How CES is getting back on track with sexual innovation and diversity

The Consumer Technology Association acknowledged in May that it messed up when it rescinded a Consumer Electronics Show innovation award for Lora DiCarlo, a sex toy maker, and the trade association that sponsors the big trade show apologized. And today the CTA tried to make it right by revising its policy around sex technology.

The next CES in January 2020 will now include tech-based sexual products on a one-year trial basis as part of the Health & Wellness product category. Sex toy creators like Lisa DiCarlo, the sex toy maker that had its award rescinded and then returned, will be welcome as exhibitors. But the show was also careful to reinforce a strict dress code (no bare skin or body-conforming clothing that “hugs genitalia” can be worn), and porn companies won’t be allowed anymore at CES.

The policy change had a lot to do with the publicity around just a few companies that highlighted the inconsistency in the CTA’s rules. When Lisa DiCarlo first applied for its innovation award, it argued its sex toy, Osé, used micro-robotics to create a “biomimicry” effect which it argued is better than a vibrator for vaginal stimulation.

The Ose sex toy

Above: The Ose sex toy (earlier design)

Image Credit: Ose

At first, the CTA’s awards evaluators agreed. They gave the company an award and the right to exhibit on the show floor. But the higher-ups at the CTA nixed the award, perhaps because they were already getting flak for allegedly being biased against women. On the surface, that might have made sense. But Lora Haddock, CEO of Lora DiCarlo, didn’t let it go.

She argued that Lora DiCarlo was a female-friendly company with sex-positive views and real technology. She went public with her concerns about the CTA’s hypocrisy and inconsistent enforcement that hurt a positive company and allowed other not-so-female-friendly practices continue.

Sarah Brown, marketing director at Lora DiCarlo, told me in January, “I think a large part of it for us is just that this is a conversation, this issue with gender bias at CES and gender bias in tech, the hostility in general to women and, I suppose, non-male participants in tech and at CES. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for a long time, and as much as we keep hearing “We’re diversifying, there are so many women involved,” the reality is that every year we have another problem, another thing exposed. Last year and the year before that they had no women keynote speakers. This year they finally made it 50-50, which is great, but realistically — if all it is is cosmetic, this is a conversation that needs to keep going. The Innovation Award is just another example of that problem continuing.”

After the show, the CTA evaluated the show and found that this was an area that needed addressing, said Jamie Kaplan, senior director of global event communications at the CTA, in an interview with VentureBeat.

“The conversation around sex tech was definitely front and center,” Kaplan said. “We started having conversations both internally and externally about how to bring sex tech into the show. On the big picture side, what we’re trying to do is for the show to be welcoming and inclusive.”

The CTA consulted with the team at Lora DiCarlo to craft the proper policy.

Lora DiCarlo's company Ose had an award for a vibrator rescinded by CES.

Above: Lora Haddock, CEO of Lora DiCarlo, says CTA rescinded her company’s CES Innovation Award for a female-focused robotic sex toy.

Image Credit: Lora DiCarlo

Kaplan added, “One of the things about CES is that we’re always looking at how technology is evolving. How can we continue to keep the show relevant? Looking at the sex tech industry, we wondered how we could bring that into the show. And how could we do that in both a thoughtful and the right way? So it did take some time for the policies to come together.

A spokeswoman for Lora Dicarlo said, “We are pleased to hear of the partnership with Shelley & FQ, that CTA took our recommendations for inclusion and language updates that we drafted, and support this move in the right direction. We are excited to share that Lora DiCarlo will be on the show floor at CES 2020 in the Health & Wellness area that will now include sex tech. We’re optimistic that this is a step in the right direction.”

Naughty America's AR strippers.

Above: Naughty America’s AR strippers.

Image Credit: Naughty America

Now the inconsistencies that Lora Haddock found are being addressed. CES banned porn companies from the show in 2001, leading to the creation of the independent show, the Adult Entertainment Expo. While the porn industry got its own show, the sex-positive makers of the Ose and others didn’t have a place to go at CES.

A few that demonstrated innovation, such as the mobile app-controlled sex toys of OhMiBod, were allowed on the show floor. Lora DiCarlo wondered why OhMiBod was allowed on the show floor, but Lora Dicarlo wasn’t. Now the new policy means that both can be on the show floor.

Suki Dunham, founder of OhMiBod, said in a statement, “We couldn’t be more pleased by CTA’s commitment to showcasing top-notch tech in the sexual wellness product category at CES 2020. CTA’s announcement outlining their new partnerships, programming, and policies of inclusivity and equality acknowledges that the playing field is not always level, but that they are dedicated to being an agent for change. OhMiBod has been committed to bringing tech-enabled, sex-positive, and inclusive products to the market since our inception. This will be OhMiBod’s 10th year exhibiting at CES and we are looking forward to showcasing our latest innovations.”

Above: OhMiBod makes app-controlled sex toys.

Image Credit: OhMiBod

But one exhibitor at CES 2019 lost out in the new policy. The CTA’s new policy stated, “In addition, the existing CES ban on pornography will be strictly enforced with no exceptions for CES 2020.” That’s a step back for Naughty America, which has been exhibiting at CES in a side room buried deep in the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center for a couple of years.

The porn company touts its innovations such as virtual reality porn and “augmented reality strippers in your room.” Naughty America’s CEO Andreas Hronopoulos showed off the AR tech at the most recent show that the company fully embraced technology and innovation. He said that sex had always driven technology forward. Naughty America managed to get into the show by using a room, not a full exhibit.

But now it looks like Naughty America will have to settle for the Adult Entertainment Expo. The company hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment. But Kaplan at the CTA said the new rules allow no exceptions and so Naughty America will not be allowed on the show floor.

“I think what has happened over the years is that there’s been inconsistencies with the policies, and then there’s an exception based on technology innovations, and moving forward, and there will be no exceptions,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said that the larger diversity issues are being tackled as well. The Female Quotient (The FQ) will be the official Equality Partner for CES 2020. CTA will work with Shelley Zalis and her team to advance gender equality. The FQ Lounge will be an official part of CES, that will serve as “the unplugged space for panel conversations to advance equality.”

The CTA also awarded the first grants for its $10 million diversity fund to Harlem Capital Partners and SoGal Ventures, which both invest in startups created by women, people of color, and other underrepresented entrepreneurs.

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