Sex is everywhere. From billboards to steamy movie plots to come-hither musical lyrics, the pursuit of pleasure surrounds us.
And yet, sex remains one of the most uncomfortable and stigmatized topics for American women. Much of the uneven attitudes are based on an assumption of knowledge and understanding: We talk about the importance of consent, but not expectations and desires; health and wellness generally, but not the specifics of where and how to access condoms.
A number of rule breaking entrepreneurs in this space are actively working to change all that. I sat down with the extraordinary women behind three groundbreaking companies: Elise Racine and Mia Davis of sex ed social media app Tabú, Polly Rodriguez of erotic product subscription service Unbound Box, and Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman of sex toy manufacturer Dame Products, to discuss their efforts to broaden the conversation about all things sex.
Knowledge is power
To discover, know and embrace what a woman wants and deserves, she has to start at the beginning with two things: basic knowledge and a sense of community.
It is with this two-pronged approach that Elise Racine and Mia Davis crafted their social media app Tabú, a network and educational resource that connects young women with one another and a wide array of "sexperts". Tapping the expertise of anyone from academics to porn stars, users connect with a wide, rich conversation and breadth of knowledge. No sexual subject is off limits, from birth control to body image to orgasms.
"A lot of young adults are learning about sex from porn, leaving out conversations like consent and protection," Racine said. "Mix in that girls are taught to say no, and you have a huge double standard. We want to abolish a lot of that and create an environment where women are becoming advocates for their own pleasure and sexual health."
The pleasure gap
While it's widely expected and accepted that men are sexual creatures -- they will go through puberty, masturbate and explore what makes them feel good -- the same is not always true for women, according to Polly Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of Unbound Box.
"It's like asking someone to go into a job interview without any prep on what the company is, or what their role would be," Rodriguez said. "If you don't know what you like, how can you expect to enter into an activity and have it be successful?"
Put off by the "tacky novelty stuff" filling the market, Rodriguez was inspired to cultivate a collection of design-centric, aesthetically pleasing products for women that provide a fun and approachable route to exploring their own pleasure.
The mission of lifting taboos around female sexual pleasure is understood and shared by Janet Lieberman and Alexandra Fine, co-founders of sex toy manufacturing startup Dame Products. The merging of their minds -- Alex has a clinical psychology background, while Janet is an MIT-trained engineer -- led to the creation of the first wearable couple's vibrator, which they dubbed Eva.
"I realized that in this product category, I wasn't getting the same value as from other consumer electronics, and I think that gap is based on shame," Lieberman said. "People thought that women don't know what they deserve."
Escaping the "novelty" trap
That mindset -- that women tend not to discuss or explore what they want, or that to do so is somehow shameful -- has long trapped sex aids for women in the "novelty" category. Toys and porn for men remain far more prolific and widely accepted.
"When you refer to the industry as 'novelty', you're implying that no one actually wants or uses these products," Lieberman explained. "You're dismissing the clientele."
To bridge that gap, all three businesses focus heavily on normalizing sexuality. Unbound's most popular products fit seamlessly into women's everyday lives, shifting away from phallic, cheaply made designs to wearable pieces -- gold bangles that double as handcuffs, for example -- that easily transition from day to night.
"Women appreciate having something they can leave on the nightstand and not be mortified if someone enters the room," Rodriguez explained. "We want these types of products to be part of an everyday health and wellness routine, which helps dispel the stigmas we're fighting against."
The business of the bedroom
The gender politics of the boardroom often reflect the unevenness of the bedroom. Products and businesses that endeavor to enrich female sexuality -- especially when helmed by women -- often face the hurdle of not being taken seriously.
"We've been told we're not eligible for certain loans because our company gets most of its revenue from a 'product of an indecent sexual nature'," Fine said of her early experiences with Dame. "We were told, by one individual, that 'there's no such thing as decent sex'."
Investors, at the end of the day, are often scared about what others will think if they align with products encouraging female sexuality. As a result, some have opted to back Unbound anonymously.
Because of these hurdles, these female entrepreneurs must be on top of their game at all times.
"I don't think people are intentionally vindictive about the fact that you're a woman, but when you walk in the door you start below zero," said Rodriguez. "You have to be twice as good because you're a woman."