FemTech World speaks to Raven Faber founder of EngErotics about online censorship, sex tech standards and what needs to change
The slogan for this years’ International Women’s Day was #BreaktheBias. However, it remains difficult for femtech or sex tech companies to even attempt this on the very social media platforms promoting the hashtag.
Over 40 companies have signed a petition aimed at highlighting, and ending, the discrimination faced by female-founded companies online. The companies say their posts and accounts have been blocked, shadow banned and paid advertising banned due to explicit content – including posts on endometriosis, sex tech, vagina health and other female-centric content.
Raven Faber founded EngErotics with the aim of moving into well-designed, accessible sex tech. She also began to include CBD in her business through different self-care products that enhance the experience for users. However, with the increase in online censorship, we ask if being in the cannabis industry and the sex tech industry has been difficult.
She said: “When I started EngErotics, I didn’t realise we were going to enter into cannabis as it was strictly sex tech because that’s what I knew. I didn’t know anything about CBD because I had been working in the corporate world where there were zero-tolerance policies.”
When a client reached out to Raven, she began researching what CBD was and also how it could be combined with sex tech to improve a user’s experience. Through research, she noticed that there was a huge issue with consistent quality and standards in the cannabis industry which was similar to the sex device market.
Raven said: “I discovered, similar to what we see in the intimate device work of sex toys that there were no design standards. There were no formulation standards as it was very much the wild west with no checks or accountability for quality, safety or efficacy. This was another place for engineering and tech to shine to help bring good practise and accountability into the industry.”
In the past few months, campaigns have been launched around the censorship experienced by sex tech or femtech companies online. This includes adverts being removed, social media posts taken down, accounts blocked and banned. Femtech companies are arguing that this has a huge effect on the industry – especially for women- as bans have included products specially designed for women. However, adverts for male products do not struggle with the same level of bans.
In a survey, the Centre for Intimacy Justice found that 60 per cent of femtech companies had had an advert removed by Facebook/Meta. Half of the companies who participated had had their accounts removed by Facebook while 100 per cent had had an advert rejected by Instagram.
Raven remembers how difficult advertising was when she started. After hearing reports of how difficult it was to advertise, she decided to use a grassroots approach with Facebook in comparison to a multi-platform advertising strategy or paid advertising.
She said: “I didn’t really bother with paid advertising as I was hearing from other people that they were having a rough time with it. People were having their social accounts shut down so I did the best that I could. We didn’t have an Instagram or Twitter for a long time but we had a Facebook page where people could find us.”
While Meta platforms cannot stop every account that features sex or fem tech, bots look for certain words to flag from obvious choices such as cannabis or sex to the more unusual word, men. It has led to influencers changing the way they spell certain words to avoid triggering a bot response. This is why accounts use words such as s3x, oud or m3n instead of the actual spelling.
Raven said: “In the beginning, it was just me making things up and hoping it would work. I didn’t censor myself so I would spell sex correctly or not abbreviate the word orgasm. We had to be very careful not to post anything explicit or show pictures of the toys or nudity. Maybe it would be a pretty picture of a black woman with a suggestive copy.”
She added: “How could we put this out there in a way that is going to look benign enough where we do not get shut down because so far our account hasn’t been closed. A lot of our growth has been organic, I never bothered with throwing money into paid advertising because a lot of people were getting shut down anyway.”
Social media censorship
Often with smaller, independent or start-up companies, social media can provide a valuable link between customers and businesses. It’s essential in a world where PR campaigns can be too costly for emerging entrepreneurs or start-ups.
Raven explained: “Social media platforms are necessary evils. It’s where people go looking for you now. I’m not against social media but I hate being told what I can and can’t say when it comes to sexual education because it’s important. However, when you deal with industries that are considered to be vice then this is what you run into.”
Vice industries is the term increasingly used to describe the sex toy, adult pleasure, sex tech and cannabis worlds. In many ways, it can feel like a community where the two have almost identical problems such as bans and banking. They can overlap in many ways when it comes to censorship.
