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A Look at Diversity in Today's Pleasure Biz

A Look at Diversity in Today's Pleasure Biz

As the pleasure industry has grown and evolved, so has a movement of multicultural executives, engineers and influencers challenging the status quo and working to make the sector more inclusive and representative. These individuals are not only bringing their unique perspectives and lived experiences to the table, but also fostering innovation, dismantling harmful stereotypes and advocating for sexual wellness education for all communities. As a result, executives and leaders are increasingly recognizing the importance of a more nuanced understanding of identity, and that diversity behind the scenes not only fosters creativity, but is necessary to cater to the full spectrum of pleasure product shoppers.

One such person is EngErotics founder and CEO Raven Faber, who aims to bring high-quality intimate products to a mass consumer market while breaking stereotypes.

I see a lot of promise in this industry, as innovation and problem-solving often go hand in hand with diversity and inclusion.

“When most people think of your typical engineer, they usually think of someone who is shy, awkward, crunches numbers all day long, and who would rather hide under a rock than talk to a large group of people,” Faber says. “No one ever seems to consider that any engineer would be so bold and outgoing as to use their education to develop sexual wellness products.”

Faber thrives on defying such expectations and labels, and promoting inclusivity in the engineering field.

“People also default to imagining engineers and scientists as white, cisgender, heterosexual males,” Faber adds. “The reality is that we come in all colors, genders and sexualities — and we’re just as worthy of industry support, investment and career advancement as anyone else.”

Sex educator Carly S., the product and customer service manager of Spectrum Boutique, uses her platforms to advocate for sexual wellness across diverse backgrounds.

“I strive to be an example of how anyone from any background can explore their options and find their place, and nothing should hold them back,” Carly S. says. “Especially not the expectations of other people. I want to help redefine what it means to be a pleasure professional.”

Glenise Kinard-Moore, founder of SkiiMoo Tech and creator of the VDOM, an app-controlled prosthetic genital, initially ventured into the pleasure industry with a background in information security, having worked as a payment card industry consultant for over a decade. Reflecting on it now, Kinard-Moore says it seems audacious to embark on creating a groundbreaking product without formal engineering or CEO training, yet now she finds herself a trailblazer in sextech.

“While relatively new in the industry, making a significant impact is challenging,” Kinard-Moore says. “However, a notable early success for our startup was securing second place in a pitch competition on a prominent platform, which marked one of our initial major financial victories as a sexual health and wellness company.”

Classic Brands Account Executive Nicole McCree says she seeks to be an agent of change by starting conversations, raising awareness and setting an example.

“Over the years, I’ve witnessed an increase in representation at various levels, which is encouraging progress,” she notes. “As I’ve excelled in my position, I have also strived to become a role model for others in the industry, so that business owners say, ‘I want someone like her to work for me!’”

Jade Leon Buchan, global sales manager of Sensuva, highlights the importance of forging connections and valuing other points of view.

“The cultivation and growth of others is important to me,” Buchan says. “I strive to create an environment in which everyone is able to acknowledge one another, see the perspective of others and not let anyone drown. Not only in business-to-consumer situations, but also within my B2B colleague relationships. Whether a person is an influencer, a large chain buyer or a sex educator, I want them to know they are being heard and their opinion matters.”

Crystal Gilbert, founder and CEO of Naughty Dreams, has worked to become a resource for anyone seeking information about sex.

“Being a person of color has helped me fill the gap and reach a wider range of women and men,” she shares. “Some have told me that within their family, sex ed is not discussed and that they have learned so much from me because they relate to me.”

Professional Roots

As BIPOC executives and industry figures have gained traction and visibility within the pleasure industry, their life and work experiences have uniquely informed their approaches to filling gaps and addressing community needs.

Nenna Joiner founded Feelmore Adult to fill a need she saw in Oakland, California — one of the most diverse cities in America. She started out by selling sex toys and videos from the trunk of her car, like the original industry pioneers did decades before. As the business took off, however, she discovered that fulfilling community needs was about more than simply selling pleasure products.

“I do a lot in the community, and that bleeds into who and how we hire,” says Joiner. “To work in Oakland, you must be passionate about Oakland. The team we have loves being here, and that matters.”

During the pandemic, as other businesses shut down due to COVID, Joiner’s savvy business sense and dedication to her locked-down community inspired her to mobilize her team as a delivery service. She feels that Feelmore’s success as a vital business is due to the high regard it has earned in Oakland.

