CES allows sex tech on show floor for first time and this Seattle startup CEO wonders what took so long

From left to right: Pulse PR director Lizzie Braicks; CEO Amy Buckalter; and Marketing Director Jess Fleming at the company’s CES booth in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

LAS VEGAS — Health and wellness technology has long been a theme at CES. But there’s one notable addition this year: sex tech companies are allowed on the show floor for the first time ever.

The inclusion of high-tech vibrators, lube dispensers, and related products at the world’s largest tech show comes after controversy in 2019. CES organizers last year revoked an innovation award for Osé, a robotic massager developed in partnership with Oregon State University.

Backlash ensued as Lora DiCarlo, the Bend, Ore.-based startup behind Osé, protested the decision. Not only was the award reinstated, but the discussions led CES to include sex tech companies among thousands of other exhibitors this year on a trial basis.

Amy Buckalter wonders what took so long.

Pulse’s lube dispensers on display at the company’s CES booth in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Buckalter is CEO of Pulse, a Seattle startup that sells a motion-sensor lubricant warmer and dispenser. Pulse is among the sex tech companies showing off their products at CES 2020.

“Why did it take women founders pushing CES to allow an industry that’s become much more normalized in today’s health and wellness categories?” Buckalter told GeekWire today at the company’s booth.

“Everybody wants to have an intimate connection,” she continued. “For all of us that have developed devices or programs or a solution to enhance that and make it modern, enjoyable, and pleasurable to reduce pain, discomfort, and the feeling of disempowerment — why shouldn’t we be here?”

Buckalter and other sex tech executives are used to these types of barriers.

A prime example is trying to advertise on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Buckalter previously described the situation as “gender bias” because men’s sexual health companies selling products such as erectile dysfunction meds, condoms, and “ball deodorant” were allowed to buy advertising.

Facebook rejected most of Pulse’s ads up until about seven months ago. It took Pulse repeated calls and requests to finally have a discussion about the issue.

“Sales and traction has picked up since being able to advertise,” said Buckalter, a former sports goods company executive.

Crave co-founders Ti Chang and Michael Topolovac. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Just across the Pulse booth was Crave, a San Francisco-based startup that sells the popular Vesper wearable sex toy.

Ti Chang, co-founder and vice president of design, said it was refreshing to be included at CES, especially since other technology such as VR porn was already allowed.

“When you have this kind of conversation on a mainstream stage, it’s a greater signal to the public,” Chang said.

Michael Topolovac, another Crave co-founder, said that sex tech should be “celebrated not stigmatized.”

“It feels bizarre at best, or absurd more realistically, that in 2020 we’re having this conversation,” he said. “This is not 1910 or 1820 — this is the modern era. Sex and pleasure is a part of the human experience; it’s wonderful and rich and should be embraced.”

Pulse CEO Amy Buckalter speaks to a CES attendee at the company’s booth. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Buckalter said allowing sex tech and related wellness solutions to advertise on social media or participate an event like CES also just makes business sense.

“Women are 52 percent of the population,” she said. “If business people think of that in terms of the financials, doesn’t it make perfect sense for this to be inclusive for addressing the needs of a market?”

The CEO is encouraged by the shift in perception and inclusion of companies such as Pulse. She said it’s required “a lot of pressing and a lot of pushing,” particularly from female founders.

“It’s like every industry — we have to sort of push our way in to be heard,” she said. “Once we arrive, it seems like there’s a much greater understanding. Then they are wondering, why have we waited so long?”

CES has been criticized for various gender-related inequality issues in the past, from its speaker lineup to “booth babes.” This year CES organizer Consumer Technology Association (CTA) implemented a new dress code and partnered with The Female Quotient as its official equality partner.

Ivanka Trump is featured speaker at this year’s show, though her appearance is being criticized.

Buckalter also noted that sex tech isn’t just about women. Nearly half of people who purchase Pulse products are men. Sure enough, the first person to come up to the Pulse booth on Tuesday was a man.

Not everyone was satisfied with new CES policies. Brian Sloan, the Seattle-based creator of AutoBlow, said the rules stigmatize against male sextech. CES organizers told Sloan they would let him have exhibitor space this year if he removed the silicone mouth sleeve on his product, as VentureBeat reported. He did not end up coming to the show.

“I feel CES has taken one step forward with a new policy accepting of products that cause sexual pleasure for women, but at the same time a giant step backwards in that they also decided that pleasure devices that look anything like a human, even the mouth displayed on the Autoblow, are not fit for public display,” Sloan told GeekWire.

Founded in 2013, Pulse has raised nearly $10 million to date and is pursuing its first institutional round. The company is unveiling its first CBD product at CES this year and is developing a new line for baby care.

Here’s Buckalter showing off how the Pulse dispenser works, from the company’s booth in Las Vegas:

Editor’s note: Story updated with comments from Sloan.

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