Despite being one of the biggest tech conferences of the year, CES rarely actually feels like the center for game-changing visions of the future anymore. From smart homes to robots, it’s mostly a lot of incremental improvements overblown to sound like tremendous progress.
Except, that is, for this year’s new sex tech category.
After last year’s major controversy when CES banned and revoked the Innovation Award in Robotics given to Lora DiCarlo’s women’s pleasure device, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the bigwigs behind CES, officially agreed to allow sex tech onto the show floor (and only on a trial basis).
Sex tech companies didn’t disappoint, either, announcing their long-awaited arrival into mainstream tech with fanfare.
Tech needs sexual health and wellness as much as sexual health and wellness needs tech.
There was Satisfyer, making some of the greatest advancements in women’s pleasure unimaginably affordable and accessible. Morari Medical showed off a wearable prototype that uses neuromodulation to solve premature ejaculation, a promising solution to a very common sexual dysfunction. Come Play not only brought a new couple’s vibrator with a revolutionary design aimed at solving age-old issues, but also announced an incubator model with toy company Doc Johnson to support more innovation in sex tech. Of course, there was also the one that started it all, Lora DiCarlo’s Osé, a hands-free blended orgasm device that’s a feat of innovative engineering and pleasure tech.
Innovations from the sexual health and wellness category breathed new life into CES. And if the industry’s gatekeepers have any sense, they’ll realize that tech needs sexual health and wellness as much as sexual health and wellness needs tech.
Why CES can’t fuck
The future seems promising now that sex and CES appear to be on lukewarm terms in 2020. In the past, the trade show behemoth’s relationship to sex was a storied and contentious one.
Sex has long pushed innovation in tech, but CES organizers have had a complicated relationship with it. The AVN Awards (Adult Video News) was timed to coincide with CES up until 2011, with tech nerds mingling with porn stars in convention halls filled with stale air. After that, CES kept the booth babes and approved only a select few sex tech companies like OhMiBod and VR porn company Naughty America.
Fast forward and the practice of using sex to sell tech at CES has waned since 2018. CES has become adamant about distancing itself from any potential bad press on the topic. Meanwhile, misogyny in STEM fields became an increasingly hot topic, and CES was shamed for its lack of women keynote speakers.
All of this came to a head in the 2019 debacle with Lora DiCarlo’s Osé. The trade show’s squeamishness unfairly punished women innovators who aimed to empower rather than objectify women’s sexuality. Overall, by excluding the sex industry, CES organizers failed to understand a major industry shift. Many sex tech companies started reframing toys as wellness tools rather than anything salacious or pornographic.
Months after the controversy, trade show planners announced they would officially allow sex tech onto the show floor in 2020 as part of the health and wellness category. It formed an internal board and collaborated with leaders in the space (like Lora Haddock and the co-founders of OhMiBod Brian and Suki Dunham) to set guidelines, ensuring more fairness in who did and didn’t get approved to exhibit.
But the show bosses stayed mum about what would happen after this one-year trial.
When Mashable reached out for comment on whether sex tech would be allowed back after 2020, a representative only said that, “After CES 2019, CTA started some important conversations internally and with external advisors. We decided to include tech based sexual technology products at CES 2020. As we do every year, we will follow our standard policies and procedures following this year’s show to determine next steps.”
A watershed moment for sex tech
But speaking with all 11 exhibitors who were approved for the show floor this year, hopes are high and reviews of the experience are overwhelmingly positive.
“I would be very surprised if they didn’t invite sex tech back next year,” said Lora Haddock. Organizers initially feared that the floor would just be walls of vibrators and sexually explicit imagery that could offend attendees, she said. “But what you see on the show floor right now is only respectful of human bodies, beautifully designed, and extremely technologically innovative stuff.”
No one dealt with outraged attendees or even lewd and offensive behavior from passersby. Predominately, folks just seemed very, very excited and intrigued by their products.
“We’re just happy that we’re here and have been accepted as legitimate tech. And, honestly that we’re also being used as kind of a draw for CES,” said Brian Dunham.
