Organizers of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) named the Lora Dicarlo Osé personal massager an Innovation Award Honoree. Then, they rescinded the award, claiming the sex toy was immoral and obscene. Cries of gender bias emerged, and yesterday the award was returned along with an apology to its creators. Is this a one-off, or has CES finally realized it has a gender problem?
The saga started when the personal massager was named as an Innovation Award Honoree in the CES Robotics and Drone category. The hands-free vibrator is described on the Lora Dicarlo company’s website as follows: “Using advanced micro-robotics it mimics all of the sensations of a human mouth, tongue, and fingers, for an experience that feels just like a real partner.”
Why did the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) which operates the conference rescind the award? They gave two reasons. The first was that “entries deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image will be disqualified.” It took the further step of banning Lora DiCarlo from exhibiting at future shows.
In an open letter, Lora DiCarlo founder Lora Haddock laid out why this criticism reflects a double standard. “A literal sex doll for men launched on the floor at CES in 2018 and a VR porn company exhibits there every year, allowing men to watch pornography in public as consumers walk by. Clearly CTA has no issue allowing explicit male sexuality and pleasure to be ostentatiously on display.” She also noted the gender bias in the implication that women’s sexual wellness products are somehow immoral or obscene.
As if the implication that her product was immoral wasn’t insulting enough, Haddock received a letter stating the second reason that her award was returned. The product was apparently ineligible for the Robotics and Drone category entirely. This was an interesting assertion given the product was designed in partnership with the Oregon State University Robotics Lab which has been ranked fourth in the United States. The product is also, according to Haddock’s open letter, “the subject of eight pending patents for robotics, biomimicry, and engineering feats.”
Yesterday, CTA apologized for its mishandling of the award and once again presented the award to Lora DiCarlo. In a press release the company said, “CTA did not handle this award properly. This prompted some important conversations internally and with external advisors and we look forward to taking these learnings to continue to improve the show.” In other words, they realized that they screwed up.
They say they will apply what they learned from this incident to improve the show, but will the lessons learned create any real change at the event in the future? CES and CTA have a long history of gender bias.
So-called “booth babes”, the scantily-clad women hired by some companies at the event to promote their stalls send a strong message about women’s role in technology. It reinforces women’s role as eye candy and sex objects and not serious technologists. It’s ironic that CES and CTA claim to be so interested in morality and lack of obscenity, yet see nothing wrong with booth babes. The booth babe controversy was highlighted a few years ago when CTA president and CEO, Gary Shapiro stated that the booth babes were an effective tool in attracting visitors to a booth.
CES has also been criticized for the dearth of female keynote speakers and few female speakers at press events. In 2018, all of the top keynote speakers were male. Shapiro wrote of the lack of women,”I was stung by the online backlash expressing outrage that no women were among the CES keynote speakers announced to date. The exclusive focus on keynotes in my view insults the hundreds of women who are speakers at CES in January.” There are hundreds of women speaking, just not at the events where most people will be listening. What’s wrong with that? He clearly didn’t get it.
Then came the sex toy. As a result of the backlash over the award, CTA admits to consulting with outside advisors about their handling of the situation. We can only hope that these outside advisors explained to Shapiro and other CTA execs how the egregious gender bias associated with the popular technology event impacts women in technology. We’ll have to wait until next January to find out if CTA will enact any meaningful changes.