On a sunny morning last January, a box truck with see-through walls drove down the Las Vegas Strip, showing off a set of sex toys. The company behind the truck, Lora DiCarlo, had come to town for CES, the Consumer Technology Association's annual showcase. This was the same event from which it had been disinvited just the year before, when its female-pleasure-focused products were labeled “obscene.”
This time, Lora DiCarlo would get the royal treatment: prime positioning for its booth, panel-speaking slots for members of its team, nonstop party invitations, and scads of glowing press for its groundbreaking debut device—the very one that had been the source of scandal 12 months earlier, a sensual massager called the Osé.
CES itself had changed to make this possible. There would be no more booth babes on the floor for the 2020 show, pornography was banned “with no exceptions,” and sex-related gadgets had a home within the Health and Wellness section. In sum, an industry whose primary consumers were women had at last been granted access to the boys' club. Sex toys were now sex tech.
There was, perhaps, no more important figure in this evolutionary leap than Lora DiCarlo's CEO, founder, and namesake. Her face was emblazoned on the side of the company's booth, set between scaffolds of yellow and white. A squad of roller derby players, brought in for the event, skated around the show floor wearing black and yellow tank tops printed with the phrase “Seize the Yes!” This was all a tribute, of a sort, to Lora Haddock DiCarlo: self-professed “anatomy geek,” medical school dropout, self-taught inventor, feminist provocateur, and now a data-driven, visionary entrepreneur.
DiCarlo's fight with CES the year before had been the twist that turned her into a tech celebrity. It started with an angry open letter calling out the trade show for its “long, documented history of gender bias, sexism, misogyny, and double standards.” Case in point: Just a few months before, CES had honored the Osé with an innovation award in its Robotics and Drones category, only to rescind the prize on account of its indecency. Yet, as the letter noted, the show had no problem making room for gynomorphic sex robots and VR porn for straight men.
Her critique was covered by The New York Times and NPR, on the WIRED website, and in blogs and newspapers around the world. (That summer, DiCarlo gave it once again on an episode of This American Life.) By the time CES 2020 kicked off, the show's parent organization had been shamed into offering an apology, along with numerous, new accolades for the company (including a restoration of its original CES award, plus two new ones). And when the company's website started taking presale orders for its device, on November 26, 2019, DiCarlo claimed it brought in $1 million in the first five hours. Now, with that revenue, plus several million dollars more from investors, she was ready to pursue her plan to “close the orgasm gap.”
By the time she rolled back into Vegas nine months ago, with her truck of robot dildos on the Strip, DiCarlo was more than a CEO: She was a conference-hopping activist, an icon on a mission to erase the shame around women's sexuality. Her Instagram feed showed a growing global influence. There she was, snorkeling in Bora Bora, on the stage at Women in Tech Stockholm, touring the Vagina Museum in London, posing with the NBA All-Star power forward Blake Griffin, and on a panel at TechCrunch Disrupt with her pet Pomeranian, Enzo Ferrari Drift DiCarlo, stretched across her lap.
And then, there she was again at CES, like the X-rated version of Steve Jobs, as much on display as the breakthrough tech that she'd invented.
The Osé robotic Massager for Blended Orgasms doesn't look like a typical sex toy. Where others come in pink and purple hues, Lora DiCarlo's flagship product—an 8-inch-long curved device enclosed in silicone—is a neutral gray, reminiscent of the casing on a classic Mac. If the iMac G4 was meant to resemble a sunflower turning to meet the light, the Osé's limber neck suggests a bird-of-paradise flower arcing from a vase.
The genius of the Osé is more than just aesthetic, though. Like many other devices, it's designed for dual stimulation, with a palpating wand to activate the G-spot while a thrumming oval applies suction to the clitoris. This is a variation on the classic rabbit-style vibrator made famous by Sex and the City. But those one-size-fits-all devices tend to have a common problem: Any given rabbit might feel amazing to one person, while another finds the parts are misaligned for their intended targets. The Osé, on the other hand, is meant to work for everyone.
To make that happen, DiCarlo had to do her own research, surveying women by the hundreds, asking them to measure the distances between their clitoris and vaginal opening and between their vaginal opening and G-spot. (She gave instructions.) With that data as a guide, she set out to build a product with a hinge flexible enough for any customer. “I saw an opening in the marketplace for a physiologically appropriate design for people with vaginas in the sex-tech space,” DiCarlo told the Hustle last year, “and I decided to … fill it.”
