A Brief Introduction to Electrical Play and Toys
By the time most of us reach maturity, a healthy fear of electricity will have been drilled deeply into our senses. It's true that electricity can kill. It doesn't have to, however. In fact, many people into BDSM and fetish scenes explore electricity, consensually and for mutual pleasure, on a regular basis. This is an introduction to the basic methods, precautions, and toys used in electrical or e-stim sex play.
Electricity is mysterious stuff. Electrons zipping from here to there, potentially with enough power to run a vacuum cleaner or cool a high-rise. But in safe doses properly applied, it feels really cool! Electricity can create a number of sensations, from a light buzz to severe bite, with reasonable safety. However, don't get me wrong. Electrical play is more dangerous than most activities under the BDSM umbrella, and I'm quite serious about every caution stated herein.
I've been into electrical play for a long time. My first shock device was, ironically, made using a Radio Shack kit. The accompanying manual provided enough information to beef-up the design, resulting in a rather effective power source running on a 9-volt battery. In the years since, I have owned and used most of the electrical units described below. I don't claim to be an expert, nor do I put forth this article as 'the final word' on this topic. However, I've already done the stupid things before I knew they were stupid, and just might let somebody skip this phase. As suggested in the title, this article is an introduction to electrical play, and new adventurers should explore other available resources for a more complete view of the topic.
I divide devices used for electrical play into three categories: violet wand, TENS technology, and other alternatives.
The Violet Wand
A Violet Wand is a high frequency, low amperage generator. This device was originally developed and marketed as a medical marvel, capable of everything from stimulating hair growth to psychic cleansing. It doesn't do any of that, but it does make a wonderful sex toy!
A Violet Wand is, of course, wand-shaped. A glass tube on the business end glows with an eerie purple light when the unit is in use, explaining the rest of the name. One key aspect of the Wand is the very high frequency output, which tends to cause the electricity to remain near the surface of a human recipient. This fact makes the Violet Wand generally safe for use above the waist (with a few other cautions).
Wands are available in kits complete with a number of attachments, from three to ten, that plug into a metal socket on the business end. Most attachments are blown glass in a variety of shapes, each of which creates slightly different sensations. Some kits also include a 'whip', basically a length of ball-chain similar to light bulb pull cord, and Lightning Hands, a broad metal contact pad.
There's a 'volume' control at the base of most Violet Wands, and a little contact button on the side that turns it on when held down. The unit makes a buzzing sound when running. Bringing it close to the recipient causes a visible spark to jump from Wand to person, and delivers a 'zap'.
How much zap? Shock strength depends on a number of factors. Obviously, the power setting of the Wand is a major one, as is the sensitivity of the target person and body part. The attachment used also affects the shock delivered. Generally, larger glass attachments (with more internal volume) deliver a shock of lower intensity, as do broader areas of glass near or in contact with the skin. Both of these guidelines make sense… the space inside an attachment acts as a resistor, and spreading shock over a larger body area lowers its perceived intensity.
The last major factor might seem counter-intuitive. The farther the attachment is from the skin, the stronger the shock (as long as a spark can jump the gap!). Resting a glass attachment against the skin gives much less effect than a small gap. This is because the energy inside the bulb builds up to a higher level, that required to bridge the air resistance between bulb and skin, before sparking to your target. The distance effect can be used to good advantage on an unsuspecting target.. just ask them if they would prefer a nice, thick sweater to "protect" them from this vicious implement!
The "whip" mentioned above has different factors. Because this attachment is made entirely of metal, it conducts electricity more efficiently than bulbs. You don't really need to 'flog' someone… let electricity do its thing. Just drag the chain across your target, drawing a line of little shocks on them. The intensity of this treatment depends on a) how much chain is in contact and b) how much you move it around. More chain effectively spreads the same power over more points of contact, lowering intensity. Moving the chain creates sparks as individual balls move in and out of contact with the skin. A chain that just sits there delivers very little shock.
Almost everyone's favorite attachment to the Wand is Lightning Hands. This metal pad is held in firm contact with the shock giver's body, either by resting a bare foot on it (carpeted floor, please!) or using tape or elastic to press it against you. You can stick it in your waistband if clothed. Next, you need some way to keep the Wand running. Most come with a heavy rubber band to hold the ON button down.
