Sex toy debacle reveals shameful double standard at CES

In a year many deemed lackluster, the most interesting new tech of CES 2019 could not be found in a single one of the more than 4,000 exhibitor booths that populate the convention’s 2.7 million square feet of show floor. 

To find it, I actually had to go to a small, unofficial off-site meeting room where the women of Lora DiCarlo, a sex tech company, were huddled together. 

The device they’d created, Osé, solves a major problem. For a long time, women have been forced to be content with one-size-fits-all vibrators. But the Osé customizes to fit the vastly different interior anatomies of every woman’s body. Without using any vibration (since that often leads to desensitization), it instead stimulates the clitoris and G-spot in a multitude of ways mimicking a partner’s touch to achieve the “holy grail” of the blended female orgasm.

The Osé, due out in the fall, had not only been banned from exhibiting at CES by the CTA (Consumer Technology Association). A few months prior to the convention, the CTA actually revoked the highly coveted award it initially gave the Osé as a CES 2019 Innovation Awards Honoree in the Robotics and Drone category.

“Our jaws dropped to the floor,” said CEO Lora Haddock about receiving the email notifying them of the abrupt revocation. “We were absolutely devastated.”

The reason? Well, that’s where things get tricky.

The reach around

The official statement from CES claims that the Osé, “does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program” since “CES does not have a category for sex toys.”

Lora DiCarlo and other women-led companies (particularly related to sex), are pointing to CES’ storied history of sexism

But that fails to explain why, in the past, sex toys have won similar CES awards. And this also fails to address the fact that Lora DiCarlo’s Osé was submitted, reviewed, vetted, and accepted by CTA’s expert judges as an award-worthy entry into the Robotics and Drone category.

Until, that is, they applied to exhibit their device at the show floor, at which point the CTA denied them due to the Osé being an “adult” product, before taking away their award on the grounds that it now deemed the Osé “immoral, obscene, indecent, [and/or] profane.”

CTA did not provide any further clarification on its awards process, or the exact criteria for what makes a product eligible for a category, or what is or is not “immoral” or “obscene.”

But Lora DiCarlo and other women-led companies (particularly related to sex) are pointing to CES’ storied history of sexism and double standards. And the evidence is hard to deny. 

Not only are the CTA’s biases contributing to a hostile environment for women in tech — they’re also driving some of the most innovative new tech away from the CES show floor.

No sex allowed — kind of

The CTA’s caginess around adult content at CES traces back to its origins as a convention with uncomfortably close ties to the porn industry (There was an “adult software” section of CES for decades.) In 1998, the event sanitized its image by splitting from all things sex, leading to a separate Adult Entertainment Expo that takes place a week after CES.

But CTA’s prudishness has since then proven inconsistent, biased, and short-sighted.

Naughty America's VR/AR Porn exhibit at CES 2017

Naughty America’s VR/AR Porn exhibit at CES 2017

Image: GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Aside from the CTA seeing no problem with booth babes until very recently (and even then), it saw fit to unveil Solana, the customizable sex robot with a personality, at the trade show just last year. Also last year, the porn company Naughty America had a prominently displayed VR porn room that attracted long lines. 

Liz Klinger, CEO of another women-focused pleasure tech company, Lioness, described the Lora DiCarlo situation as “almost a perfect parallel” to what happened to her at CES 2018. Her exhibitor application for pleasure tech that helps women explore their sexuality was also denied on the grounds of being an “adult product.”

“The reasons conveyed to us from backchannels were that [CES] had unspecified ‘bad experiences’ in the past so were banning all ‘obscene’ products,” she said.

It saw fit to

unveil Solana

, the customizable sex robot with a personality, at the trade show just last year

Vibrator company MysteryVibe, another sex tech company with a prominent female co-founder Stephanie Alys, also confirmed to Mashable that their exhibitor application was denied for the same reason. 

CTA’s “obscenity” defense against Lora DiCarlo felt particularly thin to Haddock when contrasting the branding between Naughty America and more female-focused companies like Lora DiCarlo and Lioness.

“I mean if I were to try and think of synonyms for ‘obscene’ or ‘profane,’ the word ‘naughty’ would be pretty high up there,” Haddock said, laughing.

I checked out Naughty America’s VR/AR Stripper demo for myself in a meeting room adjacent to the main show floor. It included fully nude 3D models of many different women (only one man) that users move and manipulate like an object around virtual and augmented reality spaces. 

