Fin in hand. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

This Innovative Vibrator Will Be the First Sex Toy on Kickstarter

Dame Products, a Brooklyn-based sex toy company, is releasing its second product, Fin, through Kickstarter.

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Nov 2 2016, 5:45pm

Fin in hand. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

This past April, I sat in the Greenpoint office of Dame Products, a Brooklyn-based sex toy company known for their hands-free vibrator, Eva, looking over 3D-printed prototypes of what would eventually become Dame's second product, Fin.

At the time, I was mostly intrigued by Dame's promise of a toy that would transform the "finger vibe" space, offering couples a small yet powerful vibrator ergonomically designed to comfortably rest between two fingers, secured to the hand with an optional, removable tether. I had no idea that Fin was poised to shake up much more than just a small corner of the overcrowded sex toy market. But on Thursday, Fin will be going where no sex toy has gone before: Kickstarter.

Even as IndieGogo has become home to countless crowdfunded vibrators (including Dame's first product, Eva, which still holds the record for most successful sex toy project on IndieGogo), Kickstarter has remained steadfast in its no erotic products stance.

Historically, there've been some logistical barriers preventing Kickstarter from being sex-friendly, including the fact that Amazon Payments, the platform's initial payment processor, has a ban on "adult oriented products and services." But even after switching to sex toy friendly Stripe, Kickstarter has refused to approve XXX tech projects—at least when those products specifically present themselves as sex toys.

Dame staff show off a mold used in toy develoment. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

(MinnaLife's kGoal, which is marketed as a smart kegel trainer but could easily be used for sexual pleasure, was successfully funded on Kickstarter in the summer of 2014; in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I offer consulting services to MinnaLife and worked on the kGoal Kickstarter project.)

So how did Dame manage to thaw the freeze on erotic products? "Kickstarter is literally around the block from us," Alexandra Fine, cofounder of Dame Products, told me. "We know them."

As the Dame team bonded with their neighbors at Kickstarter, they chatted about Dame's longstanding desire to make use of the crowdfunding platform, and how important it felt to breakdown the barriers against sex toys on Kickstarter. After all, as Fine put it, "We're makers too." Over the course of many conversations, their colleagues at Kickstarter began to agree.

Take away their company's erotic focus, and Dame's identical to just about any other startup crowdfunding on Kickstarter. Their Greenpoint office building is home to photo studios, tech startups, artist galleries, and coworking spaces. Janet Lieberman, Dame's CTO and other cofounder, is a veteran of innovative companies like MakerBot, MindsInSync, and Quirky. Her years of experience as a mechanical engineer have helped Dame distinguish itself with a thoughtful product design process that's led to innovative, ergonomic sex toys unlike anything else on the market.

A 3D printed prototype of Fin. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

In the months that I followed Fin's evolution, I watched Dame go through a product development process similar to that of many other consumer products. Back in April, Lieberman and Fine were still determining what Fin would be shaped like. In their office, I tried on multiple prototypes, offering feedback on which designs felt the most comfortable against my fingers.

Months later, Lieberman presented me with an alpha model of Fin and invited me to take it home for a test run. Like other alpha testers, I was given a survey that asked for feedback on my experience as a user: How comfortable was the product? How intuitive was its design? Did I prefer to have a permanent tether, no tether, or a detachable tether? And, of course, how pleasurable were the vibrations?

As an experienced (and, to be honest, pretty jaded) sex toy reviewer, I wasn't expecting to have my mind blown by Fin. Though well-designed vibrators are always a plus, there are, shall we say, only so many ways to come. So it was actually a bit of a surprise to find myself really engaged by Fin—not so much because of the vibration itself, or some transformative form of sexual stimulation, but because it was just so damn convenient.

Nestled between my fingers (minus the tether, for the record), Fin was easy and comfortable to use. It's a vibrator that's easy to integrate into some good old-fashioned manual stimulation, making it far more comfortable than the many toys that must be held at an awkward angle, or require you to keep your arm just so in order to get the party started.

