For Janet Lieberman, making sex toys started as a bit of a joke. In 2013, she was living in Brooklyn and getting ready to leave MakerBot, where she worked as an engineer. When people asked her what she planned to do next, she'd say she wanted to start a sex toy company.
But she noticed that women never laughed. Instead, they told stories about their sex lives. "Sex is this topic that's really important to people, but they're not allowed to talk about it," said Lieberman, 32.
Seeing an opportunity, she teamed up with Alexandra Fine, another Brooklyn-based entrepreneur, to start Dame Products. They designed two vibrators, the Fin and the Eva. Since then, the company has gotten widespread media attention (including in The New York Times), and broken down barriers: Last year, Dame became the first company to receive funding through Kickstarter for a sex toy.
Dame, along with other new companies like Unbound, House of Plume and Sustain, is part of a tech-savvy and female-led women's sexuality movement that has made its home in New York instead of, say, Silicon Valley. Women, many of them younger than 40, are updating sex toys and related products with their own needs in mind, and leading the companies that sell them.
If the movement has an ideological centre, it's probably Women of Sex Tech, a group founded last year by Polly Rodriguez, 30, the chief executive and co-founder of Unbound, a Manhattan-based sex toy company that sends subscribers a box of products every quarter, and Lidia Bonilla, 38, who started House of Plume, which sells storage boxes for sex toys.
Based in New York, the group has since expanded to include more than 70 people, including members in California, Spain and China. New York City-based members include Meika Hollender, co-founder of Sustain, which makes organic and fair trade lubricants and condoms; Mia Davis, who created a sex education app called Tabú; and Bryony Cole, host of the popular podcast, Future of Sex.
Cindy Gallop, a member of the group and the founder of the website Make Love Not Porn, helped popularize the term "sex tech" and defines it as technology "designed to enhance, innovate and disrupt in every area of human sexuality and human sexual experience."
So far, Women of Sex Tech has organized three New York events, including a pop-up marketplace for sex tech startups last winter and a panel discussion on sexual health policy at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan in July, and its members have been a part of countless others, such as a live taping of the "Future of Sex" podcast at Fifth House in Brooklyn on Aug. 14.
Women of Sex Tech members also participated in an event in June that was billed as "America's first sex tech hackathon" (such events had taken place previously in Europe).
The hackathon, conceived in part to encourage women to enter the field, was held at the Madison Avenue offices of ThoughtWorks, a technology consultancy. Seven teams pitched a panel of judges for a chance to win a month's membership at Galvanize, which provides office space and educational opportunities for entrepreneurs. The winners, a group of two women and two men, are working on an app called Spinucation that will use examples from the news to help parents talk to their kids about sex.
"I couldn't believe it when I found a Women of Sex Tech group," said Cole, who served as a mentor at the ThoughtWorks hackathon, and who had moved from Melbourne, Australia, to New York in 2012. "To me it was so exciting that we could even have that."
New York has long been a home for educators, entrepreneurs and activists focusing on women's sexuality. In the late '60s and early '70s, sex educator Betty Dodson led masturbation workshops for women here, which included demonstrations of the Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator, said Hallie Lieberman, a historian and author of the forthcoming book "Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy."
In 1971, Duane Colglazier and Bill Rifkin opened the Pleasure Chest. The West Village store was the first to sell sex toys in a boutique environment without blacked-out windows, and it attracted many female customers despite its initial focus on gay men. In 1973, the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women held a women's sexuality conference that introduced vibrators to the feminist community and helped inspire Dell Williams to open a women's sex toy store, Eve's Garden, in Manhattan in 1974.
Today's tech-focused entrepreneurs are less likely to open a store and more inclined to design products, apps or online services to fill what they see as gaps in the market. Too many sex toy manufacturers assume women don't appreciate good engineering, Lieberman said. The result is vibrators made from materials that aren't safe, or that break after a few uses or short out, potentially injuring sensitive body parts.