For these sex tech innovators, the significance of this warm reception — of being treated like legitimate tech by an institution like CES — cannot be overstated. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been allowed to show products they’ve slaved over as engineers outside of novelty and adult shows, despite their products being worlds apart from what’s usually on display there.
“Venture capitalists don’t take it seriously and product engineers don’t take it seriously either. But it’s very serious work,” said Piri Miller, the founder of Come Play, which created the unique new couples vibrator, Petl. “I finally feel like my ideas are being respected.”
“I finally feel like my ideas are being respected.”
CES’ acceptance is a huge step in destigmatizing sexual wellness, as well as a signal to the rest of the corporate world that there’s a societal shift happening around sex right now. And that could lead to a boon in even more innovative sex tech over time.
Soumyadip Rakshit, a founder of the sex tech company Mystery Vibe, said being able to share the same space with the biggest names in tech wellness like Phillips, Siemens, and General Electric is exactly how collaborations across different sectors take place.
“We’re at a convergence point,” he said. “On a fundamental level, it’s an alignment of channels. Because coming from a corporate background, I know at the end of the day, it’s all about the business case.”
CES isn’t the only recent mainstream collaboration for sex tech, either. Walmart started selling sex toys in 2018. The more corporations see that sexual wellness doesn’t hurt their brand, the more they’ll want to invest.
There’s a butt
As with any big change, though, this momentous meeting of sex and tech still has some bugs in the system to work out.
Haddock and her team had to fight to ensure that the sex tech exhibitors weren’t sequestered into a far off corner of the show floor by themselves. They insisted on being embedded into the overall Health and Wellness category.
In practice, though, it seems CES kind of got what officials wanted anyway. It was hard to hunt down many of the sex tech booths and, by and large, they were indeed all kept together in a back corner of the Sands Expo Hall. That is, save for a few exceptions with prime real estate like Lora DiCarlo and Satisfyer, who arguably have more financial and media power to complain if they got the same treatment.
Crave’s Ti Chang lamented about getting stuck in the back — an egregious mistake on CES’ part if you ask this reporter. Crave had one of the most fun experiences, allowing attendees to build their own vibrators.
Chang was also one of many exhibitors who talked about the extremely strict and rigorous approval process. Every picture, sign, pamphlet, giveaway, sticker, prop, product, and iPad display went through an extensive screening process. The CTA had some notably prudish objections. The folks behind the Ergo Fit strap-on had to make the image of a woman holding the product (shown below) smaller, and Lovense had to get rid of a tame female silhouette on their giveaway wheel.
Crave had to fight to keep the image of a woman wearing their necklace vibrator (the Vesper) around her neck. Their reps argued that the image had been deemed acceptable by major retail stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. “And I mean what am I supposed to do? Get a more flat-chested model?” Chang joked.
All in all, though, exhibitors worked hard to remain above board and found little unreasonable pushback from the CTA.
“They’re just a little gun shy, with thinking from an older generation. Many of them are only now learning the vocabulary for talking about sexual pleasure and health,” said Chang. “So I applaud them for doing that, and I’m excited to help them have those conversations.”
The biggest criticisms came from those who weren’t allowed onto the show floor at all, though.
Brian Sloan, creator of the Autoblow A.I., believes that one rule discriminates against those who prefer anatomically-correct toys. In the rules and guidelines document Mashable obtained, the CTA forbids “overt anatomical product images” and anything that depicts or describes “actual or simulated sexual acts nor should it include any pictures or renderings of genitalia.” Since male consumers predominantly prefer toys that resemble female bodies, Sloan argued that this ostensibly bans male toys from CES.
Others, however, might argue that allowing toys that quite literally objectify female body parts (like the Fleshlight, for example) is a slippery slope.
The more concerning exclusion from CES’ watershed sex tech moment was that of Cindy Gallop, a pioneer in the space who literally coined the phrase “sex tech.” Founder of Make Love Not Porn and a founding member of Women of Sex Tech, Gallop applied to the conference portion of CES after it announced sexual wellness exhibitors would be allowed in 2020.
