There’s a ton of apps out there, but not one is like Screet, the feminist sexual health app. A mobile app and website will allow Screet users to order safe sex supplies – including emergency contraception – on demand for delivery. Screet recognizes that most sexual health apps are geared toward cis folks, straight folks, and men, so test runs and a super-queer reboot promise that it’ll shake up how queer folks, and especially queer women, utilize technology and structure their sex lives.
Screet was created as part of the 2015 StartupBus competition, a roadtrip hackathon where folks on different buses develop startup projects on the road, by a team featuring Autostraddle’s very own Creatrix Tiara, and she’s the single person undertaking its second coming.
As she builds momentum for a reboot project, she set aside some precious moments to talk with me about where Screet comes from and where it’s going.
How did Screet happen? What’s the backstory on how the journey to making this app began?
The idea was originally a silly pitch from someone on the bus at like 5 AM: “How about Uber for condoms!?” I looked it up and saw that THAT particular niche was taken (such as L International and Durex), but I found a study about how there was demand for on-demand contraception but nobody really was filling it. I suggested on-demand Plan B to my bus and it was an immediate hit. Then I floated the idea of on-demand sexual health products to my social networks and it was an immediate YES, so I knew we had a winner.
The other people who joined the team also thought it was a winner and had visions of this being a zillion-dollar start-up and possibly quitting jobs to work on this full-time, etc. I got to work on building a base of supporters for the project, including conducting a survey of what people needed and wanted out of a service like ours. We had a HUGE response rate from women and the LGBTQ community, and they had a lot of requests: Plan B and condoms were super common, followed by other barrier methods (esp gloves and dental dams), sex toys, and other medication. So we designed Screet to be an on-demand discreet delivery service of sexual health products, using the trunk space of Lyft and Uber drivers for inventory storage and delivery.
We only had 3 days or so, and it turned out that getting a stock of Plan B is a little complicated to achieve in a short time – the recent existence of a non-prescription option as well as generics were heartening, but there’s a big process to be approved by Teva as an official distributor – so we decided to focus on barrier methods. It was around then that I noticed a huge fissure in politics and values within my team. I was already sticking out for being Capital Q Queer; it was seriously the straightest situation I’ve been in in a long time. They were reluctant to supply anything beyond condoms and lube, and even downplayed Plan B as “not worth it” because they didn’t want to “scare off investors.” I would show them the market research and they’d dismiss it. I got talked out of doing the main pitches by one of the guys in the group because he claimed that he knew how to talk business and numbers, had an ambition to be the CEO of a successful startup, and was supposedly the stronger speaker – and yet he couldn’t even talk frankly about sexual health products beyond condoms and lube without cracking an awkward joke. At some point even the LGBTQI focus was getting lost or dismissed because it was “too small a market” – even though women and the LGBTQI community were THE MOST engaged people on our social media and market research. I had put in all this emotional labor, I was the one who actually made this project viable beyond Startup Bus by building traction and partnerships, and yet all I was told was to sit back and wait until we won Startup Bus, which was apparently guaranteed, and THEN I’ll have all the money in the world to do my own social justice side of Screet while they did the business side.
There were a lot of things our team did right: we managed to get a working website and a trial version of the app going, we got some merch, and we even made a couple of deliveries. We were getting a pretty good reputation across Startup Bus, and more generally online. There were many ways where there was structure and design and code being built that made this really viable. Folks on the team were friendly, personable, and competent people. They were pretty open and forward-thinking people and weren’t, like, morally opposed to what I was trying to bring to the table or whatever. There wasn’t anyone I met the entire trip who had any moral opposition to condoms, Plan B, sexual health, whatever. But the dissonance in values and priorities made me realize that if I wanted Screet to continue, it wasn’t going to be with these folks.
