Last year was a watershed moment for sex tech. For the first time in CES’s decades-long history, the category wasn’t banished to the dark corners of the showroom floor. This was after a contentious 2019, when the Consumer Tech Association (CTA) revoked an award from Lora DiCarlo’s Osé sex toy for being “immoral, obscene, indecent, or profane.” The backlash made headlines, the rescinded award was re-awarded, and CES 2020 was a “trial” for sex tech as a category. If it did well, perhaps the CTA would welcome back sex tech exhibitors to the world’s largest consumer electronics show in 2021.
And then the pandemic happened.
By and large, last year’s trial run for sex tech was a success. However, it still wasn’t clear whether that momentum would continue at an all-virtual CES 2021 after such a tumultuous year. Now that the show is winding down, it’s fair to say sex tech at CES 2021 was a mixed bag. On the one hand, there were far fewer headlines and sex tech still wasn’t a searchable category on the CTA’s website. On the other, well-known brand Satisfyer won two CES 2021 Innovation Awards and no one tried to take them away. But one thing that remains crystal clear is that the sex toy industry refuses to give up on a future where it’s guaranteed a seat at the table and its innovations are taken seriously.
aIt was disappointing that half of the sex tech exhibitors that did have a presence were bigger brands like Lora DiCarlo and Satisfyer. Smaller or indie brands like Dame, Crave, OhMiBod, and MysteryVibe that were at the show last year did not return. (OhMiBod, in particular, has had a low-key presence at CES for years.) That said, there might be a very good reason for that.
The whole point of CES is for companies to not only get press coverage for their products, but to also network with investors, other exhibitors in their industry, and the general public. It’s possible some exhibitors didn’t see a particular need for that this year, given the general lack of buzz for an all-digital CES and booming sales due to the pandemic. The sales boom was particularly good for brands with online stores — which includes many of the sex tech companies who would’ve gone to CES. Lora DiCarlo, for instance, touted that it had garnered $US7.5 ($10) million in sales during the past year. I spoke with both Satisfyer and Lionness, and both brands noted that they, too, had noticed an uptick in sales.
“Virtual was different. There’s less people, it wouldn’t have the Vegas touch that the show typically has. But I also saw it as a potential advantage,” says Liz Klinger, co-founder and CEO of Lionness. “Even if it’s online, it’s still going to be the biggest show of the year probably, even though it’s smaller. For us, we’re a small company of five people. It’s easier for us to get through the noise in this environment versus an in-person environment where it’s so massive and you might be put in different corners depending on what year it is.”
“You know, I really wish we were on the floor right now having a conversation, because it would be way more exciting,” Stephanie Tratchenberg, director of marketing and PR for Satisfyer, told Gizmodo. “But certainly the presence and interaction and excitement that we’re getting is still there even though it’s only virtual.”
“This year being virtual, I had some concerns,” says Jeff Bennett, co-founder and CEO of Morari Medical, which makes a wearable patch to help alleviate premature ejaculation. (A taint bandaid, if you will.) “But we actually have a number of media inquiries to talk about what we’re doing before the event even occurs. I think you know, just the success of CES last year with sex tech has calmed a little bit people’s fears. This year, so far, we’re having a good response.”
To be fair, sex tech has an enviable allure and affinity with virtual spaces that perhaps other categories don’t.
“Sex tech, in general, will always make a headline. There’s no shortage of sex tech headlines in the media,” says Bryony Cole, a sex tech expert and Lovehoney spokesperson. “It’s great clickbait and I think in the context of a virtual show — we’ve seen it all last year, it’s really hard to stand out or get traction in an online conference because people’s attention can be anywhere else but a laptop screen. But sex tech has an advantage because it’s probably something people are looking for.”
So if the lack of in-person face-time wasn’t a devastating blow, then what about the CTA itself? Last year, the organisation required sex tech exhibitors to adhere to a dress code and an exhaustive review process. Exhibitors were warned against wearing promiscuous clothing and all promotional materials and images had to be approved by the CTA beforehand. And while Satisfyer and Lora DiCarlo had some impressive booths on the show floor, others were tucked away into corners far and wide. The hypocrisy of the CTA’s message was eye-roll inducing, given CES had for decades allowed scantily clad booth babes with little objection.
