Sex toys are easier to come by than they used to be. They’re also far better looking, with a greater variety than we’ve seen in the past, catering for a wider range of bodies, genders and sexualities. But we’ve got a long way to go before sex toys — and the idea of pleasure itself, particularly female pleasure — is finally acknowledged as a healthy, natural, integral part of this thing we call life.
To understand this, let’s recap the tale of Dame Products and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Late in 2018, after months of back and forth with the MTA’s advertising agency, Dame co-founder Alexandra Fine received an email with bad news: their ads would not be running on the New York City public transport system after all. After initially working with Dame on ads to appear throughout the highly populated public transport system, the brainstrust at the MTA decided to amend its guidelines to explicitly prohibit any advertisements that feature sex toys. (Until then, guidelines merely stated that ads must not promote “sexually oriented” businesses. Meanwhile, ads for erectile dysfunction drugs remain plentiful on trains and buses city-wide to this day.)
Dame makes toys, for sex, but is prohibited from participating in the same economic system that allows companies that make pills, for sex (for men), to succeed. Nevertheless, Fine and fellow Dame co-founder Janet Lieberman persist in their mission to close the pleasure gap — both culturally and literally. Not only do they continue to protest advertising regulations that silence the voices and stories that don’t align with a homogenised cis male-centric worldview, they’ve also helped provide over 10 million satisfied customers with orgasms and sexual pleasure through their range of artfully designed toys and accessories. Get to know the brains behind the business.
Maddy Woon: Hi! Can you give us the Alexandra Fine elevator pitch?
Alexandra Fine: I’m the co-founder and CEO of Dame Products. We make innovative tools for sexual wellbeing, and we’re on a mission to teach the world that pleasure is an integral part of human wellness.
What was the impetus behind starting Dame Products? Can you tell us the story of how the idea came about and how you’ve gotten the brand to where it is now?
A few years ago, I had an idea for a vibrator that could be worn during intercourse, which in turn could help to close the pleasure gap — the disparity in satisfaction that people with vulvas experience in the bedroom, versus their cis male counterparts. I started experimenting in my kitchen with some silver dollar coins and plastic wrap and asking my friends to try my creations.
Those kitchen experiments eventually became Eva, which we launched on Indiegogo in 2014. Eva raised over half a million dollars on Indiegogo, surpassing our initial fundraising goal tenfold and becoming the most successful sex toy campaign in crowdfunding history.
Since then, we’ve created a line of 10 tools that enhance sexual pleasure for vulva-havers everywhere. We also work hard as a company to innovate for sexual wellness beyond our product line through education, community initiatives, and activism.
Dame encourages female empowerment and sex. Have you always had an interest in these things? How has your relationship to these things evolved over time?
Yes! I’ve always been interested in sexuality. As far back as I can remember, it seemed like a really natural thing to be curious about. In grade school, I had an aunt who took me to a party where drag queens and non-cisgender folks were present. I remember going back to class the next day and discussing it with my friends and getting in trouble by my teacher. That not only sparked my interest in sexuality and gender, but also our inability to speak openly about them.
When I was younger, my interest in sexuality felt isolating. Now, I am so proud to lead our Dame community and make space to have these conversations more openly.
Why is there (still) so much shame around female pleasure, and why are vaginas taboo? How far has the conversation progressed, and how far do we still have to go?
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I think a lot of the shame around pleasure boils down to the fact that our society doesn’t recognise it as an important part of women’s health and wellness. Research on women’s health — particularly sexual health‚ is lacking, and those initiatives are often underfunded because of the taboo... So it’s a vicious cycle.
When we first started, we were one of few companies making sex toys led by people with vulvas — who understood firsthand the anatomy we were designing for. Now, we’re being joined by so many women and nonbinary folks looking to disrupt this industry. Not only is this raising the standard for the toys and products we see on the market, but also shifting the conversation to a less cis male-centric view on sex and towards a more wellness-focused one. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re absolutely making progress.
How is Dame helping to close the pleasure gap?
Dame creates products by applying in-depth research, smart design, community input, and plenty of empathy. The result is ergonomic tools that easily blend into the experience — so our users can easily experience more pleasure.
Zooming out, we have also worked to ensure women’s pleasure is in the mainstream. You can find Dame’s products in Urban Outfitters, Goop, Revolve, and Free People. When we launched on Revolve, we became the bestselling beauty SKU in a day. Having toys for sex available in the same places where you buy other products for your self-care routine is definitely a step towards prioritising women’s pleasure.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting a sex toy company? And, the most challenging?
I love what I do. Having the opportunity to help our customers achieve more pleasure in their life is an incredible experience. I am truly fascinated by sex and bodies, and I love that I get to help people have a better relationship with those things.
Advertising has been incredibly challenging. We set out six years ago to change the pleasure gap — and we cannot fully execute on our mission while being blocked from sharing our story by outdated (and inherently sexist) advertising regulations. This includes social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, physical spaces like the the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority [MTA], banks, office spaces, and fundraising platforms. (We overcame the latter and became the first sex toy company to advertise on Kickstarter in 2016.)
Can you tell us the story behind your #DerailSex campaign?