There was more: The Osé has “biomimetic” engineering and design, according to the company, which swaps machine vibration for something more like human touch; and its prototype was developed in partnership with the robotics department at Oregon State University. As the company scaled up, its employees' résumés got more impressive too. Director of engineering Kim Porter had worked with Nike, Intel, and Starbucks, and helped design space suits for NASA. Chief marketing officer Stephanie Hooper helped launch the Frappuccino and the first wireless-enabled phone. Senior retail marketing manager Ian Kulp had worked with Estée Lauder and Sharper Image prior to serving as the director of marketing at New York City's Museum of Sex. All this talent came together not to sell another cheap, plastic vibrator, but to redefine the sex toy.
Their dream, at least, was nothing new. In the century and a half since vibrators first appeared, variously powered by steam, water, and compressed air, the technology has been continually reimagined and improved. The devices were originally used by doctors in nonerotic ways, as a treatment for lumbago, constipation, and other ailments; they later morphed into sexual consumer products, in the form of electric-powered “vibratory apparatuses” for the home. The development of alkaline batteries made them smaller and more portable; lithium-ion batteries made them more powerful.
While some of these changes were rooted in scientific advances, others came from changing social mores. As attitudes toward sex loosened in the mid-20th century, sex toys got more graphic and anatomical; boxy, bulky designs gave way to phallic shapes (some were cast from penises). More recently, designs have tilted back to the earlier abstraction, objects with a Jony Ive inflection that's more at home in the MoMA Design Store than in a seedy porn shop.
“Sex toys always reflect the culture we live in,” says Hallie Lieberman, the author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. And in the current moment, sex toys now attempt to mirror the prestige of tech. They've been recast, both in their mechanics and their branding, as disruptive gadgets. “In a culture where the biggest companies are Google, Amazon, and Apple, if you want your product to be taken seriously, you call it tech, which makes it highbrow,” Lieberman says.
Lora Haddock DiCarlo was not the first sex toy entrepreneur to make a play for this prestige. By 2010 the San Francisco-based luxury brand Jimmyjane had raised $8.3 million in capital, much of it from the hedge fund Palo Alto Investors and venture capitalist Tim Draper. That same year, OhMiBod—which makes a vibrator that syncs its rhythm with a connected iPod—began exhibiting at CES. Three years later, Crave, the first company to successfully crowdfund a sex toy, announced that it had raised $2.4 million in angel funding from a group of prominent tech investors. In 2014, sex tech had its own dedicated block at New York's Social Media Week, with entrepreneurs given the opportunity to pitch investors in a Shark Tank-type event. By the end of that year, an MIT-educated mechanical engineer named Janet Lieberman-Lu, with close to a decade of experience designing and manufacturing at companies like MakerBot and Quirky, had cofounded another forward-looking, female-focused sex toy company, Dame Products.
For many in the business, DiCarlo's arrival on the scene in 2019 felt like the culmination of that long endeavor. She had promised a genuine technological advance: a toy that could work for any and every body, at a price point that wasn't fully out of reach. (The Osé retails for $290; competitors range from $10 for a vibrating bullet to $15,000 for a gold-plated G-spot vibrator.) Yet if her company had really managed this accomplishment, it was slow to make the big reveal. For all the glitz of its PR campaign—despite the roller derby girls, the box truck on the Vegas Strip, the speaking tour, and all the rest—the Osé Robotic Massager itself remained elusive.
For months, Lora DiCarlo kept the product under wraps. Even at the Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo, held in summer 2019 at the Airport Marriott in Burbank, California, the company hid its prototype from everyone but a select group of industry insiders. It was an unorthodox rollout for a sex toy, says Coyote Amrich, director of purchasing and product development for the San Francisco-based boutique Good Vibrations and one of the few who did receive a private demonstration. “In our industry, we're shown products that already exist, that already are a bona fide item, and then they ship in the next two weeks.” But this wasn't just another rabbit-style vibrator; it was microrobotic, biomimetic engineering—it was tech. Different rules applied, Amrich says: “You go to CES and items are shown that might not come out for a year.”
Indeed, even in the lead-up to Las Vegas for this year's CES, the Osé—which had by then been named one of Time's 100 Best Inventions of 2019, alongside the newest Impossible Burger and the Oculus Quest—was still something of a mystery.
In April 2020, somewhere in Seattle, a 39-year-old man with a shaved head and scruffy facial hair lifts an Osé toward the camera of his laptop. Then he pulls a camping knife from his pocket and jabs the dual massager at the bottom of its bulbous head.