“Many respect our business, understand its difficulties and give us extra grace,” she says.

Gilbert also saw a gap: a lack of representation in pleasure product packaging and ads, as well as in conversations about pleasure in general.

“I made myself the face of my company because I didn’t see too many Black women in lingerie or sex toy ads,” Gilbert recalls. “In interviews, the first question was ‘How does it feel to be a Black female sex shop owner?’”

A certified sex educator and relationship coach, Gilbert strives to give voice to conversations that tend to be avoided in some cultures and communities. Her website, NaughtierDreams.com, is more than a place to buy sex toys; it also links to wellness topics and information on events, workshops and consultations.

“I make it a point to talk about things that can get pushed aside,” she says. “For example, I lead a POC women’s symposium to discuss the importance of pleasure.”

Carly S., who has been published in magazines like Cosmo, Shape and Glamour, was jolted into thinking more about diversity issues even before launching her career in adult. While working at a motorcycle dealership, she initially assumed the clientele would be open-minded, like those she had met in the kink community.

“I had a rude awakening,” she admits. “I experienced lots of racism, sexism and homophobia.

She also speaks frankly about how being biracial has affected her life, both personally and professionally.

“Like many other people of mixed race, I have had the experience of not fitting in anywhere and having to make my own space regardless of what I’m doing,” she explains. “I was never Latinx enough because I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I wasn’t Black enough because I’m light-skinned. I’m not Jewish enough because I’m not religious.”

Despite that “not enough” feeling, common among those who straddle cultural and/or racial lines, Carly has forged a career path that leans into her cultural identity. When she started in adult retail, she found a lack of inclusivity. This only made her more determined to be herself, strive to make sure everyone has a voice and “make the space to allow diversity to shine.”

As a product manager, she explains, this means ensuring consumers can find representation in the toys they buy, and not be limited to one or two options that don’t fit their preferences. As a sexpert and writer, her background also allows her to connect better with her audience.

“My upbringing helps me be inclusive in my writing and particularly empathetic as I’ve experienced a lot of discrimination,” Carly says.

Buchan has found being biracial a plus in her professional life.

“I think my background was the perfect recipe for me to be able to connect socially, easily adapt to my surroundings and understand others,” she says.

A first-generation American of Chilean and Filipino descent, Buchan grew up in Southern California, which she notes is one of the most racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse regions in the country. Growing up in a very conservative religious household, however, certain topics were not discussed.

“Culturally, from both sides of my origin, Chile and the Philippines, it is unheard of to talk about sex and pleasure,” she explains. “Throw in some religious rules on top of the cultural taboos, and you’ll understand why I, of all people, know the feeling of judgment and condemnation.”

Nevertheless, Buchan is able to put a positive spin on her upbringing.

“I use those influences that have been engraved in my mind to teach others to love themselves,” she says. "Pleasure-based sex education is not only healthy, but a welcoming experience.”

The lack of diversity and inclusion in both the direct sales and engineering fields inspired Faber to start creating her own products. Coming from a corporate career outside the industry, she decided to build a company that would challenge traditional models and assumptions.

“It has always been my goal to create a company that gives to its employees all of the care, empathy and consideration that I didn’t get,” she says. “The corporate world and its proverbial ladder are most definitely not built for those who are members of underestimated/underrepresented communities.

“We firmly believe that representation matters in all things that we do, from our internal operations to our interactions with the surrounding cannabis, sextech and greater pleasure product industries,” she affirms. “We walk our talk. We have a mission and a message that runs much deeper than simply manufacturing and selling products. We choose not to remain silent or even neutral regarding issues that matter deeply to us, and we operate with intention.”

McCree also came from outside the adult sphere, having worked for Clairol and CoverGirl before joining the pleasure industry, but after 13 years at Classic Brands, she has established herself as a solid presence in the industry. McCree is well-known for her engaging social media posts — many driven by her passion for social justice — as well as for her dedication to Classic Brands’ growth.

“My colleagues trust and value my contributions, allowing me to be my authentic self and share stories through my lens,” she says. “Initiatives like introducing Coochy Ultra, catering to individuals with curly, kinky hair, reflect our commitment to inclusivity, which I appreciate.”

McCree sums up the current state of the industry succinctly: “Representation of people of color in the industry remains low, so there’s still work to be done.”