It was interesting – and sometimes overwhelming – to observe what people were willing to put themselves on the line for to reach their goals. The rest of my team thought that being upfront about Plan B and anything that wasn’t completely normative would be alienating to potential investors. As a strident activist type who lives and breathes intersectional feminism and makes it an overt part of my life, I was by far in the minority in the room. They didn’t have the language or context I had, and I didn’t have the language or context they had – since they rightfully assumed that most people in a position of power at SB would be closer to their mentality.
We passed the qualifiers and semis, but things really started falling apart just before the finals. Feministing wrote about us and my team murmured that it was “off message,” which infuriated me. This was supposed to be feminist from the start! Sensing a huge values clash, and feeling like it was the last straw, I declared my intention to quit. I was so SO relieved when we didn’t win because I knew then that Screet was free for me to make it how I saw it happen.
Can you tell me a little bit about the reboot and how you’re expanding?
Because of our Startup Bus “loss” (not a loss, really) and the dissolving of the team, I’m basically starting over from scratch. I’m trying to corral the positive energy and feedback from testing out Screet during the week of Startup Bus to create something that is a lot more feminist and queer: REALLY working hard on getting things like Plan B, dental dams, and latex & non-latex gloves stocked; working with companies and orgs that work with women and the LGBTQ community to partner as suppliers, fulfillment, or community partners. There were some fledgling ideas from Startup Bus about being a resource for sexual health information, and I’d like Screet’s reboot to be a part of that. Also, to respect the wishes of some on my original team, we need a new name – I’m kinda partial to Red Handkerchief, from this short story about a dystopia with roving guerilla abortion clinics, but I’m open to suggestions, especially since Screet was devised at some odd hour of the day with little sleep!
I had independently talked to a lot of the special guests, alumni, and judges who were around Startup Bus – most of them investors, founders, or working in startups in multiple ways, many of them also Straight White Men – and they all LOVED LOVED LOVED my vision of it. They LOVED that I was bringing in Plan B, they urged me to focus on LGBTQI folks, they basically supported MY vision of things and validated my passion for it. I asked, over and over, what should I do in case we somehow won and I ended up being pushed out or forced to work with people that I’m not sure I work well with or whose values I trust – and they were encouraging me to start my own thing. Some even gave me contacts and business cards! So I knew that no matter what, I had a lot of allies.
Based on my personal conversations and the response I was getting in and out of SB, I still think my team were being more cautious than they needed to be. The people they were trying to court were already very receptive and open to the more “controversial” or “audacious” version of the idea (because Plan B is controversial, sadly). People kept taking about how “someone” might find it outrageous, but I never actually found that someone.
This actually showed me that the world is more than ready to support seemingly unconventional ideas, stuff that might be too niche. One of the big things that made the investor types love my idea was that I had said “I wish this existed when I was in this situation” – that need and determination is powerful. And now we have THE PEOPLE WITH THE MONEY, even the CONVENTIONAL people with the money, getting interested. So this is really heartening!
I would like to have a good, real conversation on what sort of values do we, well, value in start-up culture and whether it’s the healthiest thing – and there is a lot in community dev that I wish would adopt more from startups, such as the ability to be entrepreneurial and experimental rather than falling over dying whenever they lose Government or institutional funding! And, if we are a marginalized community in tech, how are we also perpetuating harmful or unhelpful patterns, even if we claim to be against them? I would also really like to call on our activist, artist, academic, alternative peers and allies to step up, ESPECIALLY financially. We really need to support our own. If we want start-up culture and the tech industry to be way more inclusive of marginalized voices – so that people like the ones on my bus feel more confident about taking social risks by Going There – then we need to support the people already in the system trying to do so!
