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The sexual revolution will be beautified. Today, there are several high-tech startups reimagining sex products for women as wearable accessories, taking female pleasure from the bedroom to the boardroom. And the results are classy as hell.
Some jewelry sellers are entering the sex industry from a place of academic curiosity. Would wearing sex products around a woman’s neck change where and how she embraced sexuality? Others have more personal inspiration. Such was the case for Polly Rodriguez, CEO of the sexual wellness startup Unbound Box, which sends customers erotic accessories along with curated sex and wellness products.
Colon cancer changed Rodriguez’s body in ways she could never have imagined. The illness forced her body into menopause when she was just 21 years old. Rodriguez now needs to routinely use lube in order to have a healthy life after recovery. But she found that going to the local sex shop to buy supplies didn’t feel empowering for her at all.
“I was totally intimidated by the shopping experience. I walked in and there were old guys reading dirty magazines,” Rodriguez says. “I honestly went back to my car and I cried. I was so embarrassed to shop at a place like that.”
The sex industry has changed dramatically since that disastrous shopping trip.
After recovering from cancer, Rodriguez teamed up with Sarah Jayne and Greer Goldenberg to launch Unbound Box in 2013. And they are not alone. Over the past few years, dozens of women entrepreneurs entered the scene, and their startups are revolutionizing the market. Now a new era is on the horizon. Rodriguez calls it the “rise of fem tech.”
Rodriguez and Make Love Not Porn founder Cindy Gallop are just a few of the founders behind the new startup network Women of Sextech, which already garnered over 70 members. “A lot of really smart women are coming to this space,” Rodriguez says. “Female-founded companies that are trying to change things… we’re seeing more products that are design centric.”
As of 2017, Unbound Box is a New York startup with around 10 employees running both an online store and a sex-positive subscription service. These curated boxes are filled with high-end products — everything from lingerie to adult bath toys. Unbound Box is just one of many female-led startups shaking up the sex industry. Formerly viewed as a niche market, sex products now represent a $15 billion industry.
Both Rodriguez and Ti Chang, cofounder of the erotic jewelry brand Crave, agree the rise of female entrepreneurs are leading the sex industry’s shift to more mature, elegant products that prioritize female pleasure. For example, several of Unbound’s curated offerings include whip necklaces with delicate metal tassels, accessories that are perfect for both fine dining and painful spanking. Meanwhile, Crave sells bondage cuff bracelets and a chic necklace that double as nipple vibrators, both of which a high-powered executive could discreetly wear to the office without raising eyebrows.
“I am most passionate about designing products for women because women are underserved when it comes to actual product design,” Chang says. “There are very few female industrial designers. This industry has pretty much been dominated by men.” Chang thinks many entrepreneurs and investors still fear the stigma attached to female pleasure would makes these ventures career suicide. And yet they persist.
Rodriguez agrees the current startup scene is an “awful” place for women. “You see products that reflect what men think women want, instead of what women themselves want,” Rodriguez says. “I’ll go to trade shows and I’ll see these products where the marketing is so lewd and ridiculous. I’ll think: I can’t put that on my website.”
Despite the difficulties, or perhaps precisely because of them, a new generation of feminist businesswomen are determined to shatter the status quo. “We give customers products that are beautiful so they will never feel dirty or embarrassed,” Rodriguez says.
Chang thinks the traditional industry revolved around the male gaze. Women’s products were often made with tawdry, almost comical aesthetics, then sold through heteronormative advertising that focused on the customer’s role as a partner. But not anymore. These new women-led companies are prioritizing independent women as their customers, regardless of their relationship status. Many are rejecting the term “sex toy” altogether.
“Wisp is not a sex toy, it’s wearable intimacy,” says tech inventor Wan Tseng. She is the CEO of Wisp, a startup that grew out of her graduate project at the Royal College of Art in London. The main product Wisp is developing is Touch, a piece of futuristic wearable jewelry that gives the feel of a gentle caress and a lover’s breath. Tseng is now turning her original designs, which used mini motors in several silicone pads, into round pendants that can be worn as simple necklaces.
“We developed the sensual technology to expand the sensation on user's skin,” Tseng says. “It will reproduce the feeling of sensation, such as touching, air blowing, and creating a scent. The detailed mechanism is IP pending.”
While companies like Wisp and the more unisex subscription box Maude have a techie, futuristic vibe, Unbound and Crave are distinctly high fashion. Crave’s most talked-about necklace, the Vesper vibrator, can be paired with a gold, rose gold, or platinum chain. “We use a lot of metal, which makes us very different from other sex toy companies,” Chang says. Her jewelry designs are all about the silhouette: She loves clean angles and subtle details. “Now we are entering a era where novelty products are growing up and becoming consumer products,” she explains. “It should not look like a child’s toy. It needs to be more sophisticated and chic.”
These designs empower women to discuss sexuality on their own terms, without attracting unwanted attention. Unbound’s curated handcuffs are jewelry first and foremost. Varying designs are made with satin, lace, and decorative metals instead of the usual leather or steel. “There’s a difference between being discreet and hiding something,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a wink and a nod to feminism, in my view.”
On the other hand, customers have also used the handcuffs to start a dialogue about consent. They are particularly popular with women who are curious about BDSM. “If you’re trying it for the first time, and you’re wearing it on your sleeve, it’s a lot easier to start a conversation about it,” Rodriguez says. “If someone really wants to break out of them [handcuffs], they can.”
For more of a summer look, Unbound box offers pineapple-shaped nipple clamp earrings. This movement isn’t just about luxury. It’s about fundamentally redefining erotic products for women’s pleasure. “I'd like to change people's perception,” Tseng tells Racked from Wisp’s research and development base in Taiwan. “I spent lots of time working on experiments of female arousal... what kind of thing will turn a female on, and Wisp is my conclusion.”