Sex Sells, Just Not When It Comes to Branding Women’s Pleasure

This year at AIGA’s Design Conference, industrial designer Ti Chang shared how she’s built her career around designing for social change, and how her luxury sex toy brand, Crave, applies thoughtful user experience research and elevated product aesthetics to reduce the stigma around sex and women’s sexuality. However, because vibrators are legally classified as novelty items, consumer products that cater to men’s sexual health are more accepted and promoted through mainstream media while companies associated with women’s pleasure face increased advertising restrictions on social media platforms, in magazines, and public spaces.

Even Reddit recently updated its advertising policies to exclude any “adult-oriented products and services” from running ads on their site; however, under the new regulations, “ads pertaining to products for the prevention of pregnancy and erectile dysfunction are permissible.” As Polly Rodriguez, CEO of Unbound, puts it, the emphasis placed on family planning versus women’s pleasure as integral to sexual health perpetuates the stigma associated with sex toys and female sexuality.

Last year a series of illustrated ads for Unbound were banned from running on New York’s MTA due to their “dissemination of indecent material to minors” and “public display of offensive sexual material.” More recently, Dame faced the same ad rejection notice from the MTA, despite the fact their ads didn’t feature nudity or any anatomically suggestive content. This is a stark contrast to the very phallocentric ads for erectile dysfunction services from telemedicine brand Hims, which were approved by the MTA.

Sextech company Lora DiCarlo has also experienced blatant gender discrimination when the tech trade show CES rescinded its Innovation Award for the Osé personal massager*. Administrators at CES and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which owns and produces CES, asserted that “entries deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane, or not in keeping with CTA’s image will be disqualified.” In an open letter appearing on Lora DiCarlo’s website, the company says it was also barred from showcasing Osé or even exhibiting at CES 2019 even though, “a literal sex doll for men launched on the floor at CES in 2018 and a VR porn company exhibits there every year, allowing men to watch pornography in public as consumers walk by.”

These consistent accounts of gender bias and misogyny targeted at brands for women’s sexual health prompted the following discussion between several designers and entrepreneurs in the sex toy industry. In the conversation below, they talk about some of the challenges they face, as well as successful strategies for communicating their brands or products to a wider audience through advertising and branding.

Meet the participants:
Sarah Brown, director of marketing of Lora DiCarlo
Ti Chang, co-founder and VP of design at Crave
Alex Fine, CEO of Dame Products
Zoe Ligon, founder of Spectrum Boutique
Polly Rodriguez, CEO of Unbound

How is your company working to destigmatize women’s pleasure, and how are your products making the market more accessible to more consumers?

Ti Chang: At Crave, our focus is on cultural listening. This is a space that’s very sensitive and we as product and industrial designers never want to assume anything. So for us, listening to our customers is so important when designing experiences that matter to them. We tried to create an aspirational and accessible brand to help broaden its reach to include people of all bodies and genders.

Our vibrating necklace, Vesper, is an object you can use in private, but it also has a public presence when you wear it out as jewelry. One of the things that we heard as we talked to users was an overwhelming desire to talk openly about sex and pleasure. So our goal was to create a product that was specifically a conversation piece that allowed women to feel comfortable talking about topics that are typically stigmatized or seen as taboo.

Polly Rodriguez: The history of product design shows us that the people designing products are not always reflective of the end users. We take an empathetic approach to design at Unbound that works to encompass the diverse perspectives of our customers.

Alex Fine: At Dame we approach our products from a wellness perspective as a way of destigmatizing the sex toy buying experience. We want people to feel comfortable using our products and navigating our website.

Sarah Brown: The way that Lora DiCarlo approaches product development is very much from an anatomical standpoint. The reality is none of us have the same shoe size, body size, or body type. Our fingerprints are different. The vaginal canal and positioning of the clitoris are also completely different. When we’re building products, it’s very much data-driven and based on real people.

Zoe Ligon: Unlike the other folks in this discussion, I’m a retailer and I resell products at Spectrum designed by other people. I try to do my best to only work with brands that have a similarly aligned ethics value or are at least trying to do better. Even the pleasure industry, which I previously assumed was more progressive, has all the same hallmark issues of patriarchy and capitalism at the higher tiers. So it’s really just trying to form my own moral code and finding that balance and middle ground of how to conduct business ethically when you’re working in a broken system.

What strategies have been successful for you when branding your products?

Fine: Dame has a female-centered visual aesthetic. We wanted to represent a feminine experience that is womanly, not girly. We’ve had countless color discussions just on how to use pink in our products that is not stereotypical “sex toy pink.” When we first started out, we were really resistant to using the color at all. But we realized that we don’t want to completely say no to any color, even if it’s internalizing the patriarchy. Some people really love pink, so we were able to find nuances in the color that made our customers happy and still reflected the ethos of our company.

Chang: We don’t follow the traditional way of thinking about branding in terms of demographics because we have such a wide customer base. Instead, we just work hard to try to make the brand approachable and relatable to people of all ages.

