When Michael Lenke set out to battle inequality between men and women, he didn't travel far. He walked down a flight of stairs to his hobby cellar in Metten, Bavaria, in southern Germany, took an aquarium pump and a plastic hose and got to work. The inequality Lenke wanted to fix wasn't about money or leadership. It was about the female orgasm.
Many studies show that half of all women rarely or never orgasm. When Lenke read the statistic, he was astonished -- and determined to do something about it.
"I went through all the technical possibilities and soon thought: probably air pressure could work," Lenke said.
Seven years and millions of orgasms later, Lenke's creation, known as the Womanizer, has become one of the best-selling sex tech devices in the world -- despite a name that sounds more cringe-worthy in English than intended. According to Wow Tech, the Berlin-based company created from Lenke's business and another firm in 2018, sales of the Womanizer have topped 3 million, led by shoppers in Europe and the US.
The 70-year-old German inventor discovered that the female orgasm isn't actually that much of a mystery. It's more a question of pressure, suction and blood circulation. Meanwhile, the Womanizer exemplifies how sex tech devices for women have been shifting from the X-rated tools to lifestyle products marketed as a means of female empowerment.
For that to happen, however, the marketing and design of sex tech devices had to be de-sexed a bit. Not exactly an easy task.
In January, for the first time in the 50-year history of the massive CES trade show in Las Vegas, sex tech devices will be allowed to exhibit under the health and wellness category if they are "innovative and include new or emerging tech." This follows a 2019 controversy about what is allowed and what isn't.
The parameters haven't been so clear in the past.
The Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, awarded sex tech company Lora DiCarlo a coveted Innovation Award in the robotics and drones category at the 2019 show. CTA revoked the award a month later and then reinstated it after public outcry. This set off a debate about gender bias and whether sex devices should be considered tech.
"There has always been a sexualization of technology at CES," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. "But until now, women were side actors for the pleasure of the attending dudes. So here we were for the first time with a device that was solely for the pleasure of women."
The rocky road to female climax
Lenke, a self-taught inventor, patented a machine to combat hay fever and created an earthquake-alert system. The "Happy Bonsai," a process that shrinks plants without genetic engineering, made Lenke a millionaire at 27. But the road to female climax was "rockier" than he expected, he said. The most difficult part: As a man, he couldn't fathom how it felt.
He needed his 57-year-old wife, Brigitte Lenke, to collaborate and help test the prototypes he built. Brigitte is a banker and his long-time business partner. They've been married for 30 years and live in Metten, a small town nestled on the river Danube just down the road from a famous Benedictine monastery dating back to 766. Brigitte wasn't available for an interview.
Lenke discusses all his invention ideas with Brigitte at the kitchen table. She dismisses half of them. But with the Womanizer, Brigitte saw the potential straight away. And according to Lenke, she endured discomfort, pain and outright boredom to help bring the invention to life.
The name was her idea, an attempt to highlight that this product was entirely for women. The first prototype Lenke put together in his basement looks more like a vintage bicycle dynamo than a slick consumer product. He asked his wife to test this metal aquarium pump innovation. She agreed, putting the hose over the most sensitive part of her body, according to an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin.
"Technically, the modified aquarium pump worked," Lenke said. "But it didn't work for my wife. She still holds it against me."
The reason: The suction was too strong. The clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, double the amount of the glans of the penis. The first attempt was just too much. Lenke added a second compressor. Sometimes, the vibration wasn't exactly right. Sometimes, Brigitte didn't feel anything at all. It took up substantial amounts of her time, she said in an interview with the German tabloid Bild. "After work, I was ironing, when he said: 'Come to the bedroom and test it.'"
Finally, after two years of trial and error and tests by Brigitte, Lenke had it.
"This is it," he recalls his wife saying. "This will be a world success."
Five years after the launch of the first Womanizer, there are nearly a dozen versions of the product ranging in price from $69 to $299. Womanizer Pro40, which sells for $99 on Amazon, has an overall rating of 4.1 out of 5 stars and 68 percent of buyers give it a 5-star review. Among the comments:
"I honestly don't know how I lived life before this."
"Ten years post-menopause and typical medications left us without her satisfaction. This device cut through that like a ray of sunshine. I forgot how much fun it is to hear her moans. She is thrilled to feel such pleasure again."
"Jesus H. Christ on a biscuit. This thing is beyond words."
"I had to pry it from her hands to get her to stop. I think if you put it on a stick and dangled it in front of her, she could win the Boston Marathon."
"Only criticism: the name sucks. Who the heck sat down and gave it a sales pitch with that dumb name?!"
How it works: A silicone head seals off the clitoris. Within this small area, there is constant change between vacuum and overpressure, which helps blood circulation. Lenke said his device has a 95% climax guarantee. "Women even get an orgasm if they don't want or intend to," he said.
This is also what some consumers criticized. For some, using a Womanizer felt like eating a meal replacement bar instead of enjoying a home-cooked stew. The bottom line is the same: You are well fed. Satisfaction, however, means different things for different people.
Some felt the climax was too mechanical, more of a sneeze and less of a sensual experience. To deal with this complaint, the company incorporated a new setting to take out the predictability of the bodily reaction.
Still, Lenke's touchless focus on the clitoris sets the Womanizer apart from other devices. "The key point was to develop something that didn't vibrate and didn't need any skin contact," he said.
The Womanizer works with air technology that Lenke patented.
"They were innovators in the market," said Coyote Amrich, who for the last 14 years, has worked as director for purchasing at the sex-positive adult shop Good Vibrations. The Womanizer is in the top five of its best-selling products, she said, No. 1 being the Magic Wand. But the Womanizer was a trailblazer: Many so-called "clit-suckers" have arrived after it, "trying to emulate its sensation," Amrich said.
