I was pretty tired by the time I rolled up to Crave’s CES booth at the Sands Expo. It was a cute booth. There was a 1961 Airstream trailer set up with neon lights that invited you to “Own Your Pleasure.” Above was an Instagram-worthy sign detailing Crave’s Pleasure Manifesto, full of sex-positive aphorisms about how ‘pleasure is not selfish’ and that ‘if we talk about pleasure outside of the sheets, we can bring it out of the shadows.’ There were also other cheeky signs and stickers. “According to my new fitness smartwatch, I’ve masturbated for 4 miles,” one read. Another said, “Count your orgasms, not your calories.”
I was there at Crave’s booth to build a vibrator. That’s not a sentence I thought I’d ever write at CES, especially not after last year when it awarded, revoked, and then re-awarded Lora DiCarlo for its innovative Osé sex toy. Months later, once the backlash had died down, CES announced it would backpedal on its prudish double-standards and invite sex tech companies to participate in the world’s biggest consumer electronics show on a ‘trial basis.’
That doesn’t mean this year’s CES was an explosion of vibrators, butt plugs, or more risqué sex toys you might find at an adult shop elsewhere on the Strip. At events like CES Unveiled and Pepcom where media can see a select group of exhibitors outside the show floor, there was more than one booth for sex tech and they weren’t necessarily shoved away in a low-traffic corner. (Though, Morari Medical’s taint bandage definitely was.) This year, sex tech wasn’t banished to the shadows – but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was celebrated either. At least, not by the CTA.
Which brings me back to Crave’s Build-a-Vibe workshop. The reason I was so tired was because I’d spent an entire day trying to visit or find as many sex tech companies as I could. It wasn’t exactly easy. For starters, while most of the booths were located in the Sands Expo, in the health and wellness section, they weren’t necessarily grouped together. Lora DiCarlo’s booth had a bigger footprint and was far away from the rest of the booths.
But Crave and Satisfyer also had decently sized booths that attracted a lot of foot traffic. Meanwhile, other companies like Lionness and MysteryVibe had smaller booths in less trafficked areas. Dame Products, which you might have heard of for its lawsuit with the MTA over advertising, didn’t have its own booth – it partnered with 3D printer Formlabs as a way to get its foot onto the show floor. The only problem was that means it was tucked into a corner in the South Hall of LVCC, far away from the other sex tech companies.
Plenty of people at Crave’s booth, which had to get all its signage and materials approved by the CTA.
“We actually appreciate that [the booths] are a little bit scattered because I think if we were all in one area, a lot of people would actually actively avoid that area,” says Lionness Cofounder Anna Lee.
But we do not live in an ideal world. Most of the sex tech companies I spoke to were small, and owned, run, and staffed by women. For them, the whole point of exhibiting at a show like CES is to get their product out there. To have people see it, engage with it, and hopefully, lure some interested investors. Scattering the companies far and wide may not have an impact on bigger brands, but it certainly does for smaller ones looking to gain a foothold.
The scattered locations would be less of a problem if it were easy to find exhibitors by category. The CES app is a mess when it comes to finding companies by category. That’s doubly true for sex tech. The companies are categorised as health and wellness – nomenclature that most were fine with – but searching for ‘sex’ as a keyword in the app yields no results. You’d have to know the name of the company you’re looking for, or otherwise browse through a smattering of categories. Lora DiCarlo, for instance, is searchable under the robotics, digital health, wearables, and family and lifestyle categories. Crave, however, is only listed under lifestyle and wearables. If this were an area of tech innovation you were interested in, there isn’t an easy way to search for all the relevant exhibitors at the show. You can’t even search for Dame Products because the company is there as a partner, not as a solo exhibitor.
Dame Products was at CES, albeit indirectly. If you wanted to search for the company in the CES app, you wouldn’t find it.
“That is a conundrum to me. They just assigned us this spot, they would not allow us to move. They put some [sex tech booths] there, others there. I’m not sure why that is,” says Ti Cheng, Crave’s founder.
“It doesn’t really feel like they’re welcoming us,” says Janet Lieberman-Lu, the founder of Dame Products, on the lack of a cohesive sex tech category or area. “It feels like they needed to get on the better side of a PR story.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if the CTA was eager to get good press to erase last year’s debacle from memory. The Lora DiCarlo booth is sleek, a good size, and located in a more central area of the Sands Expo with lots of foot traffic. That makes sense and is well-deserved deserved, given how egregiously the company was treated last year. When I visited the booth, I was told CTA President Gary Shapiro had been by multiple times and the company was experiencing record-breaking sales. That’s great, but I’m also guessing that may not hold true for the other sex tech exhibitors.
