Sex Sells — And Not Just To Men: Female Sextrepreneurs Gain Ground
10:30 am, July 27th | by Diana Gerstacker
The clean, comfortable and well-lit sex shop may be as foreign a concept to some women as an effective women’s sexual enhancement drug. Yet both are actually out there and thriving, not surprisingly, under the leadership of women. According to these female leaders, just a few short years ago there were no solutions or even discussions for women who weren’t living their sex lives to the fullest. Now the days of hushed conversation – or worse, silence – are long gone from the women’s sexual health and satisfaction industry. Or at least that’s the goal of these female industry leaders.
With the uptick in the number of female CEOs and entrepreneurs, came a spike in female customers. A New York Times story from 2004 reported that women accounted for an estimated 40 percent of adult video sales for Digital Playground Inc., a company that dominates the U.S. porn industry, noting the number of women buying the videos doubled since 2002. The same article said that ComScore Media Metirx has observed a spike in women visiting adult sites.
More recent statistics signal women’s continuing interest. A blog post from 2010 on the site Creative Loafing cited an infographic from TheirToys.com, a leader in the online sex shopping industry. Their statistics recorded 44 percent of women ages 18 to 60 have used a sex toy. The survey also said that one in five women reported masturbating at least once a week and of those women 60 percent used a toy.
Claire Cavanah is a co-owner of Babeland, one of the first sex shops to provide the aforementioned woman-friendly atmosphere. Opened in 1993, Babeland’s goal was to create a place where people can feel comfortable and where they can learn about their sexuality.
“It’s this sweet spot where you can influence culture and make money at the same time. We didn’t know that at the time but that is where we landed, and we wanted to talk about sex. You know, there wasn’t a lot and there still aren’t a lot of places to talk about sex in a consciousness raising, feministy kind of way,” Cavanah said.
Mary Wallace Jaensch, CEO of Semprae and business partner President Rachel Braun Scherl had similar ambitions when starting their venture into the business of women’s sexual enhancement medication. Their company produces a non-prescription oil called Zestra, it’s designed to reinvigorate women’s sex lives much like viagra does for men.
“Its rare that you find an area of such great need that hasn’t been addressed and so both of us were very attracted to the idea of being able to actually help women,” said Jaensch.
And it’s this vacuum that’s led women like her into the business.
“You always look for the white space in marketing, this was like the perfect storm – it was a white out the opportunity seemed so big,” Braun said.
The opportunity was grand, as was the need for solutions. These women have been working hard to create products that help women and they attribute their gender as a helpful resource in the process.
“Its like the best calling card you can have in our industry,” Cavanah said, referring to her status as a modern woman turned sexual guru.
While the “pleasure” industry has been, historically speaking, a male-driven niche, these female entrepreneurs have broadened the business. Cavanah explained that the modern woman in the industry can help other women have better sex — yet, unexpectedly, a vast clientele of men are responding to their methods as well.
“It turns out they don’t want to go to [the traditional sex] stores either, where there’s just a lot of explicit imagery and women looking all sort of vacant,” Cavanah said. “Men came into our store to find out what we knew and I think that being women it’s just a whole other ball game than a man doing customer service in a sex store. It’s like having a savvy cousin who you can ask anything… the inside scoop of what women want.”
It’s clear a woman can provide a different form of customer service than a man can. But according to Jaensch, there are other benefits that come with being a woman in the workplace, like the ability to form strong bonds.
“Women are much better at relationships, so they’re very powerful when you use them effectively,” Jaensch said. “And its just not about using them it’s offering them as well and that’s the thing women do so much better than men.”
That’s not to say there aren’t some drawbacks for women in the sexual pleasure industry.
Jackie Strano said she has experienced a bit of judgment for what she does. She is the COO of Good Vibrations; a clean well-lit sex shop chain created in 1977.
“When I tell people what I do, some folks think all I do is party my brains out and that I must not work that hard. Things couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ve had some interesting conversations on the schoolyard when dropping off my kids I will say that,” Strano said. “It’s funny because today I am pouring over spread sheets and there is nothing sexy about Excel, ever.”
While there is still some judgment, especially surrounding the sex industry in particular, Cavanah said things have gotten much better.
“Women, it seems like, are kind of running the world in some ways compared to how women started,” she said.
Of course, there are larger social issues at play, which Cavanah believes contributed to women’s ascendancy in the pleasure business. Changes in society’s view on sex, the availability of birth control and abortions, and an increasingly women-friendly public sphere, those misconceptions are slowing washing away with the old tides. (Unfortunately, in some cases, new misconceptions, like someone with sexual experience can’t possibly also be a moral person, have popped up in place of the old tropes.)
“I wanted to start a conversation about women’s sexuality, sexual expression and sexual freedom,” Cavanah said. “And I really still want the conversation to go on.”