Taboo Technology

Breaking the barriers that hold bodies back

In 2019, sextech startup Lora DiCarlo’s Osé, a personal robotic massager, received the CES Innovation Award for Robotics. A month after the announcement, the CES and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which owns CES, rescinded the award citing obscenity and ineligibility.

The decision sparked a heated controversy. In an open letter, Lora DiCarlo pointed out that Osé was designed in partnership with Oregon State University’s robotics engineering lab. Moreover, the letter also noted that a sex doll for men had previously been launched at CES, and the show routinely featured a virtual reality pornography company as well.

The CTA eventually reversed its decision, with a spokesperson admitting that “CTA did not handle this award properly” (CNET).

The award being rescinded and reinstated after a long-drawn-out battle was “a prime example” of the stigma that sextech faces, Founder and CEO Lora Haddock DiCarlo said in an email. It also provided an opportunity: “We were able to sit down and negotiate with CES and help them to rewrite their policies to include sex tech brands,” she added.

Sexual pleasure and health have long been victims of a prudish, hush-hush culture. Technologies in this space are no exception, as the incident with Lora DiCarlo shows. From seeking help for sex-related conditions, to self-pleasuring, protection and more, the scope for sex tech is vast and far-reaching. But as DiCarlo put it, “as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Under wraps

The sex tech industry was estimated to be worth US$30 billion in 2017 (The Guardian) but it’s difficult to rely exclusively on numbers because the industry is still reaching a consensus on the definition of sex tech. The Guardian’s estimate, for instance, is based on the market value of existing tech such as smart adult toys, apps and VR pornography.

But this interpretation can be broadened significantly to encompass ‘sexual wellness’ as well. Platforms such as Ferne Health aim to cater to this niche.

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“We want to digitalize health care services for women consumers, and to provide all of the services at home, because we realized there was a disconnection between a Gen Y or Gen Z [woman] and what mainstream or traditional healthcare can provide,” says Ferne Health CEO and Founder Xi Liu. The Singapore-based company offers screening kits and teleconsultations for sexually transmitted diseases and other women’s health concerns.

Sexual healthcare in Asia is a thorny issue. For one, Asian societies tend to be closely knit. One’s doctor might also be a neighbor, cousin or family friend. Further, Liu says it’s often only considered acceptable for married cisgender women to seek out sexual healthcare.

Liu has experienced this firsthand, where gynecologists back home in China would assume she was sexually inactive because she was unmarried. Ferne Health’s customers have told Liu about uncomfortable experiences when talking to doctors about intimate issues such as having unprotected sex. In one extreme case, a victim of sexual assault was met with a doctor’s disapproval when seeking medical evaluation. And unsurprisingly, this kind of judgmental attitude extends well beyond the cisgender binary. 

There is a remarkable degree of discrimination and inaccessibility surrounding sexual healthcare for transgender people. Healthcare providers tend to wrongly assume that transgender patients may not need ‘gendered’ care such as pelvic exams or contraception (National Center for Transgender Equality). Healthcare systems also overlook the distinction between individuals’ assigned sex and gender identity, leading to complications for those who are trans, genderfluid, or intersex (BBC, Medical News Today).   

Sexuality itself is also assumed to be the domain of the able-bodied, which makes the sex lives of disabled people more challenging. Discrimination either takes the form of hypersexualization or complete denial of their sexuality (The Guardian). The problem is that sexuality is largely viewed through an ableist lens, and disregards those who have trouble participating in ‘conventional’ forms of intercourse. The sexual needs of disabled people are often ignored, even by healthcare workers (BBC).

Off the mark 

Aggravating the stigma attached to sex and sexual health is a lack of education. Young people are rarely formally educated about their personal intimate health, and the task is left up to parents, who may not be equipped for such a conversation. 

In many Asian countries, such as China, India, and Indonesia, sex education can be lacking, often limited to a clinical take on reproductive health. South Korea’s national sex education guidelines, issued in 2015, were called into question for sexism­. One suggested that women work on their appearance while men improve their financial capabilities, and another justified date rape (Quartz).

From masturbation to menstruation, sex and sexual health is shrouded in taboo, and hyperfocused on cisgender men. In the book Down So Long… The Puzzling Persistence of Gender Inequality, author Robert Jackson highlights that several myths surrounding physiology and gender have led to a misconception that men, especially cisgender men, have a stronger sex drive. This has negatively affected attitudes around men’s sexual health as well. 

