From Opening A Discussion On Sextech Ads To Education And Safety Of Sex Toys, Lovehoney Group Is Redefining What Future Of Sexual Health Could Look Like

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The Lovehoney Group, the largest sexual wellness company in the world formed in 2021, is in a league of its own. It comprises brands such as Lovehoney, Amorana, and WOW Tech that joined forces with a mission to promote sexual happiness and empowerment through design, innovation, research and development, and great customer service. The company houses several award-winning brands including Womanizer, We-Vibe, Fifty Shades of Grey, Arcwave, and Happy Rabbit.

When it comes to challenges this industry is facing, for a long time the topic of sexuality and sexual wellness products was a much bigger taboo than it is today. People didn’t want to go into brick and mortar stores to buy products, especially women who didn’t feel addressed by the look and feel. That’s why the existence of online retailers like Lovehoney is essential – when it was launched 20 years ago, it was a real pioneer and has rethought the topic and created an anonymous and safe place for those wishing to explore their sexuality.

But it would be wrong to assume that Lovehoney and the other Groups’ brands are all about sex toys and sexual pleasure. What sets the company apart from other sexual wellness brands is consciously tackling a variety of issues spanning technology, safety, gender equality, and accessibility to all consumers. Because of this, the company has introduced several research initiatives and commissioned several studies to help raise awareness about the various industries that affect consumers’ sexual happiness.

“New challenges arise every day as the cultural zeitgeist evolves (both forward and backward in some cases) and it’s important to us as a company to take a stand,” shares Johanna Rief, Head of Sexual Empowerment at Lovehoney Group, with me in an email.

Is Google Preventing Adults From Sexual Happiness?

On August 10th, 2021, Google announced that as part of its efforts to expand its safeguards to prevent age-sensitive ad categories from being shown to those under 18 years of age, it would be making updates to its online protection policies in response to the UK ICO’s Age Appropriate Design Code. One of these key updates was to their SafeSearch feature which, when enabled, helps filter out explicit sexual content results on Google’s search engine and is already on by default for all signed-in users under 13. This latest update to the SafeSearch policy would extend this safeguard for all existing users under 18 and make this the default setting for teens setting up new accounts and for everyone who didn’t verify their age (approximately 30% of users), according to Rief.

This feature was implemented with the aim of protecting minors, but, now is affecting Lovehoney and other industry players’ traffic and revenue and unfairly disadvantages the companies compared to conventional retailers.

Whilst these steps show good movement towards a safer internet experience for children, the new regulations have led to online advertisements by sexual wellness brands such as Lovehoney being blocked from being seen by consenting adults. The sexual wellness category seems, in particular, to be unfairly discriminated against and singled out with far more aggressive censorship from Google results when compared to other adult categories. While adverts for alcohol, 18 rated movies and games, and even gambling all still easily pop up via Google Ads or Shopping with SafeSearch enabled, ads for sex toys remain excluded from Google paid and shopping results. Even though sex toys are actively endorsed by the NHS as part of a healthy sex life, which is, in turn, associated with personal health, and emotional and relationship benefits.

“After years of working to change the narrative around sexual wellness, this technology is pushing the sexual health industry back into the shadows (despite the increasing consumer demand). We believe that everyone deserves sexual pleasure, so it’s imperative for us to lead the way in pushing back against and destigmatizing these issues that ultimately do a disservice to anyone looking to learn more about or improve their sex lives. Further, we only target people with our ads that are explicitly search for terms like “sex toys” and therefore, show interest and consent to see content that fits their interest,” explains Rief.

Google SafeSearch is a prime example of how technological roadblocks can hold people back from getting access to sexual wellness brands and their respective products. Lovehoney has raised over 600 complaints already with Google regarding their ads being blocked, with the hope to call for an honest and open dialogue around the importance of sexual health and fulfillment on the internet.

Even though there is an increasing acceptance of sex toys in society and the sexual wellness industry is growing exponentially year by year, censorship of sex-positive brands and individuals is still a huge problem. For example, social media platforms such as Instagram and Meta (ex-Facebook) don’t allow any advertisements at all, don’t verify accounts, flag female nipples (but not male ones), delete posts, and also block whole accounts of sex-positive brands or individuals talking about these topics.

In August 2021, Womanizer, one of the globally popular brands from Lovehoney Group, found that its organically grown Instagram account, which boasts today more than 90,000 followers, was shut down. The brand, which sells sex toys for women, saw that three of its Instagram posts had been flagged. Whilst none of the posts violated Instagram’s community guidelines, which do not accept nudity, this is not the first time that Instagram has been called out for targeting communities and influencers who post sex-positive content. Instagram has also been criticized for cracking down on posts featuring curvier bodies. In response to the ban, Womanizer revived and expanded the #UnmutePleasure campaign to encourage honest and open dialogue about sexual health and fulfillment across social media.

“This was only one of the examples of how the Big Tech treated sexuality as something sinful. Yet again, the sexual wellness industry is being disproportionately targeted vs other, harmful forms of content. Once again, all we ask is to be a part of an open, transparent conversation that ensures everyone can explore their sexuality in an informed and respectful manner,” Rief adds.

Shaping The Very First International Safety Standard For Sex Toys

Many of the sextech products today are designed to be in direct contact with the most intimate body parts. However, until recently, there have been no standards to guide manufacturers in designing these products to maximize their safety and minimize the risk of potential issues such as allergic reactions. Moreover, the nonexistence of manufacturing regulations for sex toys allowed the manufacturers to develop female and male-centric products without any requirement to list the material or chemicals used in the products. This means that consumers face a huge range of products and brands but with few guidelines on what to look out for.

This is why Lovehoney Group alongside one of its brands – We-Vibe – made its mission to assist with the funding and the creation of the new ISO Standard – the very first international safety standard for sex toys.

ISO is an independent, non-governmental international organization. It develops and publishes international standards. Standards are like a formula that describes the best way of doing something. It could be about making a product, managing a process, delivering a service, or supplying materials – standards cover a huge range of activities. Standards are the distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter and who know the needs of the organizations they represent – people such as manufacturers, sellers, buyers, customers, trade associations, users, or regulators.

Dr. Martin Dahlberg, a Swedish surgeon at Stockholm South General Hospital, initiated the standard. In 2018, he recognized that he was increasingly performing operations to remove sex toys lodged in the rectum. He approached the Swedish Institute for Standards (SIS), the non-profit association contributing to the development of standards in various sectors, and suggested establishing a standard specific to sex toys.

As safe and high-quality toys are essential for both Lovehoney Group and We-Vibe, it did not take them long to join the SIS to partially fund and participate in the creation of this new standard. We-Vibe’s quality team worked together with 75 industry experts, testing labs, and standardization specialists from 19 countries to lead the draft and develop this standard. Halfway into the development process, the draft was circulated during a public consultation, which enabled stakeholders outside the ISO group to provide comments and input. These comments have been integrated into the final document and after almost two years of work, the ISO 3533 standard came to life.

The ISO 3533 standard contains many requirements for different types of sex toys as well as the development and design process. As many products come in contact with the most sensitive parts of the body, all materials that are used need to be biocompatible. The ISO standard also lists materials to be avoided in the design and manufacturing process, such as phthalates, alkylphenols, or cadmium. Until now, while consumers would assume that the silicone or plastic used was body-safe, there was no guarantee of that. With the new ISO standards, manufacturers have clear guidelines on material safety and what to include in the user information.

“Our goal is to bring sexual fulfillment and unparalleled pleasure to everyone, so ensuring that the products that we offer are safe is of the utmost importance. This helps create a positive user experience and can also further destigmatize the pleasure product industry. We hope that the entire industry is going to take this new standard into consideration from now on when designing their products. We are ready to lead by example and shape the future of our industry,” shares Tobias Zegenhagen, Chief Engineering and Production Officer at Lovehoney Group.

Further, the standard provides tips on product design. For instance, sex toys for anal use must have a specific design and mechanism so that they cannot be inserted further into the rectum than originally intended. For those that are designed with removable parts and can pose a risk when not properly secured, they must have a locking mechanism to ensure that the parts remain in place during use. For sex toys that can be controlled remotely by someone else, the user in contact with the toy must be able to switch it off easily.

An ISO 3533 compliant sex toy is a sign of confidence for consumers and other stakeholders, but it is not mandatory for manufacturers. An ISO standard only provides guidelines to ensure better consumer protection and experience. It is now up to the country’s regulators to use international standards as the basis for a law so that the application of these standards becomes mandatory.

