Tech, Now + Beyond

A vibrator is at the heart of technology’s top scandal

Gender bias in STEM strikes again

A vibrator was named as an Innovation Awards Honoree in the Consumer Electronics Show’s (CES) Robotics and Drone product category. And without a doubt, it has been an extremely controversial awarding. Within the past few months, that title was awarded, removed, and returned. 

Lora Haddock is the CEO and Founder of Oregon-based Lora DiCarlo, a gender and sex inclusive pleasure company. Haddock herself has over a decade of experience in the health care industry and is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. As a self-described “anatomy geek,” Haddock is “fascinated with the psychological, physiological, and anatomical aspects of the female orgasm.”

As such, she created the Osé Robotic Massager, which is the only product designed to create a hands-free blended orgasm for women. That means it stimulates both the g-spot, and the clitoris at exactly the right times, which the company jokes would take either “a talented partner, or Osé.” This product uses advanced micro-robotics to mimic the sensations of the human mouth, tongue, and fingers which is why this product was dubbed by customers as “the holy grail of orgasms.”

The sheer amount of technology that goes into creating a product like Osé is incredible. Her team consists of a majority of women, LGBTQ+ members, and a few “wonderful men.” That in and of itself makes an impact in the majority male space. Lora DiCarlo designed Osé in partnership with Oregon State University, the top 4 Robotics Lab in America. It is the subject of 8 patents pending for robotics, biomimicry, and engineering feats. Clearly, Osé is a credible product.

Before a product can be nominated at CES, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) vets the companies and products. Lora DiCarlo passed this vetting process. Then, a panel of independent expert judges in robotics score the products across a wide range of technology categories. What they found was a high level of innovative technology in Osé, going much further beyond just sex tech uses.

So, Lora DiCarlo received a CES 2019 Innovation Awards Honoree in the Robotics and Drone Product category.

But shortly after, CTA stripped Lora DiCarlo of the award. According to the CTA, “entries deemed by the CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with the CTA’s image will be disqualified.” The also banned Lora DiCarlo from exhibiting in any future shows.

Haddock has the same questions I’m sure a lot of you have: if the product didn’t fit the ‘moral’ standards, how did they get past the CTA vetting process? And how did the product continue on to get extraordinarily high marks from the expert judges?

As Haddock notes on the Lora DiCarlo website, in 2018, a sex doll for men launched at the same conference. That in addition to a virtual reality pornography company, which allows people to watch porn in public, exhibits at CES every year. How is it, then, that her toy, in particular, is offensive? If you ask Haddock, and myself, it is due to the systematic gender bias in the tech industry. CES and the CTA are just reinforcing everything everyone already knows about tech: it’s anti-women.

Further, Gary Shapiro, the CTA president, and CEO, and Karen Chupka, the Executive VP, sent a letter about the product. They said Osé, in their eyes, never should have been considered.  Haddock finds this offensive (as she should.)

The CTA has a long, terrible history with double standards and gender bias. Haddock’s open letter to the CTA on the Lora DiCarlo website sparked conversation about how sexism in the tech industry manifests in CES. In 2018, the show booked exclusively male keynote speakers, for the second year in a row. It is normal for companies to hire models, often called “booth babes” to attract the majority-male audience. It seems strange then, that the CTA finds a product designed for the vagina-equivalent immoral. Quite frankly, Lora DiCarlo deserves an apology.

In a phone interview with the New York Times, Jean Foster (CTA senior vice president for marketing and communications) said that CTA realizes mistakes were made. “We realized we didn’t handle it well,” she said. She further said that she and other officials recognized they had unevenly applied rules applying to sex tech companies, and are revisiting a number of practices around gender and inclusion.

According to Haddock, that’s all the goal ever was. The CTA returned the award to the Lora DiCarlo company, but it remains unclear if the company will be allowed back at the next CES conference.

Haddock says that this whole scandal is a result of the systematic gender bias in the tech industry today. On the Lora DiCarlo website, Haddock writes, “Everything we do at Lora DiCarlo is rooted in sex-positivity and inclusion.” When the Osé was submitted, it was truly the first of its kind. In a historically male-dominated space, this changes everything.

Gender bias stifles innovation in all STEM industries. But Haddock is fighting that system in tech. And it’s our job to support her.