The secret censorship holding back the sex toy industry

Earlier this month, thousands of vendors exhibited at the tech trade show CES. But notably absent was the sex toy startup Lora DiCarlo, whose invitation to exhibit at the show was rescinded after CES changed its mind about awarding an Innovation Award to the company’s Osé vibrator.

For some, the decision to revoke the award was a sign of pervasive sexism and a discomfort with female pleasure, particularly given CES’s long-standing tolerance of sex robots, VR porn, and, until recently, booth babes. But vibrator company OhMiBod has been a longtime CES exhibitor, and even won a CES Award in 2016. Alexandra Fine, co-founder of sex toy company Dame Products, was a speaker on the CNET stage this very year.

If anything, the back and forth over Osé is an indication of a broader confusion over whether sex toys count as wellness devices or something obscene. That confusion impacts nearly every aspect of how pleasure product companies do business, from fundraising to retail to advertising. While crowdfunding and online retail have been eager to court the business of other gadget manufacturers, sex toy companies still struggle to navigate content regulations and figure out whether their business counts as “obscene” in the eyes of payment processors, banks, and advertising platforms.

When Fine first launched Dame Products with co-founder Janet Lieberman, she assumed the world would welcome their company, and its thoughtfully designed hands-free clitoral vibrator, with open arms. “I didn’t realize how many no’s I was going to get,” Fine told me.

She was stunned to discover how many doors would slam in her face the second she revealed what products, exactly, Dame was putting out in the world. Kickstarter refused to host the crowdfunding campaign for Dame’s first product, Eva, relegating them to Indiegogo instead (Kickstarter later amended their content policy to be more welcoming of sex toys; Dame’s second product, Fin, was their inaugural sex toy campaign). An application for a government-funded loan from the Small Business Administration was denied due to the “prurient” nature of Dame’s products. Fine has never had any difficulty with third-party payment processors, but some of her colleagues in the sex toy space have had trouble finding a platform that’s comfortable processing their product sales (Dame’s payment processor, Stripe, notes that sex toy companies are occasionally rejected by the platform when they’re deemed to be a “brand risk”).

Advertising poses the biggest problem. Many companies find that when they go online to advertise, their “only options are porn networks and Google Adwords,” says Brian Sloan, the inventor of the Autoblow. Facebook refuses to run sex toy-related ads, even if the ads are set to display to adults only or link to completely SFW content. “We tried just linking an ad to a Buzzfeed article about Autoblow,” Sloan explains, but even that was considered too spicy to be a Facebook ad. When Dame wants to advertise on Facebook, they have to promote articles about their products through Fine’s personal account.

Even companies that have broken through into mainstream brick-and-mortar stores often find themselves stymied by content restrictions online. The recently launched brand plusOne — the first sex toys to be stocked in-store at Walmart — has been restricted to text-only online ads, “even though these are items that are selling at the largest retailer in the world and one with a specific reputation of being conservative,” says plusOne’s CEO Jamie Leventhal.

Although the advertising regulations for these platforms have gone through several revisions over the years, Facebook’s now makes clear that sex toys are not considered a respectable business: “Ads must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, except for ads for family planning and contraception,” declares the company’s advertising policy.

Google is a little more lenient, filing sex toys under Adult Content and restricting ads rather than prohibiting them entirely. Still, the rules for what’s acceptable are rather vague. “Some kinds of adult-oriented ads and destinations are allowed … but they will only show in limited scenarios based on user search queries, user age, and local laws where the ad is being served,” the policy explains. (When contacted for comment, Google directed queries to the same policy.)

Adding to the headache is the fact that these regulations aren’t always consistently enforced. Despite the troubles that Sloan and Leventhal have had getting approved for display ads, Dame routinely runs them, albeit under some restrictions: “We cannot retarget on Google display ads,” Fine tells me, adding that if the ads are marked by Google as “not safe for family” — which they sometimes are, and sometimes aren’t — their range becomes limited, with ads blocked from display on sites that are marked as “family” or for users who are under 18 or 21, depending on the user’s location.

At the root of this confusion is the fact that most of these companies have no problem with sex as long as it’s packaged as part of health and wellness, rather than something “prurient” like pleasure. But where the line between personal care and obscenity falls, exactly, is entirely up to individual administrators. The telemedicine company Hers routinely markets the libido-enhancing medication Addyi on Facebook; what makes Addyi okay and the Eva vibrator obscene isn’t entirely clear.

For now, the main recourse sex toy companies have is to keep making their case, and hope that whoever’s making the decision will have a change of heart. “We need to keep knocking on doors,” Fine says. After all, Dame only secured approval from Kickstarter after making a direct, personal appeal to colleagues they’d befriended through the Brooklyn startup scene — a strategy that Fine is all too happy to use in the future.

It’s not an ideal situation, but Fine still holds out hope that with enough time and effort, sex toy manufacturers will be able to firmly establish their products as just one more part of personal care and wellness. “These are real tools that can help you have more pleasurable experiences in your body,” Fine says. “If you think ED medication is health… I don’t understand how you can look at me and think anything different.”

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