Sex used to be the last thing Anna Lee wanted to talk about. “I didn’t even know how sex worked until I was in late high school, college years,” says the 31-year-old. It’s ironic, then, that she’s established herself as a wildly popular sex-positive TikTok star with nearly 400,000 followers, and co-founded Lioness, the world’s first smart vibrator company.
Two fateful experiences set her on this path: Her first time using a vibrator left her disappointed. She also had a chance encounter with the male founder of a sex toy company. “I was like, ‘How do you know what you’re building works for people with vulvas?’” Lee recalls. “And he was like, ‘There’s an industry standard where you put the vibration on your nose and that’s what a clitoris feels like.’” (Not surprisingly, the company is now defunct.) Previously, she assumed her own body, not the device, was faulty. “[I realized] it was just because it was probably designed by people [who had] never tested it or understood what it should look like or feel like.”
In 2016, Lee left her job as the sole woman working on a mechanical engineering team of 16 men at Amazon to start a sex tech company with her co-founder, Liz Klinger, to whom she was introduced by a mutual friend thanks to a shared interest in vibrator design. They set out to create a toy that actually worked for people with vulvas.
Initially, the pair hoped to build an AI vibrator, but the lack of robust scientific research on female sexual pleasure made it impossible to engineer a viable AI algorithm. They pivoted toward a smart toy after learning that would-be customers were excited to see data about their pleasure.
The company’s signature Lioness vibrator launched in 2017. (In 2020, armed with data from 30,000 user-reported orgasms, they launched the Lioness 2.0, which includes an AI component.) “I just wanted to be a really good engineer,” Lee says. “I didn’t want to do interviews; I didn’t want to have to say the words ‘clitoris’ or ‘orgasms’ or talk about my own sensuality or sexuality.”
Famous last words. As she dove into research about sexual pleasure, she began posting what she’d learned on Instagram for a small audience mostly comprising her friends. She eventually shifted to TikTok, where she stumbled across a clip about dramatic career changes. She stitched it. The company received a spike in sales — the video had gone viral. Today, it has nearly 3 million views.
The Lioness vibrator tracks users’ pelvic floor muscle contractions to create graphs depicting their orgasms, so Lee began posting TikToks to demonstrate how various factors impacted her own climax. She tested out the effects of alcohol (sluggish, unsatisfying), marijuana (relaxed, focused), CBD lube (nine times longer than her average orgasm), stress (weak to impossible), and more. Coffee created a jittery effect, “like someone dragged you to the top [of a slide], punted you down, your contact might have flown out, your hair might have gotten pulled out, you don’t know what happened, but you liked it and you would do it again.” Taboo topics might pull her viewers in, but her playful humor keeps them around.
According to Lee, her initial success on the app tripled Lioness’ sales, and today, she attributes one-third of the company’s sales to her TikTok’s influence. Twice, she says, it sold out the company’s entire stock.
TikTok is an especially crucial tool for sexual wellness companies because their ads are often removed from Instagram and Facebook. But even the video-sharing app has its limits. The platform bans sexually explicit content, which forces creators like Lee to use euphemisms (like “O’s” for orgasms) or misspellings (like “seggs”) in an attempt to dodge the algorithm.
As a result, Lee believes her platform’s not “a forever thing.” She’s had at least a dozen videos pulled and has been shadow-banned. Still, on and offline, she continues her mission of helping people understand their own sexual function, particularly through solo sessions. “When I lost my virginity, that was me learning sex through lens of someone else,” she says. “But masturbation takes all of that away, and you get to just be you.”
Fast Follow With @AnnaTheAverage
Who’s your favorite person you’re following right now?
I just started following Pablo Rochat on Instagram. It’s so clever and just a nice, lighthearted start to a day.
What’s the best thing you read or saw on the Internet this week? What did you learn from it?
I’m looking into the history of Rabbit-style vibrators. They say the first one came from Japan because sex toys were built there, and they couldn’t make it phallic, and so they were like, “Oh, we have to make it a cute animal.” They say it was because Japan finds rabbits lucky, but I’ve seen that only cited from one source that’s not historically backed anywhere. So now I’m going into a deeper dive to see if that’s really true.
What's the weirdest thing you currently have written down in your Notes app?
I met two researchers at Rutgers University who do MRI brain scans during an orgasm, and so I have written down “Get MRI brain scan during an orgasm.” I’m trying to manifest it.
What links do you have in your tabs right now?
They’re mostly all sex-oriented. Sometimes when I’m on a plane and I have my laptop open, I’m sure the people behind me or on the aisle across me can see researching stuff like how to measure vaginal moisture.
Have you ever slid into someone’s DMs?
I DMed a musician at a concert in Korea. Like, “Hey, loved your show. It was so great.” They just said, “Thanks so much,” and then I was too scared to say anything else.
What’s the weirdest DM slide you’ve ever received? I can only imagine what your inbox is like.
I’ve definitely gotten all the dudes who are like, “Oh, I want to have sex.” I don’t know what they think I’m going to say. But genuinely, I feel like the way that my social media following has happened, I’m so grateful — it’s usually the nicest humans, especially young people who aspire to be in sex tech. That makes me feel like “Oh, my God, I have so much hope for the future that this industry is in really good hands.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.