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A Brief History of Sex Toys and Their Effect on Female Sexuality

Health

The beginnings of the female sex toy are interesting indeed. As any Master of Sex fan knows, intimate vibrating devices were not created for the sole reason of bestowing pleasure to women. Instead they were created to give male doctors a reprieve from the grueling task of physically stimulating their female patients back from “hysteria," a blanket term which covered a broad litany of issues that affected only women. And let's be honest, they never would have been invented had they not had some initial benefit for men.


In 1859, a physician named George Taylor actually penned a 75 page document of possible symptoms of hysteria. Many of these "symptoms" were forms of “nervous disorders" or undesirable female behavior like irritability. Taylor claimed that one in a quarter of all women were suffering from hysteria. To wit, doctors decided manual stimulation of women would bring them to “paroxysms," which is basically just a fancy term to describe an orgasm due to the erroneous belief that women enjoyed no sexual pleasure.

A disguised ad for an early sex toy

“Until the 20th century, American and European men—including physicians—believed that women did not experience sexual desire or pleasure," wrote sex expert Michael Castleman, in Psychology Today.

"They believed that women were simply fleshy receptacles for male lust and that intercourse culminating in male ejaculation fulfilled women's erotic needs. Women were socialized to believe that 'ladies' had no sex drive, and that duty required them to put up with sex in order to keep their husbands happy and have children."

The electric vibrator was invented in the late 19th century by Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy in the vibrator origins exploring film, Hysteria). The original prototype was “a handheld battery operated device designed to relieve more muscle aches and pains," which would eventually evolve to become a tool manufactured and sold to physicians to treat "hysterical paroxysm" in female patients. In the 1900s women began to seek the good feelings without a doctor visit, and thus the DIY "hysteria treating" market was born.

“During the early 20th century, doctors lost their monopoly on hysteria treatment as women began buying the devices for themselves, thanks to advertisements in popular women's magazines, among them: Needlecraft, Women's Home Companion, and the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue, that era's Amazon.com," wrote Castleman. “However, to make vibrators' socially acceptable, their real purpose was disguised. They were called “personal massagers" (and still are in some catalogues today). But discerning women and advertising copy writers knew very well what “massagers" were all about. One 1903 advertisement in the Sears Catalogue touted a popular massager as “a delightful companion […] all the pleasures of youth […] will throb within you...."

Once the sexual revolution of the latter half of the century began unfolding and more women started owning that they, like men, could indeed feel physical pleasure, sex toys went from secret to more mainstream. Today, the adult novelty market (which now includes "smart" toys that utilize everything from VR to 3D printing) was expected to grow 15.29% during the period 2016-2020. To better understand women's relationships with their own sexuality and where sex toys fit in, SWAAY asked a variety of our favorite influencers, journalists, and sex columnists which toys were their favorite and the answer was almost unanimous: The Womanizer.

Unlike classic vibrators (think: The Rabbit from Sex And The City fame, or the much heralded Hitachi wand), this ergonomically shaped tool looks more like a tech accessory than a sex toy. Described as “life changing" and “perfect for the girl on the go," the Womanizer is a new-age sex toy, made to mimic the sensation of oral sex with air pressure. And it works fast.

“We have built-in sex toys. We have five on each hand. But, all jokes aside, I think people from as far back as you can imagine have been trying to improve upon what we were given. If there was hieroglyphic porn, there were definitely early sex toys," says Morgan Rossi, a spokesperson for Womanizer.

“There was a real lacking in the industry for something that effectively simulated oral sex," says Rossi. “There were tons of products that were tongue shaped and trying to get there but it was never creating the same sensation."

Rossi, who joined the Germany-based, all-male Womanizer team last year, says as the brand's spokesperson, her goal is helping women better understand the product's functionality—the Womanizer uses a unique "air technology."

“What it does can be hard for anyone to understand," says Rossi, who handles almost 100 retail accounts in the US and Canada."We are pretty fortunate we got an excellent mainstream response right away largely thanks to our PR team. We got into Glamour, Cosmo, and O Magazine, and that made it approachable."

Additionally, the product's universally positive reviews have also helped it catch on and make women more comfortable with using it. “The puzzling design and complete departure from the mechanics of every other sex toy make it a head-scratcher for most men," wrote one Amazon reviewer. “I find the confusion on a partner's face when I break it out and proudly declare 'this is my favorite toy' just charming."


Via Womanizer


“The reviewers are huge for us," says Rossi. “We are pretty reliant on those bloggers and the reviewers. What's great about our company is we take comments and feedback to heart. The team in Germany is really good about making improvements. A lot been done in making it more aesthetically pleasing and more minimal. We are constantly getting better."

The Womanizer's parent company, which also makes facial cleansing devices and electronic toothbrushes, is all about education, especially for sales associates. “We make it a huge focus to make sure retailers all get products, try it, and can speak to it; we want them to have a personal experience," says Rossi. “Demonstrating on the floor can be tricky because people have been conditioned to seek vibration, and extra power, something that looks very different."

