In 2013, Meika Hollender–who was only 26 at the time–launched the nontoxic condom brand Sustain Natural with her father. Her family knows a thing or two about sustainable products. In 1988, Jeffrey Hollender cofounded Seventh Generation, a brand of safe cleaning and personal care products that was acquired by Unilever in 2016. But while the Hollenders had the know-how to manufacture vagina-friendly condoms, tampons, and other products, marketing them would be trickier, since it would involve wading into thorny conversations about how women can advocate for their own health in the bedroom.
Over the last four years, Meika has become the face of the brand–and a female empowerment activist. Her first mission was to encourage women to buy and carry condoms, a purchase that many women still see as taboo. Meika has sought to change that thinking and broaden the conversation beyond safe sex. In March, she will release a book, Get on Top: Of Your Pleasure, Sexuality, and Wellness, which she hopes will help women take charge of all aspects of their sexual lives.
It’s been a wild year for women’s activism, starting with the election of Donald Trump, a man who was infamously caught boasting about groping women. Then came the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which led to hundreds of women coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment. I sat down with Meika to discuss, among other things, how women can use the energy of the current moment to further conversations about sexual health, pleasure, and consent.
Fast Company: Let’s start by talking about something currently in the news: Aziz Ansari. This story was interesting because it forced us to think deeper about the complexities of consent and sexual pleasure. What was your reaction?
Meika Hollender: I think that many people’s gut reaction was that Aziz Ansari was projecting himself as a feminist woke male and, while he obviously didn’t do anything illegal in that moment, he didn’t act in the most respectful, thoughtful way. There was just a mismatch between how he behaved and our image of him. And underneath that, we’re seeing a huge misalignment between what guys like him think is acceptable and women think is acceptable.
That said, what is interesting and important about this dialogue is that men are getting involved in this conversation. They realize they need to have a better understanding of what is working for women sexually: what is good and what doesn’t, whether she is comfortable or not. Much of this comes down to communication. Part of what is going on is that we realize we need to educate men about what is acceptable and respectable, rather than assuming they are going to figure it out themselves. These are not conversations that are being had by most people throughout their lives.
I think it is great that we’re talking about sex like never before. The media and business and politicians are tasked with normalizing these conversations, but we have to remember that we’re still talking about individuals in intimate experiences. But it is also important to remember that while there is a feeling that nothing is off limits anymore, and everyone is feeling more empowered, it is still not easy to have these conversations. When you are in the bedroom with another person, these are very intimate moments and there is still a lot of shame, fear, and many other societal implications that make it uncomfortable to have an open, honest conversation about pleasure.
FC: There’s been so much outrage about all these sexual harassment cases. And one thing that comes up when we say that women need to communicate is that it sometimes sounds like victim blaming.
MH: It’s really tough because there is a lot of victim blaming going on. And there is this other related notion, which is why is it on women to change the future and make sure there is no more sexual assault? We’re not the ones doing the assaulting. Even when we encourage women to avoid riskier sexual situations, it’s forcing women to carry the weight of men’s behavior, which I don’t think is fair.
I think the real conversation we should be having is how can we involve men in the conversation in such a way that will ultimately ensure that they do not act in these certain ways. So, even though it is not our responsibility to change the future, or how men treat us, it is our responsibility to be having conversations that engage men. We can’t just be talking about it amongst ourselves.
FC: Do you feel that the Aziz Ansari case, which prompted lots of commentators to say the woman was crying wolf, hurt the movement?
MH: With everything that is going on about speaking up about sexual harassment, I think it is unavoidable that there will be moments like this where people are going to question what is being said. But in the end, it is a net positive. Women are finding their voice. A lot of women who never spoke up about women’s rights issues–whether it is equal pay or consensual sex–are expressing themselves for the first time. But sometimes in the midst of all of this, the conversation can get confusing, because everybody is sort of grasping and finding their voice for the first time. It is all for the best though.
FC: Why do you think that sex is not that pleasurable for many women?
MH: There is still this baseline acceptance of bad sex. When you look at the statistic about women who actually orgasm, whether during hookups or relationships with their partners–there is still a huge gap in terms of pleasure. While we’re demanding equality in a lot of other sectors of our life, the bedroom is still a tricky thing.
It fundamentally goes back to inequality and power. Men in these situations have traditionally been the ones in control. So, the whole experience centers around them. It all comes down to gender imbalances. But what’s interesting is that when you ask men about what turns them on or what makes the sexual experience better for them, they frequently say having a partner who is also enjoying the experience. So, it is obviously a no-brainer that we should be having these conversations with them.
But I also think that we need to encourage women to first and foremost understand how their bodies work, what gets them off, and what makes sex a pleasurable experience. Obviously, your partner can be part of that exploration, but it is something you need to get in touch with on your own first.
FC: Speaking of engaging men in this conversation about sexual health, what is it like working in this company with your father? For many women, one’s father is the last person in the world they want to talk to about sex.
MH: In the beginning, when we first launched the company, this question was always a goofy one. We always said from the beginning that this is a special and powerful thing that we are doing, not only in starting this company, but being a model for this kind of conversation between father and daughter, or between men and women. This shouldn’t be awkward. It should be inspiring and ultimately, it should become normal. I believe that none of this is going to change until men come alongside us.
But it’s not always easy. Ninety percent of our conversations are about our experiences with our products. There are also plenty of moments when I am sitting in a room with our manufacturer, my dad, and other men–and it is all still men somehow–and they are asking me about how a tampon feels. And I feel like I just have to talk openly. Because if you’re not open about it, you might as well forget about trying to make these product better and healthier for everyone. Being a feminist warrior means learning to treat these kinds of conversations as normal.
FC: In more practical terms, what was it like to talk to your parents about sex growing up?
MH: For me, there was this baseline openness and trust between my parents and me. Whether it was talking about sex, drugs, or dating, they made it clear that they were not there to judge me but rather to guide the way. This obviously meant setting boundaries sometimes.
When it came to sex, I wasn’t as worried as perhaps some other kids that my parents would be upset at me if I had it. Their questions were really more about whether I was going to be safe and whether I really trust the person that I was dating. I think it’s much better to create that sense of openness early rather than spring the conversation on them later on and assume they will be responsive.
FC: What has it been like for a sexual wellness brand like yours over the last few months, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit the press and launched this conversation?
MH: It’s been incredible. The ears on the pussy hats are perking up and everybody is being more receptive to our message than they were a year ago. There’s a lot of talk among women about the glory days of Obama and how everything was so incredible at that time.
But what I’ve tried to see is that there is an opportunity that has been created by this nightmare that has been thrust upon us (through the election of Donald Trump). All the sexual assault was already happening while Obama was president and it was not his fault, obviously. But with politics swinging so far in the other direction, people are waking up and speaking up.
And until the sexual harassment stories started happening after the Harvey Weinstein case came to light, we weren’t spending every night around the table talking about sexual assault or consent. It’s really important that men are involved in this conversation, particularly men who weren’t engaged in these issues or who didn’t understand the extent or what was going on.
We were trying to educate women to buy and carry condoms a year ago, and some people were listening, but not a lot of people. Talking about sex, consent, and sexual health is still a tough conversation, but because rights are being challenged and because we have someone running the country who tried to normalize sexual assault, brands like Sustain have a chance to flourish.
FC: What do you think the future holds for this movement?
MH: Eventually, this whole hashtag feminism thing will fade. So we need to dig a lot deeper as leaders in this space, and think about what we really want to change and how this is going to go on beyond the Women’s March and the current movement we’re seeing. I really believe that education about sexual health and creating a space for productive conversations about consent and sexual pleasure will have a much longer lasting effect.