This story discusses adult themes.
If there was a trend at this year's CES, it might be how relaxed everyone was about sex tech at the show. Especially after controversy over adult devices and, by extension, the taboos around female pleasure mired the 2019 event. You'd be forgiven for thinking that 2020 would be a pitched battle between the show's organizers and its exhibitors. Instead, it was fine. Aggressively fine.
"I only have positive things to say," said MysteryVibe CEO Soumyadip Rakshit. "It's the first year [for us] and we've done really well." In fact, that was a constant theme with all the exhibitors, including one that said its CES attendance had already seen a rise in sales. A third exhibitor was happy with both how easy it was to arrange the booth and the reaction from the general public.
Multiple exhibitors mentioned the Consumer Technology Association's (CTA) extra scrutiny over poster art content and the booth backgrounds. As well as the usual rules, sex tech companies had to agree not to show graphic nudity or human anatomy on their imagery. They were also blocked from showing video of the product or offering demonstrations with VR headsets.
Several companies had to redesign or heavily edit booths before they passed the CTA's vetting process. But even then, there were few open conflicts, and exhibitors found authorities to be open, transparent and responsive. Everyone also seemed to understand that the aim was to promote a respectful, tasteful tone while showing off the products.
Space at CES is allocated by product. For instance, the smart home gear is in a space the size of a few football fields. Initially, there was talk of assigning sex tech its own area, but Lora DiCarlo founder Lora Haddock pushed back against this. So rather than ghettoize sex tech, it was part of Health and Fitness.
Haddock and her company generated controversy in 2019 and is partly responsible for sex tech being at CES in 2020. Last year, the company's first product, Osé, was submitted for a CES Innovation award for robotics before the show began. It won, but organizers withdrew the award, prompting a flurry of negative press.
Since then, the CTA, which organizes CES, has engaged with the Osé creator, advocacy groups and partners. It returned the award, and, in 2020, allowed sex tech in the show for a one-year trial, to see if it was possible to exhibit these products within the more austere context of a tech show.
The hope may have been to scatter the booths around, but they wound up mostly in two clusters -- maybe because the decision to allow sex tech to exhibit came late enough that prime booth space had already been taken. Several exhibitors had booths in a prime central hallway, the rest were off to one side but felt this was logistics, rather than censorship.
None of the exhibitors encountered any protests, arguments or inappropriate behavior from attendees. "The people that come over are self-selecting," said one unnamed entrepreneur, "and are mostly curious and eager to know more." Another said that the overall reaction to sex tech products on the floor has been "awesome."
"Sexual health is human health," said Lora Haddock, the figure behind the CTA's rule change. It's a mantra she repeats in interviews and numerous panel appearances in her quest to destigmatize sex in the tech world. She said the show has handled sex tech in a "respectful manner" that doesn't "objectify people's bodies."
Even the derogatorily named "booth babes" now have a new code of conduct thanks to advocacy group The Female Quotient*. From 2020, CES participants must not wear "sexually revealing" clothing or garments that could be "interpreted as undergarments." Outfits that show off bare skin around the genitals, chest or buttocks are banned from the show. (You're also not allowed to dress up as a soldier or police officer since you may endanger public safety.)
Engadget spoke to one model and performer who has worked at CES booths for several years. "I'm extremely pleased with the new CES rule changes," she said, "this year I get to wear joggers and a t-shirt with tennis shoes!"
Despite the progress, there's still work to be done to make CES a more welcoming space for women out on the floor. Until that is achieved completely, The Female Quotient runs a lounge at the event where women can connect in more comfortable surroundings. Female Quotient CEO Shelley Zalis says the lounges are vital for enabling connection and business between women entrepreneurs.
And Zalis feels that the tech industry can't simply ignore sex tech or attempt to pretend that it doesn't exist. "If you're gonna be in the technology business, you can't pick and choose. You wanna be in tech? There's lots of tech: auto tech, mobility tech and sex tech, you can't select [to not show one], and if you do, it's because you think you're gonna upset someone."
* Engadget's parent company, Verizon Media, is a supporter of The Female Quotient.