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Femtech and Sex toys

lesbian women multicultural hugs
© Canva

Tell us more about yourself:

My name is Letizia, I am 30 years old I teach at the University of Berlin, where I live, and, together with Ilaria Fazio, I created a new line of lingerie sex toys for queer people, Ma Joie.

As a lesbian woman what do you think about the invisibilisation that exists within the LGBTQIA+ community?

As a lesbian woman I have to say that, as in every field, there is always invisibilisation: women are always the most penalised. For example, I've lived in Paris, I've been to London, now I live in Berlin, and the possibilities are endless for gay men, even if only to have fun and go to clubs exclusively for men, whereas when you only want to go out to clubs for women, the choice is smaller. In Paris, there are only two clubs only for lesbians, in London as well maybe two, or one, and the same happens in Berlin. There are very few bars for women, bisexuals people, etc., and on the contrary there are many for men.

For me, invisibilisation also comes from this, from fewer possibilities even simply to have fun, to be able to express oneself, to be able to find a meeting place.

One of the reasons why there is invisibility for lesbian people is also the fact that it is often seen as a phase or a desire to experiment. What do you think about that? Have you ever heard of such idea?

Yes of course, I have, for almost 10 years of my life. I am very straight passing. Some friends, when I came out, told me: “I see you getting married to a man”. But, for me, that's the worst thing that could have happened to me (she laughs). By now this thing, my friends don’t tell me these things anymore. I realized that we all went through a journey of growth together: me, the people who were close to me, and my friends. Because people often think it's a phase and that, in the end, the main goal is to get into a straight relationship.

Another reason for the invisibilisation of lesbian women, and marginalisation in general, is due to the economic aspect. Even today we still do not focus on femtech, we still have to make a huge effort with investors to focus on applications for feminine products. There is a huge lack of research, on everything that could improve the lives of menstruating people, for example.

I firmly believe that if it were cisgender men who menstruated, there would be no more menstrual pain, there would be no more talk of 'pads' and we would have found 1000 possible ways to make menstruation a non-issue.

I myself, who have spoken to many investors who have been to incubators, have seen the realities of femtech start-ups and noticed that it is almost as if they give you a pity pat on the back, when you present your projects. You hear stuff like "How cute, you're doing something for women, nice." Or, "But in the end it's not like there's that much of a market, is there?" I mean.. Women only account for 50% of the population... Or again: "But strap-ons are a niche." I talk about this, because I work in the field, and I know this world. And let me tell you something: I strap-ons are not a niche product at all. Women are not a niche, we are people who want to spend their money buying things made and designed for them.

There needs to be research to be able to make products that can fit all people who find themselves facing different problems, whether they are related to menstruation, whether they are related to the use of sex-toys, which are often not suitable for all bodies, or whether they

concern other discomforts related mainly to gender identity or gender expression. The investors are obviously 95 per cent men, so this complicates things further.

In the field of femtech, you have to make 10 times the effort that a person with male gender expression would make. If you identify yourself as a woman, you are always asked: 'But what is your trauma? What is the reason that led you to be involved in this project?" To a person who is perceived as a man, they don't ask these kinds of questions. Because it is implied that you don't need it. You are simply inspired by something, or you want to make money. On the contrary, for a woman, it's not enough: as if women don't want to make money ( ironically). They want to know what the struggle is that you're carrying on, which most of the time is also true. There is a struggle behind it, absolutely. But as long as the investors are mostly cis white hetero men... there won't be attention, there won't be a change of perspective. Or even the patience to sit down and try to understand. There is a lack of openness to certain subjects and topics.

Ilaria Fazio & Letizia Abis © Ma Joie

Our heteronormative society dictates rules to us anyway, with respect to social roles or within the couple or with respect to our gender expression. Do you think that in order to conform even unconsciously to these standards, we self-stereotype?

Absolutely. I have seen lesbian, bisexual, LGBTQIA+ community people having difficulty coming out, accepting themselves. Precisely because they had legacies, prejudices about themselves, so the moment you think bad things about yourself and what you are, you have a lot of difficulty accepting yourself and others. I am a strong believer that some homophobic people are just people who suffer from not being able to accept themselves as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. By this I don't want to justify any homophobic behaviour. However, I think that violence is always an expression of suffering and in this case it can be a way of expressing a difficulty in accepting oneself.

For example, I had lesbian friends who, for many years, could not accept themselves. The moment they were able to deconstruct the legacies from heteronormativity, it was much easier for them to accept themselves.

