Story by Remi Riordan
Illustration by Danie Drankwalter
Unbound Babes is a company dedicated to helping people, many times young women and GNC people, explore their sex lives and bodies. Over the summer, I spoke to Polly Rodriguez, the co-founder and CEO of the company, about her favorite product, accurate sex education and what’s next for Unbound [spoiler, they’ve already moved into their new office]!
What inspired you to start Unbound Babes and how did you get into the sex tech field?
I mean I definitely didn’t come out of school and jump right into it. I had a cancer diagnosis when I was 21-years-old that included radiation treatment. [It] sent me into menopause at 21, but none of my doctors told me that; they just said I would never have children. So it was realizing kind of how female sexuality is really underserved and how we’re often viewed through the lens of motherhood and maternity [that led to the creation of Unbound]. And then on the other end of the spectrum–hypersexuality. I had my first experience shopping in the [sex] category at a shop that was on the side of the highway. It was just one of those seedy experiences that stuck with me, because when you go through menopause you basically need lube for the rest of your life. To me it was kind of strange that we had Bob Dole endorsing Viagra and men’s sexual needs, yet women felt really overlooked both in the shopping experience and the quality of the product. So I went on to work for Senator McCaskill in Washington, D.C., then for a strategy consulting firm on Wall Street and then joined a dating startup. After that I started working on Unbound, but I had to save up some money before starting a business as well. So a little bit of the backstory.
What sorts of challenges have you faced and was funding difficult because it was a sex toy company with a woman C.E.O?
Two percent of venture funding went to women in 2016, which gives you a little bit of a sense of how ridiculously hard it is for women to start their own businesses and get funding. I think when you couple that with the categories that we were in, I had trouble even getting meetings with venture capitalists. Despite that fact that we had a company that was cash flow positive–doing really well, growing like crazy–the stigma associated with it made it [hard]. And then on the other side of the table you have basically a group of guys who are kind of like, “this doesn’t relate to me at all.” Like, “I don’t identify with what you’re doing,” and, and only nine percent of venture capital partners are, in fact, women. Then it’s also the fact that like there aren’t that many female venture capitalist partners who’re the ones ultimately are making the decision–because the way venture funding works is somebody in the room has to basically stand up to all the other partners and say, ‘I really want to do this deal, I think it’s a good idea, let’s do it.’ And given our category, it’s really hard to get someone to stand up and do that, because people are really scared of what others will think. It’s tough, but I do think it’s getting better. I’m seeing more and more women get funding, seeing more funds started by women. It’s slowly, but surely, changing.
When you applied for the MTA advertisements in New York City, did you expect them to be rejected and have there been any updates with that?
I did not expect them to be rejected because Thinx went through something really similar and we had kind of gone above and beyond to make sure that there wasn’t any product photography. There was no nudity, there was nothing sexually explicit. It was just artistic, like commissioned art, and so when we got rejected at the same time that all of these generic Viagra company had gotten approved, it was really heartbreaking because it’s just such a blatant form of sexism where they came back and were like, well that’s a health issue and [what Unbound does] is not. It brought me back from going through cancer and dealing with the same thing where it was like, “this isn’t like your need for touch with arousal and sexual drive is not a health issue.” But for men, it’s very much considered one. So we’ve gone back and forth with them. The hypocrisy is just insane. So we said, that we will resubmit, but we’re not giving our money until you actually institute the appeal process, because they didn’t approve it until we got an entire grassroots campaign on board. The New York Times wrote about it. It wasn’t until the Times asked them to comment that they were like, “okay, we’ll work with you on this,” and it shouldn’t take that.
So Unbound babes has an online magazine/blog. Do you plan on expanding it or keeping it online? Are there any format changes in the future?
We definitely want to expand it; we’re actually getting ready to move to a new office. In our new office we’re going to have a dedicated content room with a studio so that we can do more content focused on how to use these products and baseline educational stuff. In the next year, our plan is to triple the amount of content we’re creating; specifically, we want to do more video content.
When you were a teenager, did you receive sex ed and was it sex positive at all?
I did receive sex ed. I went to public school in St. Louis, and it was definitely very focused on “don’t have sex, don’t get an STD”–it was a lot of scare tactics. [They told us statistics like] “one in 10 women get pregnant the first time they have sex”, which I don’t think is an accurate statistic. Well, only 13 percent of states in the United States require sex ed to be medically accurate. So I mean it wasn’t the worst–I feel like I’ve definitely heard worse. But they didn’t say anything about pleasure. I think for women it’s very much about defense: defend yourself, don’t get pregnant, don’t get an STD, and it’s just tough. It’s tough.
