Lauren Stutzman’s nightstand is home to a pair of palm-sized, black and silver buttons. Once mutually activated, both illuminate with a flashing green ring. The light merrily circles the smooth black surface to announce some exciting news: your partner would like to have sex with you.
Stutzman is one of 442 Kickstarter backers who threw their support behind LoveSync, a project that promises to help couples with problems in the bedroom. By tapping it, users can wordlessly express their interest in sex. If both people hit their buttons within the set window of time, the LoveSync lights up. It aims to be both informant and instigator. “LoveSync Button lets you realize many more opportunities where you could be having sex,” its campaign proclaimed. “Take the Luck out of Getting Lucky and make your move with confidence!” Its hopeful taglines were accompanied by images of a generic white couple: the man mid-fist pump, while the woman smiles coyly. Later, a gif showed him ripping off his shirt to unveil abs worthy of a Marvel movie, before diving face-first into bed.
At a glance, the campaign, launched by a married couple from Cleveland, Ohio, could be an earnest solution to marital bed death — or an elaborate troll. The pitch, with its infomercial-y copy and stock photo couple, can be read as painfully wholesome or brilliantly self-aware. A chart helpfully determines the “LoveSync zone,” a sweet spot between “where sex happens today” and “no sex here.” Its creators, Ryan (41) and Jenn Cmich (39), high school sweethearts who opted to launch this project — their first crowdfunded effort — assure me it’s the former of those first assumptions.
“Sex is not about being firmly hot or cold on the idea”
The pair was clued in enough to understand that their approach to fixing sexless relationships might seem silly to some, but soon they felt that everyone had missed the point. The LoveSync was meant to let people quietly voice their interest in sex without pressuring their partner. “Sex is not about being firmly hot or cold on the idea,” Ryan says. “A lot of the time we’re spinning around just warm.” In other words, sure, we could have sex — or we could sleep.
The project went viral almost instantly, but the couple radically underestimated how people would react online. LoveSync went through the wringer as media descended upon it with snark-powered glee. Headlines declared it “the worst of sextech” and compared it to the nut button meme. Others gave LoveSync a new name: “The fuck button.” “Smash that MF’ing horny button.” Here at The Verge, we (factually) explained that “Earth is dying and this couple is crowdfunding a sex button.” It even got a spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as part of a segment called “The Best (And Worst) Valentine’s Day Gifts.” Colbert roasted the “glorified restaurant pager” and quipped “you may commence mutual pleasuring, the button has spoken.” The attention didn’t go unnoticed by the couple. “Why can’t you just tell him you’re horny?” Ryan says, mimicking criticisms about communication.
It’s no dirty secret that couples are having less sex than they used to. Blame it on adults marrying later, porn, Tinder, depression, political climate, social media — the options are endless, but equally unsatisfying. If the Cmichs could help even one couple have a healthier sex life, wouldn’t that be worth it? “We want it to be light,” Ryan says of the campaign’s approach to discussing sex. And they’re not under the delusional that it’s a cure-all, or even that their product is for everyone. “If you’re having major relationship problems, this is probably not going to be the fix for you.”
For Stutzman, “the buttons are exactly what was promised.” LoveSync has been a shot in the arm for her marriage. “We both realize that we are more interested in engaging in sexual activity more frequently than either of us realized,” she says of herself and her husband. “It’s been an interesting revelation for us, because we’ve not wanted to be disappointing to the other person. Oftentimes you get signals crossed ... especially when you’ve been in a relationship for a really long time.”
For this pair, it brought flirtation back into the mix — a cute and funny way to keep up with their sex lives. But online, LoveSync’s reputation was decided before the product had even launched. The internet dictated a clear result: when something so painfully earnest arrived on the shores of a place drenched in irony, snark, and memes, the ridicule of LoveSync was inevitable. Most people had a good laugh about it and moved on with their lives, sexless or not. The rest paid the Cmichs $21,600 and patiently waited for their buttons to arrive.
The top funded Kickstarter campaign is a smartwatch. More than 78,000 backers contributed over $20 million for the privilege of checking email from their wrist and living without fear of getting such a gadget wet. Other popular projects range from Bluetooth-enabled coolers, video games, and even a campaign that revived Mystery Science Theater 3000. Each project is only as meaningful as the people who feel they need to support the product. Tens of thousands of people may have derided LoveSync, but it needed only a few hundred backers to succeed.
