It’s Time to Talk about White Privilege in Sex Tech
Black femmes show the power of sharing collective experiences.
Sex toy retailer Wild Flower, based in New York, was hit with serious accusations of “manipulative and retaliatory” treatment against black femmes last month.
News of the controversy began to spread on social media on Aug.1. That's when six sex educators shared stories about their experiences with the shop in a Medium post widely shared and read by top voices in sex tech and sex blogging.
This post details very manipulative and retaliatory behavior against black women and femmes by well-known folks in the sex positive community, and these stories need to be heard and shared.— Rachael Rose @ #SDSCon19 (@hedonish) August 1, 2019
Please take the time to read and share it.https://t.co/dfB50iZDBV
To give context, Wild Flower is known for its “inclusive” view of sexuality and sex tech. The company released Enby, a gender-neutral sex toy resembling a stingray designed to accommodate all forms of genitalia. The founders developed the device after a friend underwent gender affirmation surgery and needed a whole new set of sex toys to adapt to their changing body.
Social media discussions of the Medium post have since died down. But the issue of white privilege lingers and is a topic the sex tech community needs to address if we want to be part of creating an inclusive future of sex.
Here we lay out an overview of what occurred. We do this with the hope that we can stimulate some reflection on pay equity, women of color entrepreneurs, and access to power. And then some action within the community regarding a better way forward.
The Medium article: the story of Ev’Yan
All six of the sex educators who spoke out against Wild Flower in the Medium article are femmes of color, and many of them had collaborated with the shop in the past.
According to Whitney, the article’s main writer, she was first approached by Wild Flower in 2018, when the small company invited her to a sex education event in Brooklyn. Amy Boyajian, Wild Flower’s CEO, arranged to pay for Whitney’s flight and to let her stay at her own house. In exchange, however, Whitney agreed to speak for free, since the sex toy company’s budget was limited.
The doula says that during her visit to New York Boyajian told her how that online competitor Unbound had been funded by the right-wing conservative Peter Thiels, a Trump supporter.
After that, Whitney said she started to share the news about Unbound’s financial backing to her friends and peers, in an effort to support Boyajian.
She writes in the article: “At the time, I had no reason to mistrust Amy, so I took them at their word.”
After this event, Whitney kept collaborating with Wild Flower with Instagram promotions, and special deals for her followers on social media and in her newsletter. She said she even helped when the company’s Instagram account was taken down by the popular social network in January 2019.
In addition, Whitney participated in a social media campaign for Wild Flower’s “Love Yourself” T-shirt and says the company only paid $75 for her efforts.
In return, the sex educator says the online sex shop only promoted her work twice. In the Medium article, she wonders if Wild Flower only considered her “a black face/body they could put on their Instagram to prove their intersectionality, diversity, and inclusiveness.”
Black femmes in the sexuality space stay being disrespected + targeted for bullshit. So when various colleagues stand up to say they’ve been harmed, I’m taking note + standing alongside them.— cameron @ sexdownsouth • she/her (@BlkGirlManifest) August 1, 2019
Enough is enough.
We’re sharing our stories.
Relationships break down
Jump to May 2019, when the sexuality doula went back to New York to attend an event about hypoactive sexual desire disorder with a big pharmaceutical company.
After she posted photos of her experience at the event on her Instagram stories, she claims that Nick Boyajian, co-founder and COO of Wild Flower, sent her a DM to warn her against working with the pharmaceutical company because, in his opinion, it was “ethically compromised.”
“What bothered me was that Nick’s message didn’t come off as concern,” she says in the article. “It was judgemental.”
Whitney claims that she was then “punished” by Wild Flower for not following their advice to stop working with the pharmaceutical company.
In July, Whitney attended another event in New York, one that Wild Flower had refused to sponsor.
Whitney had been invited as a speaker. However, she claims Wild Flower got her kicked off the panel after the sex shop wrote to event organizers saying it didn’t want to be associated with Whitney as well as the speaker Ashleigh Nicole Tribble, because they had allegedly collaborated with “ethically compromised” companies.
As a result, the women lost paying work and potential clients who may have seen them speak.