According to Rossi, working as a sex expert and brand ambassador has been rewarding, mostly because of the reaction she gets from customers. "For a lot of people The Womanizer unlocks pleasure for the first time, sometimes the first time in their entire lives," she says. "For me this is an eye opener, I didn't realize the magnitude of this experience for women."

In terms of public relations and promotion, Rossi says the company has been working on social media promotions displayed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. When asked if there's been any push back due to the nature of what she's selling, Rossi says refreshingly that there hasn't been. "We are really fortunate to have had a medical study done this year, which allows us to say with great confidence that we are a health product." she says. "Sometimes, however, they do figure it out, and we will be blocked."

“Women have by and large shaped the industry into something all can enjoy openly. I think it was more mainstream than people were once willing to talk about."

In terms of the Womanizer product assortment, the company releases limited-edition designs, including one encrusted with 14 karat gold, and various colors like red rose, magenta, and white chrome. Available on womanizer.com, products range from $129 to $219.

A Few Questions With Morgan

1. Was there always a stigma around female sex toys?

Definitely. This would explain sex toys of the 50s to early 70s. They were always marketed as massagers. The boxes showed pictures of women and men “rubbing one out" on their face, neck and shoulders. I actually bought one of these golden oldies for the dead stock packaging—it had vignettes of golfers and tennis players, and then one woman with a torpedo-shaped dildo caressing the side of her cheek.

2. Why is the female orgasm so elusive? Any insight on how women explored this historically?

Many women endure the affects inorgasmia, owing to a multitude of factors. Those cases aside, I'm not sure if I consider the female orgasm elusive at all. If people are discouraged from self-exploration, sexual satisfaction can be a mystery into adulthood. Historically, women are less commonly taught and more often discouraged to masturbate. Now, we have fantastic array of products, like the Womanizer, which take some of the guess work out of the equation. This conversation is becoming much more pervasive with great toys that help women unlock pleasure, sometimes for the first time.

3. Were there any toys specifically to replicate the sensation of oral sex?

Not successfully. At least, not until the launch of Womanizer. There were some attempts at making toys that look like tongues and mimic those sensations, but they were always just a vibrator in the end. The Womanizer's Pleasure Air Technology is the most convincing.

4. Historically can you speak about how sex toys for men vs. female were perceived? Which were more popular/mainstream?

Sex toys have really exploded recently in quality and efficacy—for both men and women. Male toys were once often blow-up dolls or some version of stroker. These toys have done a 180 with today's technology. The same is true for women's toys. The better these products perform, the more people need to know and the more mainstream our products become.

5. Is it typical that the inventors of female-oriented sex toys are men?

Some successful companies were started by men with women in-mind. Ours is one of these. If a man can identify an opportunity for women's toys and can nail it with one product, I'm on board. But, there have been great products by women for women that have been equally ground-breaking. As women continue to drive this industry, I have faith that they will increase their portion of the pie.

This piece was originally published on June 25, 2017.

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Dear VCs: Making Pledges Won't Close The Funding Gap

Amid the mainstream conversation about inclusion and justice in the workplace, otherwise known as #MeToo, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund considered how they can be more inclusive of the women, minority, and LGBTQ entrepreneurial communities.

Their solution? Ask the CEOs they currently fund to promise to hire senior-level employees from diverse backgrounds.


Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that has investments with blockbuster startups such as The Honest Company, Affirm, and HQ Trivia, has asked its portfolio company CEOs to sign a “side letter" affirming their commitment to consider women and other underrepresented groups for senior jobs and new spots on their board of directors.

Can making pledges— or even hiring a C-Suite level employee to manage diversity efforts— really make an impact on the funding gap for multicultural women-led companies?

Many experts say it's going to take systemic change, not letters of intent.

It is well reported that the amount of investment going to multicultural women-led companies is incongruous to the entrepreneurial landscape and the performance of their businesses. Between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase of 2.8 million companies owned by women of color. Nearly eight out of every 10 new women-owned firms launched since 2007 has been started by a woman of color yet, these businesses receive an abysmal 0.2 percent of all funding. Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, founders of Mented cosmetics, were just the 15th and 16th Black women in history to raise $1M in the fall of 2017.

The multicultural women who do defeat the odds to get funded receive significantly less than male founders. The average startup founded by a Black woman raises only $36,000 in venture funding, while the average failed startup founded by a White man raises $1.3M before going out of business.

The implicit and explicit bias not only impacts individual multicultural female founders, it could be stifling innovation. For example, companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported innovation revenue as 45 percent of total revenue compared to just 26 percent of total revenue at companies with below-average management diversity. That means nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years.

In our economy today, venture capital is responsible for funding the work of our most innovative companies. Venture capital-backed U.S. companies include some of the most innovative companies in the world. In 2013, VC-backed companies account for a 42 percent of the R&D spending by U.S. public companies.

With a wealth of multicultural women entrepreneurs and evidence to support the performance of diverse companies, why does this funding gap persist?

