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A sex toy for women’s health: dildo designer talks the joy of conception

Stephanie Berman is among a growing number of entrepreneurs exploring new technologies for a market that is no longer taboo

Stephanie Berman is sitting on the terrace of the Hilton hotel near Hollywood in the hazy January sunshine, and holding a bright pink dildo.

Its not just any dildo this is the latest version of Bermans inseminating device, the Semenette, now with strap-on option, new colours and renamed the POP.

Squeezing a small pump at the end of the suction tube that runs through it, she dips the dangling tip into a bottle of (on this occasion) water and draws up the liquid. With a flourish she holds it aloft, squeezes the pump and whoosh an arc of water spurts over the table.

Its a sex toy with a functional purpose that addresses womens health issues, explains Berman, otherwise known as Spermin Berman, who proudly adds that she and her wife conceived their daughter, now two, on the first attempt and have a second child on the way. Berman is in Hollywood at She, the Sexual Health Expo, to promote the new device.

It brings pleasure to something that may be stressful, says Berman of the struggle to conceive. She and her wife, a teacher, had tried the conventional turkey baster insemination method. Believe me there is nothing sexy in that.

Organised by adult publisher XBIZ, the She convention has a relaxed, educational atmosphere designed to make visitors feel comfortable. Local paralegal Katie Frame has come with her friend Kirsti Olson. I came thinking it would be hypersexual and porn-esque. But its really comfortable and positive, say Frame. Theres a lot about women and empowerment.

Stephanie


Stephanie Berman demonstrates the Semenette POP, an insemination device which, she says, helped her wife conceive Photograph: Emily Berl for the Guardian

Talks have included Aging & Sex by author Lynn Brown Rosenberg, author of My Sexual Awakening at 70 and whose upcoming engagements include a talk to Mensa members and Role Play With Koko.

Sex toys have lost much of their taboo

Berman is just one entrepreneur exploring more sophisticated manufacturing processes and new technologies for a sex toy market that has lost much of its taboo. Boundaries between adult products and sexual health products are blurring and, as the She event demonstrates, theres now a wide array of well-designed, high-end products made from medical or food-grade plastics and silicones.

Theres a real shift, with people starting to demand high-quality products, she says. No one wants to put toxic material into their body. Shes referring to phthalates, a widely used chemical group that makes plastics flexible and has been used in sex toys.

Add to that the growth of internet-connected smart sex devices that are becoming increasingly mainstream; the award for digital health and fitness at Januarys influential Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas went, for the first time, to sex toy company OhMiBod. Its insertable Lovelife Krush device for monitoring the effectiveness of pelvic floor exercises works via bluetooth with a smartphone app that gives visual and vibratory feedback. It promises, the company states, that stronger muscles will help prevent incontinence and deliver better orgasms. It will sell for $129 when it goes on sale in the spring.

No one in the industry ever won before its about as mainstream [an award] as you can get, says Michael Guilfoyle, business manager of light bedroom bondage company Sportsheets. This used to be an industry you avoided as an entrepreneur. But now its no longer porn-associated, theres a new generation in the business. He points to a woman in a crisp black suit working on the We-Vibe stand. That woman speaks 10 languages.

Back in the She event, Berman is holding forth to a rapt audience with her scheduled talk, Sex Toys: Beyond the Orgasm. Berman projects a positive, no-nonsense vibe, demonstrating a variety of sex toys as if they were state-of-the art kitchen appliances.

The Pulse by Hot Octopus, a sort of vibrating stimulator for men, is great for men with erectile dysfunction or disabilities, she says, while her own POP device is designed for same-sex couples to replace more mundane methods of conceiving using donated sperm. Another is the Candy, a small, blush-pink ball with a loop developed by Chinese engineers for pelvic floor exercises.

Berman, 34, grew up in a suburb of Boston, studied English and sociology and wanted to be a professional lyricist. But in 2001 she ended up in the business her mother started, Sepal Reproductive, a manufacturer of catheters for IVF procedures and distributor of diagnostic tests and medical devices. Our neighbors thought we ran a sperm bank, says Berman, who started as a sales rep and is now its vice president.

