It’s not that crowded so you, like every other unsuspecting passenger, find an empty seat on the New York City subway. You take out your Malcolm Gladwell, or plug in your wireless earbuds, or maybe you’re one of those rare breeds to sit, ankle on knee, and unfold a local newspaper. The train rumbles along and out of casual boredom your eyes wander upward, where you see in all caps, “ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION” set against a glaring red billboard. Even the elderly man next to you with the thick-rimmed glasses can read the huge block letters and that of Roman, the advertiser’s name.
Over the past year, Roman and HIMS, two companies that cater to men’s health, have run advertising campaigns with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to destigmatize issues related to men’s sexual and physical wellness. The CEOs of both companies have described working with MTA’s advertising agencies as a process of “understanding” and “professionalism.”
The same can’t be said for the MTA’s recent advertising collaboration with Dame Products, a sex tech startup by women, for women. In January, the MTA denied its campaign for vibrators on the basis of “updated guidelines” banning “sexually oriented companies.” This comes after Dame’s co-founders, Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman, spent 7 months working with Outfront, the agency that revises advertising proposals for the MTA.
In June, Dame Products sued the MTA, accusing the agency of harboring a “Victorian view of female sexuality,” and noting that other subway ads — like the HIMS ones that feature phallic cactuses, both flaccid and erect — graphically cater toward male pleasure. The MTA has countered that its advertising policy clearly prohibits sex toys. The suit is pending.
“When I started this company, I never thought I would be filing lawsuits,” Fine says, during a recent interview. But she hopes the process “opens up conversations about the larger societal tropes at play here,” including the prioritization of male-focused products.
Sex Tech Explained: The Birds and The Bees and The Vibrators
Dame Products is just one of hundreds of businesses part of a group, Women in Sex Tech, trying to increase awareness for female sexual wellness.
[Related: This designer also wants to improve sexual wellness for women]
Sex tech, one of the more recent “tech” industry annexes, consists of the usual suspects in the sex toy market as well as any product that, generally speaking, enhances the human sexual experience. There’s no doubt that sex sells — the porn industry generates anywhere from $6 to $97 billion in revenue a year — but it’s difficult to find reliable figures for the sex tech market. Some researchers have estimated that the industry is growing at more than 30 percent a year, potentially outperforming high-growth tech sectors like drone manufacturing. One forecast predicts that the global sex toys market will reach $30 billion by 2020, and a JWT Intelligence Report even dubbed the sex tech rise as “vagina-nomics” since there have never been more products on the market geared toward sexual health.
Back in 2016, Future of Sex podcast host Bryony Cole predicted the biggest trend in sex tech to be female founders, and she wasn’t wrong. Women-led sex tech companies seem to be leading the market in innovation — to name a few, Dame launched Fin, the first-ever sex toy on Kickstarter, which is an easy-to-use vibrator worn between the fingers to naturally amp up sensations. Lioness, a San Francisco-based sex tech company, has developed a smart vibrator that tracks and suggests improvements for your orgasms. And Lora DiCarlo, a recent CES honoree, has developed a hands-free massager that uses micro-robotics to “hit all the right spots.”
“The innovations that are coming out are definitely different from before, when the majority [of sex toys] were simply vibrators or dildos,” Cole says. “There’s a lot more focus on sex education, and we’re seeing innovations around painful sex or health conditions which are interesting alternatives to pharmaceuticals.”
According to Cole, there were roughly 30 women in sex tech when she entered the industry in 2016. Currently, there are over 200 women who have founded their own companies. Under the umbrella of sexual wellness branding, sex tech has steadily gained steam alongside femtech, female health, and other related industries.
“The ongoing stigma is, how do we make sex palatable?” Cole adds. “It’s taking it out of the creepy back corners and putting it into the wellness box, or the feminine hygiene box.”
While some companies are trying to get off with clever marketing, others have opted for a more direct approach to building a sex tech brand that isn’t afraid of showing its true colors — and baring some skin.
Cindy Gallop, arguably the first sex tech pioneer in the game, founded a website called MakeLoveNotPorn in 2009 following a viral TED talk in which she discusses “porn world” versus “real world” sex. An entirely user-generated video sharing platform, the aptly dubbed MakeLoveNotPorn stars submit videos of themselves having real-world sex (or other intimate moments) with their partners, and its users pay to rent and stream those videos. In the past six years, the company has had over 750,000 global users, 200 MakeLoveNotPorn stars, 1,500 videos, and pulled in over $1.3 million dollars in revenue.
“We are building a whole new category on the internet that has never before existed: social sex,” Gallop says. “Our competition isn’t porn — it’s Facebook and YouTube.”