With the Wand buzzing and Lightning Hands in place, you become the attachment. Every time you touch (or come close enough to touching) your target, both of you receive a shock! This adds an entirely new dimension to kissing, massage, or genital stimulation. "But I don't wanna be shocked!" you say. Here's the trick: as long as your body part is less sensitive than their body part, you clearly have the upper hand. Using Lightning Hands, you can also hold a conducive object and use it to shock your partner. Knives, Wartenburg pinwheels, and pizza cutters can be particularly effective.
Some final fun stuff. If you're into fireplay, Violet Wands make a spectacular way to ignite alcohol. Please understand all of the ramifications of fire play before trying this, though! Piercings or metal clothespins can make very intense targets, but read the cautions about burning below. Finally, don't forget to turn out the lights once in a while, because this type of play creates a great light show!
There are a few cautions when using the Violet Wand. First, it creates a powerful magnetic field when running, which can harm sensitive electronics and magnetic media. Stay well clear of stereo equipment, televisions, and computers. Prolonged and/or high-powered use can result in skin burns on your target, so move it around. Piercings or other ways through the skin (like a cut) are also likely places for burns. The Wand can spark through clothing, but beware of using it over some materials. The spark will actually burn small holes in leather, vinyl, PVC, and other dense clothing. Some folks use tinsel as an intermediate conductor, although there is some debate about the safety of this practice. Tinsel is very flimsy, and may be prone to shedding tiny metallic fragments. One common mistake is bringing the metal socket on the wand itself close enough to spark to the target or yourself. This little accident typically results in a very sharp jolt, so watch out.
Violet Wands typically cost between two and four hundred dollars, depending on how many attachments are in the kit. Older models are occasionally spotted in antique store, but often have a wax core that will melt under prolonged use. Overall, Violet Wands are a superb addition to any toybag, and are the safest way to get into electrical play.
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electro Nerve Stimulation. It's a medical treatment used for muscle rehabilitation and pain control. Moderate frequency, low amperage shocks are delivered in brief pulses to strategically placed contacts pads, generally one on each side of a particular muscle or area. Unlike the high frequency electricity generated by Violet Wands, shocks from TENS units penetrate the skin. The shock causes the muscles through which it travels to contract.
A TENS-type unit generally delivers a sharp, brief jolt between two electrodes at regular intervals. Controls are usually present for both intensity and frequency of these shocks. More expensive power supplies may have multiple independent channels, variable shock wave, and of course more power!
There are a variety of choices in TENS-type devices. An authentic medical TENS unit may require a prescription in your area (although your insurance might foot the bill ;). Many medical TENS units are about the size of a pager, and can be inconspicuously carried even while in use. Technologically similar devices from Paradise Electo Stimulations (PES) and Folsum Electric Company have more features and power, but do come in slightly larger boxes. The PSG-Max unit from the latter company is my current favorite of this bunch. The Cadillac of TENS-type units, as far as I know, is from Ultratronic… four discrete channels and an impressive variety of controls. Packs a wallop, as well, although it costs eight big bills.
There are other TENS-related topics to discuss. Since things like safety precautions and how-to's are similar for Other Alternative power sources, these subjects are covered following that section.
It's human nature to experiment, and I've done my share over the (mostly early) years. Electricity is all around us, and inventive people will probably try almost anything once. I'll run down some household options for alternative power sources, without recommending any of them, but first a caveat:
None of these alternatives are as pleasurable or safe as the devices described above, and suggesting their use to anyone who knows much about the topic is likely to result in a look of either scorn or amusement.
A number of people seem to use stereo amplifiers by hooking speaker leads to a target. Different music produces varying sensations, and the volume control adjusts power. I value my receivers (the stereo and the target person) too much for this. Most audio amplifiers are designed to drive a load with a specific nominal resistance, usually between 2 and 16 ohms. A human does not have a specific resistance. Some high-powered amplifiers used in PA and live music applications have a stepped-up output voltage, increasing the likelihood of burns, and would be a very poor choice.