Berman was developing a home insemination kit in 2009 when she came up with the idea for the Semenette, launched in 2012 by her own company Berman Innovations. The first version looked like a medical device, made of hard silicone and available in three flesh tones. For the second device launched in late 2015, Berman partnered with a high-end German sex-toy company called Fun Factory.

Sarah Tomchesson is head of business operations for US adult retail store The Pleasure Chest, which sells the Semenette, but also says she conceived using the first version. Its very exciting to have something to use that allows you to keep more intimacy. The orgasmic process is integral to success in getting pregnant, adds Tomchesson, who now has an eight-month old daughter with her partner.

She thinks it will be easier for Semenette to market itself as a sex toy than as a fertility device a highly lucrative and more competitive sector. The exchange of sperm is regulated by the FDA at a doctors facility and there is a lot of liability. You will run into doctors who are very resistant to talk about home insemination.

Insemination is a recession-proof business

Semenettes website also explains how the POP is appealing to other communities, including female-to-male transgender customers. Berman has sold at least 500 of the new devices both to retailers and individuals mostly in the US, Canada and the UK. Its gaining traction in the fetish and kink-play area and more men are ordering, including men with disabilities like muscular skeletal disease, she says.

Bermans product also comes with a strap-on option called the Joque Harness for $119.95, and while at a recent porn industry event in Las Vegas, she spoke on a panel that included a disabled person and a plus-size speaker. The adult industry is more aware of other audiences. You have to think outside the box and not target a cookie-cutter clientele.

Its a recession proof business because everyone wants babies, says Berman. Semenettes device retails at $139.95, compared to the average $500 to $1,500 cost of one visit to a doctors office for intrauterine insemination. And in the US, health insurance typically only kicks in after six visits, she says.

After Bermans talk, a plainly dressed Chinese business woman approaches Berman and wants a private meeting. Minnie Zhang, co-founder of new Shanghai-based sex toy company Magic Motion, thinks Berman can help them navigate the American market.

She pulls a sleek brochure out of her bag detailing elegant products such as the Magic Motion Flamingo, a wearable smart vibrator made of liquid silicone. Ten years ago Chinese people didnt know about design and just copied [everything], says Zhang. Now with a younger, more affluent and sexually open generation, Chinese companies are beginning to put their design savvy and technical skill into sex toys. Its a huge market, says Zhang, whose company has around 30 employees working on apps alone and hopes to counter the countrys reputation as a maker of cheap, low-grade sex toys.

Its a work of art

IMTOY co-founder Johnny Jiang, who has a degree in opto-electronics from Liverpool University, is also demonstrating the companys new mens vibrator, the Piu. A sleek black and red device slightly larger than, well, a hand, the $200 Piu is packaged like an expensive bottle of perfume.

OMTOY, the company behind Pui, has a team of video producers in Japan making adult content for the Pui app. There are 30 vibration patterns and three motors, to give a gentle butterfly flutter or a big thump, von Abo explains.

Annie


Annie Kim, an employee at the company IMTOY, shows off the Piu, an interactive masturbation toy for men Photograph: Emily Berl for the Guardian

IMTOY also makes the Candy, a small blush-pink ball that contains a sensor and is designed for monitoring pelvic floor exercises. Its a work of art, says Jiang, pointing to a device resting on a wireless charger, which also has an ultraviolet transmitter that sterilizes it when the case is covered; ultraviolet can kill 270 types of bacteria, the company claims.

Marketing director Matthew von Abo puts a Candy in my hand and syncs it via bluetooth to the app on his iPhone. It hums and vibrates gently and when I squeeze it, the pressure sensor inside triggers a number on the app. I squeeze harder and the number rises from 100 to 225. You can do a different workout each day, he explains. Hold for three seconds, relax for five, repeat 70 times.

Meanwhile Berman is preparing to head off to a porn convention before she flies home to her family in Boston. Does she ever think about what she and her wife will tell their kids about their conception?

Weve talked about it. I will tell them that their mom invented something that (was used) in a loving, intimate way. I wont go into all the gory details. And when theyre teenagers? I havent thought that far ahead yet.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/23/sex-toy-dildo-womens-health-conception-she-convention