Ligon: I agree. In my shop, I try to avoid selling products with branding that is overly gendered or not reflective of the diversity of my customers. Though sometimes they’ll love the use of a product even if the packaging is terrible, so I also have to think of the user experience outside of certain shortcomings of the branding.

“There’s no option here. We have to normalize sex and sexuality. We take profit and activism and put them on the same level of importance.”

Rodriguez: We tried to have a finger on the pulse of the broader political environment. We used to not be a political company, but when Donald Trump got elected and you had somebody that was caught on camera bragging about sexually assaulting women, we decided to change that.

When we created Area 69, a community-based rewards program that’s part of the Unbound brand, the visual narrative and aesthetic was reflective of what we were seeing in our audience. We focused on escapism and the desire to create your own world as opposed to living in this one, since I think a lot of us feel like every day we wake up and are like, how is this reality? We [at Unbound] also had our own personal experiences with shopping for toys and feeling like we didn’t relate to a lot of the packaging that was out there. And so it was important for us to explore the concept of defining your own world and your own experience. I think that’s a very good analogy for how we view sexuality more broadly.

Brown: Yes. When Lora DiCarlo was banned from CES, we very quickly realized the same thing that Polly is talking about; we found we could no longer afford to not be political in our personal lives. And what the leadership of the company decided was that this would be an activist brand. We and our investors all essentially said we see this as something that has to change. There’s no option here. We have to normalize sex and sexuality. So we took profit and activism and put them on the same level of importance. This is something that I think a lot of people up until recently didn’t think was necessarily a good idea, but we’re actually finding that it is. We’re not focusing on branding that appeals to one target demographic. The goal is to make everyone in the world more comfortable with their sexuality, with their body, with orgasms, and pleasure.

“There are a lot of investors who won’t even take a meeting with companies in this category. It’s considered a moral hazard.”

Getting funded as a sex toy company is notoriously difficult. What have your experiences been in terms of getting your companies off the ground?

Ligon: Unless you get lucky, it can be exceedingly difficult to start a sex toy company. I inherited enough money after my father passed away to start my own business, but the industry in general faces discrimination from places like banks and payment processors, and misogyny is still rampant even if it’s becoming more under the radar.

Rodriguez: When we were just starting to look for funding, one of the biggest points of feedback we would get is, “Oh, there’s not enough defensibility for what you’re doing.” Investors aren’t forthright about the real reason they don’t want to invest, which I think is ultimately that they don’t want to go to their partners and say, “I want to invest in this vibrator company.” And so there are a lot of investors who won’t even take a meeting with companies in this category. It’s considered a moral hazard. That makes the pool of VCs who are even willing to meet with you incredibly small. There’s a huge gender disparity in funding as only 2% of capital goes to women. I had over 300 rejections before I got to our first yes.

Chang: I live in San Francisco, which is a venture capital hotbed. For us, we didn’t go the VC route; we specifically sought out angel investors because it was more valuable to us to have 50 or 60 investors who would act as our advocates or evangelists. In this instance, the money that they give is fortunately not tied to organizations like the Catholic Foundation Endowment Fund, which would be morally opposed to our products.

Brown: We’ve also managed to keep ourselves fairly separate from VC money. However, we’ve gone through a lot of the same conversations that every woman in business does, which is basically having to justify why the company exists. We had a surprising amount of positive feedback and very strong support in the investment community. But the challenge is there not just with sex tech, but femtech overall. Everything that we want to do as businesspeople is questioned because we are women. Basically, women are asked “How are you going to avoid failing, whereas men are asked how do you want to succeed?”

Fine: Right, you get preventative questions versus promotional questions. Promotional questions might be, “Where do you want to be in five years? Tell me about your vision, your aspirations.” While preventative questions are “How are you going to protect your market shares? How are you going to mitigate your risks?” Research shows that women get asked these questions more frequently. And these could be asked by a male investor or female investor, that doesn’t matter; misogyny can come from any gender. Rather, it’s a bias towards how we speak to women. It’s really subtle, but as women entrepreneurs, I think we’ve all experienced that.

Chang: Speaking of subtle misogyny, especially pertaining to language, it seems like I’ve been repeatedly asked, “How did you end up in a sex toy industry?” Like I had no other option. Whereas men will be asked, “How did you break into the industry?” For us, raising money was actually the easy part. It’s been the marketing side of things—telling the world about our products through advertising and social media platforms—that’s been the most difficult.

“Basically, women are asked ‘How are you going to avoid failing, whereas men are asked how do you want to succeed?’”