In Asia, especially, there is a lack of understanding about common men’s health issues, says Noah Co-Founder Sean Low. Noah is a Singapore-based digital health clinic for men that offers healthcare services for men suffering from erectile dysfunction (ED), hair loss, and premature ejaculation (PE). 

Low notes that ED and PE can often affect men’s perception of how they ‘perform’ sexually, even though these conditions are closely tied to different aspects of physical health. The online platform is meant to be a discreet, affordable, and convenient way for men to approach their health needs.

“It’s deeper than just sex,” he says. He adds that the stigma surrounding sexual health often affects the male ego and leads to shame and embarrassment on an individual level. As Thompson Jr and Langendoerfer point out in a 2013 study, men’s sexuality is often connected to their masculinity. Problems with sexual ‘performance’ can immediately threaten their sense of masculine identity, or manhood.

“As you grow up you’re taught to suck it up, move on. Some men even find that seeing a doctor is emasculating. Globally, men die [earlier] than women but we see doctors half as frequently,” Low says. “A lot of it is attributed to ego. You feel like, as a guy, ‘I don’t need to be taken care of, it’s weak to seek help.’ But that’s not true.”

Liu and Low agree that the technology to address many issues of sexual health already exist–telemedicine, online purchasing, or other services that users can avail from the privacy of their personal spaces. Yet, a missing element remains.

“Do we really need to innovate a brand-new product that never existed before, or do we have everything already and we just need to link the dots?” Liu asks.

Case study: driving activism with product design

Being recognized and visible is a challenge for the sex tech industry. But Cute Little Fuckers and its creator Step Tranovich are winning battles on more than one front.

Cute Little Fuckers makes gender-inclusive adult toys with the mission of making sexual expression accessible. Tranovich, who is also the founder of activist collective Loud and Queer, explains that as a gender-fluid and differently-abled person, issues of inclusivity and accessibility are incredibly important. In their experience, there were sex toys that they and their gender non-conforming friends liked on a functional level, but found off-putting due to gendered branding. 

“The way it was packaged, marketed and sold­–if [brands] did it just a little differently, we could really be having an amazing experience. And we just weren’t,” Tranovich says.

Tranovich explains that the toys at Cute Little Fuckers are made to be used in a variety of ways, and to stimulate different erogenous zones of varying sizes and shapes. The toys are designed so that they are easy to hold, and each of the company’s three toys has its own story, ostensibly to create a positive, approachable experience.

Starsi, for instance, is a star-shaped silicone vibrator suitable for all body surfaces. Importantly, it was designed to include transfemme people with genital dysphoria due to its vulva-like curve. In this way, it’s accessible to users regardless of sexual orientation or gender. 

“Cute Little Fuckers is like activism in an adorable package. All my life I’ve played with this concept of making activism fun… One of the reasons that Cute Little Fuckers is so fulfilling to me at the core is because I feel like it’s a real embodiment of that idea,” Tranovich says.

One of the victories for Cute Little Fuckers was its listing on Kickstarter­, since adult toys are not encouraged on the platform. Months of negotiation culminated in a letter from Tranovich explaining that Cute Little Fuckers was more than a company that made adult toys­. Rather, its products addressed the interplay between sex, sexuality and sexual expression for the LGBT+ community in a world that is guided by the gender binary. Kickstarter was convinced, and Cute Little Fuckers has so far raised over $35,000 on the platform.

Tranovich and their company demonstrates that the sex tech industry is far beyond the reductive definition of technologies that enable pleasure, because sex (and anything related to it, including sexual health) is very closely tied to cultural norms of acceptance and taboo. Lack of inclusion is a central issue here, but according to Tranovich, the world is slowly getting better.

“If I started Cute Little Fuckers 20 years ago, I don’t think it would have been as successful as it is now,” they say. “A lot of the weight on these issues and the stigma and shame around them is lifting.” Routes to inclusivity need not always be radical, Tranovich explains. They can be straightforward as simply reframing the way that products are used, and how they fit in a more inclusive community.

Moreover, innovation in sex tech currently is not only about the hard technology–the sex dolls and the VR experiences. As both Liu and Low point out, it is also about applying the technology to address issues of pleasure and sexual health with empathy, and without compromising the psychological wellbeing of the people using these technologies.

Therein lies the promise of sex tech: a sex-positive world where everyone is empowered to make their own sexual choices free from stigma, and where they have access to tech-enabled solutions for their unique pleasure and health needs that do not come at the cost of their confidence. As Low said, it truly is deeper than sex.

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