Everyone enjoys sex—or could, if they had access to the right products and solutions. Most SexTech is designed with able-bodied consumers in mind, which begs the question: What about the disabled market? We spoke to leaders at three prominent adult product companies to examine the state of SexTech in terms of accessibility and meeting the needs of those with disabilities. Andrew Gurza, Chief ...
The SexTech industry is a vibrant, rapidly-evolving field that invites creativity and innovation. The pursuit of Sexual Wellness through science and tech seeks to propel us into a future that’s more inclusive, knowledgeable, and pleasurable.
Healthy Pleasure Group (HPG) is one entity that seeks to empower with education. As the only integrated agency dedicated to Sexual Health Technology startups, that’s just one facet of HPG’s overall mission—one that was so intriguing and exciting, that I had to sit down and discuss it with CEO and Co-Founder Dominnique Karetsos.
SexTech Magazine: What inspired you to get involved in SexTech?
Dominnique Karetsos: Like most of our startup founders, it’s a personal story. Eight years ago, I had just become a mum. I didn’t have much support. I had questions and nobody to answer them. Why did I have to buy tampons, why couldn’t I have a menstrual cup? Why did I have to go buy condoms if I didn’t want to fall pregnant again? The whole process of life and pleasure just got vacuumed away when I became a mum. So I left the cosmetics industry and went to work for Lelo’s intimate care brand. I learned the landscape as head of Europe/Middle East/India as a brand architect. It was so polarized—there was porn and family planning, with nothing in between.
It was a personal crusade for me, and I have a daughter. I wanted things to be different for her. I want a world where pleasure becomes the equilibrium for all humans. That may sound ethereal to some—but when you’re empowered through your own self-efficacy and pleasure, you become your own social motor and economic motor of change. If, as a woman, we have the confidence to ask for what we want in the bedroom—we have the confidence to go for that job, to ask for a raise, to go after careers in STEM, engineering. That catapult starts inwards, with pleasure. It starts with knowing your body and appreciating what it can provide you.
STM: Can you describe who would be an ideal client for Healthy Pleasure Group?
DK: Healthy Pleasure Group has the Agency, the Lab and the School. The Agency can take you from idea through development and branding right through to market. Great for startups, PR, business development. Ideal clients might also be an established business that wants to branch out and diversify their branding. For example, adding a smaller marketable product to an existing line such as an intimate wipe. It’s a small change that adds value, innovates, and keeps shoppers coming back.
For the School, I have a Southeast Asian brand that is all about content. They want to create master classes about learning about pleasure without penetrative sex. They asked us to create a masterclass with an eBook, so we have an eBook coming out called ‘Erectile Dysfunction: It’s a Woman’s Issue.’ That was developed by Dr. Maria, our founding partner.
We find that many clients aren’t startups, but established health brands. Any product, solution, health, or tech that services humans between their belly button and their knees—they come to us.
STM: That leads me to ask, does it lessen the taboo of adult products when you’re working with more mainstream brands? I know a lot of SexTech startups have trouble finding companies and services that will partner with them—advertisers in particular.
DK: It does help in a few elements. It’s more digestible for press to be able to write about. It helps in that you have an opportunity to reshape the language, and reshape how we can approach pleasure in our lives. The average person doesn’t learn the innate value pleasure has in our lives—physically, biologically, or in terms of emotional and mental health. When we talk about products, we can have a broader narrative and educate consumers and press, and bring that information into the mainstream.
When you position SexTech with the value that it brings, it becomes more digestible. FemTasy for example, is body positive but not risqué. Five years ago, I couldn’t have had this conversation with a buyer from Walgreens. I tried. He put the phone down. Today, because we’re having these dialogues, people are much more receptive.
STM: You’ve mentioned having issues getting SexTech in stores. You’ve been escorted out of buildings, had phones slammed down. What’s the most shocking thing anyone has said to you?
DK: When I first started in the industry and tried to have a conversation with a buyer who was clearly mortified; I could feel him backing into the corner while a woman was trying to explain the importance of having a menstrual cup in the portfolio. I said the word ‘period,’ and the look on his face—I’ll never forget it. He was young, and new to the category, but just was not willing to take part in the conversation.
People have been rude, not understanding boundaries, even sending dick pics. There are very few of us who can say we had a judgment-free sexual education. For us, the worst is when it is belittled and the value is mocked. Then the misogyny comes out—and not just from men. Misogyny can come from alpha females who feel this is culturally and socially taboo, and religiously wrong to bring sexual discussion outside the home.
If I had a dollar for everyone who said something and thought he was being clever and funny…a lack of respect for the industry is the hardest pill to swallow—and the one that keeps us going. We’re determined to change it.
STM: Would you say that attitudes toward SexTech vary by country and culture, in terms of accessibility and acceptance?
