This NYC-based woman entrepreneur fights Internet giants like Facebook to get the sextech industry its due
At 21, Polly Rodriguez went through menopause as a result of a cancer diagnosis. While shopping for a vibrator and lubricant she recalls feeling embarrassed about the whole experience of going into a "seedy" store and not knowing what she was looking for.
In 2014, Polly met her now co-founder Sarah Jayne through a “women in tech” group in New York City. Sarah had been working on a sex toy subscription box and Polly was passionate about the space. The two joined hands and started Unbound, a sexual wellness company that makes lubricants, vibrators, condoms, and accessories.
“Our goal is to make better designed products, using body safe material, at an affordable price,” says Polly, the CEO of Unbound.
Polly and Sarah wanted to start an online destination where women could receive information on sexual health and shop for products they could trust. Apart from offering products on Unbound, it also features a magazine section that provides a number of articles on sexual wellness.
Starting up in sex tech
Sextech, Polly believes is a lucrative sector but stereotypes and the assumption of it being a “vice” industry makes it a very challenging industry to start up in.
Her own story speaks of the stigma she faced when she wanted to become a sextech entrepreneur. Her family and even the venture capitalists she approached made her feel “ashamed” of the products she was building. Even getting an office and opening a bank account for her business was difficult.
“We were turned down multiple times because we were considered a "vice" company,” Polly says.
The challenges continue even today. Polly tells HerStory that advertising a majority of sexual wellness products on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and the subways in New York is not permitted.
“Sexual wellness products for women are banned from advertising on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Snapchat, the subway, and any native content sites. It's incredibly frustrating when you see the plethora of ads that are out there for erectile dysfunction for men,” she says.
HerStory looked at Facebook’s advertising policy regarding sexual products, which reads, “Adverts must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, unless they promote family planning and contraception. Adverts for contraceptives must focus on the contraceptive features of the product and not on sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement and must be targeted to people aged 18 years or older.”
However, several news reports have shown that advertisements for male products that promote erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation have been featured on the platform and also the subway.
Uniting women in sextech
These and several other challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in sextech led Polly and another founder Lidia Bonilla, to start Women of Sex Tech.
“We realised all the femme and non-binary founders in sextech were facing the same obstacles and that a group of voices would be louder than each of us individually trying to tackle these systemic issues. We also wanted to support each other emotionally through the rollercoaster of startup life. Many of the startup communities that are created to foster founders were closed off to sextech because we were seen as too taboo, so we created our own space where we all could belong,” says Polly.
The community also organises and protests together to fight the gendered double standards that exist against them. In 2019, the women protested outside Facebook's offices and created the website approvednotapproved.com to highlight the double standards. The website features a game that allows users to click through ads that draw on sexual imagery or innuendo. The users pick if the ads are approved or not approved. Finally, they get to see for themselves what New York Metropolitan Transportation (MTA), Facebook, or Instagram deem appropriate.
The community is not restricted to just startups and also includes sex educators, artists, and performers who also face the same challenges.
It hosts a plethora of events for the women in the community. Once such event is the annual Women of Sex Tech Conference. Due to the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders, it was hosted virtually and had over 600 attendees from across the world.
Women and sexuality
Societal and patriarchal notions have suppressed women’s sexuality and pleasure as a means of oppression. Polly says the treatment of women, and sexuality and pleasure being treated are oxymorons, is rooted in history.
“I think it's important to ask why we think they are oxymorons. It's important to look to history and understand that groups of people were denied pleasure as a form of oppression. Whether it's gay marriage or vibrators, history shows us that sexuality is often viewed through a very narrow lens of who should be allowed to experience pleasure,” she says.
She adds, “The truth is we all are entitled to enjoy our bodies. It's a fundamental human right - but it's only in the last 25 years that we've started to acknowledge that as a society, and we still have a long way to go.”
Women of Sex Tech works towards normalising conversations around sex and sexuality through dialogues with the help of professionals - specifically, licensed therapists, doctors, educators.
COVID -19 and sextech
With physical distancing and self-isolation policies, sextech products have seen a surge in demand across the world. Sales of sex toys in countries like Italy, one of countries hit hard by the virus has reported an increase of over 60 percent. In the US, sales are also above 60 percent above typical predictions. An anonymous survey by a US based sex toy company, Tracy’s Dog which had respondents from US, Europe, Asia and Australia revealed 57 percent respondents planned to purchase sex toys during the quarantine.
Confirming the surge in demand, Polly says, “It's been great to see people using this as an opportunity to experience pleasure. We are all under so much stress, it's a really healthy form of release.”
In the post-COVID world, Polly feels the increase in demand will continue for as long as people are isolated. She believes the current situation has provided us with an opportunity to open our minds to connect with ourselves and others in new, and often digital ways.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan