RMIT academic Judith Glover discusses the problems facing future sex toy designers.
Over the last decade, sex tech has been on an upswing despite the declining profitability of traditional pornography. The industry has grown larger than ever, with increasing mainstream visibility and experts estimating the global market for sex toys to be worth roughly $15 billion.
But is the sex tech industry prepared to grapple with the changing needs of an evolving market?
While the consumer demand for sex toys is greater than ever, many customers are being left dissatisfied with low-quality materials and uninspired design.
Dr. Judith Glover holds one of the world’s only PhDs in sex toy design, with a doctoral focus on industrial design methods and their relationship to the wider sex toy industry. Over the last several decades she’s noticed some troubling trends emerge.
One of the biggest issues is the lack of actual designers being involved in the commercial process, along with the industry’s failure to adopt a UCD based approach to products and services.
“At the moment I see the same poorly designed products and services with just more tech bells and whistles. More tech or a more complicated product doesn’t make it better,” Glover said.
“The industry has not addressed the lack of good product design fundamentals, and adding layers of new technology is not going to help what is fundamentally a flawed design process. And when I say design, most companies don’t even follow what could be considered to be a design process.”
“The sex toy industry is barely able to deliver a half-decent safe dildo or vibrator using technology that has been available since the 1970s. And this is simply because most producers don’t have a design process that understands who their customers are and how to get that information and feed it into the process.”
According to Glover, this is an instance of too much innovation. It’s an application in search of a new problem or an untapped market.
Instead, she says, what’s needed is an approach that begins by delineating what the basic problem or desire that needs addressing is.
Breaking the boys’ club mentality
Aside from an approach which favours novelty over ergonomic design, another issue lies in an industry-wide gender imbalance, which has resulted in a glaring blind-spot to its own systemic misogyny. This is leading to an ongoing negative feedback loop, where the same sexist ideas are continually replicated over decades without ever involving women in the design process.
“You have a significant issue that most sex toy production comes out of the Adult Industry, and they have some very outdated, narrow, and in some cases misogynistic views on females. Now, I’m not anti-porn—I don’t believe in censorship—the Adult Industry has the right to make products—and let’s face it nobody else has much wanted to jump into the market.”
“What’s needed is competition, and those small number of design-led companies that have jumped into the market over the last decade have been central to raising the standards of production off a very low base. A little bit of competition goes along way,” she said.
With the Female Economy currently representing the biggest market in the world, and women statistically outspending men, Glover believes that by failing to adapt, the sex tech industry is missing out on a golden opportunity.
“There is a social side to innovation as much as a technological side and they go hand in hand. So are we just perpetuating the same issues that have been going on for decades about men developing their version of technology for women without involving women in the process?”
“I would suggest to any male tech entrepreneur who wants to be successful in this field that you have to involve women designers and techies in the development of your products and services and develop ways of involving your female customers and creating feedback loops,” Glover said.
“It wasn’t and hasn’t been part of their culture to accept those social changes as it goes against one their main paradigms which is that white men dominate everybody else. So there as enormous opportunities in sex toys and sex tech if you understand this market and its segments and stop designing like you are teenage boys and grow up a bit.”
One area of consumers that Glover feels are greatly underserviced is the women over-50 demographic. Despite their growing economic influence, the sex tech industry has still largely continued to maintain an archaic indifference to female customers.
As a result, the current market is flooded with products which are both poorly-made and under-advertised.
“The biggest market opportunities reside in the women’s over 50s market. That’s where all the money is and that’s where the population growth is going,” she said.
“Who is designing specifically for that? Nobody really yet. And if you think your ideal customer is a woman in her 20s who likes to dress like a stripper then you’re probably going to blow your venture capital.”
Designing for the future
With society gradually becoming more comfortable with expressions of sexuality, it seems likely that sex tech will continue to enjoy an increased visibility in the popular culture. Over time, Glover predicts that this will translate into a significant growth for the industry itself; if it can remedy some of its more problematic commercial practices.
“The majority of the population in the West have fairly relaxed attitudes towards sexuality and sexual freedoms. So the opportunities are enormous for products and services. But none of this will become remotely mainstream unless we develop good quality products and services that respect all our types of customers, men and women, of many different age demographics,” she said.
“Unless they want to get more realistic about contemporary women, then the majority of production and development has to move out of the Adult Industry.”
This is the result of a problem which has been identified as one of the most significant issues that tend to plague expanding industries. A low rate of female employees and the lack of diversity in age groups is leading to a noticeable lack of innovation, at all levels of development.
This is precisely because, as Glover argues, the process of innovation has always had a socio-cultural aspect to it.
“Whatever part of the development process you are coming from–designer, engineer, IT, service design, applications, and software—develop a methodology for your company that allows for understanding your customers’ needs and desires and have diverse teams of people.”
“It’s not just about the technology itself. And your customers are not necessarily other young white techie boys,” she said.
As sex tech continues its gradual march towards the mainstream, the sex tech industry will find itself grappling with a need to evolve if it wishes to keep up with a changing market. And although it’s still unclear if developers will be able to address the discriminatory practices which are handicapping innovation, at this point, it seems clear that the future belongs to women.
Image source: Morderska