Raven said: “It took us over a year to find a merchant processor. There are a lot of people who struggle to find banking in the intimacy device and cannabis industries. I lucked out because when I opened my business, I named it, registered it and got my tax ID before I started making a product. No one told me to do that but it made sense to do it that way. I saved myself a lot of pain by getting in good with a bank first.”
She added: “If you are looking to hire contractors then there may be certain ones that won’t work with you because of the industry you are in. If it’s not the sex tech then it’s the CBD. There have been a handful of people who don’t feel comfortable providing the service because you sell vibrators because of the stigma. It’s all about the perception of what is seen to be shameful or vice. They worry that it will rub off on them and tarnish their reputation.”
The perception of the vice industry and the stigma has also had a huge effect on brands during the pandemic. Vice brands in the cannabis and fem/sex tech worlds were denied a loan during Covid to help with staffing costs or keep businesses alive.
“In 2020, the government gave out loans to businesses that qualified during Covid but businesses they defined as lewd didn’t qualify for assistance. This could include owners of strip clubs trying to pay their bartenders or adult pleasure stores that couldn’t get help. Getting a loan can be really difficult,” Raven said.
“The activity I saw on social media during this time from business owners was that those offering intimacy devices were running into brick walls because the definition of what was defined as a ‘lewd’ business was too broad and subjective. It affected everyone from those who had brick and mortar stores to e-commerce or potentially even sex therapists too. A lot of people didn’t qualify and they were hurting.”
“The funny this was, that a lot of politicians or government workers were enjoying the products they were stigmatising. A lot of my peers in this industry had people on a payroll that they couldn’t afford to pay because they didn’t qualify for this loan.”
The sex tech industry has taken massive steps into the wellness industry in recent years. The backstreet stores and dodgy websites have been replaced by glossy marketing campaigns, well-packaged items with self-care instructions or free chocolates. The vibe in modern times seems to be more focused on masturbation as a part of your wellness and self-care routine making sex tech less scary or inaccessible to all.
But while the industry goes forward, the advertising channels and options seem to be going backwards.
Raven said: “It’s really backwards in that you can’t advertise now. There are some companies that get away with it but a lot of the smaller ones cannot. It’s really unhelpful because you know exactly what a good campaign can do. You pump money into your ad spend with a campaign to increase your reach substantially but it’s hard. It’s difficult to get organic growth and traction.”
She added: “It’s sex educators too who are having their accounts closed down. It’s good educational stuff to do with sex which is so badly needed. It’s heavily biased in that if we are talking about men then you can run ads for erectile dysfunction medication or erectile devices. But if you start talking about female pleasure then everyone starts clutching their pearls. We can’t say vagina or run any adverts that support vulva pleasure.”
When it comes to moving forward, Raven is focusing on the journey rather than the number of followers. She believes the smaller numbers of genuine fans or customers are better than the larger audience.
Raven said: “It takes a lot of tenancy to go after that organic growth. Do we have 40,000 followers on our Instagram? No, but we will get there after a while. What I have noticed with those who follow us is that they are really into what we do. If we have 1000 followers then 60 per cent of those are actual customers in comparison to those accounts with thousands of followers where no one buys a thing.
Make no mistake, social is important. Due to the obstacles and the red tape, I’ve been focusing more on the journey, and the quality rather than the quantity.”
Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, say campaigners
Campaigners have warned that health tools could overlook women from marginalised communities
Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, campaigners have warned, amid concern that the sector could perpetuate long-standing racial inequities.
But as excitement grows, campaigners have warned that these powerful tools could overlook women from marginalised communities and perpetuate long-standing racial inequities in how care is delivered.
“Any technology meant to help people track and improve women’s health outcomes must be inclusive and anti-racist,” Dr Regina Davis Moss, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice, told Femtech World.
“Black women have historically been disregarded, overlooked and undermined by the medical technology industry. It is past time for our interests and needs to be prioritised in clinical trials and other forms of scientific research.
“Femtech companies must ensure that their research and clinical trials equitably involve communities of all backgrounds.”
Around 2,000 femtech companies and apps have sprung up in the last decade to address women’s needs, including tracking apps, fertility solutions and menopause platforms.
These new tools are often built using machine learning, a subset of AI where algorithms are trained to find patterns in large data sets like billing information and test results.
