“Everything’s a battle,” Cindy Gallop sighs, although it’s clear she relishes those battles. What she means is that the entire Internet has long been divided into two separate, walled fiefdoms: one labelled “pornography,” the other marked with those three dread words “no adult content.” The territory between those two worlds, which she is trying to claim, remains a strange no-man’s-land.
We take this partitioning for granted, but it’s pretty weird if you think about it. Whether we like to talk about it or not, sex is a significant and meaningful part of adult lives; the territory defined by “adult content” is far larger than its peninsula “pornography.” Think sexual education, sexual communication, sex toys, etcetera. Think of “Grace” and Aziz Ansari, and the dawning widespread realization that we need a new sexual revolution, one of better sexual behavior, communication, and enthusiastic consent.
This is a very big ask. Sex is still at best an awkward subject for most people. Everyone pretends to be casually cool and sexually sophisticated, but at the same time, for many people sex is still dangerously intimate and revealing, sometimes even a minefield of shame, and always fraught with the rawest of emotions and desires, difficult to talk about and to negotiate.
Anything technology can do to make sexual communication easier ought to be welcomed. But to most Internet providers — payment processors, email providers, hosting companies — anything remotely sexual is automatically relegated to the category of porn, and promptly rejected.
Venture capitalists react in the same way. Gallop, a former advertising executive turned force of nature, has been running her social-sex site Make Love Not Porn on a shoestring for several years now, with no budget for marketing, and only one paid full-time employee (“MadamCurator” Sarah Beall), they’ve attracted nearly half a million members and pulled in close to $1 million of revenue. And yet, even though it’s widely accepted that there’s a glut of VC money out there, “fear of what other people would think” has caused VC after VC to reject her.
Late last year, matters came to a head. An anonymous seed investor, who works (obviously very successfully) in high finance, provided Gallop with a seed investment five years ago; he and she have kept the site running with smaller top-ups since then. Apparently he too has grown frustrated with VCs’ nos, because this anonymous investor — call him the Satoshi Nakamoto of sextech — has just funded her with two million dollars.
This is a big deal for Make Love Not Porn, obviously, but it’s significant for the field as a whole. There is a growing cohort of female-founded sex-tech companies out there. If someone as prominent as Cindy Gallop has had to fight so hard for funding, imagine how much harder it is for the rest of them.
Consider Leah Callon-Butler of intimate.io, who are hoping to end-run around the payment processing problem by building their own blockchain solution for sex tech. A perfectly reasonable business model, you’d think: but once again, anything sex-related triggers shame and embarrassment in others. “I’ve had people refuse to have their picture taken with me at conferences for fear it might get out,” Callon-Butler observed wryly at the World Crypto Economic Forum’s “Vice Panel” earlier this week
You might wonder why Gallop herself didn’t go the ICO route. “We are a mass-market play,” is her answer. “Our customers use credit cards, not cryptocurrencies.” And, indeed, MLNP has broad, ambitious mass-market plans. To become “the Khan Academy of sex,” with a freemium subscription model, e.g. by delivering curated age-appropriate content from sex educators to help parents talk to / educate their children about sex, with a 50-50 revenue split. “I want sex educators to make a shit-ton of money,” Gallop stresses.
Today, any from of sexual self-expression, and any nudity (even breastfeeding), are effectively banned on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc; Gallop wants MLNP to be the “Wattpad for sex,” home to all kinds of sexual expression, from art to essays to erotica, again on a subscription model. She wants to build a messaging app explicitly constructed for sexting, as opposed to Snapchat’s disingenuous pretense that its growth was not fuelled by that — an app with custom filters, emoji, etc., wherein messages are persistent by default but any participant can delete the conversation.
First, though, MLNP will be quintupling their full-time staff — including a CTO, Aaron Sikes — and rebuilding their existing shoestring social-sex site to scale, and as a platform for all of the above. They’ve already partnered with Susan Danziger‘s Ziggeo video platform. Down the road Gallop wants to raise her own $200 million for her own sex-tech fund — because, as she says, it has been amply proven that there is a ton of money to be made from approaching one of the most powerful forces in human lives in an ethical, transparent, empathic and open way.
And it’s all too apparent that we’re a long way from that today. Gallop cites Hollywood sex scenes as an example. According to Hollywood, sex is wordless; nobody ever talks, asks questions, laughs, etc., during sex; and, all too often, those are the kinds of sexual values that filter out into the mainstream. “Fuck that shit,” Gallop says hotly, and, later, “I don’t wait for things to change. I make them change.” That’s good. Somebody needs to.