BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Amidst the frenzy of exhibitors showcasing their latest products to a hungry crowd of attendees over the weekend at Sex Expo New York, a meeting of the foremost-thinking minds in femtech was underway.
Kicking off the weekend’s slate of workshops this past Saturday morning, the Women of Sex Tech panel featured a collection of female founders and heads of companies from some of the most innovative brands in the sextech game, moderated by industry publicist Erica Braverman.
Tucked away in the peripheral meeting room of the Brooklyn Expo Center, Ariel Martinez from MakeLoveNotPorn; Alex Fine of Dame Products; Kris Fretz of Emojibator; Maureen Pollack from Lovabilty; Melanie Cristol from Lorals; Suzanne Sinatra of Private Packs; and Lidia Bonilla from House of Plume were convened in front of a packed crowd shortly after the official ribbon-cutting that welcomed attendees to Sex Expo 2019 to share their insights on the burgeoning industry.
Sextech has historically been a taboo subject, frequently devalued in conversations surrounding health and wellness and generally stigmatized in tech and innovation spaces, in spite of femtech being one of the fastest-growing industries to watch.
Following a pivotal year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, at which Lora DiCarlo was infamously stripped of its award for a personal massager that uses microrobotics to deliver blended orgasms, sextech has been gaining momentum and simultaneous visibility in mainstream conversations.
While positive steps have been made, such as the organizing body of CES backtracking and not only reissuing Lora DiCarlo’s Innovation Award, but also officially sanctioning sextech brands at its 2020 show, the battle is far from over.
The Sextech Scarlet Letter
As Braverman pointed out, many investors still “won’t touch” sextech startups because of the associated stigma, despite the industry’s demonstrative profitability.
The group collectively bemoaned the fact that many of them are denied bank loans and advertising opportunities, amongst other essential tools.
“Businesses don’t want to work with us,” said Sinatra.
“I couldn’t get product liability insurance for Private Packs even though we’re an FDA Class I medical device. So, if someone wore my product and it hurt them or they were injured, I wouldn’t have insurance to protect my company.”
Cristol, the founder of Lorals, whose flagship product is a wearable reinvention of the dental dam, described a similar experience.
“When I first started to look for a manufacturer, I reached out to companies that make condoms since they’re both made out of latex," she said. “One U.S. factory that we approached had been making condoms for decades and when I first reached out, they seemed really excited.”
However, after signing a nondisclosure agreement and learning the exact nature of Lorals — a product made for oral sex for women, as Cristol explained — suddenly, they disappeared.
“Finally, after a few emails they reached out to say that they’d spoken with their board and had decided they weren’t comfortable with the product,” she said. “They made condoms for decades but when it comes to oral sex and a product made for women’s pleasure, that’s not okay.”
Unfortunately, Cristol’s story isn’t uncommon. Founder after founder shared their own struggles, illuminating several clearly defined barriers to entry for entrepreneurs seeking to break into the sextech space.
For MakeLoveNotPorn, a social video sharing platform designed to highlight real-world sex, Martinez explained, “A lot of people outside the industry don’t realize how often ‘no adult content’ is in the fine print of emailing platforms, job posting sites — we got our Instagram taken down and weren’t able to reactivate because we linked outside to an adult content site even though it was a SFW image.”
Instagram, like its parent company Facebook, has similarly become a point of contention for adult businesses, with accounts being shuttered, sometimes irreversibly, for vague or indiscriminate reasons.
According to Cristol, as of late Facebook has even begun blocking promoted posts that share mainstream news articles if they’re about sex products.
“Whether it’s being denied small business loans or leases or advertising, I’m consistently surprised how many people think what I’m doing for the world is bad and therefore, I should not be allowed to have those things,” said Alex Fine of Dame Products.
“Google doesn’t allow us to target; QuickBooks doesn’t want to work with us; I’m not allowed to advertise on Facebook — which if you know anything about digital marketing, that’s where 80 percent of ad spending is done, between Facebook and Google. I’m currently suing the MTA because they won’t allow our advertisements because it’s ‘of a sexual nature.’"
She quickly clapped back, “Have you been on the subway?”
Fine’s case against the MTA, or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York, revolves around alleged discriminatory practices in their advertising policy. Following months of back-and-forth with the MTA’s ad agency, Dame’s proposed campaign was rejected on the grounds of a newly amended guideline that forbade products of a “sexual nature” from being eligible for advertising.
Specifically, while Dame and other women’s health companies such as Unbound and Thinx have been denied by the MTA, products that center on men’s sexual health, such as Hims, which ran a decidedly suggestive ad campaign featuring wilted cacti as a somewhat less-than-discreet metaphor for erectile dysfunction, are deemed permissible.