The data these algorithms are built on, however, often reflect inequities and bias that have long plagued the healthcare system. Research shows clinicians often provide different care to white patients and patients of colour. Those differences in how patients are treated get immortalised in data, which are then used to train algorithms.
“When our research omits subsets of the population, the accuracy and potential benefits of that research do not extend to those who disproportionately bear the burden of disease,” said Dr Monique Gary, breast surgical oncologist at Grand View Health.
“We are seeing already how AI can harm marginalised communities, where biased algorithms require racial or ethnic minorities to be considerably ‘more ill’ than their white counterparts to receive the same diagnosis, treatment, or resource. This is perilous and avoidable.”
To create responsible and equitable technologies that include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) women, Gary said companies could start identifying and recruiting experts of colour, via pipeline programmes and incubators.
“We need to start listening to, believing and supporting the voices of Black women,” she said.
“In 2024, women of all ages and races, ethnicities and orientations are telling us out loud what they need to actualise a better version of healthcare which incorporates significant tech utilisation. It’s now up to us to listen.”
Ashley Jones, creative director of Tones of Melanin, said femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism and prioritise inclusivity.
“Companies in femtech should actively seek out diverse perspectives and experiences, particularly from BIPOC women, in both their datasets and research.
“This includes collaborating with BIPOC brands, stakeholders and organisations to ensure that their products address the specific needs and concerns of BIPOC women.”
Tech developers, Jones said, could address racism by implementing robust diversity and inclusion initiatives within their teams, actively seeking out BIPOC voices in decision-making processes and educating themselves on the unique experiences of BIPOC women in healthcare.
Sylvia Kang, co-founder and CEO at Mira, pointed out that femtech companies should also focus on affordability, as cost can be preventing women from marginalised communities from accessing healthcare.
“Most of the people that can access femtech tools for their health are white mid-to-high income women,” Kang explained.
“Unfortunately, there are some communities, including BIPOC that do not have enough resources to purchase these tools.
“I believe it’s our responsibility to take action and democratise our data and tools in specific ways.”
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US start-up raises US$4.3m to address maternal mental health
The funding is hoped to help FamilyWell scale throughout New England and expand nationally
The US mental health start-up FamilyWell Health has raised US$4.3m in seed financing to support women facing maternal mental health challenges.
FamilyWell Health is a behavioural health company that integrates specialised mental health services, such as coaching, therapy and psychiatry, into OB/GYN practices.
The platform aims to provide pregnant and postpartum patients with specialised support for depression, anxiety and other perinatal mental health concerns.
Individuals who seek treatment typically wait for months to be seen by a mental health provider and instead turn to their obstetricians, who are often hesitant to screen for mental health conditions knowing there is a shortage of therapists and psychiatrists.
“I had difficulty finding support when I experienced postpartum depression and have cared for countless new moms struggling to access mental health care during one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives,” said Dr Jessica Gaulton, founder and CEO of FamilyWell.
“My experience, both as a survivor and as a practicing neonatologist, inspired me to start FamilyWell to provide equitable, affordable, and accessible mental healthcare for new mothers.”
By partnering with OB providers, Gaulton said FamilyWell would increase access to mental health support for pregnant and postpartum individuals where and when they need it.
The funding, led by .406 Ventures with participation from GreyMatter Capital and Mother Ventures, is hoped to help the start-up scale throughout New England and expand nationally.
Payal Divakaran, partner at .406 Ventures, said: “Given our team’s deep experience backing innovative behavioural health and women’s health companies, we had been looking at this intersection for quite some time.
“FamilyWell offers an elegant solution that is a win-win for all stakeholders, including obstetric practices. Dr Gaulton and her team have built an incredible, mission-driven company poised to address a critical need in women’s mental health.”
Dr Melissa Sherman, medical director and obstetrician at Essex OB/GYN Associates, a FamilyWell customer, added: “When you’re pregnant or caring for a newborn, you can’t afford to wait months for help.
“With FamilyWell, patients get help within days and have ongoing support through one of the biggest transitions of their lives.”