I, too, realized that I had made a very important deconstruction journey. On what I thought of myself, of others, or with respect to what others might think of me. At the beginning, I was afraid to identify myself as a lesbian, I found it easier to say that I was also interested in men. In reality, that was not true at all. But I felt that I would be accepted more easily. So, I asked myself: "But what am I really afraid of?" The judgement I was most afraid of was actually my own, it came from my own heritage. Because, in the end, the others, knowing me, listening to me, were still able to set the judgement aside. It was more difficult to deconstruct what I thought than what others thought.

The search for pleasure is a personal, individual, but also a couple's journey. What are the prejudices against Sapphic intimacy? So many! For example: there is no sex between lesbians, only caressing and kissing. Another prejudice is that one thinks there is this unbridled romanticism in Sapphic couples. Sex is very unrelated to romance, it is not necessarily that if two women or two people who identify as such, sleep together, then it does not necessarily involves romance.

This stereotype also stems from a representation of Sapphic couples that has always been very much associated with extreme romance. The only representation I saw that was a little different was in The L World. That ranged a little bit. But let's say, even today, Sapphic couples are mistaken for friends, sisters. How many times have my partner and I been told: "Ah, but are you sisters?" No we are not! "Eh but you live together," yes but we have two different surnames on the doorbell… Imagination always exceeds the limits of reality! Why should it be so difficult to imagine that if two people live together, share only one bedroom, they are not sisters? If you were faced with a straight man and a straight woman, living together, the thing that would come most readily to mind is that they are a couple. So why can't we think the same if it is two women? Another thing is that often people think all lesbian people have envyous of penis. When I was first coming out, I was also told: ah but so you feel like a man? Fortunately, that never happened to me again.

How does this whole set of prejudices affect sex-toys and how did the idea of designing sex-toys and strap-ons come about after your research?

I couldn't find something that made me feel good about my body and that didn't hurt, or that also made me feel attractive. The moment I wore traditional strap-ons, I didn't feel comfortable, I felt unrepresented. So I asked myself why. At the time I was in a relationship with the other founder of Ma Joie, and we said to each other that there was something wrong with the current strap-on market. They seem to be made to please an evil gaze but behind it there is no real research into what the people wearing them might really like. Especially when you consider that a large percentage of the people who wear them have vulvas. Research is needed, new products need to be tested so that they can fit all bodies. Instead it doesn't happen. I found everything very standardised. I also tried double strap-ons, for example, and found that they excluded a lot of people. For example people with vulvodynia, who should be able to have the choice of even non-penetrative, clitoral stimulation. I looked into it, and 90% of the companies that produce strap-ons are run by men. I think a change is needed, a different eye is needed.

I remember going to the Queer Christmas Market in Berlin, for example. There I found only stands made for cis gay men. There was only one stand of lesbian/bisexual/pansexual people, just one. All the others were only targeting one part of the LGBTQIA+ community. I was very, very disappointed. I had gone there for research and had even paid an entrance fee. I thought I had a chance to understand what was going on in the world of sex-toys in the queer scene. Instead I found only projects by men, for men. There were very few trans people. Very little representation of trans people, and women. And I'm talking about Berlin.

Why do we need a new point of view?

I'm not saying our point of view is 100% inclusive, I think there's a whole lot of work we need to do yet to better understand what a trans guy's desires are, for example. We haven't done that yet, because we want to be as honest as possible. And we think it's right to do market research so that a trans person can tell us what's good and what's not. By doing targeted research and development, on these products and on all bodies and sensitivities.

In general, do you think there are still stereotypes and prejudices behind the design of sex-toys?

I think that nothing is designed without there being a stereotype behind it. What can be done is definitely to try to transform it, also through appropriate communication. There have been changes, in the design and communication of sex toys. There is a fresher vision, there is also attention to aesthetics and design, there are much more pop products. All this, however, has not been done with strap-ons, even by the biggest brands. It's a toy that's always a bit put aside, because there are a lot of stereotypes behind it, a lot of prejudices.

It is linked so much to the world of pornography, to BDSM: it is seen as a punitive tool. Instead, there is nothing punitive in using it in intimacy. Precisely to get away from the stereotype, we thought of making it pop, also from an aesthetic point of view, making it colourful, fresh, lively. It seems trivial, but it is the same kind of de-construction implemented for sex-toys: we felt it was right to do the same for strap-ons. Why exclude them!

In your opinion, are there still prejudices in our society against people with female gender expression, who actively seek pleasure?

Absolutely. People with female gender expression still experience the taboo of passivity. If you are active you are automatically a person who wants to identify with another gender. I find that extremely limiting. What we enjoy in the sexual act, in intimacy, does not define your gender identity, we should get rid of all these prejudices. We should feel free. By the way, for me, the words 'active and passive' are not very indicative. Who decided that one role is active and the other is passive? Even on terms we can evolve to be able to break this categorisation and to be able to break out of stereotypes.

Project & Interview by Clotilde Petrosino

English Translation by Enea Venegoni


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