What made a prominent technology trade show rescind an award it had already given to a sex-tech startup company? It’s the question the company, Lora DiCarlo, has asked since the 2019 International CES earlier this month, raising the issue of sexism in the tech industry.
The team from Lora DiCarlo believes gender bias played a significant role in losing an award for one of their products, a sentiment echoed by other woman-run sex-tech companies. Meanwhile, the company behind the trade show insisted the award was a mistake in the first place.
Lora DiCarlo received the October 2018 email telling them their Osé model was selected as the CES 2019 Innovations Award Honoree in Robotics and Drones, and they were ecstatic.
“This is a product for anyone with a vagina that is looking to have the best orgasm,” Evie Smith, spokesperson for Lora DiCarlo, said.
CES, or the Consumer Electronics Show, is one of the biggest stages for consumer technology innovations, and is organized by the Consumer Technology Association.
It was a thrilling announcement, Smith said, because it meant a panel of judges had taken seriously the significant engineering and design work of technology designed for women’s (and anyone who has a vagina) pleasure. The woman-founded company had intentionally entered the Osé model in the Robotics and Drones category instead of Health, because the company wanted to “lean on the amazing technology in this product” which uses micro-robotics for a hands-free experience mimicking the human tongue, mouth, and fingers.
CES is a major stage, and for a startup such as Lora DiCarlo, it’s also a major opportunity. Part of being an honoree at CES includes exhibiting and a showcase, in which Smith said the company wanted to participate.
But in an Oct. 29 email, CES said the company couldn’t exhibit the Osé on the show floor because it came from an “Adult” company. Lora DiCarlo responded with questions about how to proceed, and received an email two days later from CES telling the company that its honoree status had been revoked and its application for the CES 2019 Innovation Awards had been removed.
The company wrote: “Entries deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image will be disqualified. CTA reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any entry at any time which, in CTA’s opinion, endangers the safety or well being of any person, or fails to comply with these Official Rules. CTA decisions are final and binding.”
In an email to Autostraddle following the incident, CTA said the product didn’t fit into CES’ existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards.
“CES does not have a category for sex toys. CTA had communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo nearly two months ago and we have apologized to them for our mistake,” CTA said.
Smith, along with Alex Fine, CEO of Dame Products, cried foul because of exhibits such as those from VR porn company Naughty America or sex-toy tech company OhMiBod.
“In our experience, when it comes to products targeted to men, they’re more likely to be seen as harmless, entertainment, necessary or technologically innovative,” Fine said in an email to Autostraddle. “But… I find my vibrator necessary on occasion and the use of booth babes demeaning.”
(The so-called booth babes have had a lower profile lately, which some consider an indication of progress within the CES perspective, but they haven’t disappeared altogether.)
Dame has run into these issues before. As a sex toy business, they can’t advertise on social media platforms, Fine said, and their first product, the Eva, was rejected from Kickstarter, though after a discussion with the digital fundraising platform, the company’s second product was allowed.
Dame’s attempts at advertising with the Metropolitan Transit Authority were also rejected.
“In our case with the MTA, products that help you to have penetrative sex (such as ED medication) seem to fall under the category of health, and therefore be fit for public viewing. But when it comes to marketing products to women/people with vaginas, those often address sexual pleasure – and are therefore deemed immoral,” Fine said.
Liz Klinger, one of the inventors behind Lioness, a smart vibrator for “sexual self-experimentation,” wrote in a blog post that one of their products was rejected from CES because it didn’t “meet qualifications,” and was then turned away last minute from the CES’ Girls Lounge (gross) because the corporate partners at CES “took issue with our branding.”
“Though the scantily clad models may have left, they’ve merely been replaced by the ones tech professionals can comfortably ogle at through headsets,” she wrote. “Yes, the sexism at CES is still alive and thriving. CES is still an event designed by men for men.”
After sending a letter to CTA from an engineering professor at Oregon State University explaining that the Osé “undoubtedly falls within the classification of robotic devices,” Lora DiCarlo hopes to continue the conversation around sex tech aimed at women.
“I think that we are at a point where everybody masturbates and people need to not be threatened by female pleasure,” Smith said.
There are some silver linings around this issue, Fine said, because companies’ perspectives can change. Kickstarter eventually allowed their product on its platform, for one example.
“We would 100 percent still want to work with the MTA if they would be open to reconsidering,” Fine said. “One of my proudest accomplishments as the founder of this company is helping people to see the sex toy industry in a new light – as we did with Kickstarter. Not just because we, Dame, impacted Kickstarter but because Kickstarter changed. It is healthy and smart to reassess our assumptions with honesty and if we find we have erred, to accept that error as having happened but changing it for the future. I thought Kickstarter was radical.”
The question of whose pleasure matters plays out in a larger way at an influential trade show like CES, where women are largely outnumbered. In 2018, only men gave keynote addresses. This sparked a backlash online, and CTA pledged to do better in 2019. This year featured several women in keynote positions.
The slow process of breaking into these fields with products that have women as the primary target market is excruciating, but the needle does seem to be moving, since this issue is being covered in the media now. Klinger said in her blog post that there are many women-run tech companies doing good work that could create “fruitful” conversations with CES attendees, they just need to be given the same chance as the products aimed at men.
“CES could not only do a lot of good by having more female-centric companies showing at the officially sanctioned show — but also it’s good business for attending retailers and industry partners,” Klinger wrote. “Especially considering that women are 50% of the customers and users in the world.”