The idea, according to CEO Andreas Hronopoulo, is to make the “modern gentleman’s magazine” or the ultimate “man cave.”

I asked Hronopoulo for his thoughts on the banning of Lora DiCarlo, and whether or not he saw any contradictions in CES’ policies toward adult products. “No, I think they’ve been very consistent, and since we’ve been working with them over these four years, great to work with.”

In the margins

Lioness’ Klinger had a different perspective.

“It’s a fairly stark contrast that female sexuality — even health-focused — lands into the obscene but male sexuality, in this case literally pornography, is not and is ‘legitimate technology.'”

“None of us have problems with ‘obscene’ things,” said Haddock. One of the mantras at the nearly all-women company is “never yuk someone’s yum.” But, she said, “If you’re gonna let one in, you can’t turn around and exclude a vagina-focused tech for being obscene.”

Lora DiCarlo may have suffered an astronomical financial hit from investors who flocked to the product after the award, but backed away after it was revoked. Haddock also said that CTA President Gary Shapiro personally sent a letter declaring their product “ineligible” for the Robotics and Drone category, which was an enormous blow to their confidence. 

Initially, the CES award had felt legitimizing to the team, since the industry so often diminishes female-oriented tech advancements and stigmatizes sex tech in general. But what came after was a quintessential example of the gaslighting that female innovators in tech experience every day.

As Haddock described it in her open letter on the debacle:

Our product that was designed in partnership with a top university robotics engineering laboratory (Oregon State University has ranked the #4 ranked Robotics Lab in the US), inspiring the genesis of OSU Professor John Parmigiani’s Prototype Development Lab. Osé is the subject of five pending patents and counting for robotics, biomimicry, and engineering feats. 

We have a team of absolute genius woman and LGBTQI engineers (and a few wonderful men) working on every aspect of this product — including a Doctor of Mechanical Engineering with expertise in Robotics and AI and a Mechanical Design Engineer who specializes in Material Science with a background in Chemistry. Osé clearly fits the Robotics and Drone category – and CTA’s own expert judges agree. 

The true icing on the cake is that Lora DiCarlo still showcased the Osé at the Showstoppers press event that is associated but not wholly operated by CES. And despite the CTA deeming it ineligible, the Osé went on to win the IHS Markit Innovation Award in Robotics and Drones.

“What’s really aggravating is that instead of talking about the innovation and engineering, the rapid prototyping we’ve created in-house — which is truly an astonishing accomplishment from my technical director Lola Vars — we have to talk about and deal with this stuff. Again,” said Haddock.

The Osé has the power to redefine the women’s pleasure industry. 

The Osé has the power to redefine the women’s pleasure industry. Both the sex and tech industry are both dominated by men, who have far less personal investment in finding new ways to give women pleasure — especially pleasure that they can experience without men. 

There have been and continue to be other women innovators in the space, but it’s not just the CTA’s gatekeeping that gets in their way. Even when it comes to the basics of anatomy research, Haddock and her team have found standard data and information on women’s bodies and sexuality lacking.

A 2018 CES-adjacent party at the Sapphire Gentlemen's Club, showcasing a human woman stripping next to a robotic stripper

A 2018 CES-adjacent party at the Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club, showcasing a human woman stripping next to a robotic stripper

Image: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

And that’s exactly why the Lora DiCarlo team is not backing down now.

“What’s really disappointing about what the CTA did is that when you cut out folks like us from creating new innovation and new tech, you’re cutting off the conversation between our industry and other industries, and you’re stifling innovation for everyone,” said Haddock.

CES 2019 was a sexless wasteland of not-so-new products that feel increasingly divided from the realities of the world we live in. And its selectively conservative policies on sexuality, particularly of the female variety, will only guarantee it more cultural irrelevancy. 

“Not including sexual wellness, even if you separate it out, is a loss,” said Lioness’ Klinger. “Sex is a part of base physiological function of every single human being — there’s not that many categories you can say that about. It’s certainly a deeper part of most people’s lives than most IoT.”

Luckily, it seems clear that women like Klinger, Haddock, and their team of diverse thinkers will take advantage of that opportunity with or without CES.

“People keep asking me, ‘Are you worried about the fallout — the backlash of bringing light to this situation, of being called bitchy or whiny for calling it out as unfair?'” she told me. “No. I’m not worried. It is fucking unfair.”

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