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How Silicon Valley’s feature creep is ruining sex toys

These new features come at too high a cost

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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

Over the past few years, the wall separating X-rated tech from the rest of the industry has begun to slowly crumble as various Silicon Valley types try their hands at creating sex toys. OhMiBod was founded by a former Apple employee; the (now-defunct) Revel Body was invented by an angel investor; and MysteryVibe (where, full disclosure, I was briefly a consultant back in 2015) was launched by a former management consultant who partnered with an array of design firms better known for working with the likes of Ford and Gatorade than anything XXX.

The one problem? Importing the Silicon Valley mindset to the world of erotic products has mostly resulted in terrible sex toys.

Take, for instance, the Lovely cock ring, the brainchild of Jakub Konik, who previously worked for Ashley Madison competitor Victoria Milan. Lovely is an app-enabled cock ring that promises access to various sex-related metrics, suggestions for new positions and erotic activities, and — if you’re willing to spend $29.99 / month — access to sex educators and relationship experts through an in-app chat program. It’s a bloated, unwieldy offering that seems more concerned with adding on features than actually enhancing sexual pleasure. Not surprisingly, Lovely failed to generate enough consumer interest to meet its initial crowdfunding goal — and yet, it’s one of the few erotic products that’s successfully secured VC funding.

How did a product like Lovely come into existence? Konik’s foundational story is a simple one: he was having sex with his girlfriend, and he started wondering how many calories they burned during one particularly memorable session. Stunned to discover there were no existing apps that could answer that rather specific question, he came to the conclusion that he should create one. “Most of the sex toys at that time didn’t have any digital features,” Konik tells me. “So I decided to look into it.”

Konik’s thought process isn’t that different from those of founders in the mainstream tech space. “It’s very easy right now to take devices that exist and throw ‘smart’ before the name,” Janet Lieberman, CTO and co-founder of sex toy company Dame Products, tells me. There’s an entire infrastructure that’s cropped up to offer plug-‘n-play modules that make transforming a “dumb” device into an enhanced one a trivial pursuit, she says.

But while overlaying digital features onto an existing device may be simple, it’s not always necessary or even a good idea — particularly when it comes to sex toys. While smart sex toys like Lovely, We-Vibe’s We-Connect line, and MysteryVibe’s Crescendo (which also attracted investment) promise a range of futuristic features, from ultracustomizable vibration patterns to easily stored settings to, yes, telling you how many calories you burned, those features can come at too high a cost.

Getting access to those enhanced features usually requires bringing your phone into the bedroom or even actively using it during sex, a mood-killing ask that many people find off-putting. And though devices like Lovely consider tracking to be a plus, many consumers see it as a minus. “[Users] don’t want a device to know how often they’re masturbating,” Lieberman says. She says that Dame Products’ research has shown that sex toy consumers are more interested in high-quality, ergonomically designed toys that are intuitive to use than they are in flashy apps and connectivity.

Unfortunately, those features aren’t particularly of interest to most investors.

Sex toy companies are already at a disadvantage: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft aren’t in the business of acquiring sex tech, which turns off any investors relying on an acquisition to make back their money. Investors who are willing to take a risk on a company that’s unlikely to result in an eye-popping exit or IPO are usually drawn to products that align with whatever’s currently trendy in Silicon Valley, like software as a service or the Internet of Things.

It’s a mindset that encourages the development of products like the flashy, feature-rich Lovely over well-engineered, well-put-together products that, though they lack high-tech bells and whistles, might actually be more in line with what users want and need to enhance their pleasure and improve their sex lives.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: the mindset that brought us Lovely is the same one that brought us Juicero, “smart” hairbrushes, and a $100 Bluetooth-enabled toaster. The Silicon Valley approach is bad for sex toys because it’s generally bad for consumer products. And as long as companies are designing toys with an eye toward securing VC funding, we’ll be awash in erotic products that privilege tech fads over consumer satisfaction.

History suggests that this uptick in VC interest in sex toys won’t last forever. When the ultraluxe vibrators sold by Jimmyjane — one of the first sex toy companies to attract major funding — failed to live up to investors’ revenue expectations, it scared investors away from the erotic space for years. If the current crop of Silicon Valley-inspired toys crash and burn, it’s likely that the VC funding will dry up once more. And while that may be bad news for sex toy founders’ bank accounts, it’ll likely save consumers from a flood of poorly thought-out sex products.