Train transformers have been pressed into service as electrical toys by more than one person… I'm guilt as charged. However, there are definite safety concerns. Most train transformers are adjustable over a rather narrow band. They also aren't double-insulated, and the output may not be well separated from the 120 volt input. Unit failure could channel household current into the target.
Looking back, the Radio Shack circuit that was my first electrical toy was actually fairly safe. It was battery-powered, and used a relatively small capacitor to stage the delivered charge. I don't know if Radio Shack still carries the 101 Projects kit, but it would be a cheap entry point. Also, there was an article printed in Popular Electronics with a TENS-type schematic under the name Bio-Stimulator.
People have probably also used the blocky 9V black power supplies that plug into wall outlets, nine-volt batteries, electric dog-training collars, cattle prods, stun guns, and any number of other crazy things to zap themselves and others. One thing that's occasionally mentioned but should be avoided like the plague: car batteries. The 30 to 75 amps that start your vehicle are also quite capable of severely burning or killing someone. That goes for a 'dead' car battery, too.
If you must experiment with an alternate power supply, at lease make sure you have a way to control it. Potentiometers, variable resistors that sit behind the knobs on everything electric, are generally the way to go. They come in two basic types: linear and audio tapers. Stick to linear tapers, since they present a straight increase in resistance as the knob is turned. 10K ohms is about the right size. My advice is simple. Buy the best TENS-type unit or Violet Wand you can afford. If you have moderate but not non-existent means, go for the Folsum PSG-MAX.
I'm not a master of electrical science, but there are two rules that you should know before playing with anything other than a Violet Wand. One: electricity will predominantly take the path of least resistance between points A and B. Two: there is no way to exactly predict the path of least resistance in the human body. I highly recommend that everyone playing with electricity read Juice for a much more complete treatment of this topic. See Conclusion for a full cite.
Why is this of interest? Most of the human body stands up pretty well to the levels of electricity common in BDSM play. One notable exception is the heart. A very small electrical pulse traveling directly through the heart can have dire effects, including a stoppage or fibrillation. Depending on the level of risk they're willing to take, many BDSMers play by the rule "nothing above the waist." The theory is that the path of least resistance between two electrodes below the waist is high unlikely to pass near the heart.
But nipples are a tempting target! Another group of BDSM-ers is willing to accept higher levels of risk, and plays with bi-polar contacts on one or both nipples. Bi-polar contacts place opposing electrodes directly on either side of one nipple. The shortest path, and probably that of least resistance, lies directly through that nipple. Bi-polar contacts across a single nipple or to both nipples on independent circuits are less risky than a split pair to both nipples, since one possible path lies between the 'plus' on one side to the 'minus' on the other. In fact, this very path will be traveled if the 'minus' on the first side moves out of contact with the skin. A single contact placed on each nipple is about the most dangerous scenario one can imagine… guess what lies directly between those electrodes?
The second major concern is burning of the skin at the point of contact. Burning is usually caused by very high power or a small area of electrode in good contact with the skin, and can be easily avoided. Use fairly large, clean surfaces as electrodes -- dime-sized is a conservative guideline at most power levels -- and keep the entire electrode in strong contact with the skin. This means firm pressure and a conducive gel. Water-based lube works well, particularly if you dissolve some salt in it. Piercings, especially temporary or recent ones where the inner surface of the hole hasn't healed, make excellent contact over a small area, and are particularly susceptible to burning. The dumbest thing I've ever done to myself was try steel wool as an electrode. The result was dozens of tiny piercings, with burned skin around each one. Keep it in mind.
One final word about safety. Prolonged electrocution of a particular location is counter-productive, and could result in long-term damage. Repeated zotting of the same nerves deadens them temporarily. One natural response is to up the power, but a brief respite or electrode relocation is equally effective, and safer.
This section is specific to toys other than the Violet Wand. Fundamentally, you need four things: a power source, wire, electrodes, and a consenting someone to zott. You're on your own for the last one, and power sources were discussed above.
Five to ten feet of wire running to each electrode is quite sufficient, and Radio Shack or your local hardware stores are likely places to purchase it. I prefer lamp cord, although most commercial power sources use very light 'headphone' weight wire. While the latter is certainly sufficient, it presents higher resistance and cuts down on the available power somewhat.
