The long road to democratisation of pleasure: challenges faced by Sextech startups

Sex sells. Pornhub, the pornographic video sharing site, observed around 80,000 new international visitors arriving at their website every minute in 2018, adding up to the annual number of 42 billion visits. A sexual wellness item manufacturer, Dame Products raised over $500,000 in its first crowdfunding attempt in 2014. TENGA’s annual sales reached $65M in 2018 and it’s projected to surpass $100M in early 2021. 

Sex sells, but not as much as it could. Shadowbanning of social media limits companies from reaching more audiences. Technology trade shows are unwilling to support the innovation of pleasure. Legislation often encourages tech companies to go against the wave of democratisation of sexual wellness and create a restrictive digital world. 

Sextech is an emerging industry that leverages the power of technology in an attempt to enhance pleasure and sexual wellness. The current public health crisis brought a surge in demand for Sextech products, and more people than ever are experimenting with pleasure during social distancing, either solo or with partners (more on Forbes and sifted). However, one needs to understand that there are still many underlying challenges Sextech entrepreneurs face in democratising sexual pleasure and bringing their products to market. Split into two posts, Part 1 of this article focuses on social stigma pertaining to pleasure, particularly that of females, and gives an overview of recent events that characterised the primary challenges which hinder companies’ abilities to deliver their innovative products. In Part 2, I will offer branding recommendations for early-stage Sextech startups to combat the challenges described in Part 1. (Got no time? Jump to Part 2.) 


Part 1: Value-based challenges faced by sex-tech startups

  1. Pleasure – Call it baby-making, and we’ll listen to you (approx. 5 mins)
    • Social stigma around sex
    • Rejection letters from finance and tech
    • Shadowbanning
    • Company policy and states law
    • Import regulation
  2. Gender-based double standard (approx. 7 mins)
    • At a tech conference
    • With media and public transport agency
    • Structural factors

Part 2: Seven branding strategies for early-stage Sextech startups (approx. 6 mins)

Pleasure – Call it baby-making, and we’ll listen to you 

Liz Klinger, the Co-Founder of Lioness Health was invited to showcase her company’s products at an event co-hosted by Samsung and Women in Tech SF. Focusing on the growth and innovation in the wearable device market, this event was joined by other Femtech (women’s health) companies, including Glow (ovulation and fertility tracking app), Bloomlife (contraction monitor) and Mira (fertility tracking IoT platform). However, according to The Verge, Klinger ended up spending most of the event time arguing with Samsung representatives, who asked Lioness to take down their table. Lioness Health develops female vibrators designed for “experimenting and learning” one’s own pleasure with biofeedback from pelvic floor movement (force sensors), hand movement (accelerometer and gyroscopes), and temperature. According to Klinger, they asked to remove the product because it was women’s “sexual” health. Given the presence of other Femtech startups at the same event, this incident portrays the stigma pertaining to pleasure. Indeed, women’s wellness is considered acceptable when it comes to “making a baby” but not when it comes to owning pleasure

Censorship and restrictive policies of various institutions illustrate another example of social stigma posing a challenge for Sextech entrepreneurs. Dame Products’ request to raise money for their first product was rejected by Kickstarter, everyone’s go-to crowdfunding website. Dame found another website (Indiegogo) to support their initiative, where they successfully raised more than $500,000. Kickstarter revised its content policy to be more open to sex toys and welcomed back Dame as the first sex toy campaign on the platform, which attracted nearly $400,000. But Kickstarter didn’t change its attitude overnight. “After all, Dame only secured approval from Kickstarter after making a direct, personal appeal to colleagues they’d befriended through the Brooklyn startup scene”, explained Alex Fine, the CEO and the Co-Founder of Dame Products in the interview with VICE Media. Similarly, another NYC-based sexual wellness brand, Unbound was rejected by payment platforms like Intuit and Stripe as Unbound’s business was deemed as “unauthorised business type”. Cindy Gallop, the CEO and the Founder of MakeLoveNotPorn (a user-generated pornographic video sharing site) explained to Fast Company that she “couldn’t find a single bank in America that would let [her] open a business bank account for a business that has the word ‘porn’ in its name”. 

