The Future of Pleasure Tech is Colourful With smilemakers
we quiz smilemakers creative director, Cecile gausnault on the future of fem tech, the best buzzing products, and why there is still such a stigma around pleasure.
The Fem Tech industry is booming! What do you think has led to this exponential growth?
FemTech encompasses diverse areas of solution to address topic specific to female-bodied people. I think the reasons for the exponential growth are simply that 1) there was very little female-specific tech being developed before to address topics like fertility, menstruation menopause, sexual wellness, hormonal health, etc… and that 2) all these impact half of the world’s population. There is a gigantic potential for growth, it is basically going from zero to one.
There is still a stigma around female pleasure and sex toys. Why do you think this is?
There are obviously deep cultural roots to the stigma surrounding female pleasure. Female sexuality has long been perceived for its reproductive role, thus dismissing the pleasure part of it and, when it comes to pleasure, as an extension of male sexuality. It is hard to separate this from broader power structures that have favoured men over women.
What we want to do by normalising female pleasure is validating the fact that it exists on its own and that female bodied people should have full agency over their pleasure.
Smile Makers pride themselves on not only stocking the best pleasure enhancers, but on educating their community. Why is this education so important to the brand?
Many “traditional” vibrators were not designed to optimise pleasure based on scientific research on female anatomy. As we address many first-time users with our offering, we receive a lot of question regarding what type of vibrator to buy or how to use their vibrator. Therefore, we work with our retail partners and our own platform to make broadly available educational content and tools for people with vulvas to understand their pleasure better and find the best products for them to explore it. Two examples, include; our online sex education program on female pleasure, Vulva Talks + our How To Choose quiz, which helps consumers find the best fit for them among our collection – based on what THEY like.
All this ties back to our work of normalising the perception of female sexuality: we bring sex out in the open!
Smile Makers was the first pleasure brand to be stocked in Sephora. How does this feel? How has the attitude towards pleasure enhancing items changed since being stocked in physical stores?
It was an incredible achievement after year of talking with the teams there. Sephora is such a familiar name and a retailer that consistently seeks to take an innovative take on their category. Launching there and getting the support of their teams to start a conversation with their community has been incredibly important. We see that every social media post they do about Smile Makers and female pleasure outperforms high-profile beauty brands in terms of engagement. We recently expanded with them in Australia and New Zealand and most of our products sold out in just a few days. To me, this shows that consumers are really excited and happy to see their favourite beauty store champion female sexual wellness. It is validating, normalising and ultimately important to change how people with vulvas approach their sexual wellbeing.
It will take some time for it to become well-known that you can shop vibrators at beauty stores, and this, over time, will positively impact attitudes towards female sexuality.
A report came out after the pandemic that demonstrated people were more curious than ever about trying pleasure enhancing toys. Why do you think this is?
The topic of female sexual wellness had gained momentum during the mid 2010s, but an acceleration of sales during covid lockdown happened as more people than usual started buying pleasure toys
There was a lot of coverage on the rise in sales of vibrators, but what’s really interesting is to understand why that happened and what that says about sexual wellness.
Sexual wellness is linked to our overall wellbeing, fosters a positive relation to our body and creates moments of self-care or intimacy with one’s partner. There is a notion of comfort. People were simply finding ways to take care of their sexual wellness in a stressful context.
The spike in sales in a moment of a global health crisis validates the importance of sexual wellness for people, as something they prioritise to take care of themselves.
Smile Makers encouraged the US chain of Ulta Beauty to start their own category. How did it feel to see this implemented?
Very rewarding, it is very important for us to be able to bring the category in places that help normalise the topic of female pleasure. The increased introduction of femtech, sexual wellness and intimacy products within beauty retailers is also something positive to note, and we hope this continues amongst other relevant verticals too.
The Smile Makers range has expanded to include a whole family of rainbow coloured pleasure enhancers. Which is the most popular model and why do you think it is?
On our e-shop where we have a How To Choose quiz to guide shoppers to a personalised recommendation based on their pleasure preferences, the best-sellers are The Firefighter, a clitoral vibrator, and The Artist, a dual vibrator.
Interestingly, this changes when people do not have access to the quiz, which is often the case at our retail partners. There, the best-sellers are usually The Surfer, another clitoral vibrator, and The Billionaire, a versatile vibrator. Both have more classic shapes that people are already familiar with.
Smile Makers is stocked at revolve, Selfridges, Sephora, boots, cult beauty and feel unique. How does it feel to see the products in physical store?
It sends a very powerful message: a vibrator is a wellness product just like any other. It does not need to be hidden in specialty stores and can be made broadly available. By extension, this helps remove the taboo around female pleasure. This is why we have been focused on working with every day stores since we started Smile Makers in 2012.
In the US, it’s been reported that 69% (hehe) of women aged between 18-60 have used a vibrator. How does that statistic make you feel?
It shows that we are not talking about a super small segment of the market. That is 7 in 10 people with vulvas!
What can we do to convince the remaining 31% to get their buzz on?
Originally, we created the brand for vulva owners who had never owned a vibrator but were curious to try. To achieve that, we changed the design language of the category, made the products approachable with funny and relatable names that actually based on real fantasies, developed educational content to choose and use vibrators, took a very joyful approach to the topic of female pleasure to lift the stigma it was shrouded in and brought the products to everyday life stores.
How has the fem tech industry evolved from inception to today?
It has expanded and gradually includes more specialised solutions that address topics, issues, challenges that were simply not given attention to before. It is also producing new knowledge on female health.
Where do you think the future of pleasure enhancement and fem tech will take us?
If we look at the future of sexual wellness, the topic of technology for pleasure products comes to mind. I do believe that we are going to see very interesting developments for new sensorial experiences: new textures, new interfaces (VR, self-learning toys adjusting stimulation to the user’s preferences), more customisable experiences (connected devices, AI-enabled erotica adjusting the stories to what the reader likes…), and new stimulation technologies enabling precision movement, for example.
But in my opinion, this is not the most interesting or important aspect of the future of the industry when it comes to R&D. What I find interesting is that R&D in the sexual wellness industry is contributing to grow a better understanding of human sexuality.
Female sexuality has been structurally under researched. For example, both men and women can suffer from sexual dysfunction. Some men suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED), some women suffer from vaginismus, which is the involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina. Both make penetrative sex very difficult for those affected. The commonality of ED and vaginismus are comparable, but medical databases show that there are 20 times more studies on ED than vaginismus. There is a lack of understanding and knowledge to fill and as sexual wellness brands endeavour to better address various experiences of sex, they have a role to play to move things forward. At Smile Makers for example, we have recently partnered with UK’s leading website and resource for mothers, to gather consumer insights through an online focus group and quantitative survey – to better comprehend new mother’s perceptions of body image post birth and their experiences of resuming sexual activity. We used this research to develop a new toy for people who have recently given birth or with sensitive vulvas.