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Sex Toys

Women’s sex toys are innovative, but the tech world refuses to see it

The ‘world’s first hands-free sex toy’ for women was revoked of its award at a respected tech show, proving revolution for female pleasure is still taboo

“Immoral”, “obscene”, “indecent” and “profane” sound like Biblical curses saved for the Judases of the world, rather than a description of tech from one of the most innovative technology centres globally.

But those were the exact words used against Lora DiCarlo, a sex-positive, gender-inclusive, pro-women and LGBTQIA brand of sex toys after their creation was revoked of its Robotics Innovation Award at the Consumer Electronics Show, a world-renowned annual trade show in Las Vegas that brings together all the companies pushing new boundaries in tech. The Osé, a robotic sex toy that mimics the sensations of human fingers, tongue and mouth scored highly across all the judging criteria, only for it to be taken away for “indecency”. A moral-based requirement isn’t what you expect from an innovative conference awarding those who are pushing forward technological advances.

Trending under #CESgenderbias, outrage has spread now that Osé had been metaphorically burnt at the stake. The toy, engineered in partnership with top university robotics laboratories, was made mainly to pleasure women and push innovation for women’ orgasms. It is, according to Lora DiCarlo, the world’s first hands-free device for “the holy grail of orgasms” – the blended orgasm. Touting an almost entirely women-fronted team, they worked to develop new micro-robotic technology that reflects a close-to-human experience. Pushing on the personal experience, it adjusts to the body’s unique physiology for an individual’s use, making it hands-free. “We’re talking about truly innovative robotics,” founer and CEO Lora Haddock said in a statement. “We firmly believe that women, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and LGBTQI folks should be vocally claiming our space in pleasure and tech.”

Haddock, the founder of Lora DiCarlo, details that a VR porn company exhibits at CES every year where the public can watch porn openly as consumers walk by, adding that a sex doll for men and other toys have exhibited and won awards in previous years. “This double standard makes it clear that women’s sexuality is not worthy of innovation,” she says, claiming that it is because Osé is a “vagina-focused” product, one that doesn’t directly benefit anyone else other than the user and “empowers” women, that it has been penalised. The hypocrisy seems visceral.

When talking to female-led sex toy inventors themselves about the issues, Ti Chang, co-founder of Crave, brought the problem back to basics. “CES has an issue with pleasure, particularly with pleasure for women. This pleasure bias of CES is just part of a larger problem that stems from modern tech companies – who ironically describe themselves as progressive and forward thinking.” Chang is the creator of the Vesper vibrator necklace – a sex toy necklace that was worn by Janet Jackson when accepting the 2018 MTV Global Icon award.

This isn’t the first time this bias has played out. Chang tells Dazed how CES had previously denied Crave, a site for women’s pleasure and sex toys online, any representation at the show, yet “booth babes” (women who look sexy to sell tech at CES) are brought in every year. As the Osé is the first hands-free toy for women on the market, it’s clear that CES’s issue isn’t with women being sexual or having sex, but as long as that it’s for the heteronormative male gaze and solely for male pleasure. The messages (check the plural as CES keeps changing the reason on why they’ve done this) CES has responded with have been contradictory. “Female-orientated” products like breast pumps and kegel exercise tools are apparently deemed acceptable by the CES. The smooth grey toy is the physical embodiment of women prioritising their sexual pleasure and needs first. Something not everyone can get their head around – even tech whizzes.

It’s not just the robotics industry that has an issue with women’s erotics either – Chang mentions how social media is also lagging behind women having autonomy over their bodies and online. “Facebook and Instagram constantly reject our adverts, and yet we constantly see ads for Viagra and lingerie (to wear for a man)”.

Lora DiCarlo founder Lora Haddock has written an open-letter calling the CES snub an act of gender bias, instead of an act against sex toys altogether. To focus on women’s pleasure, from a social, cultural, technological perspective is a recent endeavour. The investment in men’s pleasure is in our history books, there is thorough academic and scientific research — women cannot compete with what has only just become available for them.

“There’s definitely sexist discrimination which limits the industry’s progress” – Ruby Stevenson

Ruby Stevenson, a sexual health and wellbeing therapist who works for sexual health charity The Brook, believes the lack of education is why technology for women is on the backfoot. “There continues to be uncertainty about the basics of female sexual anatomy,” Stevenson tells Dazed. “It still baffles me that the information we have about female ejaculation is so ambiguous. This is all down to a lack of funding for scientific research in the field, so it makes sense that there’s definitely sexist discrimination which limits the industry’s progress”. The disapproval of Lora DiCarlo’s Osé, then, is not surprising; if anything it’s boring.

What’s surfaced from the #CESgenderbias are more questions regarding women, technology and recognising all our abilities: sexual and otherwise. Are the problems centred around sexism behind women working in technology or anything regarding women’s desires? The answers that have come out of this dispute have clearly shown the problem is frankly around both.

In Haddock’s letter appealing the public to speak out about the gender bias, she asserts that only one out of 100 CES Best of Innovation Award winners were female-founded. Arguing that if the centre of technology, a supposedly future-facing organisation, isn’t reflecting the actual future of tech, any ‘innovation’ continues to be imbalanced. And if there’s no space or representation for women, that most likely means prospective technological changes are not thinking of women of colour, those who are from an LGBTQIA and non-binary background, people with disabilities and frankly, a different perspective from what’s already in the market.

In the last half decade, there’s been some pretty exciting, imaginative, smart innovations in female pleasure-based tech. Sex toy creators have brought out interchangeable, personalised vibrators, toys that mimic ejaculation and even wearable tech. Radical companies like Unbound are making the sex toy experience more accessible than ever, with Instagram-worthy products that don’t look like penises, an antidote to society’s ‘misogynist framework of self-pleasure’. The Hello Touch X by Jimmy Jane is a pioneering non-penetrative device that, with tiny pads attached to your hands, brings electronic stimulation to tactile foreplay, while the Lelo Ora2 is another example of future-facing oral-like toys. The Vibease is one of the first successful smart devices that you can control with a smartphone. Women of Sex Tech is a worldwide organisation of artists, creators, engineers and educators leading the way in updating sex toys and the wider industry, and other creators like Francesca Cross, the founder of disability-inclusive online sex shop Pleasure Garden, are pushing to create more space for marginalised people who want to enjoy sex.

Thinking about the future of female pleasure, Stevenson says real progress will come about through wider education, and where information and support is easily accessible for all. “Pleasure-focused relationship and sex education (should be) taught from a young age to empower people of all genders to embrace their sexuality,” she affirms. Chang argues that for technology to move ahead, or even with the times, modern tech companies and spaces like the Consumer Electronics Show have to recognise masturbation and women’s pleasure are a part of a woman’s health and wellness. “I think it’s less about what tech for pleasure looks like per se but we need to reexamine our relationship with our bodies to give our selves permission to touch, love, and play with ourselves,” says Chang. “All the sex robots or widgets are not going to change much if we believe pleasure is shameful and taboo.”