When the game-changing micro-robotic vibrator, the Osé, invented by tech pioneer Lora Haddock, was banned at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this year, it ignited a firestorm, particularly given the show’s history of showing love (or lust) for sextech in the past—as long as the products were for men. VR porn has been a mainstay at CES since 2017, various sex robots for men have launched on the show floor, Trojan Condoms has exhibited sex toys, and an adult film company exhibited the same year the Osé was blocked.
It’s not a shock to see yet another hurdle for women to conquer. The battle for equality for women impacts everything from pay gaps to opportunity, and the advance of sextech is demonstrating with new clarity how the fight is far from over. As marketers, we know that products for men often lead the way, followed by female brand extensions (think: Gillette).
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We won a CES Innovation Award for Robotics and Drones – then they took it back (link in bio). Why is CES threatened by empowered women and the products that empower them? #CESGenderBias . . . . Thx to @rebellious.pr for all the love and content! #linkinbio #cessomale #womenintech #womenofsextech #sextech #innovation #engineering #robotics #genderbias #sexism #everydaysexism #misogyny #sexpositive #nonbinary #loveislove #sex #vagina #vulva #feminism #sexeducation #sexpositive #sextoys #girlboss #females #femaleceo #femaleboss #girl #girlpower #girlsrule #girlsquad @ces
But what’s most thrilling about the present day is that women inventors, marketers, CEOs, and investors—as well as consumers—are flipping the script. We’re not waiting to be heard or raising our hands quietly. From viral movements like #TimesUp, #MeToo, and #YouKnowMe to the conversation around the wage gap, we are alive in a time where women are proving their ability to own the conversation and destigmatize what was previously too taboo to discuss. So why not sextech?
Sextech, or sex technology, is a vital component in the overall femtech category, that’s predicted to be a $50 billion market by 2025. As a woman who has spent her entire career in advertising and PR, I see an incredible opportunity for a disruption that has implications beyond the women’s wellness consumer packaged goods category, where lo-fi sextech has always discretely held a place in the development of products such as warming lubes and lotions.
Sextech impacts the larger tech ecosphere. App developers are creating vibration apps and phone-controlled vibrators, and female inventors are integral to shaping its future. While CES ultimately did an about-face to support the Osé, the damage was done, demonstrating not only discrimination but also a worrying lack of foresight. Events like CES are supposed to show us the future of consumer technology, and the growing embrace of sex toys, sex education, and sextech has the potential to be an inflection point.
The secret ways sextech drives innovation
If you want to know where the biggest tech innovations are coming from, look to unlikely industries. The military brought us modern digital computers, the internet, and GPS. Or you can look to the adult industry. Porn has been a surprising driver of consumer attitudes and the mass-scale adoption of broadband. It’s tipped the scales in the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray fight and even standardized many of the building blocks of e-commerce that we now take for granted.
Sex toys are becoming increasingly tech-enabled and forward-thinking, too. At the time CES originally rejected the Osé, it had eight patents pending related to engineering, robotics, and biomimicry. Sex robots (yes, they’re a thing now—and they come in female and male models) are poised to make huge strides in robotics by simulating physical systems.
Women’s sextech is the future
Innovation in this industry is happening at lightning speed. It won’t be long before sextech’s work with multi-haptic systems, AI, and biomimetics spreads into other industries. In some places, it’s already happening. In 2016, Apple filed 38 patents for multi-haptic technologies and biological vital monitoring systems. The same tech that lets you engage with a smart sex toy will work its way into future iterations of the Apple Watch. Even the multi-haptic technology behind Huggies’ pregnancy belt, which allowed fathers to feel their babies’ kicks in real-time, thanks to the mother-to-be’s matching belt around her belly that sensed pressure and movement, was made possible by sex toys.
Tech-enabled sex toy brands like the Osé, OhMiBod, and Lioness are showing that the slice of the Venn diagram where sextech, femtech, and health and wellness overlap. The technology is fascinating but more important for marketers and communicators is its place in the cultural conversation. Our current moment has allowed these women-built sextech products to have a bigger platform than they would have had even two years ago. It’s opening new ways of talking about our sexuality for women, for brands, and for influencers.
These brands are mainstreaming the narratives around sex toys in a serious way, talking about them in the same language used in the health and wellness industry. This isn’t to say that every brand is ready to have these conversations. Maybe the telecom giants aren’t ready to start talking about smart vibrators with their consumers—yet; but they must know that the female segments of their audience will be talking about this.
The sex-positive feminism movement has made room for suddenly emboldened and powerful women’s voices in the cultural conversation. And the most groundbreaking work in sextech is being done by women and for women. Marketers and communicators would be shortsighted to not pay attention to these brands and the ripple of impact they are poised to create.
There’s still a long way to go toward mainstream acceptance. Facebook and Instagram still don’t allow ads for sextech products but cultural norms are changing. And those disruptions offer opportunities for challenger brands and visionary marketers, while also providing a heads-up to the traditional leaders in the broader category.
The marquee brands that have been holding up the women’s health and wellness market risk losing their place if they don’t adapt. Their ability to drive sales is compromised if they don’t offer what women want today. We know women are asking for it, and instead of having brands serve them, they’re inventing the category themselves in a space, like so many others, that was predominantly male-dominated.
What’s different in 2019 is that women won’t wait for the female complementary products to be introduced into the market once the male market is fully sated. Women who own their sexual lives are also powerful consumers. With $50 billion on the table, are you paying attention?
Kristin Flor Perret is senior vice president of Global Marketing at WE Communications. In over 30 years experience, she has led startups, mid-size enterprises, Fortune 100 companies and agencies through dramatic change and growth working on the agency-side, brand-side, and as a consultant for brands including Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco, Toyota, Nestlé, Nike, and others.