These are the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, and Brian Sloan, the man in question, has apologized, via Skype, for his schlubby outfit: a light-gray fleece hoodie and dark-gray pants, the same ones he's been wearing for two weeks. Sloan, the inventor of the Autoblow, the Slaphappy, and the 3Fap, is no stranger to the inner workings of pleasure products. “I take apart most sex toys,” he tells me, so as to better understand his competitors. (Many sex toy designers do the same.) Sloan has disassembled air-pressure-driven products like the Womanizer and the Satisfyer. He has deconstructed automated strokers like the Fleshlight Launch. “Anything that's mechanical, I've taken apart, pretty much,” he continues. Today, Sloan is determined to peer inside the Osé, and I've invited myself along to watch.
His surgery begins with an excavation of the product's “robotic” G-spot stimulator—its hardware for come-hithering. Sloan slices into the silicone skin and peels it off as if he's husking corn. The stimulator, thus denuded, is an oblong plastic pod with a serrated slot carved along one side. Sloan powers up the toy and watches as the motor starts to whir. There's a screw inside the pod, and with juice it begins to twist and push a plastic ball, about the width of someone's finger, that moves back and forth along the length of the housing's opening. The screw is positioned at an angle such that the ball protrudes each time it makes its way up along the treads and then recedes inside for each return. “It's like one of these genius, simple solutions to making something,” pronounces Sloan—a clever, low-cost hack. (“Sloan's speculation about Osé technology and manufacturing costs for Osé is incorrect,” the company said, noting that the US Patent Office has deemed the device novel and unique.)
At first glance, Brian Sloan seems like the yin to Lora Haddock DiCarlo's yang: Where DiCarlo makes products that help women discover their bodies, Sloan's flagship product, the Autoblow, advertises “unlimited, perfect blowjobs” for men. Where DiCarlo surveyed potential customers about their anatomical measurements, Sloan set up beauty pageants to find the world's most exquisite vaginas and anuses. (He promised the winners thousands of dollars in exchange for 3D scans of their orifices, which would be the basis for his future toys.) Where DiCarlo has been a champion of the industry's push into the “wellness” mainstream, Sloan is all too happy to wallow in the sleaze.
They also have their similarities. DiCarlo's marketing, aimed largely at direct-to-consumer sales, invokes the language of advanced technology: microrobotics, biomimesis, data-driven design. So does Sloan's: His Autoblow AI device, also sold directly through a website, is said to replicate fellatio techniques based on a machine-learning analysis of 1,000 hours of video footage. Like DiCarlo, Sloan was once on the path to a more conventional career. He made his way into the sex industry after getting a law degree from Penn State. She's said that she dropped out of medical school to form a tech company after having a powerful orgasm. In the aftermath, she lay there “drooling, thinking, ‘That was cool. How do I do that again by myself?’”
Sloan has sold hundreds of thousands of blowjob machines, though his company has just a handful of full-time employees and no dedicated marketing team. And with production at his factories in China slowed by the pandemic, he's got all the time in the world to investigate the Osé. Having just pried apart its G-spot stimulator, he now turns to its flexible neck. Beneath the silicone skin he finds another tube, the structure that gives the sex toy its special flexibility. Coyote Amrich of Good Vibrations had been especially impressed by this innovation. Most sex toys aren't designed to be bent at all, she told me, but the Osé could be molded into seemingly infinite contortions. “The technology is something I haven't really seen before,” she said.
Sloan studies the bendable tube and tries to guess at the mechanism. Perhaps it's something like the MysteryVibe Crescendo, he says—a flat, bendable vibrator. When Sloan dissected one of those, he found a skeleton of interlocking plastic parts inside. (I provided strategy and marketing consulting services for that product during the company's initial crowdfunding campaign.) Inside the Osé's tube, he sees no small parts at all—just a bundle of copper wires wrapped in fabric and tape. “This is smart,” he tells me. “It's a really inexpensive way of doing it.”
Finally he cracks open the clitoral stimulator: a motor attached to a soft cup that collapses and expands.
With the device in pieces, Sloan tells me he feels vindicated. He'd been skeptical of Lora DiCarlo's claim to have created a “microrobotic” device. “Unless it's so ‘micro’ that I can't see it with my human eyes, it's just normal stuff that belongs in consumer products,” he says. When I put this to the company, the engineering director, Kim Porter, explained that the “microrobotics” were less about equipment size than precision of motion. She sent over a detailed list of specs related to its “come-hither motion precision” and use of infrared and magnetic sensors. I ran these by Eric Diller, a microrobotics expert at the University of Toronto, and he said they might satisfy a “loose definition” of the term.
But what had really bothered Sloan was the Osé's puffed-up presentation and DiCarlo's posture as a trade-show activist. It was unfair, he thought, to the many hard-working vibrator entrepreneurs who'd built the industry she now claimed to upend.