Because we sell sex toys, we’re prohibited from many modes of advertising — including subway ads with the MTA. When we first set out to advertise with the MTA, we went back and forth with their team for months ensuring we could meet their guidelines. Initially, we were given the green light to advertise with them. We ordered additional inventory and spent money on creative. Then, there was radio silence and months later, our ads were denied.
The vague and sexist reasons behind the MTA’s refusal to show our ads are not only barring many businesses like ours from growing their companies, but their censorship is a violation of first amendment rights. Advertisements are hugely influential to our culture, and we want to stand up for the needs and desires of vulva-havers everywhere. We decided to take legal action against the MTA to protest this sexist policy and address its implications for vulva-havers everywhere.
Why do you think there’s such a double standard when it comes to advertising men and women’s sexual wellness products?
There is a societal misconception that sexual pleasure for femme-identifying humans is “inappropriate,” while endorsing the sexual pleasure of men is essential for their health and wellbeing. Our lawsuit is important because it is necessary for us to understand as a society that pleasure — no matter your gender — is an important part of health.
What’s some of the best feedback you’ve received from women on how Dame has changed their relationship with themselves and sex?
Every time we receive a customer story saying that our products or brand has helped someone feel comfortable with — and even excited about — having sex, when maybe they weren’t before, it reminds me how important every single interaction can be. For example, we had a husband write in saying that his wife wanted to have sex twice in a row for the first time in their marriage. That’s incredible!
Is there any particular toy from your repertoire that you are you most proud of?
That’s like picking a favorite child! But if I have to say one, I’d go with Pom, ourflexible vibrator made to conform to the palm of your hand. We collected input from 1500+ diverse humans and worked with 100+ testers to help us understand what makes a great solo vibrator, and that resulted in a simple and intuitive solo vibe that’s powerful and gratifying.
Why is self-pleasure so important? How can women prioritise self-pleasure at every stage of life (as teenagers, during pregnancy, post-partum, during and post menopause etc)?
I believe that holding space for pleasure is thriving. Carving out time for self-pleasure is one of many ways women can hold space to cultivate their life force. Using a vibrator can help vulva-owners understand their own “pleasure map,” and can help them enhance their sexual pleasure and communication with their partner. This map might change over time, so checking in with yourself over time is important. Women of all life stages deserve pleasure.
What does sensuality mean to you? What turns you on?
Sensuality is a conscious state where I’m tapped into and following my physical, and often sexual, pleasure.
So many things turn me on in so many ways! Literally a well-organised email for a friend's party will get me excited. Breath on the back of my neck. Performing. Seeing my ability to turn someone on often turns me on. Eating a really good plum. Seeing someone excel at just about any craft.
Where did your own personal journey with self-pleasure and sex toys begin?
I honestly don’t remember not masturbating. Stuffed animals are the OG tool for young pleasure.
How is sexual liberation tied to women’s liberation?
I think it’s impossible to silo sex from the human experience completely. For women to be truly liberated, I think that includes sexually. I also think feeling free sexually is one of the greatest powers we can harness, and can help propel other parts of our movement!
I also love this quote from Audre Lorde on this topic:
“But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognise our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society.”
Many women consider not having an orgasm as being dysfunctional, especially those who have never reached orgasm, be it with partnered sex, masturbation, or with the help of a vibrator — either from clitoral or internal stimulation. What are your thoughts?
I think there are many ways to define “good sex,” one of which is orgasm. While it might be frustrating, not being able to orgasm does not mean you can’t have pleasurable sexual experiences. Be patient with your body, and remember that orgasm doesn't need to be the pinnacle. If you’re struggling with orgasm, focus on the pleasure you are experiencing rather than what’s missing.
What do you wish you learned about in sex education during school?
Sex ed in America continues to lack in so many areas. Many schools still practice abstinence-only sex ed, which leaves out crucial information that young people need to have safe, happy, and healthy sex lives. Sex ed should cover birth control, gender identity, sexual identity, consent, pleasure, toys, lube, safer sex practices — all of it! There is so much more to sex than just increasing fear and shame around STIs.
Sex education in school, even at its best, also focuses mostly on the risks of being vulnerable — both physically and emotionally — during sex. I wish we learned from a younger age that there are also amazing benefits and rewards that come from opening up sexually.
What sex or relationship advice would you give your teenage self?
I have always been open about my sexuality, and I was often told when I was younger that it was something to hide. I would tell my teenage self that she was brave for talking about something that so many people were ashamed of — and that learning how to help people overcome their fear so they can experience more pleasure in their lives would one day become her superpower.
How important is sex to you personally?
I only exist because of sex, so in that it’s important to my existence. To be honest, having an explosively explorative sex life isn’t that important to me right now. (Or at least relative to what people assume since I’ve dedicated so much of my life to encouraging others to value their sex.)
What is important to me is that I’m having sex I want. While I miss being more promiscuous in my younger years, I love putting my sexual energy towards Dame. I’d say that the chase isn’t as fun as hooking up, but the climaxes are generally more rewarding.
For a limited time only, buy any Dame toy from Par Femme and receive a complimentary Dame Alu 4oz lube worth $34.95 AUD.
Introduction by Emily Royal.
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