By: Rachel Saunders
Each year in early January, as the enlightened set their New Year’s intentions and the hungover lament their life choices, two hundred thousand people descend on the Las Vegas Strip for a different sort of spiritual awakening. They’re headed to CES, a high-profile annual gathering of the global consumer technology industry.
Spanning more than 2.9 million square feet of exhibit space and featuring 36 product categories, it’s a dizzying spectacle of innovation and gadgetry that feels a bit like a tech-fueled fever dream.
A number of memorable debuts have taken place at CES since its launch in 1967, from the first home VCR and Nintendo to, more recently, the Impossible Burger and autonomous vehicles. Breakthroughs from global power players tend to dominate the conversation, but this year the usual suspects found themselves sharing the spotlight with an unlikely new star: sex tech.
The sector experienced a triumphant moment at CES this year thanks to Lora DiCarlo, who won an Innovation Award in 2019 for her Osé micro-robotic massager only to have it rescinded by the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts the conference. The patent-pending device mimics human touch by stimulating the G-spot and clitoris at the same time, and the CTA deemed it “obscene,” asserting it didn’t fit a category on the showroom floor and banning the company from exhibiting. After the ensuing backlash and lobbying from DiCarlo, the CTA later reinstated the award and joined her in a dialogue about where the industry is heading.
As a result, the company and others like it were allowed to exhibit within the Health and Wellness section this year, a symbolic and important moment on the path to normalizing products that have historically been stigmatized. The decision seemed fitting given the category’s trajectory. Sexual wellness is projected to be a $39 billion market by 2024*, and it’s growing faster than the global wellness market overall at a CAGR of more than 7%.
The Health and Wellness exhibitors at CES were housed inside the Sands Expo Convention Center at The Venetian, where I met a brand ambassador for sex tech company Crave named Tad who was skeptical of the CTA’s former mindset. “But sex robots and porn VR are ok?,” he questioned, alluding to CES’s legacy of allowing some male-centric companies to exhibit while banning others.
Knowledgeable and warm, Tad was clad in a jumpsuit with “Vibrator Technician” etched on the back, a far cry from the “booth babes” of the past hired to pander to CES’s predominantly older male audience in stereotypically sexy outfits. Tad was my Sherpa through Crave’s exhibit, which included a working Airstream converted into a sex tech pop-up shop. I had come to the conference as an industry analyst to scout consumer trends and brand activations, and Crave’s shining silver setup caught my eye, enticing me away from the massage guns and meditation headbands of the neighboring exhibits, which suddenly seemed dull in comparison.
After showing me Crave’s new vibrator ring and the Duet, a waterproof and whisper-quiet device that lets you experiment with a range of sensations, Tad encouraged me to climb inside the Airstream, where I was greeted by another ambassador who would have looked at home in a Glossier store. She invited me to try on the company’s sleek Vesper vibrator necklace, partake in a “Build-A-Vibe” workshop, and snap a Polaroid of myself for the Airstream’s interior, where a photo of Gwyneth Paltrow wearing the Vesper hung. The exhibit felt like something from a lifestyle brand rather than a sex tech company—a sign of where the industry is heading.
It’s a shift I first noticed while writing a report on Millennials and modern love with my research team in 2015. Dating apps were exploding then, and we dove into our research expecting to find evidence of a modern sexual revolution, when a Time Magazine article challenged our presumptions. A study of more than 33,000 people published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that Millennials, despite public perception, were actually having less sex than other generations. A separate investigation by New York Magazine into the sex lives of college students gave further weight to the findings. Given the choice between disappointing encounters or abstinence, many students were opting to forego sex completely: 40% surveyed were virgins, and men and women alike considered rejection to be their greatest sexual fear.
The outlook for Millennial sexuality felt bleak at that moment, but a more hopeful picture emerged after further research. My team and I found evidence that the new sexual revolution wasn’t shaping up to be another free love fest like the Baby Boomers enjoyed in the 1960s, but rather a deeply personal, Choose Your Own Adventure-style journey of self-discovery. We noted that two trends proliferating in other areas of culture, personalization and wellness, were beginning to extend to the world of sexuality. We postured that in the near future, sexual products and brands would become a part of the wellness movement, address a deeper need for human connection in the digital age, and leverage data to cater to people’s individual preferences.
At CES 2020, that future seemed to arrive. I watched in fascination as a rep from Lioness explained the features of a smart vibrator with a corresponding app that visualizes arousal, charting data in peaks and valleys of green and red, the latter color indicating orgasm.
“It’s going to look different depending on whether you’ve had a coffee that day, if you’ve had good sleep, or if you’re pissed at your partner,” she explained, acknowledging the physical and emotional factors that impact arousal.
Other devices on display likewise pointed to a future in which sex is embraced as part of a holistic approach to health and wellness. The Lora DiCarlo exhibit featured two more award-winning products called Baci and Onda, whose names derive from the Italian words for kiss and wave. Baci simulates the feel of the human mouth and tongue through the use of biomimicry and micro-robotics, providing gradual stimulation of the clitoris, while the Onda stimulates the G-spot by mimicking the “come hither” motion of a human finger, and they were two of the more innovative products I saw on display. Both were designed by DiCarlo’s team of engineers, almost all of whom are female identifying.
Notably, Lora DiCarlo products come with a larger mission of helping women and those within the LGBTQ+ community explore their anatomy and discover the relationship between sexual health and overall wellness. Product development was also informed by a consumer survey that unearthed a need for technology that not only addresses sexual desire but also stress reduction, improved mood, and better sleep.
Speaking to TechTheLead, DiCarlo explained, “We want to make people feel more comfortable in their own skin and achieve the kind of empowerment that will allow them to go out and make changes in the industry.”
It’s a change that I hope comes soon. While it’s exciting to be on the verge of a new sexual revolution where exploration is embraced, the industry could use more entrepreneurs who think broadly about the possibilities and limits of physical pleasure. As a whole, sex tech still seems laser focused on engineering an orgasm, putting it on a pedestal as something to be achieved with the right technology and data—another chapter in the quantified self movement. In the future, I hope we see more companies acknowledge the need to be fully present with others and disconnect from tech at times in order to achieve a higher state of being, sexually and spiritually. In an era in which divided attention and instant gratification are the norm, deep human connection and delayed gratification are luxuries worth pursuing.
Before I depart, Tad hands me a sticker that reads “Masturbation is the new meditation.” For the sake of the industry and society, I hope it’s right.