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Sex tech at CES wants to break down the barriers to pleasure

Sex tech has its foot in the door, but it's only the beginning.

Lora DiCarlo at CES 2020

The Baci (top) and the Onda, the latest sex tech from Lora DiCarlo.

Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Liz Klinger felt the sting of rejection in 2017 when her smart-vibrator company Lioness was forbidden from exhibiting at CES, the world's largest tech show. But that didn't stop her from showing up.

CES, she said, is where the world learns about innovative consumer technology, so a year later the Lioness CEO snuck into a booth with the help of her college connections. She didn't say who, just that a "nice group of people" let the startup use their booth.

This year marked a turning point for sex tech at CES. The Consumer Technology Association, which runs the giant show, officially allowed sex tech companies to exhibit under the health and wellness group as part of a trial. The sex devices had to prove they were "innovative and include new or emerging tech." About a dozen were among more than 4,500 exhibitors at the tech extravaganza, ranging from vibrators, a dispenser for warming lube, a kegel trainer that pairs with an app and a Band-Aid-like contraption to stymie premature ejaculation.

Lora DiCarlo at CES 2020

CES attendees visit the booth for sex tech company Lora DiCarlo. The startup is behind Osé, a robotic sex device designed to give women simultaneous clitoral and G-spot orgasms.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The decision to give sex tech an official presence at CES came after organizers faced criticism for revoking a 2019 innovation award for the Osé, a robotic sex device designed to give women simultaneous clitoral and G-spot orgasms. Lora DiCarlo, the company behind the product, protested the decision, pointing out that VR porn and sex robots for men have graced CES in the past. In May 2019 the CTA reversed its decision to revoke the award.

"CTA did not handle this award properly," Jean Foster, CTA's senior vice president of marketing and communications, said in a statement.

At CES 2020, sex tech founders said their presence at the show this year is only the beginning. They want to spark a conversation about sexual wellness, underscoring that there's nothing shameful about people owning their pleasure.

"Pleasure is this missing puzzle piece in our overall understanding of our health and well-being that a lot of us are just ignoring," Klinger said.

One Lioness user, she said, discovered that suffering from a concussion affected her orgasm.

Outside CES, the sex tech industry still has walls to break down, including getting products in mainstream retail stores or grabbing more media coverage. Ads for their products also get rejected from social networks such as Facebook and Instagram.

"With this change [at CES], it's opening one of the floodgates," Klinger said.

Sending a message

Throughout the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas, booths for sex tech companies are scattered in a maze of health and wellness products.

There's no big, flashy sign that screams sex tech is here at the show, and exhibiting came with restrictions. Sex tech founders said they were forbidden from displaying genitalia or using words like "fuck."

At the Lioness booth, a sign reads "Year of the orgasm." Using AI and data visualizations, Lioness aims to improve a woman's orgasm. The vibrator has sensors that tracks tension, temperature and pressure and syncs with an app that lets you analyze the health data.

Klinger shows me a feature in the app that illustrates where in the chart a woman has orgasmed, noting that the waves form a regular repetitive pattern. This year, Lioness is a finalist for the CES's Last Gadget Standing award and Engadget's Best of CES for Digital Health and Fitness.

"Now we're on the map, which is amazing," she said.

Lioness isn't the only sex tech company that received recognition at CES.

Lora DiCarlo at CES 2020

Lora Haddock DiCarlo and other sex tech startup founders want women to own their pleasure.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lora DiCarlo introduced two new products at CES that snagged two Innovation awards -- Onda, a green robotic G-spot massager, and Baci, a pink robotic clitoral stimulator. This time, the startup didn't have to give the awards back.

The company's booth is dripping in yellow and white. The phrase "The Pleasure is all Yours" adorns a wall in big white letters. Yellow stickers that say #Gender Bias Stops Here" fill a glass bowl. Awards sit on a shelf on one side alongside the company's back story.

Lora Haddock Dicarlo, the founder and CEO of Lora DiCarlo, said she would be surprised if the CTA didn't allow sex tech to come back.

"It's still respectable, and it doesn't objectify or demoralize female bodies," DiCarlo said of the sex tech booths at the showroom floor.

She also has no problem with sex tech not having its own section on the show floor. When sex tech booths are dispersed throughout the health and wellness space instead of being stuck in one corner, she said, it "helps to normalize sexuality because sexuality is normal."

In another part of the health and wellness space, Crave showcased its array of vibrators in a brown popup trailer. Signs that bear phrases like "Don't let anyone treat you like free salsa. You are guac, baby girl. GUAC" are in nearby buckets. Up high, a giant "Pleasure Manifesto" states: "If we can talk about pleasure outside of the sheets, we can bring it out of the shadows." Some of the company's vibrators resemble gold necklaces showcasing the idea that there's nothing wrong with proudly wearing a sex product in the open.

Now playing: Watch this: Sex tech continues to impress at CES
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Ti Chang, co-founder of Crave, said the company has been around for nearly 10 years. It was rejected from exhibiting at CES in 2016 and didn't try returning to CES until 2020.

She hopes that the CTA decides to bring sex tech back next year and to recognize that it's advancing the conversation about women's pleasure.

In an email, the CTA said it would follow its "standard policies and procedures following this year's show to determine next steps."

Finding a place to belong

While this is the first year that CES allowed sex tech companies to officially exhibit in the health and wellness space, these startups have been at the show before.

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Booth for vibrator company CRAVE at CES.

Queenie Wong/CNET

Suki Dunham, the founder of vibrator maker OhMiBod, has exhibited at CES for 10 years. The company was also rejected at first, but then it successfully lobbied the CTA after noting its products connected to an iPhone.

"It was very clear that what we're doing was tech and I think it's going to be interesting to see how you start to navigate what really represents sex tech," she said.

When OhMiBod first exhibited at CES, it was in the wireless communications section next to Verizon and Yahoo, she said. The show has helped OhMiBod not only market its product but make connections including with retailers such as Target. Now sex tech has a place where the founders feel like they belong.

The industry could still have a stronger presence at CES, she said, including panels with female sex tech founders. This year was just a baby step.

"It's like pushing a rock up a hill," she said.

But companies like Lori DiCarlo, OhMiBod and Crave have momentum. Let's see if they can make it all the way to the top.