Will ’50 Shades of Grey’ Help Make 2015 the Year of Sex Tech?

January 12, 2015

12:30 pm

Imagine you’re an angel investor and you find an exciting new sex tech startup to fund. You arrive home at night and your wife asks how your day was – did you find any hotshot startups today?

“Why yes, honey, we funded a porn company.”

The problems that many sex tech startups face often boil down to this stigma: our age-old discomfort with sex, and how anything sex-related is equated with porn.

“We associate the world of pornography with this image of seedy mobsters from the 1970s who are wearing wife-beater t-shirts and gold crucifixes around their necks,” says CEO Todd Glider of BaDoink

BaDoink started in 2005 as iTunes for adult content, and branched out in 2013 with BaDoink magazine. The online news site aims to be a major voice in the evolution of sex tech and help reduce the stigma, at least in the business world.

Funding is only one of the issues. It took Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, two years to get funded. But her bigger problem was figuring out a payment infrastructure. They had users willing to pay, but struggled to find a reputable service to accept money.

My team and I battle every day to build MakeLoveNotPorn.tv, because every piece of business infrastructure every other venture can take for granted – including PayPal, banks, mainstream video servers, and email partners – we can’t use: the small print always says, ‘No adult content,'” Gallop recounted in a letter to David Cameron. (They now use Dwolla for US customers.)

Max Lobkowicz of The Dr. Susan Block Institute had similar problems. “We are a company that deals in sexuality and had our Visa accounts shut down by Wells Fargo after 25 years because we own sex sites, even though we [use] other processors for those sites,” he says. “In addition, Visa requires all sex-related companies to pay an annual fee of $700.”

Internally, sex tech companies can struggle to recruit employees – even the ones who want to join. BaDoink was all set to hire someone recently, but he backed out last-minute because his wife was against the idea. “Some people are still a little sheepish about that,” says Glider. “A person wondering how that’s going to look on their resume – it’s natural they would be concerned about that.”

Even science-based companies like Liberos, which holds a patent for brain stimulation treatment for low sexual desire, find themselves running into obstacles. “I have had bizarre ethics board issues, problems finding space to conduct my studies, strange conversations with vibrator manufacturers, accusations of being funded by pornographers, you name it,” says Nicole Prause, PhD, of Liberos. “Incidentally, I think it has been a huge benefit to be a female-led company, because my male scientist colleagues often face accusations of sexual harassment or prurient interests, where I have never faced such accusations.”

Part of the issue, says Glider, is that there aren’t shining examples of successful and reputable sex tech startups that young companies can point to – see, we’re not all sleazy and we can make big bucks. By covering sex tech, BaDoink hopes to spotlight some of those up-and-coming names.

The past may be riddled with challenges, but Glider sees a change happening in 2015. For one, the erotically explicit 50 Shades of Grey movie comes out around Valentine’s Day and will certainly drive tons of conversations in the media. (Trailer here.) 

Glider has also seen subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the response to his work. Five years ago, only 1% of BaDoink’s members were female; today, it’s 10%. The inclusion of women in the industry – as founders of companies like Zivity, O’actually, and HappyPlayTime, for example – help reduce the view that the sex industry is the realm of misogynistic men.

On the more anecdotal side, Glider has seen a shift in the way people respond to him describing his work. Instead of getting uncomfortable or walking away, they want to hear more.

He says, “2015 will be remembered as the year SexTech broke through. It will inspire investment, debate, even controversy. We will see a tug-of-war between innovators, politicians, special interests, and tech giants, all vying for their share of the news cycle.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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