Brown: The #MeToo movement has really given a voice to a lot of women who were silent before. And that includes women working in the tech world. What we were trying to fight against with CES is something that’s been around forever. Gender bias and misogyny continue to occur, and it’s happened to probably everybody in this discussion. When we got loud about the discrimination we faced we actually had so much support from every gender, every industry. They said just keep going, keep working. But despite the support, our industry faces massive problems with reaching our customers through social media. We’ve had Instagram coming out and saying they’ll demote content that they find to be inappropriate. Facebook was first, and now Reddit is essentially banning all our ads. It’s odd because it feels like the rest of society seems to be moving towards a more progressive future, and a yet lot of the tech world is moving backward with these new restrictive ad policies.

What are some effective methods for fighting the patriarchy within this space?

Fine: Keep making money. Honestly, when we talk about the #MeToo movement, I think we’re in a particularly precarious position because there’s the conversation as it pertains to our audience, and then there’s a conversation as it pertains to the people that sit at the head of a lot of these institutions. How do you get investors to pay attention to your ideas? How do you get banks to want to work with you? How do you get the MTA to change its mind when you jump through all their hoops and they still reject your ads?

We all try to communicate with our consumers through grassroots efforts because that’s a more authentic approach. Unfortunately what I’ve seen that actually ends up getting investors to change their minds about us is just realizing that they’re missing out on a financial opportunity. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish people just did the right thing based on ethics and morals, but I do think proving to them that this is a viable market is ultimately the thing that will get them to pay attention and value our products and brands.

“It’s odd because it feels like the rest of society seems to be moving towards a more progressive future, and a yet lot of the tech world is moving backward with these new restrictive ad policies.”

Ligon: I feel like it’s a domino effect, too, because I hear payment processors saying, “We don’t think what you’re doing is wrong. We’re afraid that other people we work with will think that we’re not a good person to do business with if they find out we work with you.” It’s going to require a lot of people changing their minds all at once, not one at a time. And I do believe that we’re in this Trumpian culture of when you are confronted with something that makes you uncomfortable, you double down and threaten people with lawsuits in an effort to keep them silent instead, of talking about these things. So as long as there’s this continued threat with lawsuits and the people on top trying to scare everybody below them into submission and silence, it’s going to continue to be a challenge for companies like ours to grow.

Chang: We’re in a time when so much is changing. If we start showing up in luxury retailers or mainstream markets—your Bergdorf Goodmans, your Urban Outfitters—I think that will help to influence widespread acceptance of our industry.

“It’s going to require a lot of people changing their minds all at once, not one at a time.”

Brown: I look at the makeup of this panel as a microcosm for what we’re starting to see industry-wide, which is that more women and people of color with diverse career backgrounds are making these products. I do think that has an impact on the way the industry is viewed. It affects the types of products that are being made, and also affects the people who are actually receiving what we make. They’re embracing our products because of the way that we do our marketing and our branding, and because of the places where we’re actually able to sell and advertise sex toys. Being in these large mainstream retailers allows us to reach people who previously only thought vibrators were available in seedy places where the windows are blacked out. That new level of approachability has really helped reduce the stigma around buying and using our products.

Are you optimistic about the future of the sex toy industry?

Ligon: Despite the many challenges that come with running a sex company in the sex toy industry, I’m optimistic about the future. I’m really trying to integrate more sex education into my shop. I want it to be a resource area for people to find answers, separate from the e-commerce side. Currently, when people have sex questions, instead of sending them to sites like WebMD or the CDC, I send them to Scarleteen, which is designed to be a resource for teenagers. It’s great, but also doesn’t it say a lot that a teen sex resource website is more informative than government or mainstream medical sites? I’m trying to at least create a forum where people can have conversations with each other and not just look things up that have fear mongering and shame embedded in them—or end up stumbling upon porn for answers.

Brown: Over the last six years, I’ve seen a massive shift from where things were when I first got into this space. Just the sheer difference in the number of women, the number of LGBTQ+ people in higher level positions makes me very optimistic. Previously, you’d see only white straight cis men occupying the executive, CEO, and director levels of companies. And then at the store level and maybe the managerial level, you might see a woman or someone of color or LGBTQ+. But now we’re starting to see—across the board, in every industry—more women getting involved and more people of color starting businesses. And I think that shift is what’s going to propel the rest of us forward. I have a lot of hope for the future because of that.

I look at everybody in this discussion and I think that we’re going to be the ones who are helping to make the difference. We’re going to be the ones who are leading that. And I have a lot of confidence in that because I’ve seen what’s happened. I’ve seen what everybody here has done since they started their companies and it’s created a monumental cultural shift.

Chang: I agree with Sarah, the more diverse voices there are in this industry, the better we’ll all be for it. We’re all creating better work because of each other. My hope for the future is that all people can have better relationships with their bodies and have more information about how we touch and play and experience pleasure. Because all the technologies, all the designs, all the products in the world are not going to make much of a difference if we still think pleasure is shameful.

*Update: As of May 8, Lora DiCarlo was re-awarded the CES Robotics Innovation award and received an apology from CES. Within the same week, they also secured $2M in seed funding from both new and existing investors led by the Oregon Opportunity Zone Limited Partnership.