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The Plus Factor: Why this is the year of “femtech”


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Graphic: Jenna Cantagallo for Well+Good
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First there was the body-positivity movement. Then came menstrual realness. And now, a wave of new, innovative products focused on women’s health and sexuality is giving your ladyparts more choices than ever. If you feel like you’ve been hearing a lot more about the female anatomy lately—you’re right. According to trend forecasters, we are living in the year of “vagina-nomics.

What does that mean, exactly? It’s all about “femtech” or “sextech,” which is the next big thing for entrepreneurs (many of whom are young and female)—and includes everything from period trackers to forward-thinking sex toys.

“We’re in a year where there are more women’s sextech products on the market than ever before.”

“We’re in a year where there are more women’s sextech products on the market than ever before,” says Bryony Cole, creator of the Future of Sex podcast, which chronicles this new startup culture. “Women’s sexual health is taking center stage.”

Why now? (I mean, hasn’t 50 percent of the population always had a need for this?) According to J. Walter Thompson’s 2017 trend report, “Long seen as taboo, the rise of fourth-wave feminism is encouraging women to talk about their vaginas and vulvas like never before, whether that’s to do with periods, health, sex, and masturbation or well-being.”

Masturbation. Vulvas. Fourth-wave feminism. When a white paper written for the venture capital audience (which skews extremely white and male, with female decision-makers making up just 6 percent of the group) is casually dropping these terms, you know we’re in new, estrogen-powered territory.

What do you need to know about the femtech revolution? Keep reading for the buzziest things happening in sex, self-love, and self-care.

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femtech
The Eva: a wearable, hands-free vibrator. Photo: Dame Products

Your sex life, reimagined

Following up on last year’s menstrual game-changers like Thinx period panties and better-for-you tampon and pad brands like Lola, Kali, and Cora, now we have products that range from Alisa Vitti’s next-gen period app (with actually alerts you and your partner with week-by-week nutrition and lifestyle tips) to Ava’s fertility-tracking, data-driven wearables.

And Swedish nuclear physicist Elina Berglund made history in the EU in February, with the first app approved as a birth-control device. The Natural Cycles algorithm—which uses data from daily, under-tongue temperature checks—is as effective as the pill. (Let that sink in.)

“We’re interested in creating toys that speak to the most urgent needs of women—which is, overwhelmingly, clitoral stimulation during sex.”

If you’re looking for ways to take your sex-goddess thing to new heights, there are high-tech innovations like pelvic floor-strengthener Elvie (which last month raised $6 million in a funding series that included the female-led London VC firm AllBright) and MysteryVibe‘s body-adapting Crescendo, a six-motor vibrator that looks a bit like a travel toothbrush holder, but bendable—it can go from straight to U-shaped to anything in between.

The demand is certainly there. The clit-centric vibrator startup Dame Products, helmed by two young women, first made waves with its ultra-successful crowdfunding campaign—they set a goal of $50k, but the response was so overwhelming that the company raised nearly a million dollars. Dame’s two vibrator products (Eva is a hands-free clitoral stimulator and Fin attaches to your fingers) are less than half the size of an iPhone, and the millennial-friendly design was made with real-life needs in mind, rather than just novelty shapes.

“We strive to be a research-focused brand and product,” says sexologist Alex Fine, 29, who founded Dame with MIT-trained engineer Janet Lieberman, 31. “Right now, we’re interested in creating toys that speak to the most urgent needs of women—which is, overwhelmingly, clitoral stimulation during sex. More women than ever are taking a driver’s seat approach to their own pleasure, which is so amazing.”

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femtech cycles and sex
Women line up to get into Cycles+Sex. Photo: Evan McKnight

For women, by women

So why are all of these innovations happening now? There’s a simple explanation, Cole says: In a lot of cases, they’re being developed by people who will actually use them.

“The sex toy industry in particular has had to make a major shift from being a male-dominated industry that primarily used cheap, dodgy materials, to one where many of the best brands are either founded by women or have women on their design teams and they are using the latest advancements in technology,” she says.

And—especially among the young, wellness-savvy set—these innovations are creating a lot of buzz. Just take a look at this past weekend’s Cycles + Sex, a New York City conference founded by birth doulas Natalia Hailes and Ashley Spivak and The Big Quiet co-founder Lauren Bille. With appearances from actress-turned-women’s wellness activist Ricki Lake, “hormone whisperer” Vitti, and Well+Good co-founder Melisse Gelula—plus plenty of demos that might make your mom blush—the debut of Cycles + Sex drew a packed house of about 850 people over the weekend to celebrate all things menstrual and sexual.

“Historically, medicine hasn’t cared much about female pleasure because we could have babies without having orgasms.”

So what does this mean for your between-the-sheets life? Sexologist Mal Harrison, founder of The Center for Erotic Intelligence, believes that making women’s health and pleasure a priority is a major shift in the culture—and could affect you even if you never buy a femtech product.

“Historically, medicine hasn’t cared much about female pleasure because we could have babies without having orgasms,” says Harrison. “Now science and technology are helping to push the collective conversation out into the open, normalizing discussion of female bodily functions and sexuality.”

Just as the body-positivity movement celebrates all physiques, femtech is ditching some serious shame-based blinders to appreciate all of our body parts—at which point, “sexual health” is just a part of wellness.

Because eating more nutrient-dense food (organic, please) or using clean beauty products (no parabens, thanks) isn’t that different from making sure your high-tech sex toy of choice is actually addressing your needs and desires. And hey, don’t forget: Orgasms do a body good.

Speaking of body parts that are kept under wraps, did you know that massaging your breasts on the reg offers serious benefits? And here’s what you need to know about what your vagina needs, cleaning-wise.