Yet Sloan was taking inspiration too. In the lead-up to CES's more inclusive and sex-positive 2020 show, he put out his own angry open letter—a burlesque of Lora DiCarlo's from the year before—that advocated for the lewder side of the industry. The event's more sensitive, updated policies were themselves discriminatory, the letter said. Now it was male sexuality that was being stigmatized and left out. In particular, Sloan took issue with the ban on pleasure products explicitly modeled after genitals—a ban the Lora DiCarlo team had championed. “While CES has (commendably) helped to lift the stigma against sexual devices for women by allowing them to be displayed as mainstream consumer electronics,” he wrote, “CES has reinforced the stigma against sexual devices for men (and the related shame) by disallowing them based solely on the one feature that happens to be highly linked to their commercial success: human orifices.”
Few tech publications reported on Sloan's letter. He did not get invited for an interview on This American Life.
Around the same time that Sloan dismantled the Osé over a video call, a disconcerting post appeared on Lora Haddock DiCarlo's Instagram feed. The Osé was finally going out to customers, and the company was gearing up to launch a second product, the Onda. But something else was on its founder's mind. “Hi folks, the last couple of weeks have been harder than I've let on,” she wrote. “You all deserve to know … I was positively diagnosed with Covid-19.”
The accompanying photo featured DiCarlo apparently topless in her bed, a hint of cleavage visible above her sheets, with her fingertips resting coyly against her forehead. She was not wearing any makeup, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Save for those two details, it felt more like a soft-core glamour shot than a public health announcement.
“Lora is a PR dream, she's a marketer's dream,” Stephanie Hooper, the company's chief marketing officer, told me. “She's so authentic. She is just who she is.” (Hooper left the company this summer, along with Kulp and director of sales Sarah Brown.) Around the office, there's frequent talk among the team of “Brand Lora”: the notion that, independent of whatever products the company might produce, DiCarlo herself is a marketable quantity, a femtech visionary ready to inspire the world.
Indeed, DiCarlo has gone the extra mile to promote her company and to emend its image—her image—as required. Her life story is one of iterated self-invention. She graduated from high school in California, feeling unsure of herself and adrift. Eventually she enrolled in junior college, but then something shifted inside her, and she decided she was meant for bigger things. At first she tried enlisting in the Navy, but that plan ran aground, she says, when her score on the military enlistment exam was so high that she wouldn't be able to pursue the Navy nursing job she wanted.
She landed a Navy scholarship to study nursing at a military college in Vermont, only to be derailed again when her mother's declining health forced her back to California. A few years later, DiCarlo told me, she was back in school for premedicine at Portland State University. That's when she had the orgasm that changed her path one last time. In starting a sex-toy company, she says, she found the sense of purpose she'd been seeking ever since high school.
From interview to interview, however, certain details of her background have been either tweaked or garbled: In some reporters' write-ups, for example, she's a Navy veteran and former nurse; in others (and on the company's website), she's said to be a med school dropout. Norwich University, the military college, confirms that DiCarlo was enrolled in its nursing program for a single semester in the fall of 2009. The California Department of Public Health confirms she was a certified nursing assistant from 2008 to 2010. An official at Portland State University said they had no record of her ever being enrolled there as a student. In response to further inquiries, the company told me that DiCarlo was never enrolled in medical school or at Portland State.
It's also not clear whether any robotics faculty at Oregon State were actually involved in the design of the Osé. (The company did work with OSU's Prototype Development Lab.) DiCarlo's project to collect anatomical data from hundreds of women was similarly hard to pin down: Though the data plays a large role in the company's mythology, none of the employees whom I interviewed ever mentioned having seen it. DiCarlo later told me that she'd collected these measurements “out of sheer curiosity” and that they'd given her a “reason to drive forward” with creating the company.
Regardless, Brand Lora has had real results. With its top-tier marketing, the company managed to attract media attention and generate some early sales, all while helping to improve the way the tech industry presents sex. In the months after her company's open letter, the CTA approached DiCarlo, among others, for advice on revising the rules for sex-tech exhibitors. (The CTA declined requests for an interview.)
“Lora advocated that sexual health should be treated no differently than an adjustable bed or a standing desk,” says Rachel Johnston, the company's former publicist. Other startup founders who have long pursued the same goal recognize the value of those efforts, and the publicity they spawned. More sex-tech companies at CES has meant more legitimacy for the product category, says OhMiBod cofounder Suki Dunham. “It raised the level of understanding for the space.” Though someone else's company is getting the lion's share of the press, Dunham doesn't seem concerned. “A rising tide floats all boats,” she tells me.