Education And Knowledge-Sharing About Sexual Wellbeing

Furthermore, the team of Lovehoney Group is passionate about sharing knowledge and providing resources about all areas of sexual wellness. Because there are so many positive benefits that can come from self-pleasuring, the company aims to spread that knowledge through the work they do at Womanizer, another brand under the umbrella of the Lovehoney Group. In 2020, they sponsored a clinical study titled Menstrubation, which proved that masturbating can help with period pain. 90% of the people who participated in our study indicated that they would recommend masturbation for pain relief and 85% planned to maintain their new masturbation routine after the study.

“Half of the world’s population gets their period each month and most of them struggle with different painful side effects. Although these symptoms are common, they are rarely researched – like so many topics involving women’s health, which is why this is a passion point for Womanizer,” explains Rief.

In that same vein, in December 2021 Womanizer announced a new initiative called ‘The Pleasure Fund’ which is a five-year commitment to investing $300,000 USD into women’s health, sexual well-being, and sexual pleasure research. The Pleasure Fund aims to help narrow the “Gender Health Gap,” which has widened as a result of lower priority status given to medical research for women. Historically, male-focused research has been considered the benchmark in studying various medical issues, including diseases and their symptoms. This leaves women and their medical needs largely ignored. For example, erectile dysfunction, which affects approximately 40% of men at age 40 and nearly 70% of men at age 70, has been studied five times more than premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which affects 90% of all women, as highlighted by Rief. As a result, women often receive misdiagnoses, incorrect medications or dosages, and unexplored treatment approaches.

The money invested from Womanizer into the Pleasure Fund will be awarded to researchers and physicians around the world who are conducting studies in these areas. Projects will be selected with the help of an international advisory board consisting of leading doctors, therapists, and sexual wellness experts.

“It’s crucial that we shed light on these issues and continue to advocate for women around the world. So, at first glance, it may appear that we are simply looking to sell pleasure products, but in reality, we are also constantly working on new initiatives and studies that help our customers benefit in ways beyond an orgasm,” adds Rief.

The first project that Womanizer’s Pleasure Fund will address is in collaboration with Berlin’s Charité University Hospital and Research Institute. Together they will study the effects of sexual dysfunction on those with, and recovering from, breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women, with approximately 70,000 women diagnosed only in Germany each year. Some women in the recovery phase of breast cancer have said they often feel body-shamed and have an overall lack of self-worth. With investment from the Pleasure Fund, the study will address whether and to what extent masturbation can help those who have experienced or are experiencing breast cancer re-learn sexual arousal, improve blood flow, and contribute to a positive body image.

Research, Research, And More Research

Along with the extensive in-house R&D and product team, the Lovehoney Group also works with a global tester panel, the MasturbaTEAM, which consists of more than 10,000 people.

“Based on their feedback, we improve our products and ensure that we continue to innovate and offer the best of the best for our customers. Each of our brands has its own focus target group, but when it comes to age the biggest group is between 18 – 49 years old and around 60% identify as female when looking across all brands. Some of our technology has also been repurposed for men, such as the Womanizer model, with the invention of the Arcwave Ion—a stroker that uses unique pulsating airwaves to stimulate sensitive Pacinian pleasure receptors in the frenulum,” adds Zegenhagen.

Options for people with penises have largely been stagnant, with basic strokers made with low-grade silicone as one of the only options. However, the liberalization of society has resulted in more men interested in exploring sexual wellness. “That being said, there is still a stigma around the topic, so we wanted to create a resource for men to help further empower them to live their most sexually fulfilled lives. We are very excited that our brand Arcwave has launched the first-ever hotline dedicated to men’s sexuality and masturbation on May 5th,” shares Zegenhagen.

“Our goal, above all, is to continue to normalize conversations surrounding sexual pleasure and encourage orgasms for all. We plan to do so by continuing to fund research, create educational resources, and develop new technologies and products that empower everyone to take charge of their sexuality and live their best, most pleasureful life. Our vision is to lead the world’s pursuit of sexual happiness,” conclude both Rief and Zegenhagen.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/marijabutkovic/2022/05/19/from-opening-a-discussion-on-sextech-ads-to-education-and-safety-of-sex-toys-lovehoney-group-is-redefining-what-future-of-sexual-health-could-look-like/

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