A collage of different sex toys.

women in tech

The Science of Sex Tech

The $30 billion industry has the power to influence everything from faster internet speeds to VR, but only women are championing sex tech as a force to be reckoned with.

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Since the early 1970s, when feminist sex educator Betty Dodson got naked with a group of women in her New York apartment and showed them how she used her Hitachi Magic Wand to destigmatize masturbation, vibrators became a weapon in the fight against the patriarchy. By helping women pleasure themselves, she dealt a blow to men’s attempts to control female sexuality and women’s bodies.

The history of sex toys is filled with women like Dodson, who realized their political potential. In Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play Lysistrata, women go on a sexual strike to convince their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata reassures one woman that she can use a dildo, or an Olisbos, for sexual pleasure in case the men do not give in. The text betrays the first hints of male insecurity over female sexual agency.

Women saw the potential of vibrators to give them sexual satisfaction before it was ever marketed as a sex toy. Invented by British doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville in the 1880s, the first electric vibrator was supposed to be used as a medical device on men to treat everything from spinal disease to deafness. Contrary to the popular myth, vibrators were not used by doctors to bring women to orgasm in order to cure hysteria.

Since then, women have continued to play a role in the industry, from helping to shape products by participating in focus groups for companies like Doc Johnson in the 1970s, to helping to popularize them as Dodson did, to selling them, like entrepreneur Dell Williams, who opened the first woman-owned-and-operated sex-toy business in the U.S. Williams named her New York store Eve’s Garden, stating that “Eve represented all women and the Garden was symbolic of women taking responsibility for their ‘own’ sexuality.”

Today, products that give women sexual agency still have the ability to unnerve our male-dominated society. Just last year, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) rescinded an innovation prize it had awarded to sex-toy company Lora DiCarlo, and barred it from exhibiting at their annual technology conference, CES, in Las Vegas. Apparently, Lora DiCarlo’s product—a sex toy that stimulates the g-spot and clitoris using biomimicry (robotics that copy human movements)—was deemed “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image.”

In response, the company’s founder and CEO Lora Haddock called out the CTA on its double standard. After all, attractions that catered to the male gaze, such as virtual-reality (VR) porn, sex dolls, and “booth babes” (attractive women employed to draw attention to a company’s stand) had all previously been permitted on the exhibition floor. Thus began a long, public debate in which Haddock not only asked for an apology and for her prize to be reinstated, but for the CTA to take a hard look at its structural bias. She succeeded in getting all three. This year, for the first time, the CTA officially allowed Lora DiCarlo and other sex-tech companies to exhibit at the conference.

Haddock is part of a new wave of women entering the sex-tech business, one that is disrupting the industry with new products, changing its relationship with the mainstream tech world and society at large, and impacting the way we have sex and relate to each other.

“There’s been a shift from women taking products that men have created, and using them for their own purposes and making new symbols out of them, to women saying, ‘We’re going to create the devices ourselves and the meanings for them,’” said sex historian and author of Buzz, a history of sex toys Dr Hallie Lieberman.

The Osé, the Lora DiCarlo device at the center of last year’s CES dispute, is radically different from the sex toys that came before it. It was based on a blended orgasm—one in which the g-spot and clitoris climax simultaneously—that Haddock experienced when she was 28. The orgasm was particularly strong, and caused her to fall off the bed.

“I just lay there, with one leg hooked on the bed, drooling, and thinking, I really need to learn how to do that again by myself,” she said.

To re-create the experience, she conceived of a device that was hands-free and did not vibrate like most products of its kind. Instead, it used microrobotics to imitate human movement. Achieving this involved a partnership with Oregon State University’s Robotics & Engineering Lab, building a diverse team of some of the top engineers in the world, and registering no less than nine patents in the areas of microrobotics, soft robotics, mechanical engineering for biomimetic functions, and advanced material science. But perhaps Lora DiCarlo’s most interesting contribution to science is the data collection it carried out at the beginning of the device’s development process.