You can buy or make a very wide variety of electrodes. The basic medical TENS unit comes with self-adhesive square pads good for twenty uses or so. They're made of a conducive rubber, make good contact, and can be used in many different places. A sponge soaked in salt water also works anywhere, although you'll need to find a way to hold it firmly in place. Strip the last half-inch or so of insulation from the wire and stick it into the sponge, making certain that the wire itself won't come into contact with the skin. Metal alligator clips work as well, but be certain to dull the points and stick to the below the waist/bi-polar rules. No, the alligator clips won't be bi-polar (although you can buy those for a hefty fee).. just use two to a nipple if you play up there. Let's run-down some other options, organized by target body part.
The male genitalia can be zotted in several places. Metal urethral sounds can be slid down their intended pathway, as can 'sparklers', conducive rubber tubes made for this insertion. A simple wire loop, metal tube (look in the plumbing department), metal strips, and frankly almost anything can be slid around or pressed against the head or shaft of the penis. All of these things can also circle the balls. Padlocks can be used around the shaft or around the scrotum above the balls. Find the right size lock, and wrap the wire through the hole in the key. Please make sure it'll open again, though! Some metal chastity devices can be wired to good effect. Probably the nicest CBT electrode I've used is a conducive rubber-lined harness from Mr.S in San Francisco. A long sheath encases the cock while a narrow band circles the scrotum, both held in place with velcro. Highly recommended.
The female genitalia are at least as tempting. The prime locations are the pussy lips, mons, and of course, the clitoris. The lips are a great place for metal clothespins or alligator clips. All three areas are susceptible to something flat, such as a quarter soldered to a wire (although you certainly wouldn't deface US currency). The insertables described in the next paragraph can be used in the vagina, but the results might disappoint you and aren't as satisfactory as the external targets. Finally, one nice addition to any electrician's toolbox is a vaginal shield, a piece of plastic shaped like a cupped hand with two metal strips in the 'lips' position.
The ass is very sensitive, and makes an excellent target. External contact can be made with the side of a large spring (I got mine from a fold-out couch), but be sure not to bend it. You're likely to end up with a little flesh being pinched, and it was readily apparent that this hurts ;). The sponge soaked with salt water is another good external electrode. Internally, any smooth bare metal object will work. Metal dildos are nice. Mr.S. sells two great choices. The first is a plastic dildo from Folsum, wired with two metal strips to be bi-polar. The contractions of the ass actually cause it to 'fuck' the target. The second is a wired version of their comfy butt-plug. I don't know what they call it, but it has a metal bulb that gets inserted, connected to a metal base by a short piece of rubber tube. This is also bi-polar.
Sticking to the bi-polar rule for nipples, we have a couple of options. TENS pads can be placed on either side of a nipple. The two alligator clip trick was discussed above. You can drive small nails through both jaws of a wooden clothespin, sharp ends out. I use little pieces of leather with two rivets and a hole through which the nipple body protrudes with some success.
No matter what you use or where you place it, make sure your electrodes remain in excellent contact with your target's body. Firm pressure from widths of elastic, rubber, or tape, tying them in place, securing them with tight clothing.. whatever works. Coat the electrode with a big squirt of water-based lube, mixing in salt for excellent conductivity. If you use the sponge-and-salt-water trick, keep that sponge damp!
A final thought on electrode planning and placement. Two electrodes complete one circuit, with a section of someone's body in the middle. If one electrode makes excellent contact, because it's very large or perhaps inserted, the perceived intensity of shock on the _other_ electrode will be increased. This can effectively increase the pain-delivery capabilities of a given power source. Think about a large anal dildo on one end of a circuit, and a dime on the clit completing it.
I hope you've found this article informative. It is with some hesitation that I've included some of the topics discussed, but people will think of them anyway. Please take the cautions above to heart, and retain a healthy respect for electricity.
Also, go out and spend $12 on Juice - Electricity for Pleasure and Pain, by Uncle Abdul (Greenery Press, 1998). It's much more of an 'understand what happens' manual than a 'how-to,' and is chock full of valuable information.