Some of the frustrations I’ve had with the development of Screet during or post Startup Bus weren’t just with people I could have dismissed as dudebros. I do think heteronormativity and patriarchy had a HUGE part to play in the dynamics that happened on the bus, but I have also had to deal with frustrating interactions from other women, including women of color – and I’ve had allies who were also “dudebros” and yet GOT IT. I wonder if part of it is the disconnect I’m sensing between startup culture and community development culture – start-up culture tends to be all about quick iteration, about what is flashy and sells well, getting the investors’ attention first and foremost. (I’ve been at other hackathons where people obsessed over things like APIs rather than whether the app actually WORKS as intended, or where I got snarked at for working on a social media campaign rather than an app because that didn’t count as “creating something”). I was more invested in the vision and mission statement – what was the kind of change we wanted to make, whether our plan was working towards that vision or not, trying to build consensus so that people are on the same page.
Tech is just another medium to get things done, and I am far from the only person with our politics and ideals finding ways to use tech for liberation. And now we have allies – tricky, imperfect, frustrating allies that you might not want to work with intimately, but are still supportive in a general sense. And we have tons of women investors LOOKING for projects like ours! There’s more support than we realize – we just need to really support each other and look out for each other.
What kind of impact do you hope the app will have on the lives of women and LGBTQ people?
I have been in situations where I’ve been dependent on someone else to help me get Plan B at a vulnerable time, or not known where to start to get gloves and dams. I know there is a lot of misinformation about safer sex for marginalized communities, especially for queer women and specifically non-monosexual queer women, and it can be especially awkward to ask for help from sources whose trust levels you don’t know. Hell, I’ve had trouble trying to get birth control without people getting nosy!
When I did market research for Screet v1, a lot of people valued the on-demand convenience aspect of it – for discretion, or because they lived somewhere where what they wanted wasn’t easy to get, or because they feel awkward trying to explain to a third party who’s not invested in these issues what they’re after. A common question we got was how we were different from Instacart or Postmates; with them, you’re dependent on them finding a store that carries what you’re after, you’re not sure if the driver understands what you want and won’t substitute it for something stupid, and it’s not discreet because you still have to interact with the driver. With us you have people who GET IT, have it, and will keep things under wraps.
I would like to destigmatize sexuality and access to sexual health care, especially on demand. It would make safer sex a lot more accessible because now you don’t have to worry about finding the barrier methods you need. The stress of getting time-sensitive medication like Plan B on time would be lessened because you know someone’s got your back. I’m also thinking of how this could help sex workers too, because of the discretion and respect – and I would love to work with sex worker organizations on how we can better serve their needs.
On the technology end of things, I would like to see more start-ups and apps being explicitly feminist and queer. I’ve only started doing hackathons and exploring the start-up space in the past year, and even though they’re often filled with liberal lefty progressive types, too many people are afraid of Going There (just like my team was with Plan B) because it would be “too controversial,” or it’s “too small a market,” or it’s “just your personal network,” or whatever. The response to Screet already shows that there is HIGH DEMAND for this – with random people telling me that they would sign up for something like this SO FAST – which means that other feminist apps would also get some traction. So let’s build them, let’s market them, let’s invest them!
And part of that would be to get more feminists and LGBTQI folk involved in tech. I get that the current tech climate is antagonistic towards anyone who isn’t Straight White Male, but I am also highly frustrated at how so many people in my activist, artist, academic communities immediately dismiss the possibilities to reclaim, subvert, and empower tech for our needs and just complain about how tech is “ruining everything.” For many of us – even folks like me, who could be said to be “older” – technology is what makes sense to us. Technology is what ENABLED me to be feminist and queer and find community when I was being isolated. Technology is life-saving, and it just makes life a lot easier. So let’s work with that! Let’s destigmatize tech, destigmatize feminism, find ways that they already naturally align and create something awesome.
If you’d like to help Tiara reboot Screet (or suggest a new name for it!), you can email her at screetreboot [at] gmail [dot] com. (She’s looking for project managers with for-profit backgrounds and basically any and everyone with a skill to share, just FYI!) To stay updated on the development process, go to the reboot site and sign up for the mailing list or connect with the project on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
This has been the one-hundred-thirty-third installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to websites you have to bookmark to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Header by Rory Midhani.