In 2014, Dame Products launched its first product, Eva—a handsfree vibrator to be worn during penetrative sex—and raised $575,000 on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. Not only did the company beat its own goal 17 times over, but it set a fundraising record for a sex toy company on the platform. Two years later, Dame launched its second product, Fin, which also surpassed the targeted funding goal, becoming the first sex toy to be funded on Kickstarter. When its ad campaigns were deemed too sexual, banned by the MTA (in a space where erectile dysfunction medicine and breast augmentation clinics have been advertised), they sued.
The last five years have undoubtedly been busy for Dame’s co-founder, Alexandra Fine, but honestly, she is just getting started. Breaking records while challenging culturally-engrained stereotypes are just steps towards her ultimate goal: closing the gendered pleasure gap, for good.
What was the initial vision behind your company?
We started the company about five years ago. I had just received my masters and was working in a small consumer goods shop, learning a lot about how business works. I have always loved entrepreneurship and started brainstorming ideas. Most were around creating a dating app or making sex toys—something I was very passionate about.
It was clear to me how many people were using sex items, yet at the same time, I was noticing that as a young woman in my 20s, living in an urban area, there wasn’t really a brand that was educating or speaking to me in any way. There was the low-end stuff that had porn stars on the cover and higher-end brands that were very shiny and didn’t feel authentic to my experience.
The first product was Eva, a hand-shaped, rolled vibrator which can be worn during penetrative sex. There had been a research study which found that the vast majority of women don’t find penetrative sex to be their most reliable route to reach orgasm, meaning that clitoral stimulation is often the key to unleashing true female sexual enjoyment, so I wanted to create something that would allow women to feel that kind of stimulation during [penetrative] sex. It was around that time that I was introduced to Jenna, my co-founder. It’s so hard to find a female mechanical engineer (let alone one who was going to quit her job and commit to something like this), but she was already interested in this space and exploring starting her own company. She had eight years of consumer manufacturing experience and was able to make something real out of this prototype I had been working on.
We raised $575,000 in 45 days through a crowdfunding platform. It’s really amazing; you couldn’t start a business that way 15 years ago. I would have had to walk into a room and convince a bunch of men of my crazy vibrator idea.
"Clitoral stimulation is often the key to unleashing true female sexual enjoyment, so I wanted to create something that would allow women to feel that kind of stimulation during [penetrative] sex."
Have you seen any trends in who your early adopters and initial investors were, as opposed to who your audience is now?
The early adopters were roughly 50% women and 50% men, which I think comes down to the platform we used—a lot of crowdfunding platforms have a big male audience. Today, our purchasers are still 30 percent men. Ultimately, we make tools for both self-pleasure and interpersonal pleasure.
There’s definitely a cohort of men who are like, “Yeah, I would never need that product,” but there’s this other cohort of men (and when I say men, I mean heterosexual men) who get a lot of joy from seeing their partner enjoy sex. I think women are raised with so much sexual hang up—men too, but women much more so—and this is a fantastic tool to help you connect.
You’ve encountered challenges in advertising Dame on certain platforms, such as Facebook and on the New York City subway, whilst male-oriented brands, like Viagra, haven’t seen the same pushback. Is this an assault on female pleasure?
The assault on sexuality has been there for a long time. There’s sexual liberation and new ways we’re speaking about sex, but it’s about chipping away the puritanical ways we think about it. We’ve had an easier job doing that for men, and women are just catching up.
I might get shot for saying this, but I actually think Viagra and the patriarchal capitalist forces behind getting it to be viewed as a valid, medical, pharmaceutical drug also helped push forward birth control in certain ways. So something like Facebook advertising Viagra, it’s because it’s traditionally been considered advocating for a medical issue (a functioning penis is a medical necessity for making babies, as if all the people taking viagra are trying to make babies), but sexual pleasure isn’t necessarily a part of that. That’s not how they would phrase it, but I think that’s ultimately what’s happening. I understand why the policies exist, but it’s more nuanced. We’re the type of brand that Facebook should want to support and work with.
"The early adopters were roughly 50% women and 50% men... Today, our purchasers are still 30% men."
What is the biggest misconception about you or your industry? What are some surprising industry trends you’ve noticed?
I think the most common misconception about me, or anyone that’s sex-positive in their work, is that we’re having crazy sex all the time.
Going back to trends, I think the fact men also purchase these products surprises people; it says something interesting about our culture. We also sell really well to people over 65, which a lot of people are really surprised by. People assume we’re a millennial brand, but no, we’re millennial founders. We have a millennial purpose, but the product is ubiquitous. Everyone is seeking pleasure.
What has the experience of founding this company been like for you? How has it differed from what you anticipated?
Starting your own business is one of the fastest ways to hold yourself accountable for your actions, and the impact of your actions on other people. It is such a powerful way to grow, if you’re willing to listen, because you’re constantly being tested. You have to face intense truths about yourself, which is very powerful.
To that end, when first building this company, I was really only thinking about trying to make the world better by helping my customers. But I completely undervalued how important making an office environment and your community and company culture is, which is just a different—but arguably equally important—way you can improve the world. First you have an idea and it’s all about emitting that to customers, and then as you grow, you realize that the most important community is the company’s community.
What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of suing the MTA, and I’m really proud of getting Kickstarter to change their policy. I wanted to start a company that would shape the world in some way, and it turned out that for us, activism, in terms of legal activism or political activism, has become part of the process and led to longer-lasting impact. Getting Kickstarter to change its policies is kind of like an analogy to changing cultural understandings of sex.
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What productivity tool would you be lost without?
Asana and Google Calendar.
How do you invest in yourself? How do you invest in women around you?
I invest in myself by making time to work out and hang out with friends. I also invest in myself by having executive coaching, which is like having a therapist but a little more business-focused. It helps having an outside person checking in on you, not only to hold you accountable, but also to support you and tell you that you’re doing a good job, worked really hard, and you’re allowed to stop working. Just having somebody who’s looking out for the company’s best interest, but also yours, can be really great.
As for investing in women around me, it’s about planning smart partnerships that are women-focused. I also hire a lot of women.
What do you think is next for sex-tech?
We’re just at the beginning of the current wave. On the one hand, it feels like there’s so much more female expression, but on the other hand, not all U.S. states mandate regular sexual education. So in certain ways it feels like we’re making progress, but if you’re thinking about education and the long-term impact, we’re not there yet. It’s not so much about female sexual exploration or honesty, but about believing that sex feeling good isn’t bad. For some people—whether it’s due to religion or what be it—there’s an idea that sex and pleasure is a bad thing. It’s one of our cross-generational, cast down things, and we just don’t talk about it. Hopefully Dame is helping to change that.
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