If you've ever experienced the popular pastime known as heterosexual sex, you're likely aware of a "pleasure gap" that exists: the fact that men are far more likely to get off from boning than ladies are.
That sad reality was the inspiration for Brooklyn-based tech startup Dame Products. In 2013, founders Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman launched the company with a vision not unfamiliar in the startup space: to transform an industry (the sex toy one) with an innovative product (the Eva vibrator) that solves a persistent problem (ladies not getting off from the old in and out) in a simple, yet brilliant, way (hands-free clitoral stimulation that doesn't interfere with penis in vagina sex).
Gadget design is a pretty well-known boys' club, a field where male engineers design products with other men in mind, rarely considering the way the needs, anatomy, or lived experience of women might change the way a product should work. It's not uncommon to hear stories of how male engineers forgot to factor in the smaller size of women's hands and wrists, or the way female fashion doesn't always include a pocket.
Less discussed is the way the male domination of tech can impact the design of products predominantly intended for women. For instance: vibrators, which by and large are designed for vulvas, but most of the sex toy designers and engineers I'm aware of are men; which isn't surprising given male domination of the engineering industry.
But as more women enter STEM fields, and the stigma against sex toys begins to fall away, it's not unusual to see vibrators created, designed, and marketed by women. So what happens when a gadget industry flips the script and starts offering products created by women, for women? And what can the tech world at large learn from their experience?
When I spoke with Fine and Lieberman over the phone, they balked at generalizing too much about designing products for women, or what women want. "What does it mean to actually be for women?" Fine asked. "What does it mean to be a woman? From a marketing standpoint, I don't know." Fine mulled over what qualities could be considered "essentially" feminine, and what was merely social conditioning, hesitant to make any hard and fast statements about her gender as a broad group.
Which isn't to say that gender has no impact on their work. Lieberman, an experienced engineer whose resume includes stints at Quirky, Makerbot, and MindsInSync, noted that, "overall in tech there's not a lot of focus on making sure that the experience for women feels as natural as the experience for men." And even though there are far more sex toys designed for vaginas than penises, male ideas about sex still impact the way female pleasure products are marketed, packaged, and sold.
One of the first things Fine and Lieberman noticed about competing products was that quite a few seemed to be designed with the heterosexual male perspective, rather than female pleasure, in mind. If you've ever gone toy shopping, you're probably familiar with the high number of toys with scantily clad women on the packaging, apparently designed to catch the eyes of men who might be shopping for their female partners. (It's not an insignificant number: Fine told me that even with a female-focused toy like Eva, 45 percent of the buyers are men.)
And even beneath the packaging, the underlying philosophy of many couples-focused toys seems to be about maintaining male attention rather than enhancing female pleasure. A number of Dame's competitors have begun incorporating apps into their couples' products, some explicitly looking to "gamify" of sexual pleasure—as though, you know, orgasms weren't reward enough.
It's hard to imagine that what women really want out of a sex toy is cartoon avatars to keep their partners entertained, and it's not surprising that Fine and Lieberman's status as card-carrying ladies (and sex toy users) puts them at an advantage when it comes to designing products that actually tap into women's actual needs.
While Eva is marketed as a product for couples, it's only for two people in the sense that it's intended to be used during sex. Dame's focus is clearly on female pleasure, not male amusement; as a result, Eva is wearable vibrator that nestles in between the labia, offering women the added stimulation necessary to achieve orgasm without interfering with the other pleasurable aspects of sex. When Eva works as intended, female pleasure is enhanced while male pleasure remains unaffected (except in the sense that a man's enjoyment of sex is presumably enhanced by the knowledge his partner's getting off as well).
"Starting from a place of 'I don't have biases' is never helpful."
But while Fine and Lieberman's experiences as women and vulva owners helped them come up with an innovative solution to the problem of pleasure—let's be real, it's way less likely that a male designer would ever have thought to use the labia as a sex toy pocket—those same experiences created roadblocks as well.
There's a vast variety of vulvas out in the world, and the Dame team quickly realized that a sample set of two—or even a few more, if they recruited some willing friends as testers—wasn't enough to guarantee universal success for anyone interested in their product. As women, the Dame team had the ability to view the problem of female pleasure from a different angle than many sex toy designers that came before. But that doesn't mean that they're able to speak or design for every single woman out there.
In order to address their own limitations, the two have made it their business to learn everything about the diverse variety of vulvas in the world. In addition to employing focus groups to test out their product and getting feedback from their many fans, they've also hired the help of a few gynecological teaching associates—women trained to guide medical students through their first pelvic exam, in the most vulva-involved way possible—to teach them about labial diversity and help improve the mechanics of their product.
And that might be the real lesson we can take from women designing gadgets for women. As members of an oft overlooked group, Fine and Lieberman are more sensitive to the reality that they, too, have biases that cause them the needs of people they're designing products for—even when those people are members of a group they supposed represent.
"Regardless of the gender split on your team, you need to assume that you have biases," Lieberman said. "Starting from a place of 'I don't have biases' is never helpful." It's not necessarily the gender of an engineer that matters, it's that engineer's ability to consider perspectives outside their own. The problem is that, in the United States, the white men who dominate the tech industry happen to be the least prepared to pull that off.
Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.