TOA Podcast Studio: Designing for pleasure w/Lora DiCarlo
Lora Haddock is the first to admit that most students don’t graduate high school or college with the ambition to become CEO of a sex toy company. But the Oregon-based company she founded, Lora DiCarlo, is now at the forefront in the fight for both female pleasure and gender quality in tech.
As part of our TOA Podcast Studio series recorded at the Tech Open Air 2019 conference, Lora chatted about the road that brought her here, and the ways that taking a stance can put companies in a position of power.
Making space for female pleasure
Haddock sought out to design something new that would solve a few distinct problems with existing products in the category: It would need to feel like a human partner, be hands-free, and have a flexible size range to fit multiple body types.
To satisfy that quest, Haddock needed data about the g-spot and clitoris — which she quickly realized was absent in the existing research on anatomy and physiology. So she started asking the people around her. And the blushes and embarrassment some people expressed at her questions indicates a broader problem, she said.
“We’ve also demonized female sexuality for so long,” Haddock said. “Women are afraid to touch themselves and figure out if it does feel good or not.”
To create the necessary data, Haddock developed a survey that she distributed online. Based on more than 200 data points that came in, including where the most sensitive spots were for different people, she was able to discern a few trends. “And when you see a trend in data, then you can actually start designing something that can be engineered,” she says.
And that’s what she did. She then recruited Oregon State University professor John Parmigiani, director of the university’s Prototype Development Laboratory, to jump on board with engineering and product development. Although he too blanched at first when she talked pointedly about her amazing orgasm, he took notice when Haddock handed him a document of 52 engineering requirements she saw in a potential device that could recreate that.
“We created an industry-funded research program in partnership with Oregon State University,” she said. “And, six months later, we had a bunch of students, PhDs, and professors working on the project, and we had prototypes.”
Sex tech hypocrisy at CES
The product that emerged, Osé, uses a process called biomimicry to recreate human motion. The biomimicry can stimulate all 12 different vaginal erogenous zones, and unlike most standard vibrators, it doesn’t use vibration. After Lora tried many devices in her research process and found that they didn’t always fit, she focused on rectifying that with Osé — and the product does fit to various sizes.
The company applied for the innovation in robotics and drones award category at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. It won, which Haddock thought signified a turning point for not just female-created tech, but also sexual well-being.
Fast forward a month, and the Consumer Technology Association, which oversees the event, revoked the award. The CTA rationale was that it didn’t realize Lora DiCarlo was designing these kinds of products, which it found “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane, or not in keeping with CTA’s image.”
That response was nothing short of hypocritical, Haddock said. “There had been VR porn that was geared toward males there on the floor,” she noted. “There was even a robot that looked like a female, had boobs and a face and could talk — and it would do sexual favors for you.”
It seemed the dis-inclusion of a female-focused product was just another item on a list of gender issues in tech, not to mention other industries, Haddock said. She penned an open letter published on PR Newswire highlighting this obvious double-standard, arbitrariness, and bias when male-focused sexual pleasure items received no such blowback. She also pointed out CES had no female keynote speakers in 2017 or 2018.
Taking a stand
The controversy became a social media maelstrom, with public opinion decidedly on Haddock’s side. In May, the CTA returned the innovation award to Lora DiCarlo, and admitted it “did not handle this award properly,” and was having “important conversations” on the show’s policies around sex tech as a result of the controversy. CES recently announced that sex toys are eligible for awards and inclusion in the exhibit showcase at next year’s CES.
“Our product was considered immoral or obscene. And the public didn’t react very well to that,” she said. “We actually, we ended up with this crazy rally cry of support internationally.”
And it wasn’t just because the public disagreed that Osé was immoral or obscene, but also that she spoke up about it, Haddock said. “I think that we are in a position now in society where being an activist, where taking a stand for what you believe in is actually — it’s trending,” she says. “Most consumers are making their decision whether or not to buy…based on whether you are a socially responsible company. Based on whether your platform is agreement with the, you know what they want to see happen in the world.”
Rather than feeling afraid she’s alienating VCs, which she admits crosses her mind, Haddock believes her vocalization has actually brought out the investors right for her company. “We found people that wanted those same things, and they saw the profitability in that, and they wanted to see the same kind of changes that we do,” she said.
Haddock knew creating a sex toy could help educate people and help them feel empowered to discover their bodies better. But she didn’t anticipate it would help create the space to help advocate for gender equity on a broader level. It’s made Lora DiCarlo much more mission-driven, she said.
“We have a large following already,” she says, “and I think it’s not just about the tech, it’s about making a statement.”
Stay tuned for each new episode of the TOA Podcast Studio series on the What’s NEXT podcast feed. Co-hosted by TOA and Samsung NEXT, these sessions brought together a dozen of today’s leading minds in technology to share the human stories behind their innovations. To hear more, subscribe to What’s NEXT on Apple Podcasts, Google Play,Spotify, or via RSS on your podcast app of choice.