Gallop’s company curates videos that span across a wide sexual nature from dirty talk to forest sex and strictly ensures each is consensual and legal. The vast majority of MakeLoveNotPorn stars have never filmed themselves doing anything sexual before, but the awkwardness and the accidents are all part of the allure, as Gallop explains. Whereas porn could be construed as performative — “nothing must go wrong” — MakeLoveNotPorn captures sex in all its “glorious, silly, beautiful, messy, reassuring humanness.”
“We celebrate real-world everything: real-world bodies, real-world hair, real-world penis size, real-world breast size,” Gallop says. “Nothing makes you feel better about your own body than watching people who are nobody’s aspirational body type getting turned on by each other and having a bloody amazing time in bed.”
Particularly relevant in the era of #metoo, Gallop also wants her company to educate through demonstration. “Nobody knows what consent actually looks like in bed,” Gallop says. She believes a woman-designed platform is best positioned to do that as “the young white male founders of the giant tech companies that dominate our lives today are not the primary targets of harassment, abuse, sexual assault, violence, and rape.”
It All Started With A Fallacious Diagnosis
Even the Greeks got female anatomy wrong. In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates first coined the term “hysteria” — from “hystera,” or uterus — and attributed its onset to abnormal movements of the womb in a woman’s body. Basically, women were thought to go crazy because their uterus wandered throughout their body “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease.” You can thank Plato’s dramatic writing, “Timaeus,” for that elaboration.
Since then, the herstory of female pleasure can be traced from kooky inventions to kinky treatments, as described in unashamed detail in Rachel P. Maines’ book, “The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.” For centuries, doctors treated female “hysteria” with pelvic massages and, eventually, vibrating devices that gave women “paroxysms of relief,” better known today as an orgasm. Starting in the 1920s, vibrators and other sex toys popped up in very early porn movies and continued to gain popularity well into the Great Depression (there are, after all, only so many activities you can do for free) and the war (where have all the men gone?).
The real heyday of sex toys was in the 1970s, when hippie culture and the sexual revolution birthed a plethora of sex shops. Most companies selling sex toys catered to and were owned by men, who modeled products after penises to imitate penetration rather than create stimulation. By the 1990s, Reuben Sturman — known as “The Walt Disney of Porn –” controlled and distributed the majority of sex toys in America, though there were a few female entrepreneurs under the radar. Dell Williams, the first woman to own a sex toy company that specifically catered to women, quietly ran her business, Eve’s Garden, in Manhattan.
[Related: This stock photo company teamed up with Sheryl Sandberg to close the gender gap in media]
Today, many more are following in Williams’ footsteps and marketing sex toys for women that focus on female pleasure. According to a study of over 52,000 adults, straight men orgasm 95 percent of the time they have sex while straight women orgasm only 65 percent of the time. This is commonly known as the “orgasm gap,” and it’s a phenomenon that women in sex tech are trying to close.
Melanie Cristol, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, is the founder of Lorals(a shortened name for “Love Oral Always”), which sells products designed to improve the experience of oral sex for women. Some research has found that oral sex is three times more likely to lead to orgasm compared to vaginal intercourse. Of the products listed in her inventory, the most notable are single-use latex panties, which aim to maximize the sensations of oral sex without the discomfort of a partner with a scruffy beard, the soilage of a partner on her period, or other inconveniences.
Cristol says, “I love that by creating this product, we’re helping people with vaginas be able to experience so much more pleasure during intimacy.”
This female-centric philosophy doesn’t just apply to oral sex but all forms of sensual behavior related to women’s sexual pleasure. Though 70 percent of sex product companies are run by men, the disruptive sex tech space seems largely female.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, Lioness founders Liz Klinger and Anna Lee have developed a smart vibrator that consumers have called “a FitBit for your sex life.” Priced over $200, the vibrator uses special sensors to track pelvic floor muscle movements and “automate” the physiological process of having an orgasm. It even has slightly unorthodox benefits such as helping one user understand the relationship between her concussion and her orgasm, and allowing a pop star to literally create music from her orgasm’s unique vibration patterns.
The company, which has roughly 18,000 followers on Instagram, has enjoyed plentiful media coverage from Glamour and The Oprah Magazine. It also plans to expand into other wellness-oriented areas — “specifically, the pleasure and health of post-menopausal or post-pregnancy women,” Lee says. “We’d like to work with the medical community to publish more research because data on female sexual health is so lacking as of now.”
What also makes Lioness’ product different: it’s designed by women, for women.
“I met a founder of a now non-existent vibrator company and asked him, ‘How do you know what feels good for a woman?’” Lee recounts. “And he was like, ‘Oh, there’s this industry standard where you put the vibrator on your nose [to test] feeling’.”
The so-called nose test notwithstanding, female founders in sex tech are still figuring out how to succeed in what was historically a man’s business.