Whether you think the LoveSync is ridiculous or not, it’s exactly the kind of thing crowdfunding was made for. Sure, Kickstarter has gotten attention for many of its bigger, flashier campaigns, the ones that far surpass goals and rocket into exorbitant amounts. But the real promise of crowdfunding has been the democratization of creation. Crowdfunding removes the gatekeepers, falls on the side of creators peddling an idea, and allows them to appeal directly to their would-be audience, even when — especially when — it’s a small one.
The Cmichs had worked with a marketing company with a specific focus on Kickstarter to better get the word out, but viral fame was always a possibility in their minds. Ryan considered the idea to be infectious from the get-go: “People love talking about sex.” That may be true, but it seems there are some exceptions. People are less keen to talk about their decaying sex lives, especially as their bodies do the same. There are so few contemporary depictions of having sex into old age. The lazy joke that marriage equals less sex does nothing to examine the factors around it. And it was easier to make fun of the LoveSync than examine what other tools longtime couples have to frankly discuss and fix problems in the bedroom.
Instead, critics homed in on the idea of communication — not around consent or desires, but rather that the LoveSync was killing the conversation altogether. “It came across to people as, ‘Oh, your relationship is falling apart, you’re not communicating about sex, here’s a couple of physical buttons that are going to make it all better,’” says Ryan. This is perhaps why, when asked to describe his wife, Ryan first blurts out enthusiastically: “She’s hot. Still very cute. I’m still very much attracted to her physically.” (A moment later, he adds that she’s hard working, fiscally responsible, and a kind friend to those in her life.)
The media, he claims, didn’t get the LoveSync and had a habit of misstating or misunderstanding exactly how it worked. Taken at this apparent face value, writers approached it as “instead of rolling over and poking your partner, you could push a button,” he says. “You don’t have to physically touch them.” Even more frustrating for the couple were claims that the LoveSync would totally eradicate the need for talking with your partner, or replace physical initiation of sex. The LoveSync is not here to take away your ability to talk to your partner.
sometimes you just bang one out after eating too much pasta
But the device’s campaign felt so campy, intentionally or not, that the larger conversation got lost in the packaging. Jenn’s personal take on LoveSync touches more on stereotypes about sex and sex drives between men and women. She dismisses the tired idea that men are always in the mood and it’s women who have to be convinced. A device that could cut through the cruft and offer equal footing, without any words, seemed like a worthwhile venture. “When you see both those buttons light up … you know they’re really interested and so it kind of takes the pressure off there,” she says. “It doesn’t leave one person feeling like they’re always the one responsible for initiating.”
She pictures the typical LoveSync backer as a married couple like her and her husband. “You’re out of the honeymoon phase, you likely have kids, jobs, just a lot of, you know, life that can get in the way,” she says. It’s normal for couples’ sex lives to slow down.
Despite the pressure that all sex should be steamy and spur of the moment, sometimes it can be a little mundane. Sometimes couples need to rediscover each other with what the Cmichs call “maintenance sex” — making a conscious effort to connect with your partner physically. Sometimes you have filthy, degenerate sex on the nearest surface; sometimes you just bang one out after eating too much pasta. “It’s not the most passionate thing, but you just kind of keep the machine working,” says Ryan, referring to what he calls “mature” relationships. “Doing that keeps your hormone levels up, so that you can have more of those real passionate encounters.”
LoveSync shipped and is now in the homes of the people who supported it, but the couple already has plans to launch new products. That includes a free app that functions as a digital button, due out in early 2020. (Teaser photos on the LoveSync website show a simple interface that includes the same time restraints as the physical button. A promo shot includes the encouragement that it’s time to “put down the phone and get to it!!”)
Ryan says the couple is serious about LoveSync’s future. They’re not here to make a product that one day winds up as “some gimmick to buy at Spencer Gifts.” Still, he isn’t sure how the world views LoveSync. “Without me paying a consultation fee, I guess, as an outsider in the media, can you share with me what the conversation is around this? Is it seen as a joke?”
The answer is subjective, best addressed by the people who supported it in the first place. Backers like Stutzman have embraced its assumed absurdity. Sex will always be uncomfortable for some people to talk about, because it’s impossible to pin down. But really, it’s easier to talk about with the safeguard of irony, detachment, or sarcasm than discuss the ways in which attraction, intimacy, and desire change as people become comfortable with partners and seek to enrich other parts of their lives.
Sex between older adults and how they choose to navigate their relationships are even more likely to be the brunt of a joke — if it gets discussed at all. The dunks on LoveSync were funny, but they also avoided the real reason the button seemed, on its face, ridiculous: “Sex is taboo,” Stutzman says. “People still don’t like to talk about it.” Why might someone need a button in the first place? Because the conversation can’t even be had without it going viral.