ANME/XBIZ Show: Women in Sextech Panel Explores Gender Stereotypes

ANME/XBIZ Show: Women in Sextech Panel Explores Gender Stereotypes

LOS ANGELES — Sextech and adult toys dominate news cycles today not just because of exploding sales during COVID, but also the groundbreaking work and innovative products that femme-led and female-founded brands are pushing forward.

Their contributions and influence were the focus of last week’s ANME/XBIZ "Women in Sextech" virtual panel. The wide-ranging discussion touched on the unique insights women bring to the sextech industry, issues female-led and female-centric pleasure product companies face, the stigma pornography often casts on adult toys, and COVID’s positive impact on sales, among other topics.

Panelists included Lora Haddock DiCarlo, founder and CEO of Lora DiCarlo; Johanna Rief, head of global PR, WOW Tech; Savannah Zinkand, director of sales, Dame Products; Autumn O’Bryan, founder and CEO of Global Novelties; Elisa McDermott of Clio/plusOne; and Kristen Tribby, head of marketing and education for Fun Factory, who moderated.

O’Bryan kicked off the session by highlighting and celebrating the decades-long influence women have had in pleasure product development, innovation, branding and marketing. She lists Suki Dunham, co-founder of Ohmibod; Susan Montani at the Better Sex Institute; and Susan Colvin at CalExotics as three notable sextech pioneers.

O’Bryan noted, at the beginning of her career, most brands and factories were run by men and that there were very few women doing design and product development. Once more women entered the sextech space, their influence started shaping the industry.

“By bringing in insight from a female perspective, we were able to work on ergonomic design, aesthetics, bringing in fashion, updating packaging and messaging for all products,” said O’Bryan.

DiCarlo pointed out that having a diverse and female-led team brings practical insights to product development for both male and female pleasure products. “In some cases, problems were solved by simple solutions that someone with different anatomy wouldn’t be able to identify,” said DiCarlo.

The panelists then discussed the question of whether or not gender influences product design positively or negatively with the group agreeing that there are more benefits than drawbacks.

“I think men can design for women and women can design for men. It’s just a matter of being cohesive, working together and taking a holistic approach. As a whole, I think that we’re making much better products, but the foundation for that was laid by women these past few decades,” said O’Bryan.

However, launching a gender-specific product is still not easy. After several years, WOW Tech launched their first toy aimed at men, the Arcwave Ion. Rief noted that the company took their time on Arcwave not because they lacked the male insights to develop it, but because they were working towards changing societal views.

“For women, it’s quite common for them to use a sex toy due to different [factors] like media [exposure]. However, I think that using a sex toy for men is still seen as something you do when you’re desperate,” said Rief. “That’s where education comes in and we’re working on it.”

McDermott agrees that education is key to changing people’s perspectives, which is why her company is funding in-house medical studies to showcase the positive benefits sex toy use has on health.

Their recent study concluded that, after four weeks of sustained product use, participants’ levels of anxiety and depression dropped dramatically. An unpublished report highlights how sex toy use can possibly improve skin radiance and even reduce wrinkles.

“So we’re motivated in getting the message out there that we’re doing something good for women and changing the perception of using these products. And that’s also going to change the perception of sex toy use for men,” said McDermott.

Another challenge adult-oriented companies face is funding. The difficulty raising money, especially with venture capital firms, is amplified when launching a pleasure product for women.

“I think that there’s definitely a lot of interest in fundraising for female body products; however, what VC firms want to see is how ‘advertisable’ your products are and how much of an audience you can reach. And that’s a big hurdle because we’re still not able to advertise like mainstream companies to build a brand that investors want to see,” said Zinkand.

This is precisely why Dame Products turned to crowdfunding during their launch. After the brand’s first try with Kickstarter was rejected due to the site’s then-strict prohibition on adult products, they turned to Indiegogo and successfully raised half-a-million dollars.

The pornography industry came up as another challenge within the industry with panelists noting that sexual health and wellness products are stamped with the same social stigma porn receives.

“We’ve tried to separate ourselves from porn because sextech is really a product whereas porn is media,” said O’Bryan. “Being grouped with porn makes business more difficult for things like credit card processing and advertising.”

However, brands like WOW Tech and Lora DiCarlo noted that tech developments like interactive pleasure products and the rise of audio porn are creating business opportunities for future growth that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Currently, we’re exploring partnerships and development opportunities that incorporate porn in a healthy and respectful manner. We believe that there is a holistic approach to sexual wellness practices, and fantasies are a part of that. Which means porn — visual porn and audio porn — are part of that. So I would like to see this grow in a respectful and tastefully done way,” said DiCarlo.

Finally, as the panel drew to a close, the speakers turned to the positive impact the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns had on their businesses.

Rief noted that after sales skyrocketed in 2020 the mainstream press started paying attention to the industry with coverage across media platforms.

“That helped start a conversation about sexual wellness and sex toys. And it proved that this was the perfect time for consumers to invest in their own sexuality,” said Rief.

An unexpected trend DiCarlo noticed was a boost in male customers looking to purchase products for a significant other or attend the brand’s wellness sessions in order to improve their relationships.

“We often don’t talk enough about the softer side of these guys and their willingness and ability to do what they can to improve their relationships,” said DiCarlo. “And they were, for the most part, very thoughtful, willing and able to listen, which was refreshing.”

Tribby noticed increased demand for Fun Factory’s more advanced products during this time period and O’Bryan observed that after stimulus checks first hit the U.S., stripper poles sold out across the country.

Zinkand saw parallels with this crisis and 2008’s financial meltdown.

"I remember that this industry also experienced a growth in product sales," she recalled. "I don’t want to say we’re recession-proof, but I like to say that we’re crisis-proof. When people need something to make themselves feel good, I am glad that we are a tool in their toolbox to provide comfort."

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