Klinger told Gizmodo that the CTA did send out a message about dress codes this year as well, but it’s unclear whether this was targeted toward sex tech exhibitors as it was last year. In any case, it wasn’t nearly as exhaustive as last year.
It’s also notable that one of Satsifyer’s Innovation Awards came in the software and mobile apps category. It might seem like a strange thing to highlight as progress, but it signals that sex tech can be considered a mainstream category — not one that needs to be pigeonholed. (Sort of like how the Grammy Awards pigeonholes hip hop into its own category.) Perhaps it’s also a sign that the category may finally be getting recognition for some genuinely clever technological innovations. For instance, the Satisfyer Connect app has quite a few novel features. You can control vibrations based on ambient sound and playlists, program your own stimulation pattern sequences, sync multiple devices with a partner for simultaneous experiences, as well as a built-in, private chat and video.
Still, it’s far too early to say the CTA has learned the error of its ways. As noted earlier, CES 2021 was much more muted than in years past — partly because it was all online, and because, well, the Capitol Riots occurred just days before the show began. If and when CES returns to Las Vegas, we’ll have to see how sex tech exhibitors are treated to make a final judgment.
But that does raise some interesting questions. Where does sex tech go from here? How is this category evolving, both in terms of society and the tech industry at large? What innovations can we expect to see going forward?
Technologically speaking, sex toys can be fairly advanced. It’s not just slapping wifi onto a basic vibrator. Lora DiCarlo’s Osé toy, for example, initially won its award because of its use of microrobotics to mimic oral sex. Satisfyer is known for using air pulse technology to stimulate the clitoris in a touch-free way that “encourages blood circulation.” The amount of clinical research and beta testing Morari Medical has put into its taint bandaid is similar to efforts by other wearable companies.
Cole says we can expect to see a range of subtle innovations in sex tech, ranging from better insulation and more sustainable materials, to quieter devices and cordless charging. We’re already seeing “warming” toys from Lora DiCarlo, a trend that Satisfyer told Gizmodo it was working to develop as well.
“It’s beyond the vibrator,” says Cole, noting that beyond the tech itself, the category is also pushing the conversation forward about how people approach sex across all genders and sexualities. “Whether that’s air pressure technology, suckers, or nipple play, but being for all bodies — that’s one thing that’s coming out that isn’t necessarily just tech but is more of a social conversation and creating different ways these products can be used. Like, it’s very hard to reinvent the vibrator anymore, but how can we improve the features of it?”
But even as all the sex tech companies I spoke to agreed that the category is becoming more mainstream, we’re not all the way there yet. CES is just one event — there’s plenty of other tech events that also have to create the space for these gadgets, their creators, and the conversations they spark.
“I’d say just over a year ago, we got turned away from Samsung Women’s Health Expo because one of the directors who was at the show, who came last minute, said ‘You don’t have anything to do with women’s health and you’re not a wearable, so you shouldn’t be here,’” Klinger told Gizmodo, noting the experience was frustrating as Lionness conducts extensive research and works with doctors to explore the role of sexual pleasure in overall wellness and health.
These experiences also extend to funding. Many sex tech companies founded by women — or startups founded by women in general — are at a disadvantage when it comes to the venture capital game. In 2019, only 2.7% of venture capital went to female-only founding teams. The numbers were worse for startups founded by black and latinx women, which received 0.27% and 0.37% respectively. It was even worse in 2020 when global VC funding to female founders decreased 27% over the same period in 2019.
“Back in 2018 at a femtech dinner, I was surprised to see how many founders at the table had worked in VC prior to starting their company or had family or partners who worked in VC. It’s very tough to break into if you don’t already have a foot in the door in some way,” says Klinger.
This is a tale as old as time, but what then, is the key to making sex tech a category that gets talked about like any other type of consumer electronics?
“I think the more that we can bring sex tech front and centre and make it something that isn’t put away in the corner of a conference is really important,” says Cole. “It’s to not have it as a headline piece. The key is how do we make it not sexy? How do we not rely on sexiness to sell it? I think placing it next to everyday lifestyle categories is a great move.”
“It’s just being treated as another company,” agrees Klinger. “We just want to be treated as normal and not turned away because someone is uncomfortable with this or they fear someone else might be uncomfortable.”