Is CES Genuinely Ready To Talk About Sex and Tech?

Conor Cawley

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is finally making an effort to be more progressive in its gender balance issues, following controversy in January when it deselected a women's sex toy company from its awards shortlist. That's thanks to two policy updates for the 2020 trade show.

The first is that the trade show will be allowing sex toy technology to participate in the Health & Wellness product category once again, on a one-year trial basis. The second is that CES will be implementing a new dress code, intended to counteract the “booth babe” culture that has notoriously infiltrated the trade show over the years.

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which runs CES, does appear to be making some progress, updating its policy to be a bit more inclusive. But, by singling out a dress code for “booth babes” at the event, it risks shooting for the wrong target entirely along the way.

“Booth Babe” Culture Won't Be Solved With Dress Codes

Combating the “booth babe” culture at CES has been on CTA's to-do list for a while now. The policy update around dress code is its first stab at making it work:

“Booth personnel may not wear clothing that is sexually revealing or that could be interpreted as undergarments. Clothing that reveals an excess of bare skin, or body-conforming clothing that hugs genitalia must not be worn.”

However, while it may be intended to make CES a more inclusive, less sexist environment, the policy update is at once a step in the right direction, and troublingly regressive. Policing what women wear is hardly a recipe for harmonious living: Just ask Serena Williams.

The new clothing policy fails to truly shift the culture at events such as CES. It doesn't recognize that the issue is powerful, multi-million dollar tech firms hiring women to pose by their products. Instead, it makes the problem about women dressing just a bit too scandalously.

Booth babes in overly revealing clothes? Bad. Booth babes in fairly revealing clothes? Good. Just so long as the clothes don't hug the dreaded genital area. Somehow, women at a tech event – the least empowered, most shockingly exploited group in attendance – have ended up as the ones singled out as needing to change.

The two policies combined, in fact, are all the more perplexing. Women's genitals do exist – let's recognize sex toys as a valid consumer technology. But wait – those genitals are bad, when combined with sexually revealing clothing…

Don't worry, though. If these guidelines sound like an overprotective dad talking to his teenage daughter, the policy assures us that “these guidelines are applicable to all booth staff, regardless of gender.” Sure they are, CES, sure they are…

CES Policy – Sex Toys Are In (For Now)

CES has a checkered past as far as gender and sex are concerned. Between robot strippers and off-and-on pornography, the famous Las Vegas trade show doesn't exactly know how to manage the burgeoning sexual awakening of the 21st century when it comes to technology.

But that's all set to change, according to the announcement:

“CTA is committed to evolving and continuing to create an experience at CES that is inclusive and welcoming for everyone,” said Karen Chupka, executive vice president of CES. “We worked with a number of external advisors and partners to update and improve our existing CES policies.”

The other policy update allows sex toy technology to be a part of the CES festivities. This comes in response to a scandal last January at CES. A female-run sex toy company, Lora DiCarlo, was removed from the innovation award shortlist in 2019 by CTA management, for undisclosed reasons.

Lora DiCarlo was, in fact, consulted on the policy updates, and released a statement in response to the CES announcement:

“We are pleased to hear that CTA took our recommendations for inclusion and language updates that we drafted, and support this move in the right direction. We are excited to share that Lora DiCarlo will be on the show floor at CES 2020 in the Health & Wellness area that will now include sextech. We’re optimistic that this is a step in the right direction.”

This is admittedly progress for CTA and CES. But, it's a far from perfect response on the part of CTA. After all, it's only now addressing the issue a full six months after it first arose, which hardly screams “we're committed to solving the problem.”

Positive Steps for Diversity in Tech

In a more positive sign, CTA is making further strides towards better inclusion and diversity. Just look at two of the companies it's funding, announced in a press release that came out the same day as the policy updates (coincidence?).

The two companies in question are Harlem Capital Partners, a New York-based minority-owned early-stage venture capital firm, and SoGal Ventures, the first female-led, millennial venture capital firm.

Both are firmly committed to highlighting underserved women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. This at least shows CTA is trying to right the wrongs of its decidedly checkered past on equality and inclusion.

It's safe to say that while CES is making some of the right moves with these policy updates, there's still a long way to go before it solves the gender imbalance at tech events.

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Conor is the Senior Writer for Tech.co. For the last four years, he’s written about everything from Kickstarter campaigns and budding startups to tech titans and innovative technologies. His extensive background in stand-up comedy made him the perfect person to host tech-centric events like Startup Night at SXSW and the Timmy Awards for Tech in Motion. You can email Conor at conor@tech.co.

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