“I needed it to be able to conform to each person’s anatomy, and in order to do that, I needed to know where everyone’s bits were. But the data we were looking for did not exist,” she said.

To get the data she needed to design her device, Haddock conducted a physiologically based survey on a plethora of people. Having trained as a nurse, she was able to instruct participants how to find their clitorises and g-spots, and measure where they were in relation to their vaginal canals. The company went on to survey around 1,700 individuals about their sex lives, questioning them about everything from their sexual orientation to why they masturbated. The findings revealed, for example, that women today masturbate to relieve tension and stress at an almost similar rate as they do for sexual arousal. This kind of data collection fills a massive knowledge gap in a world where female anatomy and pleasure have been consistently under-researched and mythologized by men such as Freud, who painted their own insecurities and misconceptions onto theories concerning the matter. It’s fitting that Lora DiCarlo’s Director of Engineering is Kim Porter, who previously designed for NASA, since we put a man on the moon decades before we discovered the full anatomy of the clitoris.

Other women-led sex tech companies, like Lioness, which also exhibited at CES last month, rely on a similarly robust scientific approach. The company produces a sex toy that works with a mobile app and took four years to develop with the help of sex researchers and doctors. It is the first product of its kind to enable women to look at, and learn from, the data gathered by the sex toy via biofeedback and precision sensors. An app update later this year that will provide AI-assisted guidance, based on analyzing data of 30,000-plus orgasms and conducting dozens of user studies, to help women improve their orgasms.

“The irony is, that based on gender stereotypes, you’d think that men’s sex toys would be more scientific, but it took women coming in there to make sex toys more physiologically and evidence-based, more right-brained,” says Lieberman.

These sex tech products go beyond just closing the gender orgasm gap, or the fact that women orgasm at a much lower rate (65 percent) than men (95 percent) during heterosexual sex. They are filling a gap in sexual education, knowledge and health.

“It’s not just exploring your preferences and joys, which are really important, but it’s about exploring your health and understanding your body. Because you’re the best patient advocate you have,” said Haddock.

Both Lora DiCarlo and Lioness emphasize the health and wellness aspect of their products. Lioness refers to its app on its website as a “health tracker” while Haddock has expounded the sexual health and wellness side of sex tech in many of her interviews and talks over the last year. It’s not only thanks to her that sex tech was officially allowed at CES this year, but that it found a home under one of the fair’s product categories.

Last January, when TechCrunch asked the CTA why they had barred Lora DiCarlo from exhibiting, their response was simply, “Because they don’t fit a product category.” A year on, the CTA finally solved the issue by listing Lora DiCarlo—which had won its 2019 innovation award in the robotics and drones category—along with the other dozen or so sex tech companies under the more feminine category of “health and wellness.”

Whether this is a good solution is still up for debate. Piri Miller, founder and CEO of sex tech company Come Play, which has developed an original hands-free couples vibrator, displayed in the startup zone at CES 2020.

“We’re definitely a wellness and a self-care product, but I think it’s confusing for attendees to not know where we are. There were a lot of people asking where our booth was, and where the other booths were,” she said.

The sex tech companies were mostly scattered throughout the wellness category and, as Jess Joho commented in Mashable, not given prime real estate, which obscured their presence. In Miller’s opinion, it would have been clearer if the sex tech companies were grouped together—at the risk of being delegated to some kind of red-light district—under the label of “sexual health.” This is what Walmart sells sex toys under, so it’s recognizable in the mainstream. Others think that sex tech deserves its own category entirely, and should be called what it is.

“Lora, quite rightly, fought to be included in the health and wellness sector, otherwise they would have been ghettoized in some teensy-weeny broom cupboard,” says Cindy Gallop, founder of social sex video sharing platform MakeLoveNotPorn, “But I believe sex tech deserves an entire area of the floor.”