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‘Women crave the quick fix of a silver bullet’: menopause experts have their say on talking therapies
Talking therapies could reduce symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT, specialists have argued
The recent research showing talking therapies could help women through menopause is a “fantastic step forward” in the advocation of choice, experts have said, warning that HRT alone will not reduce all symptoms.
Talking therapies, such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy, have been found to effectively treat menopause symptoms, such as low mood and anxiety.
Researchers from University College London have shown that the practices, which focus on developing behavioural patterns, coping strategies and relaxation techniques, could have benefits beyond those of HRT, including improved sleep, memory and concentration.
The techniques, experts told Femtech World, could help dampen down women’s physiological system, reducing symptoms that may not be otherwise relieved through HRT.
“Our ability to regulate the stress hormone is hampered during menopause, meaning we sit further up the stress scale than we did before,” said Dr Bev Taylor, psychologist and menopause educator.
“Stress also makes many menopausal symptoms worse, either in frequency or severity. These techniques reduce symptoms by dampening down our physiological system and bringing us back down the stress scale.”
The beauty of them, Taylor said, is that they can be used by anyone.
“Whether you can or want to take HRT or whether you want to use them alongside treatments like HRT, you can. This research is a fantastic step forward in the advocation of choice.”
Catherine Harland, menopause educator, coach and founder member of MenoClarity, said talking therapies had received a lot of backlash since the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended them in their updated guidelines.
“Whilst I understand how life-changing talking therapies can be, I fully appreciate why so many women crave the ‘quick fix of a silver bullet’ in the form of HRT as we have been taught this from a young age,” she said. “We have been taught to turn to pharmaceuticals for any symptoms we experience.”
Modern women, Harland said, live stressful, fast-paced lives, juggling a multitude of things and often feel too busy to fit talking therapies into the mix.
“Menopause is a highly sensitive time and it’s vital women begin to understand the importance of self-care which includes talking therapies and mindfulness.
“HRT alone will not reduce symptoms of stress, trauma and metabolic disease caused by living in a high cortisol state for long periods of time.”
Around 15 per cent of women aged 45 to 64 in England are currently prescribed HRT, which has increased rapidly in the last two years from around 11 per cent and continues to increase.
The main benefit of HRT, according to the NHS website, is that it can help relieve most menopause and perimenopause symptoms, including hot flushes, brain fog, joint pains, mood swings and vaginal dryness.
Draft NHS guidelines recommend offering cognitive behavioural therapy, alongside or instead of HRT.
Dr Shahzadi Harper, menopause specialist and founder of The Harper Clinic, said talking therapies could benefit women experiencing menopause symptoms and help them feel more in control. However, she said they should not be it at the forefront of the menopause conversation.
“Talking therapies do not address the inherent hormone deficiency that arises due to perimenopause and menopause and the long-term consequences of declining hormone levels,” Harper explained.
“I don’t think they should be at the forefront and definitely not instead of HRT. However, I do think they could be a useful tool, especially as the symptoms of menopause can be quite debilitating and affect mental health and mood.”
Dr Clare Spencer, menopause specialist, GP and co-founder of My Menopause Centre, said while HRT could help many women manage symptoms of the menopause, there would be some women who may continue to experience symptoms, such as poor sleep, low mood and anxiety, despite being on it.
“Women may face other difficulties at the time of the menopause that may be additional causes of stress which can also impact on experience of symptoms of the menopause.
“In these cases, there is a place for talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness, to help break some of the vicious cycles that can then exist.
“There is also a role for talking therapies in helping women who have been advised not to take HRT or do not wish to.”
She said, however, that long NHS waiting lists could prevent women from getting the support they need.
“There is an issue with access to cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness-based therapies through the NHS which does need resolving to allow more women access timely support,” she added.
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- Femtech must acknowledge the risk of perpetuating medical racism, say campaigners
- US start-up raises US$4.3m to address maternal mental health
- ‘Women crave the quick fix of a silver bullet’: menopause experts have their say on talking therapies
- ‘I cried tears of relief’ – survey reveals the reality of diagnosis delays for women with endometriosis
- Swedish femtech start-up to join acceleration programme in Copenhagen
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