In 2014, sexologist Alexandra Fine and engineer Janet Lieberman joined forces with a then-lofty goal in mind: to close the pleasure gap. But as the decade waned, the public discourse about sexual wellness as it pertains to vulva-owners expanded, and Dame Products continued setting records with launch after launch of sleek-looking sex toys. These innovative products have developed a cult following for solving problems many consumers may not have realized they had in the first place—and even if they did realize, they likely wouldn’t have voiced concern.
In large part thanks to the thoughtful engineering of each item in Dame’s catalog, plus chic design elements that strongly make the case for displaying the products in plain sight atop nightstands rather than hidden deep within drawers, Fine and Lieberman can be credited for cultivating an audience of loud, proud aficionados of sexual wellness. Below, the co-founders (who are on Well+Good’s list of 2020 Changemakers) share how they got to this place and what’s next for both Dame Products and pleasure for all.
Well+Good: Can you fill in the blanks that led you two to start Dame? Alex’s background is in human sexuality and Janet’s is in engineering, which seems like the perfect equation for the foundation of a sex-toy company.
Alexandra Fine, co-founder and CEO (pictured above, left): I’ve truly always been interested in sex. As far back as I can remember, it seemed like a really natural thing to be curious about. Originally, I was pursuing a career as a sex therapist, and I earned my master’s in clinical psychology with a concentration in sex therapy from Columbia University. But I realized that I could make a bigger impact and reach more people by starting a company, so that’s what I set out to do.
I started making vibrator prototypes in my kitchen with silver-dollar coins and plastic wrap. Meanwhile, Janet was also thinking about starting a sex-toy company.
Janet Lieberman, co-founder and CPO (pictured above, right): I graduated from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2007. I worked on a range of products—everything from dustpans to 3-D printers—before deciding to start Dame. That happened when I noticed that vibrators weren’t being developed or manufactured to the same standards as other consumer goods, in that I wasn’t getting the same quality of user experience or value for my dollar that I would have expected from any other electronic. I realized I had the skills and background to be able to change that.
AF: It only took one breakfast meeting to know we had the complementary skills to start something special.
A primary goal of Dame Products is to create tools to help close the pleasure gap. What was the pleasure market lacking, specifically, before the brand hit the scene?
AF: When we first started, we were one of few companies led by people with vulvas making sex toys, and we understood firsthand the anatomy we were designing for. Sex toys were also mainly being marketed as a novelty product, and we wanted to design for a world where vibrators aren’t something you just give as a gag gift. It should feel great to buy a vibrator for yourself, your friends, your partners, and you should be able to buy something that will both work well and look good on your nightstand.
“Sex toys were mainly being marketed as a novelty product, and we wanted to design for a world where vibrators aren’t something you just give as a gag gift.” —Alexandra Fine
What’s Dame’s most popular product?
AF: Eva—now on its second iteration, Eva II—is our first and most popular toy. It is a hands-free clitoral vibrator that can be worn during penetrative sex, or any time you want to be using your hands for something else (like solo, in the shower).
What about the fastest-growing product in terms of sales?
Dame Products has certainly innovated the sexual-wellness space in conjunction with discussions about women’s pleasure being less stigmatized with each passing year. Has society, and more specifically the sex-toy market, made strides toward closing the pleasure gap?
AF: Women’s pleasure has entered the mainstream. You can find Dame’s products in Urban Outfitters, Goop, Revolve, and Free People; when we launched on Revolve, we became the best-selling beauty product in a day. Having toys for sex available in the same places where you buy other products for your self-care routine is definitely a step toward prioritizing women’s pleasure.
JL: Yes, and the reality that a majority of people with vulvas need clitoral stimulation for pleasurable sex is far more widely understood than it was a decade ago. That’s opening up doors for so many people with vulvas to explore sex with clitoral touch, with or without penetration.
When it comes to the sex-toy market, more sexual-wellness companies are being created by people with vulvas, for people with vulvas. These companies are designing products with an awareness of the needs of the folks they’re designing for, which, up until recently, wasn’t the case in our industry. This collective effort definitely increases the standard for products, which means more people are being introduced to a specific design that fits their needs.