Another discouraging aspect is sex tech exhibitors had to undergo a rigorous application process to even get a spot on the show floor. Marketing materials, signage, photos – all these things had to be approved by the CTA. I was told by multiple exhibitors that they were also subject to a dress code. I don’t know why in 2020 the CTA seems to think allowing sex tech exhibitors might turn the show floor into a strip club, but the hypocrisy is blatant when you remember last year it had no problem with scantily-clad booth babes gyrating around a Lamborghini massage chair.
That’s it. That’s all the parts that go into building a vibrator.
“We definitely went through a very arduous application process,” says Cheng. “We have eight products in our library, but we’re only showing three [at the show.] They had to approve everything from the stickers – literally the stickers – and then [the CTA] rejected some of them. Everything from the signage, to the visual imagery that we’re showing on our iPads, to everything. I think it’s partly because they’re afraid to offend people.”
“This year’s been a little interesting as we set up our booth,” Lee agrees. “We had our own rules about what we can and can’t do. We had to get all our graphics pre-approved. They [the CTA] said no female anatomy, and for men and women not to dress provocatively, whatever that means.”
That said, there were good, concrete things from this year’s show for sex tech exhibitors. Every single company I spoke with relayed that reception from showgoers had been positive. It’s a thing I can at least anecdotally verify. I saw large crowds at the Lora DiCarlo, Satsifyer, Lioness, and Crave booths. Even smaller booths generally had interested crowds engaging with staff. And, when it came to dealing with the CTA, most companies I spoke to noted that while there were some back-and-forths, it wasn’t as contentious as previous years.
Lora DiCarlo also played a role in improving CES for female attendees, not just its peers. In particular, there were three things the company wanted to see done. First, more female keynote speakers – though ostensibly, the company probably didn’t mean Ivanka Trump. The second was to have sex tech represented as a part of the health and wellness category. And third, get rid of the booth babes. The CTA complied with at least two of the three, which you could count as a win. (There were only two women keynote speakers.)
Lioness’s booth was well attended when I dropped by, but it’s in a less-trafficked corner.
It’s clear the CTA knows it royally screwed up last year. The question is whether this year was a fluke meant to get on the better side of a PR debacle, or whether it’s a genuine sign a prudish organisation is getting with the times. In particular, the ‘trial basis’ aspect seemed to weigh heavily with nearly every sex tech exhibitor I spoke to. There was an overall sense that next year was by no means guaranteed, and that’s why it was important to be here this year.
“We hope that it will continue,” says Kim Porter, Lora DiCarlo’s director of engineering. “I know that this was a trial basis. We’re just trying to be positive. That’s what we want to do right now. Be positive and proactive. I mean, you’re empowering women.”
Lieberman-Lu agrees. “At any given time, you don’t know what trade shows are going to allow you or not. These things change.” She went on to stress that lack of clarity was particularly hard on smaller brands trying to get a foot in the door. Without clearly defined rules, or knowing whether the company has a shot at even being accepted, it becomes impossible to make important decisions about inventory or sales. “It was very important for us to be here this year, even though financial planning wise we weren’t able to have a booth. We don’t know if we’ll be able to be here next year if we don’t get our foot in the door now.”
Lora DiCarlo’s booth and the sex toy that started it all.
“Hopefully they do this again next year,” Cheng said, echoing her peers. “Things are still up in the air because they’re trying to figure out how to do this and have this conversation. It’s good that they’re taking this first step, and I hope that they realised it was a good thing for the attendees and greater humanity at large. I hope there’s no knee jerk reaction because maybe one person complained or whatever and they just shut this whole thing down.”
CES 2020 was undoubtedly better for sex tech than in previous years. Even so, that’s not enough – things have to continue improving. For starters, the CTA ought to hold a post-mortem with the sex tech exhibitors that participated this year. But frankly, I’d settle for them committing to hosting sex tech for every subsequent CES until climate change destroys the Earth and none of this matters anymore.
The major thing I took away from my Build-a-Vibe session was that vibrators are not an inherently scandalous piece of tech. At their core, they are just unbalanced motors with a battery, circuit board, silicone, and silicone glue. In fact, building Crave’s Duet vibrator reminded me more of building Legos than anything else. From a hardware perspective, it’s not that different from the other products you might see on the show floor. As such they should be treated like every other hardware company too.