Made of medical-grade silicone, Dame's vibrators are designed to maximize pleasure and connection, not to mimic the male anatomy or get in the way of an intimate experience. The Fin, for example, is a small vibrator designed to feel "like a natural extension of your fingers," said Fine, 29. People don't like the feeling that a vibrator is doing all the work, she explained. "They still want to feel connected."
Connection is important in business, too. When Mia Davis, 25, tried to get investors and others in Silicon Valley interested in Tabú, the sex education app, she grew frustrated. A lot of men "just sort of tensed up" and "couldn't get past the discomfort of the subject," she recalled.
In February in Brooklyn, however, Davis had a different experience. When she participated in the Women of Sex Tech's pop-up marketplace there, men and women asked how they could get involved in the company, offered to spread the word, and promised to tell their little sisters about the app, she recalled. A man who worked at a sexual health clinic talked to her about the kinds of questions patients tend to have.
Investors and others in the New York business community are more comfortable with consumer products than their counterparts in Silicon Valley, who tend to focus on business-to-business companies, said Liz Klinger, co-founder and chief executive of Lioness, which makes a vibrator that collects data on women's sexual responses. Klinger, 29, whose company is based in Berkeley, California, concurs that Silicon Valley can be difficult because it's so male-dominated. She has been told that female-friendly products are less interesting because "women are only half the population." Products for men, she said, somehow avoid the same scrutiny. Klinger recalled one male investor who was unimpressed with her ideas but excited about a device to treat male incontinence.
"Silicon Valley welcomes innovation and disruption in literally every other area except this one," said Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn. While there is a sex tech scene in California, she said, it lacks a "unifying force" like Women of Sex Tech.
For Davis, New York's economic diversity is part of its appeal. "It is refreshing to live in a city where not every single person you meet is in some way, shape or form working in tech," she said. It also doesn't hurt that many renowned sex educators live or have lived in New York, from Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who first became famous in the '80s with her radio show "Sexually Speaking," to Mal Harrison, founder of the Center for Erotic Intelligence, to Dodson, who still gives workshops and now offers private sex coaching sessions.
Until the '70s, most sex toys were made to look like penises. The men who owned the companies that made them "assumed women wanted what they had," said Lieberman, the historian. They typically came in "flesh" colours and seemed to be more about penetration than stimulation. Vibrators existed, but were usually marketed as health products rather than sex toys. Female entrepreneurs and sex educators like Williams and Dodson were responsible for popularizing toys that stimulated the clitoris and that came in a variety of shapes and colours, innovations that proved popular with women.
Sex toys continued to evolve in the '80s, when home sales parties made them available to women in rural areas, and the '90s, when silicone became more popular. Lieberman explained that at this time, however, most distribution was controlled by one man: Reuben Sturman, a businessman who had branched out to sex toys from pornography. So it was still difficult for women to break into the industry, she said.
In 2017, women entrepreneurs in the field still seem to be very much in the minority. Today around 70 per cent of sex product companies are run by men, according to an analysis by Unbound. But women, many of them millennials, are starting to harness their economic and social power to disrupt the industry, both on the business and on the consumer side, Fine said. Millennials can be more comfortable talking about sex than their elders, explained Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. "It's a transparent generation that's practical, go-getting, tech-oriented and eager to have it all."
The cliché that millennials want to make a social impact at work has a lot of truth to it, said Fine. "We got called entitled," she said. "I think we all just really, really, really wanted to help and be at the table. And now we're at the table." Elizabeth Galbut, 28, and Pocket Sun, 25, co-founders of the firm SoGal Ventures, which has offices in New York and Singapore and has invested in Unbound, see their age and gender as assets. "We're millennials ourselves," said Galbut. "We're the consumer, we're the target market for all of the companies we're investing in."