According to Kristin Hull, founder of Oakland-based Nia Impact Capital and Nia Community, many traditional investors consider women or minority-led businesses as a category in their portfolio, like gaming tech or consumer packaged good. Hull, who focuses on building portfolios where financial returns and social impact work hand-in-hand, argues gender and ethnicity are not a business category and investors who dedicate a specific percent of their portfolio to diverse companies are the ones missing out.

“We are doing this backwards," says Hull. “Adding diverse, women-run companies actually de-risks an investment portfolio."

Hull points to research that has found women are more likely to seek outside help when a company is headed for trouble and operate businesses with less debt on average. What's more, a study conducted by First Round Capital concluded that founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent.

Ximena Hardstock, a 43-year-old immigrant from Chile experienced this bias first hand before she raised $5.1M for her tech startup. “How do you get an investor to notice you and take you seriously?" says Hardstock. “White men from Harvard have a track record and investors are all looking for entrepreneurs that fit the Zuckerberg mold. But a woman from Chile with an accent who started a technology company? There is no track record for that and this is a problem so many women of color face."

Hardstock came to the U.S. from the suburbs of Santiago when she was just 20-years-old. Alone with no family or connections in the U.S., Hardstock worked as a cleaning lady, a bartender, and a nanny before she began teaching and working in education. “I had a lot of ideas and Chile is still a very conservative country," she says. “Most women become housewives but I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to the U.S."

Hardstock went on to earn a Ph.D. in policy studies, served as vice president of Advocacy for National StudentsFirst and worked as a member of Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty's cabinet. Her experience working in both education and government exposed her to a need to simplify the process of connecting lawmakers with their constituents. As a result, Hardstock founded Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company that enables organizations and individual citizens to connect with policymakers via email, Twitter, Alexa and Facebook using their mobile phones.

Because venture capital and private equity are not necessarily meritocracies, Hardstock initially struggled to get in an audience with the right investors despite her company's growth potential, her experience, and her education. In fact, it wasn't until she won a competition at SXSW in 2015 that she could get an audience with a serious venture capitalist.

While it may seem like symptoms of a bygone era, both Hardstock and Hull say the path to investor relationships is forged in places where many women of diverse backgrounds are not – ivy league organizations, golf courses and late night post-board meeting cocktails attended mostly by White men of means.

The history of venture capital has never been very balanced, according to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian software development company and co-founder of Sycamore, an organization aiming to fix the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders. “White and Asian men have built the venture system and for generations have been seeking out people like themselves to invest in."

Personal and professional networks are critical for founders to connect with investors, but many multicultural women don't have access to the networks their White peers have. According to a study conducted by PRRI, the average White person has one friend who is Black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races. This common situation makes getting that all important warm introduction to established VCs very challenging for multicultural women founders.

“Is the ecosystem of your network equivalent to your net worth? Absolutely," says Hardstock. “For us, we have to build our own ecosystem and recreate what happens on the golf courses and at the Harvard reunions."

To Hardstock's point, most multicultural women with entrepreneurial aspirations lack that Ivy League network. According to reporting published in The New York Times, Black students make up just nine percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans. This gap has been largely unchanged since 1980.

While notable female investors such as Arlan Hamilton, Joanne Wilson, and Kathryn Finney are actively working to close the funding gap for women of color, only seven percent of current senior investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are women. Less than three percent of VC funds have Black and Latinx investment partners. Without an influential network, Hardstock and entrepreneurs like her are left screaming for a seat at the table.

When Black, Latina, and Asian women founders do get in the room with the right investors, they have to work harder to get the investors to relate to their products and services. “Entrepreneurs solve problems they understand," says Blanche. “When multicultural women entrepreneurs present their businesses to a homogenous group of male investors who may not be equipped to understand the idea, they may pass on an amazing business."

Take, for example, the founders of Haute Hijab or LOLA. Founders of both successful startups would have to explain the market for their services to a table occupied mostly by men who may never have considered that Muslim women want more convenient access to fashion and have never considered women might prefer to purchase organic tampons.

This lack of familiarity typically means reduced funding for women and a host of other consequences.

As one recent study pointed out, even the way investors frame questions to women can impact funding. According to the Harvard Business Review, female founders are often asked “prevention-oriented" questions focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. Male founders, on the other hand, are often asked questions focused on hopes, achievement, advancement, and ideals.

When all of these factors are considered, a side letter may not be enough to begin to close the funding gap.

Both Blanche and Hull say real change can be made by democratizing information and education on impact investing. Both women say educating investors and MBA candidates about impact investing is the best way to overcome current bias.

Blanche's organization, Sycamore, produces a newsletter for new angel investors who want to help close the funding gap while making money in the process. Hull's firm has an internship program for multicultural girls from Oakland to expose them to the worlds of investing, entrepreneurship, business leadership, and financial literacy.

“I'm excited about the changes I see," says Blanche. “I see more firm employing the Rooney Law on an institutional level, an increase in smaller firms looking at underserved communities, and the democratization of institutional funding."

Hull adds that as long as multi-cultural women-led firms continue to show returns and outperform or perform on par with companies founded by White men, the investor community will rethink their portfolio strategies.


This piece was originally published in 2018.