Polly Rodriguez bought her first vibrator at a Hustler Hollywood store off a St. Louis highway. You know the kind of place: pictures of women with fake breasts and peroxide hair, racks of corsets and "schoolgirl" skirts—making the whole experience feel unseemly and more aligned with a porn-imbued male view of female sexuality than how she saw herself.
So while still in her 20s, Rodriguez launched a different kind of sex toy company. Named Unbound and aimed at millennials, the brand radiates less "adult company" than it does approachable and feminist sexual wellness. On sale are its own line of vibrators with Smart Memory tech, subscriptions to sex toy deliveries and even a "Nevertheless, She Persisted" gift set complete with blindfold and Elizabeth Warren tote.
Unbound's formula has received mainstream venture capital buy-in, raising $2.7 million last year from such well-established tech-centric firms as Peter Thiel's Founders Fund. That size of investment was previously unheard of among the Women of Sex Tech, a coalition of more than 60 feminist-led startups, mostly based in New York City, with the goal of pulling their products into the mainstream realm of Lululemon or Glossier.
Yet none of this nuance matters to social media's advertising censors. According to the blunt rules that apply to adult companies on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and Twitter, sex tech is banned from paid promotion just like hardcore porn. And it's not because the rules prohibit nudity or overly sexual images, given the companies keep their ads PG. As Dame Products CEO Alexandra Fine says, "Our products don't actually look like anything"; her co-founder, MIT engineer Janet Lieberman, drew design inspiration for the company's vibrators from Oxo housewares and Google Home. In one ad Facebook rejected, the ambiguous object sits primly in a woman's outstretched hand.
The sticking point is the brand's products themselves. Facebook, for example, allows advertising of sex-themed products that promote "family planning" and "contraception," but not "sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement." That means condoms but not vibrators: "So we're implicitly saying it's OK for men to orgasm," Rodriguez says. "So why can't we have the same for women?"
Similarly, Snapchat doesn't allow "adult products" other than contraceptives. Pinterest's rules ban "adult products," and Twitter prohibits "sex toys."