We’re proud of our work, so we submitted it to this year’s CES technology show for an Innovation Award in the show’s robotics and drones category. What happened next, though, demonstrates the gendered double standards that still dominates the tech world, especially when it involves women and queer folks’ sexuality. Apparently, in Silicon Valley, there is something different, something threatening, about a product created by women and gender-nonconforming folks to empower people with vaginas. That doesn’t just affect our product; it affects the technology everyone uses.
Last October, CES notified us that Osé had been selected as an honoree. A panel of independent expert judges in robotics had scored Osé highly across all criteria. They saw a product that pushes the limits of engineering and design and opens the door to even bigger leaps in innovation, beyond the uses confined to sex tech.
The award didn’t surprise us: Our product was designed in partnership with a top public university robotics engineering laboratory (Oregon State University has the fourth-ranked robotics lab in the United States, according to Grad School Hub). Osé is the subject of eight patent applications (so far) for robotics, biomimetic tech and engineering design. Our engineering team includes technical director Lola Vars, a doctoral student at OSU in mechanical engineering with expertise in material science, chemistry and anatomy; senior mechatronics engineer Ada-Rhodes Short, an OSU PhD graduate specializing in artificial intelligence and robotics; and four other electrical, mechanical and mechatronics engineers.
Our team rejoiced and celebrated. We asked CES how to secure the showcase space granted to every award honoree and reserve a booth on the exhibitor floor for the show, which took place in Las Vegas last week. We wanted to position ourselves as open and welcoming to all people but also ensure that our branding, marketing and product displays didn’t alienate anyone who might happen to walk by. Everything we do at Lora DiCarlo is rooted in sex positivity and inclusion. We don’t hide what we do, and we firmly believe that women and nonbinary, gender-nonconforming and LGBTQIA folks should be vocally claiming our space in pleasure and technology — both of which are still heavily dominated by male executives. We also believe that society needs to drop the taboo around sex and sexuality: It’s a part of life and health that absolutely should be part of mainstream discourse. No shaming, no embarrassment, just the comfort and freedom to be yourself and enjoy your own body.
Organizers sent back an email saying they had a “very strict policy that forbids ‘Adult’ companies from exhibiting on the show floor.” A few days after that, we received an email claiming that our inquiry had “spurred a larger conversation” within the organization that runs and owns CES, the Consumer Technology Association. Our application for the award was being removed — even though the award had already been granted — because the CTA reserved “sole discretion” to decide what entries were “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image.” We were outraged and insulted. We wrote back, expressing our disappointment that the CTA was taking such a narrow view of innovation and citing other pleasure-tech devices that had won CES Innovation Awards.
So the organizers took a new tack. The president of CTA, Gary Shapiro, wrote to us stating that there had been a “misunderstanding” and that our product was “ineligible for entry” in the robotics category and, further, that it “does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted” for the awards entry in the first place. And on top of that, Lora DiCarlo was barred from even exhibiting at CES. This was a huge blow to a young company that was in the midst of raising funding for our operations and product debut.
Since receiving notice that we’d won our award, we had been working to finalize an investment of $1.1 million for manufacturing ramp-up and product launch — thanks in part to the added clout of winning a CES Innovation Award. Going back to our investors and explaining that the award had been revoked could have been disastrous. Luckily, our investors clearly recognized the market potential of our cutting-edge technology and support an open conversation about sexual health for women and nonbinary individuals. They stand proudly beside us, from our tech and our business plan to our radically inclusive company culture.
(Asked for comment by The Washington Post, CTA sent a statement that “the product referenced does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program. CES does not have a category for sex toys. CTA had communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo nearly two months ago and we have apologized to them for our mistake.”)
This would never have happened to a product from the boys’ club in the tech world. CES could not cite any other example of an award being revoked after its independent experts had bestowed it.
Obviously, the shifting rationales for barring Lora DiCarlo from CES were just a pretext. CES has no problem allowing explicit pornographic products for men; a virtual-reality pornography company exhibits there every year, allowing the largely male attendees to take a pornography break as they stroll through the massive show. A robotic sex doll for men debuted at CES last year.
By excluding female-focused sex tech, CES and CTA are essentially saying that sexuality and health that isn’t cis-male-centric is not worthy of innovation. These biases smother innovation by blocking access to funding, exposure, and technology transfer and development to other industries, as well as consumers that could take brands and products to the next level. Companies founded by women and female-facing entrepreneurs in all industries find it far more difficult to secure venture capital than do similar male-oriented companies — they receive only 2 percent of all VC funding.
Incidents like this also cement the hidden biases in technology itself, such as the “artificial intelligence” algorithm that leaned toward picking male candidates for jobs. Diverse perspectives are essential to developing the best and most innovative technologies, and to move society and the economy forward. It is also more profitable to include women, people of color, and gender-nonconforming and LGBTQIA people at every level of an organization (including trade show exhibitors).
You never know how new technology will ultimately be used — the future of health care might well be in the patent for a sex toy. But if CES is so intent on keeping women and sex tech out, we’ll never find out.