Media and other online platforms are also tightening up their regulation to avoid moral hazard. While sexual pleasure is gaining its social acceptance from the mass, especially when wrapped as a part of well-being, the tech companies seem to go against the wave of democratisation. Fine from Dame Products spoke to AdAge, “there [are] bedsheet companies that are making obvious sexual innuendos, but my ad doesn’t even mention sex”. Facebook’s advertising policy states that “adverts must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services unless they promote family planning and contraception”, demonstrating their lack of understanding of the connection between mental thriving and sexual well-being/empowerment. Sextech companies also need to be careful of their phrasing, otherwise, their contents might face shadow banning — the social media platform hides contents from new users and buries down the post at the bottom of the followers’ timeline, limiting companies’ ability to reach consumers. Youtube actively decreases the quality of the videos that have a risk to be pointed out as “immoral”. Moreover, Youtube seems to have stopped placing ads on channels that are deemed “triggering”, significantly affecting the creators’ source of income. According to Vice Media, one SexEd Youtuber saw an 80% decline in his revenue due to the demonetisation. 

It’s worth noting the interaction between government laws and company policies. In the United States, there used to be a section (Section 230) in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which promised;“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” However, Section 230 no longer holds true starting from early 2018, with the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (a congressional bill) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (a senate bill). Congress passed the bills in an attempt to reduce sex trafficking, but according to Vox, their enforcement meant that telecommunications company would be responsible for the advertisement of sex work, regardless of whether it is consensual or not. The bills encouraged tech companies to take proactive actions for severe surveillance and remove “risky” contents, including contents created based on consensus and discussion forums for “current and former sex workers and trafficking victims”. 

Furthermore, nearly half of the world prohibits the import of pornographic and/or obscene materials, according to Lyle, the Customer Experience Associate at Unbound. Many countries on the list are either Muslim-majority countries and/or countries under authoritarian government with limited civil liberties. Overcoming this barrier to entry will likely take more time as it requires a significant shift on beliefs and mental model on a national level. 

Gender-based double standard

Is the taboo around sex the only stigma that Sextech entrepreneurs tackle? The short answer is no. Lora Haddock founded Lora DiCarlo in 2017 and developed Osé, a clitoral and G-spot stimulator as its inaugural production partnership with Robotics & Engineering Lab at Oregon State University. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the international trade show which attracts more than 170,000 attendees every year, granted a Robotics Innovation Award to Osé in October 2018. Lora DiCarlo and the fellow Sextech entrepreneurs were in a celebratory mood until three weeks later, when the CES organising committee, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) revoked the award and even cancelled an invitation to exhibit their product at next year’s CES. When the CTA initially explained to Lora DiCarlo, they cited the following clause in their legalese; “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”. It is too hasty to conclude that stigma pertaining to sex alone can explain CTA’s decision for the withdrawal. In the past years, CES welcomed companies to display VR porn and sex robots catered for heterosexual cis-men. Along with other female-oriented Sextech startups, Lioness Health was rejected to showcase their products, while CES organised a whole room for VR porn in the same year. There was no female keynote speaker initially announced for CES 2018 before they responded to the backlash by adding two female panelists and it was only at CES 2020 in which CTA announced the abolition of “booth babes”.

Later, the CTA attempted to justify their action by explaining that Osé doesn’t fit the product category. Equipped with biomimicry and haptic feedback, Osé was waiting for eight patent approval at the time, according to TechCrunch. To fight back, Lora DiCarlo shared an open letter to expose and question CES’s double standards, precisely hours before CES 2019. CTA reached out to Lora DiCarlo a couple of months later and not only gave the reward back to the company but also co-revised their policy to regard sexual wellness as a part of Health and Wellness. After the series of events, CTA decided to give some space to Sextech companies at CES 2020 on a “one-year trial basis”. In addition to Lora DiCarlo, several other brands exhibited their products at the show floor, including the 2016’s innovation award winner OhMiBod, and startups that were previously rejected, such as CRAVE and Lioness Health. Furthermore, Lora DiCarlo won two more awards at CES 2020, reclaiming much-deserved recognition for their innovative work. 

While it took a long time, CES and CTA seem to be learning from their mistakes. Meanwhile, some other institutions continue to pursue poor practices, exposing their phallocentrism. OUTFRONT Media is in charge of all advertisements related to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the operator of public transportation in New York State. The first discussion on their double standard occurred in 2015 when OUTFRONT Media rejected Thinx’s ad proposal by regarding it “inappropriate”. OUTFRONT and MTA have approved far more explicit ads, which featured models in a small bikini, naked women covering breasts with their hands, and fruits to portray women’s breasts. By contrast, in promoting their “period-proof underwear, Thinx’s proposal avoided any sexual expression and excessive skin exposure (Figure 1). When Thinx’s then marketing director expressed her sense of incongruity to an OUTFRONT representative, she received a disheartening response; “This is not a women’s issue. Don’t try to make it a women’s rights thing”. After numerous media coverage, Thinx finally managed to have their designs on billboards in stations in New York. 