AF: Still, I think our culture’s common understanding of sex is still pretty heteronormative and male-centered. As a company, we’ve experienced this most directly with inherently sexist ad regulations. This includes social-media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, physical spaces, like the MTA, and we’ve also been rejected by banks and office spaces. Plainly, companies that create products focused on men’s sexuality don’t face these barriers. So while we’re absolutely seeing more conversations about women’s pleasure and tools to enhance it, we have quite a bit of educational work to do.
Let’s talk about the MTA lawsuit filed by Dame for discrimination in advertising. What’s happening with that story currently? And has the situation changed any focus of Dame Products in general?
AF: We can tell you it’s still happening! Lawsuits are a lengthy process. But, I don’t think it’s shifted our focus, per se. If anything, we feel more strongly than ever that this lawsuit is a crucial part of bringing sex into the public conversation, which is why we started Dame. This effort to change policies has become just as important to our mission as making toys for sex—in fact, perhaps even more important: Letting sex live in the shadows doesn’t serve anyone, in fact it hinders our ability to have healthy sex lives.
What’s the goal of the lawsuit?
JL: The vague and sexist reasons behind the MTA’s refusal to show our ads are not only barring many businesses like ours from growing their companies, but their censorship is a violation of first-amendment rights. Advertisements are hugely influential to our culture and we want to stand up for the needs and desires of vulva-havers everywhere.
It’s necessary for us to change the societal misconception that sexual pleasure for femme-identifying humans is “inappropriate” while endorsing the sexual pleasure of men as essential for their health and well-being.
“When developing any of our products, we apply extensive research, iterative design, and—perhaps most importantly—empathy.” —Janet Lieberman
What’s the process for developing new Dame Products?
JL: When developing any of our products, we apply extensive research, iterative design, and—perhaps most importantly—empathy. Through our Dame Labs community, our customers actually become part of our product development process. We survey that community to help guide what we make and how we design it. We’re working to humanize a product space that isn’t always speaking to the audience it serves, so consistent communication with our customers is a huge part of that.
We talk to experts, store owners, and therapists to see what they’re seeing as trends and needs. We test and analyze competitor products to see what works and what doesn’t. For most products, our engineering team designs and prototypes different concepts to determine the best design direction, then shepherds those designs through user testing and manufacturing.
How has the development process changed since Dame Products launched?
JL: From day one, tester feedback has driven design. Before we’d even met, Alex had already discovered that Eva needed to be compliant—aka bendy—if it was going to fit even one set of labia, let alone many, because it needs to move with the wearer. We did five rounds of alpha and beta testing for Eva, where we discovered that changes of a millimeter or less could have huge impact on fit.
One of my favorite differences between where we are now and where we started is the size of our community in Dame Labs. When the number of volunteers you have roughly equals the number of testers you need, like it did for Eva, you can’t really ensure the testing pool is demographically balanced. Now, when we put out a call for volunteers, I can ensure we’re testing with a range of ages, experience levels, ethnicities, body types, sexual orientation, or anything else that might be necessary for a particular product.
How have sales of products changed over the years?
AF: Within a year of starting the company, we sold more than 10,000 vibrators, amounting to over $1 million in revenue. Now we’ve sold over 150,000 products, and we’re in retailers around the world.
JL: Where we’re selling is as big a change as what we’re selling. Since we started the company in 2014, more and more retailers within the fashion, health, and beauty industries are adding sexual-wellness products to their lineup. And, while we wouldn’t have been able to get to where we are without retailers, most of our sales these days are direct to consumer through our website.
What can we expect to see from Dame Products next year and beyond?
AF: 2019 was a big year for us since it was the first time we expanded our product line beyond vibrators. We now have a positioning pillow, a toy storage pouch, and an aloe-based lube with a no-slip bottle sleeve. There are so many parts of sexual wellness to explore, and we’re really glad to be able to expand what we can offer people by courting more mainstream retailers, continuing to work on advertising restrictions, and of course, by expanding our product line. We have some really exciting things coming down the pipeline for 2020 that I’m excited to share with the world.
Sexual culture is always evolving. Even if we’re able to say one day that the pleasure gap is closed, there will certainly be room for growth in other areas of our sexual lives. Our goal is to communicate that the investment in sexual growth of all sorts is as important as any other part of your health and well-being.
Alex and Janet are two powerhouses shaping what wellness really means. Curious about others? Check out our list of the 2020 Changemakers here.
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