My Osé arrived by mail in a yellow and white box. (The company sent me one for review, free of charge.) When I turned it on and dialed up the device to full power, it began to whine and pulse: With both stimulator mechanisms running at full power, the Osé was far louder than other toys I've tested. After multiple attempts, the hands-free, biomimetic robot did manage to provide me with the much ballyhooed blended orgasm, but—in my opinion—it was awkward to use and felt a little cheap.
Others, too, had “seized the yes” and found it somewhat lacking. Mashable, one of the few press outlets that reviewed the device, awarded it 2.5 out of 5 stars, a score boosted by some extra points awarded for its “cool factor.” The handful of reviewers who have shared their opinion on ProductHunt were almost uniformly displeased. One suggested that the company's attempt at biomimesis had, perhaps, been too successful for its own good: “Overall this experience was worse than a toss with a boring inexperienced man.”
In late April, a few weeks after I'd received my Osé, DiCarlo and I talked on Zoom. Brand Lora was in full effect: She looked fantastic, with her hair carefully tousled and her neck adorned with jewelry. But her tech-visionary hoopla was more subdued than I'd expected. Where in other interviews she'd boasted of her product's ability to remake the female orgasm, now she positioned the Osé as a baby step. “We're still a startup,” she explained. “Nobody ever gets their first product to market perfect. Nobody ever gets it even close to perfect.” A few minutes later, she pivoted to telling me about the company's newer offering, a sex-education and coaching platform called WellSX that will eliminate shame around sex by providing users with a “high-touch human experience.”
Lora DiCarlo was on to other sex toys too. At CES 2020, the company debuted the Onda and the Baci—effectively the Osé's G-spot stimulator and clitoral suction device split in two. In February, Lora DiCarlo filed trademarks for two more unreleased devices, the Filare and the Carezza; and a redesigned Osé 2 is now on sale. As a way of doing business, this would be pretty normal for a tech firm, says Janet Lieberman-Lu, the engineer and cofounder of Dame Products. (Lieberman-Lu left that company earlier this year.) The tech-world mindset and funding strategy “pushes you into a trajectory where you have to grow really fast,” she says. “You're building up the bubble, and then you're trying to build the structure in place in the hopes that when that bubble pops there's something there to catch your company.”
That's not how things typically work in the sex-toy industry. For a company like Dame Products—or even Brian Sloan's Very Intelligent Ecommerce—consumers, not investors, provide most of the cash from the start. Not many adult companies have relied heavily on venture capital, and the handful of exceptions—like the hedge-fund-backed Jimmyjane—have tended to get their major investments years after their products have proved successful in the marketplace. Lieberman-Lu was struck by how things played out with the Osé, though, which was picking up awards before anyone had even held it in their hands. “It's a little bit jarring for people who work in the industry to see the artifice,” she says. “It's not just a different way of doing things. It's an unhealthy way of doing things.”
Indeed, once I saw the Osé up close, another fragile “health and wellness” startup came to mind: Juicero, the company that saw an opening in 2016 for its $400, Wi-Fi-enabled juicers in the fruit-smoothie-tech space and decided to fill it. In spite of $120 million from Silicon Valley investors, Juicero's product—described as a new “platform” for food delivery—turned out to be about as good at pressing the company's proprietary produce packets as a human's grip.
Could the Osé be sex tech's version of the same—a humdrum gadget potentially bested by your own two hands, dressed up as innovation and sold at twice the price of competing products? “We don't pretend that we know 100 percent exactly what we're doing,” DiCarlo told me as we wrapped up our interview. “We're a young company. We're learning as we go.” It was both the most honest and the most off-brand thing she said to me during our time together.
Her award-winning product may have been a dud, but it was clear that was only half the story. From DiCarlo's first moment in the spotlight, she'd been celebrated for her mastery of tech—for the way she'd used it to redefine the sex toy in service of her mission of empowerment. But the noisy, undistinguished vibrator that's now collecting dust under my bed was not, perhaps, her main invention. The company's success came not from the Osé but from the way it was promoted. DiCarlo had built a hype machine, precision-engineered with all the tools of startup culture, and there's no denying that it worked. It was Brand Lora, not the Osé, that recast a low-level health care worker with no background in either sex or tech as a thought leader in both spaces. It was Brand Lora, not the Osé, that helped the world accept that a sensual massager could be on par with Apple's AirPods, and that an industry long neglected and belittled should at last be taken seriously.
The Osé didn't have to be groundbreaking for this mission to succeed. It didn't even have to exist. That's an awkward truth about the tech-crazed culture of the moment: Startup founders may be treated as celebrities, but technology itself—what it does, how it works—can sometimes be an afterthought. We may venerate the gadget, but we're in thrall to something more abstract: the promise of a better, more satisfying world.
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