Her offer to speak on why sex tech would be the next trillion-dollar opportunity for tech was denied.
In an email obtained by Mashable, a CTA representative explained the reason was because, “At this point, sex tech is not part of our conference program and therefore [we] cannot offer you a speaking opportunity at CES 2020, but we appreciate the outreach.”
When reached for comment on this incident, a CTA representative said, “CES provides a speaking platform for voices impacting all facets of the technology industry. For that reason, Lora Dicarlo was invited to speak on a panel as part of our conference programming for CES 2020. We are committed to making the show welcoming and inclusive for all.”
The lack of sex tech’s representation as a topic in the conference portion of CES seems notable, though, regardless of Haddock’s presence on a panel. It’s an odd message to send that sex tech is welcome to be seen, but not heard.
It’s an odd message to send that sex tech is welcome to be seen, but not heard.
“CTA and CES are really shooting themselves in the foot by not letting me speak, because the whole point of the talk is to help legitimize the sector, lay out the full landscape of it, highlight the extraordinary innovation disruption going on in this area for attendees,” Gallop said over the phone. “It would help bring credibility and gravitas to the sector in a way that would then allow CES to expand sex tech’s presence in the future and to leverage it not only for business but what is undeniably a massive amount of public interest in it.”
Haddock agreed, reiterating that leaders in sex tech were the ones who ignited this important conversation about inclusivity, sexuality, tech, and wellness. CES has already benefited from that conversation, so it only seems fair to allow those leaders the opportunity on stage to speak on it at the conference itself. “You might as well be cutting off your nose to spite your face,” she said.
“If CES would just embrace sex tech as opposed to being dragged kicking and screaming into allowing it, the opportunities for them would be endless,” said Gallop.
Why tech needs sexual wellness
While sex tech gained a lot by finally being accepted by the biggest gatekeepers of tech, it honestly feels like CES had a lot more to gain from the partnership.
Sex tech didn’t just bring fun and novelty to the show floor. The sector and its plethora of brilliant, boundary-pushing leaders also brought with them a more human perspective on the role tech can play in our lives — something the rest of CES sorely lacks.
Take the Lioness vibrator for example, which announced its Generation 2 update at CES. It’s a wearable that uses biofeedback to give women the ability to track their own orgasms and understand their bodies on a scale society has always denied them. Even just a great new couples vibrator like Come Play’s Petl could dramatically improve people’s sex lives.
There was a stark contrast on display at the 2020 CES show floor, but it wasn’t the one that the CTA feared.
It honestly feels like tech had a lot more to gain from the partnership.
In the back, there were a bunch of small, scrappy, welcoming booths with gorgeously designed sexual wellness products that touted tag lines like “Come as you are!” Then in the center, taking up much of the real estate, were the big names like Phillips, showing off all their shiny and expensive toys, relevant only to corporations or the extremely wealthy.
Honestly, which sounds more perverse to you?
On the practical side, while the CTA might seem uncomfortable about the new presence of sex tech, it’s certainly enjoyed an increase in attention after inviting it.
“Most of the media coverage I’ve seen about CES this year is about sex,” said Miller. Sure enough, it was the reason Mashable sent me to the show even though I don’t regularly cover tech. When I asked her what else the tech industry had to gain from allowing sex tech in, her answer was simple: “Money. A whole lot of money.”
Indeed, sex tech makes around $30 billion a year right now, though that’s probably an underestimation according to industry experts. In terms of growth, sexual wellness products are predicted to net $122 billion by 2026.
Beyond all of that, though, there’s the tech itself. While engineers and developers might have a hard time taking sex toys seriously, it’s hard to deny their impressive machinery.
“Tech can benefit from increased availability to our innovation,” claimed Haddock. “We hold nine patents for the Osé alone. There are more parts in this product than there are bones in the human body… There are functions that have all different kinds of technological applications. You might even see them in a medical device somewhere down the road.”
We can’t know for sure if CES will invite sexual wellness product makers back in 2021. But it’s increasingly obvious that if CES wants to remain relevant, it sure should.