Overcoming Adversity

Being a member of a minority, marginalized or underrepresented community can offer perspective on inequities and what kind of change is needed, but it can also entail confronting very concrete challenges that impact opportunities for professional growth.

When first launching her business, the popular BIPOC-owned online intimacy shop Organic Loven, long-time pleasure retail innovator Taylor Sparks found herself competing with major manufacturers.

“When I started Organic Loven, I was one of three African-American sex educators presenting in the swinger community — and the only sex educator that owned a sex toy company,” she recalls. “I had to fight for retail space in the boutique and space on the pool deck [during our swinger cruises that were full ship takeovers with up to 4,000 people]. I had to fight to be put on the roster to present my seminars. Each year, I negotiated for more. By the sixth year, I had a third of the retail space in the boutique, six tables poolside and offered three seminars. I also brought three other African-American sex educators with me and in total we offered 12 seminars in a week.”

Joiner cites a very specific and very universal challenge she faced in establishing Feelmore.

“Financial adversity made the journey long!” she says. “It was hard to reach a sustainable inventory level when I had to buy one product at a time. But adversity pushes me and gives that seasoning.”

Josh Ortiz, a sex educator and brand ambassador for XR Brands, recalls how challenging it was to be starting out in the industry.

“Nobody knew I was trans, nobody knew I was well versed in human sexuality, nobody knew me,” Ortiz says. “Establishing myself felt like a daunting task because to establish myself, I had to expose myself first. I had to establish why I wasn’t the standard industry middle-aged cis-male, and, as is often true with trans folk, work thrice as hard to be heard and respected.”

Faber started her journey in 2008, hosting sex toy parties while in graduate school and then as she began her engineering career. She remembers hitting plenty of bumps along the way to establishing herself professionally as an engineer and entrepreneur.

“If I had a nickel for every time I was underestimated, talked over, talked down to, interrupted, dismissed, met with casual racism and sexism or told ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting you!’ upon entering a room, EngErotics would have all of the funding necessary to grow, scale and thrive indefinitely and then some! I still encounter people at trade shows who seem incredulous that I am the founder and CEO of EngErotics.”

Tamara Payton Bell, who today is the administrator of the Sexual Wellness Professional Alliance, entered the pleasure business in the mid-1990s, selling lingerie for an MLM. She met pleasure industry vet Autumn O’Bryan, who shared insights on the home party planning sector of the business and helped her prepare for her first event.

“Establishing myself professionally in the pleasure industry presented several challenges,” Bell says. “Societal stigma, being judged, discrimination — and ostracization from friends, family and society at large. Despite these adversities, I was able to become successful by leveraging my creativity, resilience and dedication to what I had a passion for.”

Passion also drove sex educator, speaker and self-proclaimed dildo slinger Dirty Lola to enter the pleasure industry. A decade ago, while at a conference in LA, Lola got a call from a friend. Shag, the little boutique sex shop she’d fallen in love with, was hiring, but the interview window was closing before she would be back into town. Lola contacted the owner and begged her to extend the deadline — and the rest is history, as she continues to work with the Williamsburg, Brooklyn shop today. Getting her foot in the door turned out to be the only easy part, however.

“I’ve definitely had to grind a little harder and make my own way because I wasn’t getting the same mentorship, networking and opportunities I saw my non-BIPOC peers getting,” she says. “When you’re new in an industry, those things are key. It was hard seeing other folks getting things handed to them because they were in the room, while I was fighting just to get into the room.”

Nor is Bell alone in dealing with stigma. Farah Shaikh launched Rouge Garments following a request from a client of her DVD manufacturing company who asked for help sourcing a leather harness. The niche became her specialty and now her company is a multinational supplier in luxury real leather bondage and stainless-steel medical play products.

“In my culture, it is taboo to be in this type of business,” she says. “But this kind of attitude has just encouraged me to produce more products for all to enjoy, and I will continue to do so.”

Blanca Estrada-Gonzalez, senior sales account executive for lingerie brands Magic Silk and Male Power — she calls herself the “Panty Pusher” — offers, “As a Latina, intimacy, self-pleasure, relationships and gender roles were really not up for discussion!”

Estrada-Gonzalez entered the industry in 2010 after answering a Craigslist ad seeking someone for data entry and customer service for a women’s clothing line that turned out to be the New York-based brand. She says she identifies as a trifecta: minority, female and a mother, a combination that has entailed more than a few challenges.

