exceptions such as independent porn creators like Erika Lust and those on OnlyFans. Quinn has also made the audio artform more accessible; while Reddit’s Gone Wild Audio is an insider community with its own language and norms, Quinn’s barrier to entry is low. The website is minimalist, consisting of little more than a search function (“lesbian” is Quinn’s most searched-for term) and the tracks themselves, some categorized as “Overheard” (what it sounds like) and others as “POV” (like one-sided phone sex).

Unlike their competitor Dipsea — which requires a subscription and supplies its own content using professional voice performers — Quinn’s audio tracks are free and uploaded by users, like the communities that came before it. (Harry, a Brit with “boyfriend energy,” and Anonyfun35, a “salt and pepper gentleman” with “daddy energy,” are two fan favorites.)

Audio porn “wasn’t my idea,” Spiegel says. “I found this existing community that I loved.” But, she’s hoping, Quinn “can be much bigger.”

She put together a playlist of her favorite audio erotica, and it went viral in her Stanford sorority. “Everyone was like, ‘This works! I’m coming all the time!’”

After her triumphant discovery, Spiegel compiled audio porn tracks she liked and used her Stanford classmates as test cases. When she asked her friends about their masturbation habits, the stories poured out of their struggles to orgasm or how their partners’ sex drives mismatched with theirs. Even among those who didn’t have eating disorders, Spiegel noticed that Type-A women who judged themselves harshly felt similarly alienated from their erotic selves. Spiegel would tell her friends: “Let me send you this audio. Take a bath and listen and let me know what you think.” She put together a playlist of her favorite audios on a basic website, and it went viral in her Stanford sorority. “Everyone was like, ‘This works! I’m coming all the time!’”

She started pitching the idea of her company to potential collaborators, which was “tricky, honestly.” Spiegel had to drive home the point that “this is about changing the landscape for women” rather than “Oh, come join my porn company.” Eventually a fellow Stanford student, Jackie Hanley, came on as COO. Spiegel now lives with Hanley in Williamsburg, in an apartment that also serves as their office for them, an intern, and their head of content, Lucie Fleming. Or it used to, until the pandemic hit. Spiegel went back to her hometown of L.A. for quarantine, while Hanley went to New Jersey. “We’re missing our marriage,” Spiegel says.

Quinn has enjoyed an upswing during these past months when, to paraphrase New York City’s health department, we have all been our own safest sex partners — sometimes uncomfortably close to family members. Spiegel recalls one email she got from a woman who discovered Quinn when she was hunkered down with her parents, while her boyfriend sheltered in place in another city. “I didn’t expect it to work this much,” she wrote. “I listened to it during quarantine … Your site was the only thing that worked for me.”

Quinn is clearly fulfilling a need, and Spiegel and her team have tinkered with the site’s formula as they learn more about their users. First there was written erotica, too, but they nixed it when it became clear that people preferred audio. After a user complained about a track wherein one character was too pushy, Quinn began moderating their submitted tracks assiduously. They have clear-cut restrictions like “no animals, no minors, no nonconsensual sex,” unless it’s a clearly labeled “CNC,” which stands for “consensual non-consent.” Otherwise, Quinn mostly relies on a “completely subjective” system to weed out iffy tracks. “If you just get a wiggly gut feeling, it’s just a no,” Spiegel says.

Quinn’s business model has shifted, too. The team tried asking listeners to tip performers, but it “wasn’t vibing for anyone” so they decided to pay some high-performing contributors upfront. The original plan was to keep the content free and make money through ads, because, as Spiegel explained to TechCrunch last year, research showed that young women were “embarrassed” to pay for porn. Still, they’ve decided to shift from a library of totally free content — perhaps Quinn’s most enticing feature — to a subscription system, eventually. “We realize that our users are used to an Apple Music or Spotify model,” Spiegel says. She’s trying to keep those users on Quinn longer by going beyond porn: This month, Quinn launched short, safe-for-work tracks that seem to be a bit like casual micro-podcasts. The idea behind them is to create a “comfortable, cool place,” Spiegel says, “where users are hanging out and shooting the shit, too.”

Spiegel confidently employs the jargon of young tech CEOs — which makes sense, since her brother is Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel. (He’s been “incredibly supportive,” she says, but she won’t say much else since she doesn’t “like speaking about him in public.”) Still, it wasn’t easy getting funding from venture capitalists. “You’re not going to be taken seriously” if you’re a women-run sex tech company, Spiegel says. “We’ve been lucky to find amazing advocates and supporters, but to say it was easy is a lie.” She knows a lot of women in “this space” who can’t get a meeting or are completely dismissed by investors. They’re often barred from advertising on Facebook and kicked off Instagram. Even Quinn, which Spiegel says never posts anything explicit, was briefly booted off the platform. “It’s messed up, because there’s just huge needs in this market,” she says. The new sex tech companies are “literally doing God’s work.”

She concedes that her pitch seemed far-fetched at first: “A white privileged woman who wants to start an audio porn company? LOL at you. I kind of get it,” she says. “I’m not holding it against anyone that they think this is a silly idea. But I think they’re going to really regret it.”

Sex tech companies, Spiegel says, are “literally doing God’s work.”

Quinn’s “bread and butter” is women ages 18 to 25. “Girls in their group chats, ya know?” Spiegel jokes. But she is trying to expand their user base to people “who maybe don’t know that audio porn is a thing,” Spiegel says — including users and performers who aren’t cis, white, straight women like her. In the early days of Quinn, a Black artist messaged Spiegel on Instagram to say, “I love your site, but I can just tell that all of your male creators are white.” That message “was an alarm bell that diversity is something you can feel, it’s part of the vibe of a platform, even if it’s non-visual,” Spiegel says. After that, Quinn started actively recruiting creators of color and queer creators.

And then there are the users Quinn didn’t have to recruit at all: men. In recent months, 40 percent of Quinn’s users have been male. Women fleeing the visual assault of Pornhub may be an underserved market, but the appeal of audio erotica appears to be broader.

“It feels like you’re there with someone,” Spiegel says. “It’s a very intense experience. It’s a very real, honest connection, and I think everyone likes that.”

The concept of “porn for women” has radical roots; in the ‘80s and ‘90s, artists like Candida Royalle and production companies like lesbian-focused Fatale Media centered female pleasure and challenged the relentless male gaze. But nowadays, many porn companies seeking to target women rely on generalizations that border on moral judgments about what women are “supposed” to want. Sites like Bellesa and ForHerTube tend to assume that women prefer a defanged, more soft-core experience. Even Spiegel’s premise that women dislike the “tacky” videos of Pornhub casts female fantasies as demure and proprietous. There’s no denying that much of the content that rises to the top of sites like Pornhub replicates society’s misogynistic tendencies. Yet the few studies on female porn use offer complex, highly varied, often contradictory narratives about female fantasy and sexuality.

When I delved into the world of audio porn back in 2015, right at the start of the podcast boom, I couldn’t get enough of the intimacy of listening to someone’s voice. Every sigh and swallow humanized the person in my headphones, and yet the lack of visuals left room for me to fantasize. Many of these tracks were in second person (I can’t wait to make you come, baby) so I often felt like the person was talking just to me. But when I showed my faves to a diverse collection of friends, some complained it felt “too real” — too personal.

Given Quinn’s robust male usership, its popularity might have little to tell us about women’s taste in porn. Instead, it seems to be uncovering an audience for porn that stokes the imagination while preserving anonymity, for an experience that feels participatory rather than passive. That preference, while still niche, seems to be genderless.