A selection of the different shapes considered for Fin. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

And that was just an early prototype. As Fin progressed from alpha to beta, Dame broadened the range of motor speeds, removing the unpopular middle option and adding an additional lower speed to the mix. Lieberman also played around with the properties of each vibration setting to make them feel more powerful.

And as for the tether? Data suggested that a removable tether would be the most popular option, leading Lieberman to focus on improving the security of the tether's attachment, and making it easier to attach and remove. Fine and Lieberman won't know how consumers feel about the product until it officially hits the market, but their pool of beta testers seem happy with the changes.

Given Dame's Brooklyn ties, maker cred, and the upscale feel of its products, it feels like a no brainer that Fin would be the first product to break Kickstarter's sex toy barrier. But as Kickstarter opens the door to Dame, it's now faced with the question of what to do about the many other sex toy creators itching to make use of their platform. Given the site's reputation for curation, it's unlikely that Kickstarter will go the IndieGogo route and start letting in any sex toy project. But that means Kickstarter will have to create guidelines that map out what, exactly, makes for a Kickstarter quality sex toy project. And that's a task that's easier said than done.

When reached for comment about Fin and the possibility of other sex toys being funded through the platform, Justin Kazmark, Kickstarter's vice president of communications, responded that, "Dame is making something new and innovative, and in that spirit we're happy to welcome them to Kickstarter. We'll continue to allow projects like this on a case by case basis."

Fin with its tether. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

Sitting in the Dame office, I asked Fine for her thoughts on what kind of projects Kickstarter should throw its support behind, a question the Kickstarter team has asked her as well. Fine's leery of making categorical statements about what is and isn't a Kickstarter level project—while she, personally, might find anatomical sex toys distasteful, she recognizes that they appeal to many people—but feels that, at a minimum, all Kickstarter-supported sex toys should be quality products using body-safe materials. Beyond that requirement, however, Fine feels that "it's really about what lines up with [their] brand as Kickstarter."

But it's not always easy to say who, exactly, fits that mold. Very Intelligent Ecommerce Inc, the company behind the Autoblow, could easily argue that they're in line with Kickstarter's maker focused philosophy, but their lowbrow marketing strategies—including a penchant for "beauty contests" for vulvas, scrotums, and buttholes—don't quite align with Kickstarter's family-friendly vibe.

An injection mold for toy development. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

On the other end of the spectrum are products like the Semenette, an anatomically-inspired squirting strap-on made from medical grade materials that's intended to help make the experience of artificial insemination a little more loving and intimate. In spite of her bias against graphically sexual products, Fine feels that this is exactly the kind of product Kickstarter should endorse—though she struggled to put into words what, exactly, it is about the Semenette that sets it apart.

"[Semenette creator Stephanie Berman is] not a big company mass producing something, her product is innovative," Fine explained. And there's also the fact that Berman's product isn't just about churning out orgasms: it's specifically designed to help queer couples experience artificial insemination in the same kind of intimate, loving environment many heterosexual couples take for granted.

As challenging as these decisions are to make, Fine feels that it's important for Kickstarter to continue to engage with the sex toy industry, and bring more projects onto the Kickstarter platform.

"When you just cut off a whole industry the way the sex toy industry tends to get cut off, you're just... keeping everybody in the shade," Fine said, adding that it's a strategy that reinforces the industry's status as a "shady business." The more Kickstarter embraces and encourages sex toy makers to be a part of their community, the more they'll encourage sex toy makers to create quality, innovative, body-safe products that live up to Kickstarter standards, something that can only benefit and improve the lives of sex toy fans everywhere.

But even if the crowdfunding giant's experiment with sexual pleasure never goes beyond Fin, it's still significant progress for the sex toy industry, especially if this move inspires other tech companies to stop stigmatizing sexual pleasure. Fin isn't just a new spin on the finger vibe. It's a crucial step (or whatever the finger version of steps are) in the movement to lead sex toy makers into the mainstream.