Sexual Wellness & Feminine Care: from taboo to a new act of self-care
As recently as a few years ago, sexual pleasure and feminine care products were considered taboo and had plenty of shame and prejudice surrounding them. Sex was still something embarrassing and uncomfortable to talk about, while masturbation (and even more so, masturbation with devices) was considered a thing for those who could not "get it right". Today consumers can proudly carry their adult shop purchases in a branded bag, the clitoral stimulators in a check-out cart may well sit next to an eyeshadow palette on Beauty Bay, while the big department stores, such as Bloomingdale’s, permanently include sexual wellness category on their websites.
With the rapid growth of the sex-positive movement, sex becomes an act of wellness and a part of open conversations. With more time spent at home, the pandemic has accelerated the demand for sexual products. A study shows that sexual pleasure has helped 71% of Americans feel better during isolation. Supported by progressive education and tools, a more liberal approach to sex will carry on as isolation fades, with sexual wellbeing & self-care placed at the top of the agenda. Moreover, the industry finally starts to tackle issues related to the underrepresented communities, like LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities, by offering products and services for those of all genders, abilities, ages, and orientations.
The global shift in consumer attitude and a growing awareness highlight the commercial opportunity for brands who want to create products, services, and engagement tactics to meet a diverse range of sexual preferences and needs. Today, sexual wellness is an increasingly growing market, forecast to be worth $125.1bn by 2026, rising at a 12.4% CAGR during 2020-2026. But the true potential of this industry is, actually, much bigger. Sextech feeds into mental health, fertility, and many other personal wellness and consumer healthcare categories, and with the rise of female empowerment, this sector is poised for growth.
Sexual wellness becomes synonyms with “self-care”
In 2016, the Spa Finder website published a comprehensive overview of trends in sexual wellbeing. It pointed out that the wellness industry up to that point encompassed every possible aspect - physical and mental health, spirituality, comfort in the workplace - but excluded sex entirely. The authors cited 2016 as the year when sex in the public consciousness finally became part of self-care. In 2018, however, they admitted that they had rushed things along, and it was this year that sex truly made its way into the health section. The new report - this time published on the Global Wellness Summit website - was called 'A New Feminist Wellness'. This title was an accurate reflection of the nature of the phenomenon, with women leading the way in promoting sex in wellness.
The integration of sexual wellness & feminine care products into the self-care market has been largely influenced by the policies of major companies such as Amazon. As recently as five years ago, the company moved sexual pleasure products from 'Adult Goods' to the 'Health' section. It was followed by cultbeauty.com, one of the largest international online beauty retailers: since last year, the Sexual Pleasure & Wellness section offers products from indie brands like Dame, Smile Makers, and BeYou. The department store Bloomingdale’s, a division of Macy’s Inc., has also launched a sexual wellness category on its website featuring self-love and self-care essentials from some of the foremost startups in the space.
However, despite the spiking interest around the subject, it has only been 2 years since SexTech has finally been allowed as part of the official sex and wellness category at CES, overcoming stigma and taking its rightful place in the tech world. CES shows are in many ways the “gatekeepers” for a technology’s visibility, and the 2020 event marked a turning point for sex tech’s legitimacy as an industry, according to Liz Klinger, CEO, and co-founder of AI robotics company Lioness. Sex tech’s inclusion at CES and categorization under the health and wellness banner gives “people permission to talk about” sexuality and the ways technology can improve their sex lives and overall well-being, adds Stephanie Trachtenberg, director of marketing for Satisfyer.
As the trade show has historically been dominated by men, it received criticism in the past years for having an all-male lineup of speakers. Therefore, besides allowing sex tech, CES brought in an official “equality partner,” The Female Quotient, to help ensure gender diversity and train companies in equality practices.
Femtech is leading the way
Sex toys, female contraceptives, and hygiene items are by no means the only part of the sex industry that has integrated into the general sexual wellness trend. Over the past few years, the FemTech startups have managed to normalize female health issues by introducing innovative products, from breastfeeding monitors to apps for sexual gratification through audio guides, sparking interest among venture capitalists.
According to Frost & Sullivan's 2018 report, the global FemTech market is expected to be worth $50 billion by 2025. While some players in the tech ecosystem still describe it as a niche market, the targeted female customers represent 50% of the global population. “Today, R&D specifically geared towards women's health accounts for only 4% of overall health research funding. In comparison, 2% of this money goes to research targeted at prostate cancer," says Diane Roujou de Boubée, VC at Citizen Capital, in her Medium post.