DK: Yes, that’s a great question. The honest answer is yes. In terms of sexuality, Emily Nagosky (Director of Wellness Education at Smith College) says ‘there are as many sexualities as there are humans.’ She’s very right. Our sexuality is engraved with a cultural and religious background, but it’s like a heartbeat that we choose not to acknowledge—but how we move through the world is very much dictated by our sexuality.
How we view our sexuality, communicate, engage, share, how we are receiving of others and their sexualities. So, it’s very much dependent on what country you’re from, how you’re raised, belief patterns—whether subliminal or overt, these beliefs set the benchmark for our tolerance, for how our intimate relationships develop.
STM: What advice would you give to a company that’s trying to mitigate that? Do you dramatically change your marketing from one demographic to another?
DK: That’s really our winning approach to taking products to market. In most instances, you find your value proposition as a brand and then sell that proposition to consumers. In our space, the proven way is to start with the customer—first adopter—and take the time to do research with them. They’ll let you know what your value is, how and where to communicate with them. For example, we have an incredible product coming out for the trans community. It’s not for the brand to dictate how the trans community wants to be communicated to. Ask the trans community. Do your homework and talk to your base about what they want. Do not dictate what you think people should know. Find a language that resonates with your customer first. Get the foundations right—start strong and grow fast.
STM: What would you say has been HPG’s biggest success so far?
DK: Being able to bring together such a powerful ecosystem, the only ecosystem where value is created across the entire system and that value is then transferred to any brand we work with. You may come to us for digital marketing, and we develop a strategy. But then the School creates content we know the audience wants to hear—it’s not just any content. It’s credible, vetted content that’s yours, whatever the topic might be.
That success comes from the hard work of proven experts. Every member of our company has either invented, developed, invested, succeeded, failed, or reshaped the SexTech industry in some way. We’re all very personally invested in SexTech.
Every time we succeed in getting a digital strategy past Google, Facebook and the rest, and getting a brand into the customer’s hand—for us that’s a huge win, honestly. Our digital director would be shaking her head right now—and even our digital director is the inventor of a hormone tracking health app for women.
We’ve also brought exciting, life-changing brands to market. A lot of SexTech items are for females, but MyHixel is a male wellness product—a therapeutic alternative to control climax and experience pleasure longer. A drug-free alternative for that is a big deal. STI testing and sharing apps have boomed in the wake of COVID, even though five years ago nobody would have wanted that. Because of COVID, people have a greater understanding of the need for preventative healthcare.
There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not pitching, strategizing, or helping a startup go to market.
STM: As far as the future of the industry, what is a good strategy for attracting new talent to SexTech?
DK: First of all, we need to be seen as a credible industry in order to attract great talent. When I left a successful career in my 30s, it was to move toward something new. Salaries aren’t as high because we’re mostly startups. I love the startup environment, but it’s not for everyone. There aren’t massive players in SexTech you can go work for.
When SexTech brands conduct themselves with credibility, seriousness and professionalism, they’ll attract great talent and skill sets. Be diverse, inclusive, check in with staffers on the team. Do we get to watch porn for work? Yes. Do we watch porn all day? No. We too have Excel spreadsheets and meetings and financial reports. We want to be the market leaders, and we are. But it’s one thing to get to the top and another to stay there.
You have to really build an opportunity for skill sets to come in and transfer those skills into our very challenging landscape. Our company ethos is ‘I want to employ anyone who can teach me something that I don’t know.’
STM: Before we wrap up, we should discuss COVID. We know that it’s been good for the industry, as sales of adult products are way up. What do see as the potential lasting effects of COVID?
DK: That goes back to what we were saying about preventable healthcare. COVID has lifted a veil on people understanding the idea behind verifying my health status, having my healthcare at my fingertips. That’s all part of the narrative—how do I verify that I’m healthy to travel, to kiss or hold hands. Before, you say ‘Safe’ and ‘Sex’ and you lose the audience. Now, we see the interdependence between self-care, preventable healthcare and good health. We see the value of Sexual Wellness as part of overall wellness, and in taking control over our bodies and our healthcare.
My sexuality and sexual health are very much parts of my daily healthy habits. It took a pandemic restricting movement outside our four walls just to be able to say, ‘Okay, it’s time to pay attention to sex care.’
STM: Is there anything else you want to share?
DK: SexTech will continue to infiltrate the touch points of our lives. We can already see SexTech are in the cosmetics, beauty and wellness sectors. VR has always been a topic, but it’s very male-oriented. Yet gamification is going to be a big trend—as entertainment, as therapeutic care, as learning, and even a tool for trauma. Using games as a platform to communicate information. I envisage that coming quite a bit more.
More health and patient-oriented brands will come into the consumer-facing brands. Fertility, STI, erection tracking—they’re all going to become more consumer-friendly.