Figure 1. A part of the proposed ads by Thinx. 
Source: Thinx (2015)

Given how hard it was for a sanitary product company, you would think the chance of obtaining approval is even slimmer for companies that promote the pleasure side of sexual wellness. Hims, a company selling erectile dysfunction pills for penis-owners, seemed to have no trouble getting their ads up in train stations. Hims’ ads analogised cacti and oyster to penis and vagina in a much more explicit way than Thinx’s (Figure 2). Hims’ ad approval was supposed to be bright news for other Sextech companies, trying to promote their products to a broader audience. However, approximately within the same timeline, OUTFRONT rejected Unbound’s artistic ads by citing two clauses in MTA’s advert policy which prohibits subjects that practices “the dissemination of indecent material to minors” and the “public display of offensive sexual material”. After a wide range of media re-shed light on this issue, the agency responded that they would “work with the company toward a resolution that is agreeable to all parties and allows their ads on the system”, however, without offering concrete solutions. Until today, Unbound’s ads have not been displayed by MTA. 

Figure 2. Hims’ ad, that implies a more direct connection to male genitals, was approved by MTA. Hims’ another ad featured an oyster with a pill placed at clitoris’ place, which was accompanied by a phrase, “modern rocketry”, implying the effectiveness of the pill.

It didn’t take a year to see their names yet again in the news headline. Dame Products filed a complaint and took legal actions against MTA in 2019. Likewise, Dame’s minimalistic ads “didn’t feature nudity or any anatomically suggestive content”. Dame revised their ads to incorporate OUTFRONT’s feedback and address MTA’s concerns, then submitted three rounds of proposals, over the course of four months. MTA responded by updating its guideline to refuse to promote sexually oriented business, while also rejecting all ads Dame proposed, including the two they initially approved. Dame emphasised vibrators’ medical implication in addressing various sexual health issues to appeal to its health-promoting aspect, however, received no response. In response, Dame collaborated with Unbound to carry out a playful online campaign called “Approved, or Not Approved?” The website shows visitors a series of advertisements and they need to determine whether each ad has been approved or rejected by OUTFRONT/MTA (Figure 3). 

Figure 3. I highly recommend checking out Approved, or Not Approved? website to see how many you can guess correctly. It’s shocking to see many ads with explicit sexual reference being accepted… unless the brands are female-oriented.

The double standard demonstrated by the example of CES and OUTFRONT/MTA seems to be driven partially by structural causes. One of them is the lack of women in leadership roles and technology/investment scenes. It’s much harder to convince male gatekeepers to invest in or promote products that fulfil female needs since they cannot relate to it. According to Axios, “women make up just 9.5 percent of decision-making spots in venture capital firms” in the U.S. While startups founded or co-founded by women generate more revenue, the capital invested in female (co-founded) companies accounted for only 2.8% of the U.S.’s total VC investment. Moreover, not many people openly discuss their experience or issues related to pleasure, due to the taboo surrounding sex, making it even harder for the gatekeepers to acknowledge the needs for Sextech solutions. In an interview with AIGA, Fine from Dame Products explain that female entrepreneurs are more likely to receive preventative questions (e.g., “How are you going to mitigate your risks?”), whereas male entrepreneurs are often asked promotional questions (e.g., “Where do you want to be in five years?”). Some Sextech startups choose not to go through the VC route. Pulse, for instance, has raised $8.7M from angel investors, of whom 65% are female. According to AIGA, CRAVE has secured investment from angels whose money is not associated with organisations that would be morally opposed to sexual wellness products. 

Non-exhaustive causal diagram of challenges faced by female-oriented Sex startups. Dotted lines indicate negative relationships. While the diagram indicates both value-based and structural causes/drivers, the article mainly discussed the former. 


Part 1 focused on social stigma pertaining to pleasure, particularly that of females, and gave an overview of recent events that characterised the primary challenges which hinder companies’ abilities to deliver their innovative products. Building on the cases we discussed in Part 1, Part 2 of this article will offer 7 branding strategies for early-stage Sextech startups and their supporters. 

Read Part 2 (approx. 6 mins) from here 

※ This article was written for educational purposes and does not involve affiliate programs.