Bedside With Alex Fine: Closing The Pleasure Gap
Alex Fine, or Al as she’s recently taken to, defines herself as more of a Barack than a Michelle; an ode to the former first ladies new book, Becoming, and a common reference point throughout our sit down chat. Equal parts intellect as she is riot girl, Al is a graduate of Wash U. and Columbia’s Clinical Psychology Master’s program, and cites that her interests in sex positivity have always been a key factor in her identity. Al is the co-founder of Dame, a sex toy company for women by women, and the first of its kind. Milk took the opportunity to sit with Fine to discuss how she started the company, where she spotted a pleasure gap, and why we might be in a world that has more shame surrounding sex than ever before.
I’m curious, what was your first job?
I went to summer camp where I was a counselor when I was 16. That’s also right around the same time during the school year when I was a Bat Mitzvah dancer. I love to dance and perform, and I think it was a really great lesson in hype and creating energy.
Was summer camp a formative time for you?
Yes. Summer camp is amazing for so many reasons. You are away from home, have a different group of friends, can be a slightly different person, and of course there are lots of firsts. I started going to camp when I was eight, and that’s when I started to have crushes and look at boys a little differently.
What was the dialog surrounding sex like for you growing up?
What I got from my parents growing up, was that sex is fun, it’s totally normal, but follow the rules of society.
What do you mean by “rules of society”?
When I did experience slut shaming, I definitely recall my mom saying something like, “You can’t control everything, and if you take certain actions, people are going to respond a certain way.” I had kissed a few boys in one night in the sixth grade cause they didn’t know what kissing was like, and they were just my best guys friends. It was so innocent! For better or for worse, stating that like it was truth, I remember being like, alright, I’m going to stop exploring.
You’ve spoken about how you were interested in vocalizing your story in health class. Tell me more about that. Where did you find the confidence to do so?
So I think naturally I don’t experience shame the same way others might. I’ve learned that it’s fun to sometimes be the butt of the joke, and can play into that, so in some ways the confidence has always been there. I took health class senior year. That in itself was an advantage because I was already sexually active, and felt okay speaking up in front of the younger kids. I had already been to the gynecologist and got back an abnormal pap smear. I had to get a biopsy, and was diagnosed with HPV (Human Papillomavirus).
You did that all on your own?
I did the whole thing by myself. I had no idea what HPV was, I thought I had cancer. I was a pretty independent kid, and after processing that whole experience alone, I wanted to share it. I did everything I was supposed to do during sex, and I thought if this can happen to me, it definitely is happening to other people. My health teacher, who meant this is a really kind way, suggested that I not share my experience. She was like you don’t know how kids are going to respond, I’ve seen them just do the meanest things. I just wish that was my decision because it’s so powerful to share your story.
Tell me how you got started with Dame.
When I was in undergrad I remember thinking about what I wanted to do next. I thought of three possibilities: become a professor, be a sex therapist, or make vibrators. The steps to being a professor or a therapist were pretty clear to me: school. Education is really validated in our society, and at that point I wanted people to take my interests in sexuality seriously, so I got my masters in clinical psychology. It was then that I began to realize that nothing’s fucking serious.
And that’s right about the time you were discovering what you’ve defined as “the pleasure gap”.
Yes. Overall we have a huge gap between the reality of sex, and our understanding of sex. It’s problematic, and the reason why we have the complexities around things like sexual harassment, which many people don’t understand. Then there’s also the gap between genders, the policing of sexual expression, and the enjoyment of sex. Women, for some biological reasons and some totally made up reasons, have always felt a little bit more like a gatekeeper when it comes to sex. Men have been given this narrative in the space to explore their urges, while women are constantly told to control their urges and feelings. That’s a yin and yang right there: it’s good to know when it’s appropriate to enjoy urges, and when to refrain, so why does that boil down to gender?
Thus, Dame was born.
I really wanted to help women to enjoy and understand themselves. 70 percent of women need clitoral stimulation in order to have orgasm. Only 4 percent of women say that internal penetration is their most reliable source to orgasm. When most women sit down to pleasure themselves they don’t need that internal stimulation, but if you compare that to the way media portrays sex, it’s seen that that’s how women attain pleasure. In porn and the media, there’s a lot of what I call pivving which leads to simultaneous orgasm, and I’m like that’s nice, but a little overrated and over represented. That’s not how it happens.
Yes, an over representation of a certain type of sex.