“My first employers had no faith in me,” she says. “As a complete newbie, I was told I couldn’t be given a sales goal because I wouldn’t be able to meet it. I had to prove that I could be an asset.”

Luzoralia Corvera, now a seasoned pleasure biz sales exec for NS Novelties, also remembers being the new kid on the block. When she first ventured into the pleasure industry nine years ago, after 15 years in the beauty business, no one knew who she was.

“I had to build my contacts list and my reputation from scratch,” she says. “People in our industry like to deal with familiar faces and I definitely was not one of them. I was very lucky to be trained by one of our industry’s best, Alicia Sinclair Rosen. I learned as much as I could from Alicia and ran with it. I truly believe she had a lot to do with my success. I am extremely thankful for her.”

Vision for Diversity

Amidst the shift toward inclusivity, pleasure industry executives are expressing a collective hope for greater diversity, in terms of both representation within the pleasure biz’s professional ranks, and the products they offer.

“It is my hope that the industry will tap into more BIPOC sex-toy company owners, educators, therapists, counselors and coaches, because we possess a wealth of knowledge,” Sparks says.

This year, the fifth season of her podcast, “Sisters of Sexuality: Five Shades of Play,” will focus on exactly that demographic.

“I have this opportunity to put on a full-hour show asking them as many questions as possible about their journey, their passion, their education and the business of sex, with links back to their sites and social media and anything they are promoting,” she says.

Gilbert is hoping that offering diverse “skin” tones for products becomes common sense among manufacturers.

“My hope is that when I ask if an item comes in a variety of skin tone colors, people don’t just say, ‘That’s a good question’ or look shocked,” she says.

Faber is calling for the pleasure industry to completely do away with offensive, racist, sexist, ageist and ableist marketing and packaging.

“Yes, there are people who buy these things and, yes, retailers need sales to pay the bills,” she says. “However, to enable a longstanding problem that causes harm to underestimated and underrepresented demographics is to perpetuate it indefinitely. Although the niche of sextech isn’t perfect by any means, I see a lot of promise in this industry, as innovation and problem-solving often go hand in hand with diversity and inclusion. Intersectionality is something that is widely acknowledged and embraced in sextech. I’d love to see the greater pleasure product industry take note and follow suit.”

While Corvera hopes that diversity within the pleasure industry will help professionals feel more welcome, Carly S. is hoping to see more opportunities for established experts like her in higher-up positions where change can be made.

“I’d love to be in the room helping make decisions about how toys are designed and making the designs more inclusive to all bodies and experiences,” she says. “I think if the same people are the only ones with access to this, toys will continue to look the same and only so many changes will be made. I know so many talented people who work under other talented people, but maybe aren’t given the chance to shine the way they should be. Give more diverse people the chance in higher positions, and I think the industry could really evolve in ways it hasn’t yet.”

Aneros Director of Sales and Marketing Brent Aldon arrived in the pleasure industry 15 years ago, after General Motors’ bankruptcy left him without a job. He wasn’t expecting to take a position marketing sex toys, but has gone on to play a pivotal role in promoting prostate health awareness with Aneros.

“Diversity and inclusivity are the current wave of our modern times,” he says. “Especially as a gay man, the level of acceptance 15 years ago was not like it is today. But we still have a long way to go.”

Bell notes that evolving expectations for diversity and inclusivity in the pleasure industry are driven by changing societal attitudes, consumer preferences, and advocacy for representation and equality. She believes that better inclusive marketing strategies that celebrate diversity and challenge stereotypes are necessary.

“Offer a diverse range of products that cater to different demographics, body types and sexual orientations,” she says. “This includes products designed specifically for marginalized communities, such as people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals or those with disabilities.”

Ti Chang, co-founder and creative director of Crave, hopes the pleasure industry can make more people feel welcomed and comfortable at all touchpoints, from websites to trade shows and publications.

“Our conversation around pleasure has been steeped in cultural baggage,” she says. “I think it’s important to elevate that conversation with thoughtful language and imagery that portrays where we want pleasure to go.”

Polo Medina of Sexshop Matamoros in the border town of Matamoros Tamaulipas says the industry’s move toward broader representation has been well-received in Mexico.

“I hope the industry keeps up all the great work because it has helped a lot of people to understand themselves and others,” he says.