Sex tech is a $30 billion industry, and sex is one of the main reasons for innovation in tech, driving everything from faster internet speeds to VR. However, the male-dominated mainstream tech world still has a problem openly embracing it. It’s a discomfort that threads through dominant U.S. culture, and can be traced back through the history of sex toys. As Lieberman outlines in her book, Buzz, the first vibrators and butt plugs were marketed as health devices—in the wellness sector, as it were.

Within this paradigm, women’s sexual desire and pleasure are particularly suppressed. CES only let companies like Lora DiCarlo exhibit due to last year’s controversy, and even then, it would only admit companies that it deemed “innovative enough”—on a one-year trial basis, subject to a special set of rules that included not being able to use “sexually overt” language. Last year, Samsung tried to get Lioness removed from another tech event about women’s health. Several months ago, the Google Play Store suspended female-founded app Dipsea for being in violation of their content policies. The company produces relatable, feminist erotic audio stories full of enthusiastic consent to help women get into the mood. Today, Facebook allows ads for erectile dysfunction pills, but not vibrators.

“Any discussion of female pleasure is treated like it’s obscene. A lot of people blame FOSTA-SESTA, but for some reason I can’t discuss female pleasure at all,” said Miller of Come Play, referring to a law that holds internet companies responsible if third parties promote prostitution.

Laws like these, paired with the fact that female pleasure is seen as a taboo, make it very difficult for sex tech companies like hers to operate, let alone succeed.

“Every single goddamn thing is a fucking battle,” said Gallop, who didn’t realize how many obstacles she would face when she started MakeLoveNotPorn.

She had to build her entire video streaming platform from scratch because most tech services will not touch anything to do with sex and put the words “no adult content” in their terms and conditions. She can’t work with companies like MailChimp to send out membership emails, and continues to have issues with payment processing, because PayPal won’t work with her business.

“Short of calling all women prostitutes, I don’t know how they justify that,” Miller says.

In order to break down these barriers, more than 150 women founders have banded together to form Women of Sex Tech. The community fosters femme-identifying entrepreneurship and aims to change the dominant view of human sexuality. Founded by Polly Rodriguez of sex toy company Unbound and Lidia Bonilla of House of Plume, which sells storage boxes for sex toys, members include host of the Future of Sex podcast Bryony Cole and adult filmmaker Erika Lust. Their headquarters are in New York, home of Dodson, Williams, and other women sex educators and entrepreneurs, as opposed to male-dominated Silicon Valley. Through events such as pop-up marketplaces that connect sex-tech startups with investors and customers, educational events, and panel discussions, the community is generating their own media attention and providing an alternate view of sex and pleasure, an alternate way of working to the established tech world, and bringing sex-tech into the mainstream.

Gallop, a founding member of Women in Sex Tech, is taking the disruption a step further with a plan to raise $200 million to start the world’s first sex tech fund. The name of her fund is derived from a chairman Mao quote, who once said, in the interests of gender equality, “Women hold up half the sky.” Gallop’s fund is called All The Sky Holdings.

The name reflects her ambitious vision. Not only does she want to support other innovative sex tech ventures with her fund, but the entire infrastructure such ventures need to operate. Since the current, male-dominated ecosystem does not support businesses like hers, she wants to create one that does.

“I want to fund the sex tech full stack because the first payment processor that embraces legal, ethical, transparent ventures like mine, or the first hosting provider, or e-commerce channel, cleans up,” she said.

Gallop plans to primarily support women entrepreneurs with her fund. This is, in part, to equalize the gendered playing field in tech. Women face particular challenges raising money from a largely male-dominated investor ecosystem. According to Pitchbook, only 2.8 percent of capital invested in the U.S. ecosystem went to all-female founded teams in 2019, the highest yet, having stalled at 2.2 percent in 2017 and 2018 . Gallop’s main motivation, however, is financial. Diversity fuels innovation, and makes good business sense.

It is a concept that many female sex tech founders recognize and build their businesses around. Haddock’s team, for example, consists of women, men, non-binary, straight, and LGBTQ+ folks.

“It means you can actually create products that really do speak to everyone, instead of one kind of person, or what your preconceived notion of what one kind of person is,” she said.