Now consider this in light of research showing black women in the United States are the most educated demographic, but lag behind white women and white men when it comes to pay equity and funding from venture capitalists.
On the other hand, Nick Boyajian, who was working at Google when the Medium post was published, was likely earning more than $130,000 a year, according to Glassdoor.
After speaking at length with Unbound CEO Polly Rodriguez, Whitney words show she came to a harsh realization about her experience with Wild Flower:
I have felt used, exploited, and manipulated by Wild Flower Sex. I feel that they used me as a pawn to help take down their competition with Unbound and did it in such a way where they would not have their hands dirtied. (And consequently, I have learned after a personal conversation with Polly and her team that much of what Amy relayed to me last year was absolutely false.) I feel that they used me as an object as a Black queer femme to give themselves clout and validate themselves as intersectional and inclusive.
This is a painful but also illuminating example of how white supremacist capitalism is working exactly as it was designed. PLEASE READ THESE ACCOUNTS. If all you read is my white lady analysis of them, you're valuing my voice over the voices of POC. https://t.co/H0OvWxzlcL— Tristan Taormino® (@TristanTaormino) August 3, 2019
The other sex educators’ relationships with Wild Flower
In the Medium article, almost all of the other sex educators involved, except Glover and Venus Cuffs, claim that Wild Flower warned them against working with Unbound.
In particular, the professional dominatrix Karmenife narrates that her collaboration with Unbound caused Wild Flower to decline sponsoring an event where she was going to speak, organized by Tribble and Venus Cuffs.
She recalls that when she first started following Wild Flower on Instagram, her relationship with the company was “amicable.” She claims that she used to recommend Wild Flower’s products to her followers out of respect for the company, but she never got paid for it.
She adds that her relationship with the sex toy company changed when she joined Unbound’s affiliate program and started to promote Wild Flower’s competitor on Instagram.
She claims that, after an exchange of direct messages, Wild Flower unfollowed her and “began talking to others about me and my relationship with Unbound in a disrespectful manner.”
All sex educators claim that they felt like the New York sex shop was asking them to spread the bad news about its competitor, and then got angry if they decided not to do it:
“Wildflowersex has a following but rather than speak how they feel on their page or website, they choose to funnel information about Unbound to black women and femmes like myself”, wrote Karmenife in the Medium article.
Also, Glover wrote in the Medium article: “What we don’t want is for this to be painted as an attack or takedown, or any other kind of weaponizing of Black womxn’s anger. Because we are so much more than our anger.”
The apology from the New York-based sex shop
View this post on Instagram
After Whitney’s article was published, Wild Flower posted an apology on Instagram and tried to make amends over email with all the black femmes involved. Later, on Aug. 12, the sex shop published a new article on Medium, as an official response to the outcry.
The Boyajians wrote:
We are still sorry that informing Welcome Home of Ev’Yan and Ashleigh’s corporate partnerships caused them any emotional distress. We were more focused on the economic policies of other companies in the industry than we were of Ev’Yan and Ashleigh’s personal struggles.
They claimed that they’ve received hundreds of hate messages after the black sex educators called them out and that they felt unsafe to the point of having to leave their own house. In addition, they said that the situation will likely impact the finances of other black femmes, who actively collaborate with their sex toy company.
Wild Flower has since deleted its Twitter and set its Instagram account to private.
White responsibility in sex tech
There is a lot to unpack in how this story unfolded.
While the black femmes and their stories received a lot of attention, Whitney detailed in an Instagram post that the experience left her “exhausted.”
She also asked her followers to keep pressing Wild Flower “to hold themselves accountable and ask them to do the necessary work to make sure that this never happens again.”
Often the phrase “white privilege” is used to highlight the power and access afforded to a person or group due to their skin color.
Privilege, by its nature, often goes unseen by the one benefiting, making the struggles of those without it harder as the toll of sticking up for oneself and educating others also takes away from daily work.
Perhaps a better term to start using, now that we've begun discussing white privilege, is white responsibility. Responsibility implies action and accountability, not simply reflecting on one's actions.
So white folks in sex tech, what can you/we do in your businesses to make them better, equitable, and diverse?
Image sources: Ev'Yan Whitney