Polly Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of Unbound, and Éva Goicochea, founder and CEO of Maude, never intended to work in sex tech. But in 2020, they sit at the helm of two companies revolutionizing the industry; Unbound is a purveyor of affordable, gender-inclusive toys, lubricants, and sexual wellness paraphernalia, while Maude acts as a genderless line of “modern sexual wellness essentials,” from vibrators to multi-purpose sanitizers. The two women became friends following the creation of their respective brands, and in that time, have fostered the kind of non-competitive companionship that's rare in the fast-paced, male-dominated world of startups. Here, writer Tess Garcia leads a roundtable conversation about making sexual wellness an accessible space.
Tess: What brought you into the world of sex tech?
Polly: I grew up in St. Louis, where you could only buy a vibrator or lubricant at a Hustler Hollywood near the airport. After fighting colon cancer at the age of 21, I lost my health insurance. At the time, I was very idealistic and wanted to do meaningful work. So, I worked for former Senator Claire McCaskill on Capitol Hill and quickly grew very impatient with the inability to enact change. Éva actually worked in government, too. I then worked in management and consulting and was miserable. Casper and Glossier and Warby Parker were all starting to take off at the time. And then I met my Unbound confounder, Sarah Jayne Kinney in 2014, through a women in a tech group.
Éva: When you’re around legislation and policy, it makes you realize how disconnected access to healthcare is. After college, I got a job being a legislative aide, but left to pursue a career in marketing and communications. And in 2015, I started Maude. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that you can buy condoms at the drugstore, but not lubricant and sex toys. My goal is to change what’s accepted and sold at drugstores because the basic needs of all genders are not being met. We built Maude to be an ageless, timeless, genderless company that would create basic necessities for everybody, so they can decide what their sex life should look like.
Tess: What it was like to be a woman in the venture capital startup world, fighting for sex tech?
Polly: You have the startup world, and then you have the adult industry. The people in the adult industry were welcoming and friendly, but didn’t take me seriously. I remember going to my first trade show and sticking out. In about one third of my meetings, I got asked about my age. People treated me like a cute little girl, but they were kind and open. Whereas, in the startup world, I applied to at least 20 different accelerators when we first started. When we got rejected over and over, a few advocates on the other side of the table finally sat me down and said, “Look, your numbers are good, but people are not comfortable with the category.” What really pisses me off is that the Internet was built on the back of porn — every tech investor knows or should know that. But there’s this weird disassociation with that fundamental truth.
Éva: There’s an overarching lack of reconciliation between what investors are doing behind closed doors and what they’re saying up front. But that’s where the money comes from. I think that a lot of investors have limited partnerships who will say no to sex tech, even if the investor might be willing to say yes. You’ll never know the answer to where some of these funds get their money. Are you dealing with the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Saudi Arabia? Or the Church of England? It gets a little tricky.
Tess: How have your cultural identities shaped your work, design, and methodology?
Polly: Having colon cancer definitely impacted my work. When men face the life-long side effect of erectile dysfunction, they’re able to undergo surgeries to remove their reproductive organs, so their ability to have a healthy sex life isn’t impacted. Women don’t really get the same consideration. Sometimes, it’s hard not to get cynical. Also, growing up in conservative Missouri has definitely shaped my work. As much as I would love to go into politics, I’ve realized that the way to actually make a bigger impact and lasting change is through the private market. You can build a lasting brand that stands for the values that you would want to represent politically.
Éva: I grew up in New Mexico until I was 10, and my parents were basically hippies. They were always really open to talking about sex. But I went to high school in Sacramento, which is pretty conservative in a lot of ways. I went to a Catholic high school where we didn’t talk about sex at all. I watched a lot of my female peers get called out if they did anything with a guy. They were being totally demoralized. I also grew up in a household led by a mother who was in arts education and a stepdad who was a lawyer. I wanted to run a real business with an element of design that can drive the conversation forward.
Tess: What sexual taboos or experiences with exclusion have you had to navigate in your own lives?
Polly: I had to get an abortion at 18 years old and there’s only one place in Missouri where you can go to do that. At a very young age, I realized that society regulates and politicizes women, femmes, non-binary people, and trans people’s bodies. To me, sex is so intertwined with people getting pregnant, and needing abortions and birth control. Why are some of those things OK to talk about, while others are stigmatized?
Éva: I never spoke about sex until much later in life. I never intended to get married early, but I’ve been married 11 years, so I feel a bit like an outsider. I represent a lot of Maude’s customers because I'm a late bloomer, and while older men have both driven the conversation by appropriating the world of sex, my sex life hasn't fit into that conversation.
Tess: In 2020, what does sex positivity mean to you?
Éva: Sex positivity means recognizing that sex is just a normal, everyday thing, then actually being able to show a diverse lens of where sexual wellness should land in the world. As you grow older you realize that society has been telling us that sex is for young people. I feel like sex positivity is evolving to become something that’s not owned by one audience. It’s an individual perspective, a broader conversation, and a willingness to educate your teenagers and talk with your friends.
Polly: It's been so bizarre to have demand increase during what has just been a horrific year. On the flip side, it warms my heart that during such a sad, tumultuous time, people are still giving themselves permission to orgasm, have sex, and be touched. This year we’ve all been so anxious — about COVID, the government, the Black Lives Matter movement. We are more aware of our bodies now than ever. It fills me with hope that people are still allowing themselves to experience pleasure.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.