Lieberman agrees that it is important that the people who are using sex toys are designing them. She pointed out that in the past, when men designed sex toys, they assumed that women wanted a replica of the penis. However since most women cannot have orgasms during intercourse, a penis is not the only toy they want.

In the history of sex toys, new innovations can be seen every time new people enter the industry. When Gosnell Duncan invented the first silicone dildo, he created it in different shades of black and brown skin colors. Previously, black dildos were jet black, but because Duncan was an émigré from Grenada, he introduced something new to the market.

“We still need more people of color, queer people, and especially trans people to come in and do these innovations, but they face barriers to the space and have a harder time getting venture capital,” said Lieberman.

Raven Faber, a structural engineer and founder EngErotics, a company that sells sex toys and sensual CBD products, would like to work with more people of color.

“It’s not like I just meet a lot of other black women who are also engineers. And in the world of sex tech, I don’t see a lot of people that look like me. It’s the same with CBD,” she said.

Faber started selling sex toys at parties as a side hustle while she was a grad student. Over the years, she dealt with plenty of customers and got feedback about products. When she realized that sex toys were completely unregulated for safety and quality, and that many products were badly designed and engineered, she saw an opportunity.

“Since I’m an engineer, I started with the internals. I thought, I’m going to spec out a better motor, better circuits, use better material,” she said.

Today, she continues to listen to a diverse range of people about what they want. She may not have a big team like Haddock, but she uses her company’s private Facebook group and other channels to feed her development process and diversify the market. She often talks about sex, being a mom and an entrepreneur in same breath. She uses Facebook Live to interact directly with her customers, and says she is “very unapologetic and honest” about her business and her home life. It’s a kind of transparency that further breaks down the barrier between sex tech and everyday life.

“I think the public has a completely wrong idea of what the sex tech industry is actually like. It gets a bad rep because people project their own insecurities about sex onto it. But just look at the founding stories of most sex toy companies,” said Miller.

Lieberman’s book on the history of sex toys describes many of these founding stories; sex toy store Adam & Eve started as a public health initiative to distribute condoms and sexual education. Duncan invented silicone dildos because he wanted to sexually satisfy his wife after he was paralyzed from the waist down in a work accident. Even Faber, today, talks about how she started EngErotics because of an epiphany she had when her son was seven months old. She realized that every second counts, and that if she was dissatisfied with her career, she had to change it.

An overarching motivation most of these women sex tech founders share is that they want to normalize the conversation around sex.

“When I talk about MakeLoveNotPorn as my attempt to bring about world peace, I’m not joking,” says Gallop, who believes that the only way to end rape culture is to change the way our society deals with sex. Most perpetrators of sexual abuse, harassment and violence currently rely on the fact that sex is not openly talked about in our culture to ensure that their victims will never report. According to Gallop, even though there is currently a lot of discussion about consent, the best way to educate people about what constitutes great consensual sex is by actually watching people having that kind of sex.

“MakeLoveNotPorn is the only place on the internet where you can do that. Every one of our videos is an object lesson in consent, communication, good sexual values and behavior,” she said.

Likewise, Haddock’s focus is on better orgasms, better sex and better communication.

“[Osé] gives you a better orgasm, and if you have the knowledge of how to achieve that, you can relay that to your partner. That brings people closer together,” she said.

As Dodson posited almost 50 years ago, what starts with an orgasm ripples out into society. Haddock’s blended orgasm at age 28 resulted in female pleasure devices being accepted in the male-dominated world of tech. By applying engineering and scientific research to the industry, making it more diverse, creating their own media attention and eco-systems, and placing sex tech in a larger context to address how we really have sex and relate to each other, this new wave of designers, founders and entrepreneurs are pushing it even further into the mainstream.

“I would love to go to 7-11 and pick up a pack of M&Ms and a vibrator,” Lieberman says. “I think you can pick up a little one, but wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a whole section of them and it looked like candy?”

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