Ariel Martinez gets paid to watch people have sex.

As assistant curator with Make Love Not Porn, a New York social network that publishes racy videos online, Martinez analyzes hundreds of couplings and decides whether they meet the company's rigorous standards of "real world sex." If they do, she'll upload the clips onto the site, which the company sells as one-off rentals for $5 apiece, sharing a portion of revenue with the creators. The aim: To build a community organized around consent and sensuality--not the theatrics typically associated with traditional pornography. 

A sex industry veteran, Martinez previously spent three years with the toy boutique Babeland, and these experiences have led her to insist that now is a unique time for the not-so-small business sector.

"Over the past few years, I've seen a lot of inventions in the sex toy industry. There's been a boom in this technology," she tells Inc. "Unfortunately, a lot of businesses haven't taken women consumers very seriously, but that's all starting to change."

The shift is indeed reflected in companies' bottom lines. The global sex toy market eclipsed $20 billion in revenues in 2015, and it's projected to grow by nearly 8 percent annually through 2020, according to recent data from the research firm Technavio. Lovehoney, a U.K.-based retailer of sex paraphernalia, pulled in more than £76 million ($105 million USD) in revenues last year alone--a more than 30 percent increase from 2016. "We have a lot of [manufacturers] knocking at our doors," says Neal Slateford, co-founder of the firm, in a phone call with Inc. "That's an indication of how much more mainstream the industry is becoming."

50 Shades of Business

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There are a number of factors that entrepreneurs attribute to the recent sales boost, not least of which is more positive cues from pop culture. Items such as vibrators and butt plugs make appearances in award-winning television series, including Broad City, Girls--and Grace and Frankie, in which, in one especially memorable scene, Lily Tomlin reminds Jane Fonda that she ought to be speaking about her "Clitoris, Clitoris, Clitoris." And just last weekend, the final installment of the sex-soaked 50 Shades of Grey franchise pulled in nearly $39 million in box office sales, coming in at No. 1 in North American theaters (followed closely, if awkwardly, by Peter Rabbit.)

"There is much more awareness of sex toys, in television and in general," says Hallie Lieberman, an instructor at Georgia Tech and the author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. She suggests that this awareness stems in part from the sale of toys and more adventurous accessories at prosaic locations, like Wal-Mart and CVS. While some drugstores have been selling "sex aids" for two decades or more, it's only recently that they've included things like flavored lubricant on their shelves.  

All of this has led to a really important development, she says: More women are designing products for women. Indeed, a growing number of founders are recognizing an underserved market--that half of the population which struggles to achieve orgasms, and will therefore pay to get them. 

Alex Fine, the co-founder and CEO of Brooklyn-based retailer Dame Products, is one entrepreneur seizing on the discrepancy. Her 14-person startup makes a $135 clitoral vibrator called Eva. Dame generated more than $3 million in revenue last year, primarily through sales of Eva, as well as a finger vibrator called Fin. "I felt like I understood sex toys, and there was a need to shift the dialogue we were having," says Fine, who, along with her co-founder Janet Lieberman--a former engineer with MakerBot--successfully launched the toys on crowdfunding platforms. (Lieberman brings her aptitude to Dame, where toys are built on 3D printers before going into production.) Fine notes that her customers are primarily heterosexual couples, and that there's a certain extent to which the design, although ostensibly for her pleasure, also helps the male partner: "Because it's hands free, it's easy on the male ego," she says. After all, "If we are going to acknowledge that women are sexual, then we need to also acknowledge that men are emotional."

Smart Sex Toys

At the same time, the rapid growth of Internet of Things has spilled over into sex, allowing technologists to improve upon the quality of more traditional items. Take We-Vibe, an Ottawa, Canada based manufacturer that develops internet-connected sex toys. Since launching in 2014, the startup's signature "We-Connect" app--which lets users control the movement of a vibrator remotely--has been used by more than 2 million people, according to the firm. Similar to the Eva, the flagship We-Vibe Sync is designed to be worn during sex, with one end inserted into the vagina and the other resting against the clitoris. "The app offers refined and custom control of the toy, and allows for partners to share and control over the internet--that was the 'aha' moment," explains Frank Ferrari, the President of We-Vibe's parent company, Standard Innovation, in an email interview with Inc. 

In the meantime, historian Lieberman says that smart sex toys are soon to come from this niche sector, otherwise referred to as 'teledildonics.' "There will be so much more innovation in the years to come," she says. "The technology is finally there."

As with any connected product, however, app-enabled vibrators and their ilk are subject to security flaws. Last year, We-Vibe agreed to pay more than $3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit, alleging that the company violated customers' privacy. (The suit was filed after two hackers demonstrated during a conference that it was possible to access the vibrator and take control of it remotely, opening up the possibility for data theft, as well as the more alarming prospect of remote sexual assault.) "Since then, we have enhanced our privacy notice, increased app security and provided customers more choice in the data they share," We-Vibe's Ferrari tells me. Indeed, cybersecurity concerns across the sector led to the advent of the consumer watchdog "Internet of Dongs," which analyzes the security and privacy of connected sex toys and reports on data breaches.

'A More Complicated Investment'

Despite the progress that men and women in the sex tech industry have made, a stigma remains. Cindy Gallop, the founder of the social sex network Make Love Not Porn, was only recently able to raise $2 million in venture capital earlier this year after unsuccessfully lobbying venture capitalists for the better part of two. Dame's Fine, meanwhile, suggests that when it comes to sex, investors and analysts are more comfortable talking than they are walking. "In the 21st century, I didn't think it would be a big deal to make sex toys. It turns out I was wrong," she says. "I'm a more complicated investment." She points out that Dame is unable to advertise on common platforms, including Facebook, or use Google's re-targeting feature, which tends to make investors cautious. The Eva vibrator was the first sex toy ever crowdfunded on Kickstarter--and, Fine says, even though she knew the founders of the company, "it still took some convincing."

Still, industry stalwarts say it's possible to turn that stigma into something positive. The way Lieberman sees it, the momentum behind the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, whereby women are actively speaking out about sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, is also impacting the business of sex. "The same things that are driving the #MeToo movement are also driving the sex toy industry," she says. "With third-wave feminism, women understand that they have a right to sexual pleasure."

Or, to put it in more personal terms: "I deserve an orgasm as much as a man."

Published on: Feb 13, 2018