I’m from New Jersey and also 19. My sex education was surprisingly progressive for what most girls and people in general experience in the US and I’m really thankful for that. But a lot of what Unbound Babes does seems to be sex education. Do you think that self-exploration, sex toys and sex ed should go hand-in-hand? And do you think they always do?
I don’t think they always do. Women, non-binary and femme identifying individuals aren’t given as many options in terms of how to tell the narrative of their sexual experience. I don’t think there’s one right way and I think if Unbound has taught me anything, it’s that our range in preferences with regard to sexuality are so wide and vast, that to try to tell young people that just one thing is the thing that will work for everyone is a lie. 70 percent [of femmes] need clitorial simulation in order to orgasm and we just don’t teach people that. We don’t teach young women, femme and non-binary people that with regular penetrative sex, 40 percent of women have chronic difficulty achieving orgasm. And I think a lot of women put that upon themselves where they’re like, “I just don’t enjoy sex enough”. It’s not about telling everyone you need to use all these products. It’s about trying to demystify the notion that sex is just a penetrative act between a man and a woman and defined through when a man has an erection and then when a man orgasms because that’s such a closed minded view. And I think if women were given the opportunity to own some products that allowed them to orgasm on their own it would be a good thing because then they can define what they like for themselves before ever even engaging in sexual activity with someone else. They can say, “oh I do like this, I don’t like that,” which everyone should be able to say without guilt or shame when you’re enjoying sex with someone else.
Why do you think it’s important for young women to masturbate?
I think that so much of our culture and stigmas that come with masturbation stem from adults being uncomfortable with their own bodies. There’s just such a puritanical view that it’s this evil, bad thing. How does something that doesn’t harm anyone else and brings you happiness and joy and allows you to understand your body better, [how is that] the evil bad thing? I think it’s a matter of parents needing to get comfortable with the fact that their kids are growing up and becoming adults, and wouldn’t you rather them feel informed about their bodies as opposed to guilty and ashamed of their bodies. What I always say is that sex certainly makes all of us a little uncomfortable and requires us to be vulnerable. And that’s not a bad thing. It may make you feel uncomfortable, but when I first told my parents that this was a company that I want to start, they wouldn’t talk to me about it. They were so scared that my reputation would get destroyed, that I would never be able to get a job in sales. And I was like, “I don’t understand why you guys are so scared of a woman starting a company that focuses on sex. I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have sex–none of us would be here if someone didn’t have sex. How is this universal truth threatening people?” I do think [that masturbation] is important and I think it requires parents being willing to be vulnerable in front of their kids.
One of my close friends and I were talking–actually about Unbound–because I was telling her about how we were doing this and she, she legitimately was like, “wait, girls can masturbate, that can work? But how does that work? Don’t you need a guy?” And I said, “fuck, no you don’t.” I never realized that; some people just aren’t educated on the fact that you don’t need someone to do it for you and it’s good to do it yourself.
I think [masturbation] is now even more important because sex ed in the United States has gotten so bad. Pornography has taken over, and I’m very much pro-porn if it’s ethical, but the average age of someone first exposed to pornography in this country is eight years old. So we’re not talking to young people about what sex can and should look like in terms of consent, in terms of pleasure. They’re just going to learn it from porn. I think we have to ask ourselves, is that really what we want? Is that the narrative and the visual of what sex should look like, that you want your kids to watch and learn from?
I know so many boys whose sex education is solely from porn and it’s really sad–also a little scary. You said that you are moving into a new office, but what else is next for Unbound Babes?
The goals of the company have always been to take this entire product category mainstream so that people wouldn’t feel like they had only shop for these products at night in incognito mode. We’ll release 12 products in the next six to eight months, which we’re really excited about. I think it’s going to push the mission of accessibility, both in design and in price point. So right now [ what’s next for Unbound Babes] is about creating design forward products that are super affordable?
I love the jewelry that are also toys. How did you guys come up with that idea? I think it’s really fun.
We got a lot of customers that would [ask for ideas inspired by] “50 Shades of Gray” (after the book sold 128 million copies). The book was overwhelmingly successful, and as result of that there were a lot of people who historically were maybe too intimidated by BDSM and kinks who wanted to explore it, but still felt like it was a little too intense. We really wanted to make products that felt like they [could] really wear their values on their sleeves and their sexuality could become more of a fluid component in their lives. We really wanted to make fashion that would transition seamlessly from day to night because nobody lugs around a whole massive thing of lubricant or a really clunky pair of handcuffs. It was just about applying the best design practices to a category that historically has not had thoughtful designers in it.
What’s your favorite product that you guys make?
“Squish” hands down. I love it. The harder you squeeze it, the harder it vibrates. I like that it has a deep rumbly motor and I just think the design is really thoughtful too.