You know how tumblr took down all their porn? That’s exactly the issue. Porn is a very specific representation, and I think we all find ourselves having keyword or search term complexes. You find your few words that work for you, but there could be so much more if we had a little bit more access. Like GIF porn is dope! Your imagination can fly with it!
You mentioned that your largest customer base is women 45+.
I think the understanding of sex and gender has changed dramatically for those who are 45+. There’s a newfound sexual liberation. As for gen Z, they actually speak about sex really clearly and frankly. They have a better understanding of the idea that things are social constructions; that gender can be both fluid, and is a little bit made up. They seem to grasp all that more easily, but they also are apparently not having sex as much!
Tell me a little more about your specific products.
They’re for vulva owners, PWV: Person with Vulva. Eva and Fin were designed for clitoral stimulation with a partner in mind. What that means is that we actually had the partners fill out surveys; we were curious about their feedback. In the office we like to say, if we’re going to acknowledge that women are sexual beings, we need to give space for men to be emotional beings. Eva stays within the vulva hands free, and you can wear it while having penetrative sex. It’s great to wear and definitely matches up more with the mainstream representation of “what sex is”. Fin is a finger vibrator, and it’s so great because of its versatility. It’s small, easy to hold, and you can kinda just forget about it until you don’t want to forget about it [laughs]. It’s a little bit more interactive. We just recently came out with Pom. It’s squishy and involves pressure play stimulation.
What is your process when making a toy?
Every process is different, but I think we are falling into more of a rhythm now. Usually we start with an overall purpose, what are we trying to accomplish. Then we do market research with what’s out there. The fun part is building prototypes. It’s funny because we cut apart different toys and merge them together to get a starting idea. Janet [other co-founder] then estimates timing and cost. From there we 3D print the form so we can look at it and talk about it. A lot of people then test them, Fin had about 70 Beta testers.
What’s your stance on sexuality in the digital age?
In the digital space, I’d like to think we’re moving toward good things, but at the same time it’s opened up a conservatism. I’m being very heteronormative right now, but with #metoo men don’t know what to do, they’re freaking out. It’s so interesting to me that out of this whole sexual harassment conversation, there’s so little dialog about how harassment is always bad, and sex isn’t always bad. We’re so focused on the sexual part of the harassment that in some way I think that we’re shaming sex more than we ever have. We’re telling people they shouldn’t feel shame from their experiences, yet we’re tying sex to all these bad experiences. Culturally, sex doesn’t feel good right now. People are just confused, closed off, and no one wants to be creepy and make anyone feel uncomfortable. I just think we don’t know how to dance anymore!
Thank you for saying that
I think it’s the biggest problem! We just don’t know how to dance anymore. Dancing is non-verbal communication all about how two people get into a space and try to constantly negotiate each others boundaries. So yeah, it’s a weird time for sex. We’re all having vastly different experiences.
Have there been any unexpected challenges in running a business?
It’s interesting to me how people differentiate sexual health from wellness or pleasure, and where they draw different lines. My business is constantly undercut because people can’t grasp that pleasure is about health and wellness. Trying to get ads on the subway has been upsetting for us. It started with Unbound Babes, the MTA was unresponsive to their ad space, and when the situation got to the press MTA said they’d work with Unbound. So we took that as our go-ahead. We reached out, sent in ads, and willingly compromised with tweaks. Just the other week we got an email that they changed their policy. It’s infuriating. There are libido supplements on the subway, ads for Viagra, all categorized as health, but why aren’t my products the same? To me it’s all about wellness, it’s all about health. Who’s out there taking Viagra for “health” purposes. It’s just tiring.
What does sexual wellness mean to you? What’s your routine?
Sexual wellness to me is two fold: I think it’s about sexual satisfaction in your life and deciding what is ideal sex, and also being able to have sexual expression and feel fulfilled by it. For me being in a relationship, trying to have sex once a week seems like a good goal. Also having enjoyable sex. Sex can be whatever we desire it to be! So many women have low libidos, not because they need to be taking these pills, but they’re just not having pleasurable sex. And they’ve never been told that that’s something they could expect in their lives. On the flip side, if you’re happy in your life not having sex, no one should be telling you that you need to be. You should have permission to freely explore whatever you want to explore. Sex routine to me is a “yes, and”. It’s up to the beholder.
What is the most important thing you want your customer to take away?
That sex can be a healthy, safe, and enjoyable part of their lives. And that it’s not inherently bad.
Anything new we can look forward to?
We have a new product coming January 6, so keep an eye out. All I’ll say is it’s about having a slightly different sexual experience.
Stay tuned to Milk for more of Bedside and check out our previous installments here.