While this is not yet the case for French companies, there have been significant sales in the sector, such as the acquisition of the KaNDy Therapeutics solution for women in menopause by German giant Bayer in August 2020, and IPOs, such as the US startup Progyny, on the Nasdaq in October 2019. Last year, Emjoy - an audio guide startup for female intimate wellbeing raised a tad under $3 million, while Dipsea - an app for short-form sexy audio stories raised a whopping $5.5 million in seed in 2019. All these indicators prove that the sector is booming and this creates a snowball effect from the financing point of view.
Over the past five years, the funds raised by FemTech startups have increased by 27% (between 2015 and 2020) to reach 1.2 billion worldwide. In Europe, €60.2 million was raised in 2020, representing only 0.6% of healthcare deals - this represented 2.3% in 2019. Behind this positive trend, there are discrepancies in funding and representation within FemTech. It appears that various FemTech segments do not have the same visibility and are not addressed in the same way. Indeed, while sectors such as Menstrutech and sexual wellness have only managed to raise $21 million and $40 million respectively, others, already more promising, are blowing away these figures, taken from the Frost & Sullivan report. For example, the fertility segment raised $423 million, while the maternity segment raised $228 million.
When it comes to sexual wellness brands, YESforLOV is one of the pioneers on the market. Since 2008, this French cosmetics brand focuses on intimate well-being and incites customers to rediscover fulfillment, comfort, and inventiveness of a love life. From the moisturizing intimate lubricant to the affluent massage oil, the brand offers a wide range of natural, vegan, and ethical products made in France.
Indie brands of sex gadgets are actively exploiting the emerging space for creativity. One of the most prominent examples is the American brand Dame, founded by Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman. Their compact and technologically advanced toys rather resemble beauty devices that customers might find on the shelf next to a moisturizer. Dame specializes in women's pleasure and their mission statement is 'closing the pleasure gap', as an analogy to the pay gap. Surprising statistics showing that only 39% of women regularly have orgasms during sex did not satisfy Dame's creators. So they began to develop their devices with the help of extensive female focus groups. In addition, Alexandra Fine emphasizes that for many women, masturbation represents an act of self-care and a way of relaxation rather than a substitute for sex.
In 2017, Dame's bestselling hands-free vibrator Eva received an entire feature in The New York Times. This was another important step towards normalizing open conversations about sexual wellness and sex toys. With the escalated interest in sexual wellness from retailers and consumers, investors started warming up to the category as well, which led to Dame raising $4 million in February of this year.
Maude, in particular, is the new health and beauty brand that is undeniably modern and luxe, with products that are so stylish you might be tempted to display their vibrators, lubricants, and condoms openly on your bedside table. According to the founder Éva Goicochea, consumers’ focus on health and wellness is a driver of demand for sexual and intimate care brands like hers. “With integrated health and wellness defining the past decade, customers expect a modern shopping experience for every part of wellness, including sex and intimacy,” she explains. “In listening to their customers, retailers are finally holistically integrating sexual wellness into their assortments and are leading the way in reshaping what was once personal care’s last frontier.”
The brand brought on Fifty Shades of Grey actress Dakota Johnson as creative director, with the aim to focus on sustainability initiatives and product development for the expanding body-care range. The actor is also an investor, having joined the latest $2.2 million seed round that counts venture-capital firms alongside high-profile people, including choreographer Benjamin Millepied and fashion retailer Steven Alan.
Kama app, on the other hand, is designed as a daily, guided practice to educate and boost sexual wellbeing and provide both mental and physiological benefits for its users. By tackling stress and addressing body confidence and insecurities, the app is set to be helping people develop a better relationship with their own body, first and foremost, and educating them about pleasure, something that is rarely addressed in sex-education or even within the medical field. Despite the global pandemic, the app managed to raise $3 Million in seed funding from investors including Female Founders Fund and January Ventures, to democratize access to sex therapy. After studying sexual wellness for over 15 years Chloe Macintosh, who previously co-founded MADE.COM, created Kama during the lockdown, as a response to a "global sex and intimacy recession".
“The intimacy recession is happening globally, not just with the younger generation but more so because there is a vicious circle caused by the use of social media, which has an impact on how we relate to the world around us and how we feel about ourselves. This impacts our self-esteem, which triggers depression and leads to issues around sleep, and this often means that we don’t want to socialize and therefore are less likely to have sex. This is greatly accentuated by the current situation which has put many in a state of emotional crisis," she explains.