“Women are four times more likely than men to say that sex has been not at all pleasurable,” says Alex Fine, the CEO of Dame Products. This phenomenon, which researchers have dubbed “the pleasure gap,” inspired the founding of the Brooklyn-based company. “Men have more subjective sexual satisfaction in their lives than women do,” Fine continues. “And we can change that.”
Fine co-founded Dame Products in 2014 with CTO Janet Lieberman to “empower the sexual experiences of womankind.” Or, as Fine and Lieberman prefer to phrase their target demographic, “vulva-havers.”
Back in 2014, before she’d met Lieberman, Fine, a sexologist, noticed the gap between consumer desire and the products on the market and set out to fill it herself. “I was taking apart other vibrators and just buying art supplies—like plastic that you can mold in your kitchen—and making very scary-looking vibrators.”
The lightbulb moment for Fine was when she realized that the vulva might be able to hold its own vibrator. “I think the very first thing is I took a quarter, actually a half dollar, and I wrapped it in cellophane and I just put that in between my labia. And that stayed in place! That was the beginning of me being like, ‘Something could be held there.’”
The realization was electrifying. “I literally ran around my house. My now husband was doing work, and I was like, ‘Look at what I did today!’” And that was the beginning of Eva, a hands-free vibrator that could be used solo or worn during partnered, penetrative sex.
Then Fine met Lieberman, who brought her mechanical engineering degree to bear on designing and manufacturing Eva. The duo became Dame, and together, they set out to design products with both single and partnered users in mind.
“We design and are centered in the vulva owner’s experience, though not exclusively. I think the beautiful thing about sex is, if one person’s enjoying it, it usually makes the other person enjoy it more too. It’s this really beautiful, cyclical, positive, energetic experience,” says Fine.
“We always want to use design and ergonomics to make it so that our products aren’t the second or third person in the room. They blend into the experience. You can focus on your connection with a partner or your connection with yourself,” says Lieberman. Finishing her partner’s thought, as the two often do, Fine adds, “I think a good tool feels like an extension of you when you’re using it.”
Part of the equation to making the perfect intimacy tool, they decided, was to find out what actual consumers were looking for. So they began sending surveys to their customers, first through their newsletter and now through Dame Labs, the company’s community of testers, through which Dame speaks directly with users.
Lieberman says, “There’s so little sex research. So we ended up getting to do that research, and getting to cultivate the conversation that is so core to destigmatizing sexuality and sex. If we want to make better tools, we need to understand the problem better.” The response, she says, has been an outpouring of conversation from vulva-havers who have been waiting their whole lives for this opportunity. “There’s so infrequently forums where you can talk about [sex]. Everyone has this stuff bottled up.”
Their experience since the very beginning has taught them that opening up the conversation—and marketing—to vulva-havers brings results. This became clear when they decided to crowdfund their first product back in 2014. “We realized that we could get the proof of concept without getting investor money, and we were committed to doing that.” Fine continues.
Their IndieGoGo campaign was immediately inundated by consumers hungry for their messaging and products. “We made $575,000 in 45 days,” says Fine. Later on, their finger vibrator for couples was the first-ever sex toy on Kickstarter—a breakthrough for a company of their size and status. “We were able to really go out there and prove that people want what we’re selling, and [that] we know how to make these products, we know how to market them. I mean we’ve gone through all of that without taking an investment from anybody else. And that has been incredibly empowering.”
“I would argue that crowdfunding is incredibly feminist,” Fine muses. “You can cut out the patriarchy—to some extent.” The patriarchy they’re referring to is the one that controls venture capital and, in their experience, funnels money primarily into male-led companies. “It’s not like there aren’t any women-run companies in the space,” says Lieberman, “But it does seem like more of the money is going to the male-run companies.”
Funding is just one of many place they’ve encountered barriers to their sex-positive messaging. Although Dame has grown into an established sexual wellness brand over the past five years, the duo still faces obstacles in their attempts to market their products. “We definitely had an uphill battle trying to get a lot of different private companies to allow us to advertise on their platforms,” says Fine. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google and The Metropolitan Transportation Authority have all pushed back, denying or restricting their ability to openly market their products.
Paradoxically, the Dame team has noticed that sexual products aimed at men have had significant success advertising on those very same platforms. “I see Facebook allowing erectile dysfunction and low libido pharmaceuticals to advertise,” continues Fine. “If we’re just encouraging more boners in the world but not encouraging more female orgasms in the world…that is inherently problematic. These advertising regulations, they not only hold us back, but really they’re holding consumers back from understanding what their options are, how mainstream it really is, and normalizing that experience.”
The lack of support for female-centric sex toys galvanized Fine and Lieberman to bring better products to the market. So they set about improving the Eva. They sent out surveys about the experiences of 10,000 Eva users and got 1,700 responses. After reading through all of the feedback, they began to test changes. The result was the Eva II. “It’s a little bit smaller, a little bit lighter,” says Fine. “We were able to add really fine details like wing length, and adding textures to the wings to figure out what holds better.” Eva II is also waterproof and charges conductively.
The feedback also influenced the creation of new products, like Fin, which address other issues consumers had. Fin, for example, is couple-friendly. “We had some Eva users who said they loved Eva, but they wished it felt more engaging from the partner’s perspective,” says Fine.
Their products are all part of the company’s ongoing mission to change the landscape of sex toys for women. The two approach the topic of sex with a high dose of curiosity, keeping inclusivity at the forefront of their mind. “We don’t need to oversensationalize it. We don’t need sex to sell sex. We just need to be straightforward about it.”
In order to do so, Fine and Lieberman are cultivating a more open conversation around sex and all its nuances. “ “Sex is this really powerful and profound part of human existence,” Fine argues, “not addressing it, not speaking openly and honestly about it, not understanding it or cultivating tools for it, has been a disservice to lots of people—especially women.” Once the conversation around female-pleasure becomes more normalized, the marketing for sex-toys will organically follow.
“It’s about speaking up and being honest with yourself and your partner about your sexual pleasure.” says Fine. Changing the sexual satisfaction of vulva-havers requires radical honesty from everyone, no matter their genitals.