When it comes to female pleasure, the clitoris seemed to be some type of secret for much of world history. It was in the 1960s when feminists revoked the Freudian idea that female orgasm should only be vaginal and reached through intercourse.
Early sex tech largely was disguised as something else -- or household devices were used as sex toys. The Magic Wand, with its unprovocative aesthetic of a kitchen appliance, was initially built to relieve sore muscles. But soon, it was used in sessions of sex educator Betty Dodson. The bidet, a bathroom appliance that sprays water, helped women climax for years, not to mention shower heads and bathtub jets. Lenke, long before the Womanizer, learned about this. He had invented a device he called the Magic Finger, a vibrating applicator intended to massage moisturizer into the face.
"The Magic Finger was a flop," Lenke remembers. The TV shopping channel wanted to stop selling it. But Lenke wanted to try it with another host. He remembers the new host saying: "This is great for massages" while she touched her stomach.
Sales skyrocketed, according to Lenke. Perhaps he had been marketing the product in the wrong category, he thought. Lenke capitalized on the pleasurable side effects. He doubled the price of the Magic Finger, changed its name and sold the product at adult industry fairs. The Tantra Beam became a best-seller in Europe.
Capitalizing on feminism
Over the years, vibrators seeped into mainstream culture, normalized by shows like Sex and the City. New brands of vibrators were bubblegum-colored, in the shape of blue dolphins or pink rabbits.
The Womanizer initially took this trend too far. Lenke and his wife's first designs reminded Cosmopolitan writer Krista McHarden of "someone who gave Ed Hardy a glitter gun and told him to go to town decorating an ear thermometer." Women didn't buy it because of its design, but in spite of it.
But the Womanizer also arrived at the right time. After millennia of female pleasure being persecuted, shamed and ridiculed, there was a moment when many sex tech companies were capitalizing on feminism. The Womanizer offered women the right to orgasm and treated it like a fundamental need, alongside demands like equal pay and equal rights.
Amrich has witnessed the move from battery-driven to rechargeable, from remote controls to sex toy apps on smartphones.
"There is less personal shame," she said. "Now, sex toys have become a lifestyle product."
Wow Tech doesn't often exhibit at adult industry shows, said Denny Alexander, the company's spokesman. Instead, it targets affluent consumers at wellness festivals like Wanderlust, where people practice yoga, eat salad and meditate. Here, climaxing is considered part of a holistic lifestyle.
It may be easy to dismiss the Womanizer as just another marketing trick to attach deeper meaning to a consumer product. But to this day, Lenke and his wife receive mail from all over the world, sometimes addressed to "Dr. Clit." Many are from older women, writing about their trauma or their inability to feel what they long to feel. Many sex experts agree that reaching climax is a skill you can acquire. And sex tech devices can help.
Not toys anymore?
Also helping the industry and devices like the Womanizer is the fact that sex toys are now more regularly being referred to as sex tech devices, and their technological innovations are being lauded.
"The focus is now not only on the device but on the technology within the device," said the analyst Milanesi.
Take Lora DiCarlo's Osé, which received the CES award in 2019. The device (called Vela at the time of the company's application for the CES award) incorporated "five pending patents for robotics, biomimicry and engineering feats," according to the company.
When CTA revoked the honor, it cited a clause in the award's terms that disqualified products deemed "immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA's image."
Lora DiCarlo CEO Lora Haddock criticized the move in an open letter, accusing CES of gender bias. The show, which banned sex tech devices, had allowed demonstrations of adult content for other gadgets in previous years. Naughty America, for instance, has showcased virtual reality pornography and a sex doll.
"It was just a head and tits for fellatio," Haddock said in an interview. "Some aspects of CES were very skewed toward the male view."
Since 2004, pornography has been banned at CES. Jean Foster, senior vice president of marketing and communications for CTA, acknowledged via e-mail that "there have been inconsistencies in enforcing this policy."
"We have taken additional steps to more strictly enforce this policy that will help us consistently create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all show attendees," Foster said.
Still, the controversy helped raise the profile of Lora DiCarlo and the Osé, whichin November for $290.
CES has updated its policies for the 2020 show: Pornography still isn't allowed at the show but apparently the ban will be more aggressively enforced. Booth staff, regardless of gender, aren't allowed to wear clothing that "reveals an excess of bare skin, or body-conforming clothing that hugs genitalia," a move that seeks to completely end the long tradition of so-called CES "booth babes."
And finally, sex tech companies could apply to exhibit on the CES show floor. The Lora DiCarlo saga made one thing clear: Even if sex toys are called sex tech devices and even if companies highlight their robotics and mechanics, they are still quite clearly tools to help women masturbate. And plenty of women want them.
Wow Tech isn't an exhibitor at CES 2020 but will be roaming the show floor.
As for Lenke, now that he's solved the mystery of female orgasm, he's looking into something even closer to home: a male masturbation device.
"It's going to be stylish, with carbon and you can leave it lying on your living room table as well," he said. And, name-wise he is hitting close to home again. The working title: "The Manizer."
This article was written as part of the Goethe-Institut's Close-Up journalist exchange program and Wunderbar Together-The Year of German-American Friendship. More information can be found at www.goethe.de/nahaufnahme and at #GoetheCloseUp and #WunderbarTogether.
Originally published Jan. 3.
Correction, Jan. 6, 5:09 p.m. PT: This story originally misstated the number of devices sold. The number is 3 million.