When Prude Investors Cockblock Sex Tech, No One Gets Off

If sex-based products and platforms seem retrograde (or worse), it may be because white male VCs are holding back innovation.

 Screen shot of "Andrea the Horny Robot" in-game mod made by a fan for  Fallout: New Vegas

Screen shot of "Andrea the Horny Robot" in-game mod made by a fan for Fallout: New Vegas

Cindy Gallop had just purchased a sex toy.

“I opened this box, looked at this beautiful object, and found myself thinking, ‘How the fuck do you use this thing?’” she recalls. “So I think to myself, ‘There’ll be instructions inside,’ but all I find is this one-pager that tells you how to charge it. Nothing about what goes where.”

Officially, anyway, Gallop has been in the business of showing people “what goes where” since launching Make Love Not Porn, a user-generated adult video platform, in August 2012. But many people first heard about the venture in 2009, when Gallop gave a popular TED Talk challenging what she still sees as the porn industry’s warped and often misogynistic ideas about sex and sexuality.

Since then, however, Gallop has had trouble attracting investors, and she isn’t alone. The “sex tech” sector may in fact hold enormous untapped potential, but investors–mostly white straight male investors–appear to be keeping their distance.

Sex Sells... Sort of.

In a world where over 36% of internet content is pornography and where people collectively watch 4 billion hours of porn every year, our sex obsession is matched only by our inability to talk about it openly, Gallop argues.

After unboxing her new sex toy and finding no instructions, she recalls turning to YouTube, where she eventually stumbled on one explanatory video featuring a woman holding the device and demurely telling her how to use it. “I’m listening to her and going, ‘What?’” Gallop says. “‘So you put that inside and then the guy puts in his cock as well? How the fuck does that work?’” She adds, “You simply can’t overestimate how our unwillingness to talk about sex impacts the ability of every manufacturer out there to shift their product.”

Still, sex does sell. In the U.S. alone, adult sites generate over $3 billion in revenue a year, according to the research firm IBISWorld. Reliable figures aren’t easy to come by, but the global sex toy industry has been estimated at some $15 billion and is growing at more than 30% a year, potentially outpacing high-growth tech sectors like drone manufacturing, which is expected to hit $12 billion by 2021. Amazon currently stocks over 60,000 items classed as “adult.”

But Gallop believes the commercial opportunity is bigger than even these figures suggest, and in any other industry it isn’t hard to imagine investors flocking to an entrepreneur with her credentials. After over 20 years as an advertising exec, Gallop resigned as chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty to start two companies of her own and advise several more. Since going solo in 2005, she’s continued to work as a consultant, cementing her position as a go-to branding guru.

“Many VC friends of mine tell me that what I’m doing could be huge,” she claims, “but if they took it through the official channels, their partners would say, ‘What are you on?’ As a sex tech venture, I can’t even get across the threshold to pitch most of the time. Either investors don’t take you seriously, or they don’t even want to have the conversation because it makes them so uncomfortable.”

So Gallop bootstrapped Make Love Not Porn with her own savings and support from a single angel investor, then built a bare-bones platform. In the four years since launching, it’s signed up more than 400,000 users and successfully monetized their content–the site’s pay-per-view model splits revenue equally between the site and the creators–to the point where Gallop says many top users get regular four-figure payouts.

That profit-sharing model differs sharply from the porn industry’s typical practice of paying performers by the scene (one porn exec I spoke to said that figure usually caps out at around $2,000 for newbies and major stars alike). Gallop wants her platform to open up more new avenues for monetizing user-generated content, and to expand most people’s ideas about sex in the process.

 

Read the full Fast Company article