Fine’s lawsuit, and likewise Cristol’s story as well, illuminate a clear double standard with societal acceptance of men’s versus women’s sexuality, a stigma all the execs represented on the panel are constantly fighting to overcome.
While important to air the negative aspects and challenges of being female-fronted companies in the sextech game, Braverman also touched on some of the more inspiring aspects of what it is to be a woman in sextech.
When asked what led them to the industry in the first place, many spoke of a perceived gap in the market as they shared their company origin stories.
“I was a peer sex educator when I was in college,” said Cristol. “Back then and still now [the dental dam] is a laughingstock. People giggle when they hear it. I found myself being a dental dam user and I remember thinking, ‘Why isn’t this product better? Why haven’t people thought about making something for women’s bodies that makes us feel confident and sex and attractive rather than something that makes us giggle.’ That’s where the idea for Lorals came from.”
Bonilla likewise shared that House of Plume’s Moi Box was born from an embarrassing encounter; Sinatra’s invention from an accident that left her in need of a very specific solution; for Kris Fretz of Emojibator, it was a lack of inexpensive, unintimidating entry-level products that would lead her to creating one of the few “humor-first” sex toy brands.
“My first encounter with sextech was in college when I went to a party with friends where they were selling sex toys,” she said. “It was really fun, but everything was so expensive. That was my barrier to entry was that I couldn’t afford to try this thing that was also very phallic looking and intimidating and I didn’t like that.
“We purposely wanted to put humor first in our brand because we didn’t find a lot of companies that were trying to educate women about sexuality and pleasure through that lens and I think that helps to make people feel more comfortable. It helps to make it more accessible.”
For Maureen Pollack, who created the WaterSlyde, a bathtub faucet attachment that diverts the water stream to hit and just the right spot, growing up in a devout religious family presented its own predicaments.
“I came up with the idea [for the WaterSlyde] when I was 15. My hormones were raging but as a modern Orthodox Jew, I couldn’t have sex and I couldn’t go out and buy sex toys. I found the bathtub and let’s just say I took about four baths a day.
“There was a water shortage in California because of me,” she joked.
“I think you’ll hear something similar from a lot of us which is, a lot of us had an experience where we said, ‘Why weren’t we thinking about improving this experience for women,’” said Fine.
“Women are four times more likely to say that sex has been not at all pleasurable in the past year. They have half as many orgasms. When I went through puberty, sex was this thing I was excited about and curious to try and I got slut-shamed hard. That, for me, was like, ‘Oh there’s this door I’m not supposed to go behind,’ but that’s what pulled me into this industry — I wanted to go behind it and learn more.”
The New Wave
Many of the panelists' subsequent journeys reflect a changing tide, particularly regarding acceptance from their own personal communities and innovations such as 3D printing and crowdfunding platforms that have revolutionized how new products can reach consumers.
“Crowdfunding is dope,” enthused Fine, whose initial campaign for Dame’s flagship Eva hands-free clitoral vibrator garnered a staggering $575K in 45 days, making it one of the most successful campaigns for a pleasure product.
“Thinking about the ways things have changed over the years, crowdfunding really redistributed the power to the people. If I would have had to go to an investor meeting with — let’s be honest — a bunch of older white men, and pitch my idea for a vibrator, that would have never worked. It would be like, ‘Why would my wife need this, she’s got me.’ To be able to go directly to the people with a video and concept explaining what we wanted to do and why it mattered was a game-changer.”
Similarly, Emojibator experienced similar success with crowdfunding, also tapping into the very modern power of virality to push the brand further.
“We were inspired by a book that outlines how things go viral,” explained Fretz. “So we wrote a press release and took very specific photography using those principles and attacked from that standpoint.”
For all the challenges they face, women in sextech have managed to carve out space, asserting themselves as major players in tech and innovation.
The Women of Sex Tech group, founded by Bonilla and Polly Rodriguez of Unbound in 2015 as a collective for women in a still-male-dominated industry, has become a widespread community encompassing artists, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, innovators and more.
Participating companies range from the more tame, like Bonilla’s House of Plume and Sinatra’s Private Packs to various sex toy companies and the explicit MakeLoveNotPorn.
“We all have a similar vision but differ in how we want to make that vision happen,” said Fine. "Regardless, we all have a deep appreciation of each other. When you’re at the bottom and you feel like the world is pushing you down, you look around and see other people at the bottom and they become the people who are going to support you the most.”
In spite of the obstacles, the struggles, the naysayers and the stigma, Bonilla concluded on an uplifting note.
“We battle a lot of stuff: Facebook, insurance companies, payment processors […] but it is really fun being a woman of sextech.
“There is no better job.”