Distribuciones-BES CEO Rolando Gamez hopes for the same, but acknowledges the challenge ahead.

“Mexican society is conservative, burdened by an unaltered patriarchal vocation with sexist roots,” he says. “It is a daily struggle. It is key to be able to reeducate on the path of tolerance and inclusion.”

Kate Kozlova, the U.S. sales manager for Kiiroo, envisions an adult industry that consistently provides a safe and inclusive environment for all who care about love and intimacy.

“Regardless of one’s background or their gender identity, I believe that everyone should have equal opportunities,” she says. “During my travels, I was delighted to meet Black storeowners and witness the strong support they received from their local communities. I look forward to seeing more instances of this kind of solidarity and empowerment, in a future where the industry embraces and celebrates diversity in all its forms, including gender identity, sexual orientation, race and cultural backgrounds. This inclusivity should be reflected not only in product offerings but also in marketing strategies, company culture and employment practices.”

Ortiz hopes to see more attention paid to the needs of trans customers, and urges companies to tap into experts like him to find out directly how to go about making that happen.

Estrada-Gonzalez says she would love to see more Latinas and mothers filling top spots within the industry.

“People haven’t realized that moms are some of the best at C-suite roles,” she says. “We can budget, manage, schedule and run both a house and an office!”

Fun Factory Sales Director Michael Cox anticipates an increase in BIPOC representation in all roles in the industry.

“Not only as business owners, but also as associates for manufacturers, vendors and retail,” he says. “Embracing diversity is key to unlocking the industry’s full potential. Everyone brings a unique set of experiences and perspectives to the table, and by fostering inclusivity and collaboration, we can propel the industry to unprecedented heights. Just as innovation knows no bounds, neither should our commitment to diversity and inclusion. By embracing a wide range of voices and experiences, we can ensure that the pleasure industry continues to evolve and thrive.”

Likewise, Dirty Lola hopes that as the pleasure industry grows, more BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and disabled folks will be represented, “from the bottom to the top of our vast and magical industry.”

When Josh Ortiz’s executive-level position at a cable TV conglomerate took him to Denver, he was starting to feel restless in his job and missed the fulfillment of being of service to others that he got from his former career as a nurse.

“As a queer person, the possibilities I saw for product innovation were, and still are, boundless,” Ortiz said. “I began to research human sexuality, and with autistic hyper-fixation being my superpower, I haven’t stopped. When I started in this industry, nobody knew I was trans, nobody knew I was well versed in human sexuality, nobody knew me. Establishing myself felt like a daunting task because to establish myself, I had to expose myself, first. I had to establish why I wasn’t the standard industry middle-aged cis-male, and, as is often true with trans folk, work thrice as hard to be heard and respected.”

Ortiz hopes to bring more attention to the needs of trans customers, and urges companies to tap into experts like him to find out directly from him about it.

Joreail Armstrong, business development manager for Honey Play Box, says that he first became familiar with pleasure products through his own personal exploration of the polyamory lifestyle, which started about 10 years ago. It wasn’t until 2017 that he was recruited to help establish the brand is creating a much wider array of products for all body types.

“We hope to expand and support the elderly population and those with sexual dysfunction,” he says. “We want to leave no person out and no stone unturned when providing a safe, healthy, fun and sexy way to experience pleasure.”

Kinard-Moore encourages companies to prioritize the needs of individuals and communities that may be marginalized or considered “niche.”

“It is crucial for businesses to be attuned to the diverse requirements of these groups,” she says.

As for those who think catering to specific groups won’t benefit their business, McCree says they’re missing out on success.

“There are immense opportunities, particularly within communities of color, regarding sexual health and wellness,” she states. “Initiatives like engaging with Black churches or targeting specific demographics within these communities can lead to significant business expansion. When people of color are included and represented, there’s tremendous potential for growth. Look at the hair industry and take notes!”

The BIPOC community is making significant progress in the pleasure products industry, not only by pushing boundaries, challenging stereotypes and fostering inclusivity, but also by creating innovative products, advocating for sexual wellness education, and building connections across the industry. These efforts are paving the way for an industry that embraces diversity in all its forms, from the representation of marginalized communities to the development of products that cater to a diverse range of sexual needs and desires.

By uniting the widest possible range of people in the name of sexual wellness and self-love, the industry aims to build a future where everyone feels seen, heard and celebrated in the pursuit of pleasure.

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