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Silicon Valley’s billion-dollar sextech industry is still shrouded in stigma

By 2024, the sextech industry is predicted to be worth over $122 billion. Yet, in the “prim and proper” world of Silicon Valley, sextrepreneurs are still battling to overcome stigma.

By Stav Dimitropoulos , written on August 18, 2020

From The Culture Desk

Only recently did Ryan and Jenn Cmich, founders of LoveSync, a sexual communication mobile app that also allows couples to sync their moods when having sex, manage to get an ad for their product approved by Facebook. 

“We have had to experiment with the copy a lot of times to figure out what we were doing wrong. We had to make the copy as innocent and non-suggestive as possible. And then the same thing with the images; they had to be very clean and non-suggestive also,” says Mrs Cmich. 

In total, Facebook rejected them 30 times. Mrs Cmich, who in January 2020 appeared with her husband in the ABC business reality television series Shark Tank, says this is not the first time they have been confronted with censorship during their sextrepreneurial journey.

“Though we were approached by the producers of the show to pitch our product to a panel of five investors and public figures, and we were lucky enough to have our episode air, Shark Tank’s lawyers looked over every word we were going to use. Even the most suggestive of words were not allowed,” Mrs Cmich says. 

In the end, LoveSync failed to convince the investors, something the couple attributes partly to the sexual content of their product. 

It's not just Shark Tank that shies away from sexual content. Venture capital funds are ruled by the terms of their partnership agreements. These terms often include a moral clause, which is a clause that forbids funds from investing in companies that deal with tobacco, firearms, or pornography.

“There’s a great difference between pornography and something everybody does, which is part of everyday life though,” says Mr Cmich. 

 

When it comes to sexual content, Silicon Valley is still shrouded in stigma. Small businesses pay the price.

Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, Canada, who is focusing on philosophy and sexuality, agrees that Silicon Valley is shrouded in stigma.  “All these platforms, whether it's the App Store or Instagram or Facebook, are definitely heavily censoring sexual content,” he says.

Yet, in the “prim and proper” world of Silicon Valley, it is small businesses that pay the price of prudery.

“Playboy has been able to get its app approved for the App Store, so I guess if you have enough economic or political influence with Silicon Valley companies, maybe you can overcome the stigma,” Dr McArthur says. 

But with the coronavirus pandemic and universal social distancing measures in full force, and sex deemed “high-risk activity”, as the professor puts it, the demand for sextech is looming huge.  Europe’s $30bn sextech industry has seen apps like Spain’s Emjoy, Germany’s Beducated and the UK’s Ferly double or triple their subscribers since late February, while the US’s Slutbot has probably lost count of new registrations. By all accounts, erotic apps are coming to supply locked-up people with a means of venting sexual frustrations. 

To bypass Silicon Valley’s morality clauses, sextrepreneurs have tried crowdfunding or reaching out to consumers through social media. To little or no avail though. “Most are doomed to disappear or stay small to survive,” says Dr McArthur. “There are two levels of the problem.”

The first barrier is access to distribution channels, which are controlled by Apple and Facebook and Instagram, both for publicity and sales. The second is prejudice, which stems largely from the very nature of Silicon Valley’s backers. 

“Certain groups like the California State Teachers' Retirement System, which is a really powerful investor group (as of June 30, 2020, it managed a portfolio totaling $246 billion) in California, the heart of Silicon Valley, won't have anything to do with anything that is sexual at all,” Dr McArthur says. 

 

But in a quarantined world, the demand for sextech doesn’t just increase -- it gets enriched.

“Whereas previously, people were often searching for sex online, now, more than anything, they're just looking to make human contact,” Dr McArthur says.

“The quest for pleasure and knowledge doesn’t disappear in a pandemic. One could even argue that lockdowns have given us the opportunity to reflect on different aspects of our lives, our sex lives being one of them,” says Gerda Larsson, cofounder and director of The Case For Her, a European philanthropic investment portfolio investing in key women's and girls’s health issues. Ms Larrson began investing in sextech because she sees it as one of the solutions that could eradicate taboos around sex and female sexual pleasure.

“People monitor and track what they eat, how they move and how much they sleep during the pandemic, so why not analyze your sexual life better?” she says.

Ms Larsson not only finds these morality clauses harmful to entrepreneurs and their companies, but is quick to label them as blatantly sexist: “We still see viagra ads and male-centered ads everywhere, but menopause, female sexual health and periods are being censored,” she says. 

So, is there a way for sextech to bridge a soaring, pandemic-fueled demand and strict morality clauses in a way that benefits both entrepreneurs and consumers?

For Ms Larsson, the solution may lie in inviting more diverse stakeholders into the field.

“I often get asked--by white, male privileged men, what more than dildos sextech is. Yet, as the field grows and we see more female entrepreneurs as well as female investors, people will start to understand that sextech is not only dildos, but education, family planning, postpartum devices or contraceptive tools,” she says.

Dr Mc Arthur has some anecdotal evidence that things are changing and that there is a gradual interest in sextech--seeing how these new companies are popping up doing interesting things--but he is not particularly optimistic about Silicon Valley’s ability to reinvent itself.

“Technology investors have done very well already out of the pandemic in various ways, so I'm not sure right now they're feeling any particular pressure to change or whether they see an opportunity,” he says.

Still, he is certain that one of the “positive” things the pandemic has done is that it made the general conversation about sex apps easier, which in turn might have broken down some of the stigmas. 

“There was a stigma around sexual technology being for lonely people before. And now that we're all lonely, we have become more sympathetic to using this technology,” he says.

In Cleveland, Ohio where they are based, meanwhile, the Cmiches are keeping their hopes up. Even after their “struggles” with investor and social media censorship, they think what is happening now with sex apps is analogous to online dating and that we are going through a transitional phase.

“At the start of online dating people were shunned for using it. ‘Oh, you can't find a date in person, so you have got to go online,’ they said, but now online dating is an established space and it's well accepted and normal,” Mr Cmich says.

 He and his wife believe their creation is moving down the same path. 

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