There’s a First Time For Everything
So, how exactly does one enter the sex tech industry? Some founders I spoke to have backgrounds in sex education, and others in law or engineering, but all share a passion for studying the female body.
Lora Haddock, founder and CEO of Lora DiCarlo, a sex-positive women-run startup, is no exception. After all, she first got into the risque business after a particularly sensual experience.
Haddock says, “What started the whole idea was a blended orgasm I had about five years ago.” She explains that a blended orgasm is the stimulation of both the clitoris and the G-spot at the same time. “When that happened, I nearly fell off the bed. I was like, ‘Holy sh*t, how do I do that again?’ I look at my partner and realize, ‘Well, how do I do that again by myself?’”
In the preliminary stages of her product research, Haddock needed data on female anatomy to sculpt a customizable product. As she found out, such data “didn’t exist because we don’t talk about women’s sexuality unless it has to do with making babies.” So Haddock started asking people, very bluntly, “Can I talk about where your clitoris is?”
Haddock found people willing to learn more about their own bodies because “when you start understanding your own physiology better you start understanding your own wants, your needs, what’s pleasurable, what’s not, and that’s very empowering.”
After collecting over 200 surveys, Haddock contacted Dr. John Parmigiani, head of the Prototype Development Lab at Oregon State University, to recreate the perfect orgasm. With her background in engineering, Haddock crafted a document that listed 52 design requirements for the product she wanted.
Haddock says of Dr. Parmigiani’s response, “He just lit up. He told me, ‘I don’t know about the application, but the problem is really interesting.’”
Most products in sex tech, however, aren’t so well-received, at least in the financial world. Across the board, sex tech companies, especially those founded by women, have a hard time (pun intended) being taken seriously.
Banks frequently refuse to give out loans to any company operating in the “adult” space, which is their legal right. And some venture capital firms have “morality clauses” in their contracts that allow them to delicately decline any involvement with sex tech.
In 2014, Gallop set out to raise $2 million to scale her company. “I pitched my heart out for five years and failed to raise any funding,” she says. “Our original investor ended up putting up the $2 million himself. So in 10 years, I’ve only ever been able to find one investor.”
Klinger and Lee of Lioness similarly struggled. “Usually you can tell within the first five minutes of an [investor] meeting, as soon as you bring out the vibrator, whether that person is somebody that you want to build a relationship with, versus some people who are going to be like, ‘I’m not touching that,’” Lee says. “Or they’re bringing all the other investors in to laugh at it.” Lioness turned to Indiegogo to raise $130,000 in pre-sales and worked out of SkyDeck accelerator at UC Berkeley.
Dame Products and Cristol’s company Lorals, also went through crowdfunding, while others approached private investors.
Meanwhile, MakeLoveNotPorn founder Gallo, says her company’s largest operational challenge is payment processing. Like banks, Paypal, Stripe, or other systems have policies that prohibit “adult” content. “I literally need to beg them,” Gallop says. “Everything that any other business can put into motion and not give another moment’s thought to, we can’t. Every single thing is a huge battle. Every single day.”
Decoding The Taboo of S-E-X Tech
It’s only to be expected that social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube all share similar policies prohibiting advertisements of “adult” products, but it begs the question: what can sex tech companies do to increase exposure?
For Haddock’s Lora DiCarlo, it meant entering a orgasm-inducing robotic massager, the Ose, in the Robotics and Drone category of the CES Innovation Awards, a consumer technology competition, in 2019. To Haddock’s surprise, her product won. One month later, however, she was informed that CES was rescinding the award on the basis that “entries deemed immoral, obscene, indecent, or profane, will be disqualified.”
A brief look into CES’ history with sex-related products will reveal a real-life sex robot for men displayed at the awards show in 2018, as well as a virtual reality porn company two years back that allowed men to watch porn in a “seedy” meeting room. Neither of these were censored.
Haddock says, “At that point, we realized we didn’t just have a great product, we had a great cause, and that cause was fighting for gender equity.”
An open letter by Lora DiCarlo criticizing the double standard coupled with fierce media coverage of the incident led CES to give the company its award back, but Haddock told them “we didn’t want it unless they were willing to change their policies.” Amid the PR firestorm, CES admitted mishandling the award and announced updates to the show’s guidelines in 2019 that expanded the health and wellness category and prohibited pornography altogether.
Having raised over $3 million in funding and grants, Lora DiCarlo plans to release around 10 new products this coming year, and Haddock herself is cautiously optimistic.
Haddock says of her small victories, “There’s this growing crescendo of people speaking out for their rights, and it’s going to keep growing until it gets so f*cking loud that you can’t do anything but hear it and be forced to listen.”
[Related: These men want to invest in female entrepreneurs]
The article has been updated. An earlier version misstated that research on oral sex is from Lorals.