Welcome to the Pleasure Revolution

Photo: Dame
“The sexual conversation is expanding. The weirder your fantasies, the more open you are about it, the cooler you are,” said Phoebe Waller-Bridge during her Saturday Night Live monologue in October—and she has evidence to back up her claim. Waller-Bridge’s unapologetically sexually driven and feminist TV series Fleabag snagged four 2019 Emmy wins, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series. The runaway success of Fleabag indicates a cultural shift that’s not only destigmatizing but awarding conversations focused on women’s pleasure and desire. This entertainment-industry proof, combined with rising rates of porn consumption and sex-toy purchases among women, and increased funding for companies innovating the female-focused sexual-wellness space, makes one reality abundantly clear: We’re on the cusp of a pleasure revolution.

Fleabag is far from the only pop-culture window we have into this more inclusive view of sex. In the past year, HBO premiered two sex-positive shows that depicted desire at different points on the age spectrum: Mrs. Fletcher (based on Tom Perrota’s 2017 novel), follows a middle-aged empty-nester navigating her sexual awakening, while Euphoria focuses on a group of high-schoolers discovering their nuanced sexual identities. While fictional, these examples are certainly inspired by real-life interest that spans demographics and ages—and they’re furthering increased openness in our conversations and habits. Lisa Taddeo's much talked about non-fiction book Three Women, which documents the vastly different desires of three women over the span of eight years, is further evidence that we want to have real conversations about sex and pleasure.

In the past decade, the internet has also given people more freedom to explore ideas and desires that were once considered “fringe” or “deviant.” This has led to a rise in feminist-leaning porn sites—like Pink Label TV (launched in 2012), XConfessions (launched in 2013), and Bellesa (launched in 2017)—and the number of women using them. Consider the Erika Lust Store as a case study for shifting gender demographics. When Erika Lust, the Swedish erotic filmmaker behind XConfessions, launched her online erotic-movie retail platform in 2010, 74 percent of first-time buyers were male and 26 percent were female. In 2019, the split was 45 percent male, 55 percent female.

“#MeToo kind of blew the lid off Pandora’s box for women. The result from demanding to be heard has parlayed into questioning the self and what we really want." —Lila Darville, sex expert

While we can thank the internet for democratizing pleasure-seeking over the past 10 years, the internet isn’t new. So why is right now, specifically, a time when women and all vulva owners are getting more comfortable with the idea of pursuing what they want—sexually and otherwise? A big propeller of this interest was the #MeToo movement, which mobilized marginalized groups to speak up in all channels of life, including the human right to not just have sex, but also experience pleasure. “#MeToo kind of blew the lid off Pandora’s box for women,” says sex expert and Well+Good Council member Lila Darville. “The result from demanding to be heard has parlayed into questioning the self and what we really want. I definitely see this in the women that I work with; there is more willingness to notice what we are genuinely feeling. What is acceptable is absolutely shifting. Judgments are lessening.”

It's great that the desire for satisfying, well, desire is there—but for a long time, lack of funding for female-focused sex-related products prevented their development and, in turn, consumer access. But investors now want in on the sextech market. One projection notes that femtech has a market potential of $50 billion by 2025 (having collectively raised an estimated $241 million in 2019 in venture capital funding). Sextech is a piece of that pie, and there’s money going around.

Earlier this year, erotic story-telling app Dipsea raised $5.5 million in seed funding. Polly Rodriguez says Unbound, her sextech company focusing on education and pleasure products, has raised a total $3.5 million since launching in 2014, $250,000 of which came through in 2019, a time when Rodriguez says she wasn’t actively raising. Pleasure-product company Dame created the first vibrator to be allowed on Kickstarter, and raised $400,000 on the crowd-funding platform in 2016, says CEO and co-founder Alexandra Fine. (She adds that Dame has also received $1 million in funding from angel investors.) Sex education platform O.School, meanwhile, raised over $1 million in 2017 and is currently raising more. And Lauren Bille, co-founder of Allbodies, an informative online destination for all things related to sexual health, has raised almost $450,000 in angel investments and is currently working to raise $2 million in venture capital by end of year.

It’s not just VCs who want to talk about sex. In 2018, Dame launched Dame Labs, a community platform with thousands of members who contribute to the brand’s research and development process by responding to surveys, testing prototypes, and participating in a private Facebook group to discuss sexuality and pleasure. Dame Labs has grown by 21 percent in 2019 (so far), but that doesn’t surprise Fine one bit. “We've always viewed the conversation around sex as integral to creating valuable solutions [to help address people’s questions], and the only way to have that conversation is via community,” she says.

So, with all of this investment and interest, what’s the forecast for 2020? On the product front, you can certainly expect more launches from Dame, Fine says. Considering that market research forecasts the global sex toy market will be worth $35 billion by 2023, up from $23.7 billion in 2017, it seems Dame will be in good company. “When we first started, we were one of few companies making sex toys led by people with vulvas,” she says. “We’re being joined by so many women and nonbinary folks looking to disrupt sex tech. Not only is this raising the standard for the toys and products we see on the market, but also shifting the conversation to a less cis-male centric view on sex.” Rodriguez agrees that leveling the gendered playing field is crucial for creating lasting change in the pleasure sphere. “We're seeing more female founders in the traditionally male-dominated adult industry,” she says. “We're building the products we want to see—and use!—in the world.”

Bille agrees that the number of voices communicating about the pursuit of pleasure is promising, which is one reason Allbodies is launching sexual-health classes online (led by practitioners) for $25 per session. The first iteration, which focused on orgasms, took place in November, and the series will resume in January with classes set to occur once or twice a week; future topics will include hormones, pleasure after trauma, and masturbation. “There’s curiosity, and there’s extra curiosity when [these topics are] removed from shame,” says Bille, who notes the Allbodies audience is particularly engaged with and curious about content regarding anal pleasure. “Pleasure is ours to investigate and nurture and train without shame, any way we can do it.”

But wait, there's more! Click here to read the rest of our 2020 Wellness Trends predictions.

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