New York as the cultural center of this movement makes a lot of sense. It has been the home to a Broadway show and well-known episodes of television series made in the city that have unabashedly explored vibrators and other female-friendly sex accessories. Sex toys are "more acceptable to talk about openly" now than in the past, said Sarah Ruhl, author of "In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)." She recalls a meeting at Disney Theatrical Productions soon after the 2009 premiere of the play: "I thought we were going to talk about children's musicals, and instead everyone wanted to talk about vibrators."
Ruhl cites the influence of shows like "Girls" for its unapologetic dialogue among women and their needs. "Lena Dunham has done a lot to promote a certain kind of openness around women's bodies," she said. Sex tech entrepreneurs have also mentioned the famous "Sex and the City" episode from 1998 featuring a "rabbit" vibrator and a more recent "Broad City" episode in which a sex toy plays a central role.
There is also, however, a connection between popular culture and the marketplace itself. A guest appearance by the Liberator wedge – a pillow designed to enhance certain sex positions – on a 2015 episode of the series "Master of None" reportedly sparked a surge in requests for the product at Babeland stores. And earlier this month, Lovehoney, a sex toy retailer based in Britain, introduced a line of "Broad City" tie-in toys, including a vibrator called the "Yas Kween."
As more female entrepreneurs enter the sex toy industry, many are adopting less pornographic sales approaches than older brands used. Rodriguez, of Unbound, tries to market her products the way a health or beauty company might, without an overtly sexualized aesthetic. Unbound's website features tongue-in-cheek photos of fruit (a peach, for instance), not women in lingerie. Rodriguez said she never wants a visitor to think, "I don't look like that, so then these products must not be for me." Bonilla, meanwhile, describes House of Plume, her company, as "Jimmyjane meets West Elm."
Even if they're based in New York, though, female sex tech entrepreneurs can face discrimination. Rodriguez, who became interested in the business after her sex drive decreased at 21 because of radiation treatment for colon cancer, was told by a potential investor that she'd be a good CEO because "you're not Kim Kardashian-attractive, but you're girl-next-door attractive," she recalled. Another asked if she was going to demonstrate her products for him.
Another challenge is raising money. More than 90 per cent of partners at the top 100 venture capital firms worldwide are men, and male investors may not understand what kinds of sex products female customers want, said Galbut, of SoGal. Until last year's campaign for the Fin, for example, Kickstarter did not accept crowdfunding campaigns for sex toys. "We'll continue to allow projects like this on a case-by-case basis," said David Gallagher, a Kickstarter spokesman.
When Fine applied for a Small Business Administration loan, she was rejected because the agency does not allow loans to companies whose primary products are "of an indecent sexual nature," she recalled.
"That's great," Fine replied, "because my product is of a decent sexual nature." The lender was unmoved.
The current political climate, said, Rodriguez, has generated even more interest from women in her products and agenda. "Women look at our government and our corporations," she said, "and they don't see women that reflect who they are, so they're voting with their wallets."
Garrett Johnson, a founder of Lincoln Network, a community of tech leaders who advocate for economic and individual freedoms, sees the potential of the movement from a market perspective. The fact that female consumers feel underserved by many tech companies creates an opening, he said. "When you see that lack of activity either on the founders' side or on the venture capital side, if you can figure out how to make everything come together, I would consider that to be a big opportunity."
The demand, on the part of the consumers, seems to be there. Only about 30 per cent of women can have an orgasm from vaginal penetration alone, said Kenneth Play, a Brooklyn-based sex educator and consultant, citing several studies, "yet we put it on a pedestal." He compares using a vibrator during sex to adding salt to food: "If you undersalt things, it's always going to be a little bland. The vibrator is a very useful way to make sure the flavour hits the spot."
For many members of Women of Sex Tech, encouraging frank talk about sexuality is both a personal and a professional mission. Sometimes that starts close to home. Gigi Engle, 26, a sex educator, has given vibrators to both her mother and her aunt. Bonilla wasn't sure what her mother, a Jehovah's Witness whom she saw as very pious and conservative, would think of her business. But her reaction was pragmatic: "You've got to give people what they want."