A Q&A with Alex Fine, CEO of Dame Products, who shares how to discover who we are by learning who we are not, the power of cultural influences, and the difference between pleasure vs. orgasm.
“In the past four years of running a vibrator company, which has involved countless focus groups, and rounds of product testing, I’ve absorbed a thing or two about sexual preferences, fears, aspirations, and misconceptions.”
Opening with that quote of yours, I’d love for you to give our listeners a bit of context and tell us how you came to be where you are today.
I think it really does start from being really young. I remember feeling sexual as a child, which is something that I think we don’t really discuss. We ignore it in children and feel very uncomfortable by it — but I did feel that way when I was young. When I was six, I went to a drag queen party with my cool aunt because I was staying with her in the city. I learned so much about my own femininity and what feminine power could be from them, as well as the idea that sex and gender are two separate, distinct things.
I went back to show and tell, and I explained it to my class. They called the principal. The principal called my parents. My aunt got a strong talking to, and it really sparked the question, “Why can’t I talk about this?” Why is there a truth in the world that isn’t hurting anybody but that I’m getting in trouble for sharing? Because for me, learning those truths felt very liberating and I was so excited to tell my peers about it. I think that was really the beginning of wanting to be a sex educator and talking about those topics.
When I was in middle school, it continued. I when I first kissed a boy, he got high fives and I got slut-shamed. I was 12 or 11, it was middle school. It was my first french kiss, which was gross, and in front of a bunch of people. There were 20 people watching, they counted down, and then we kissed. Literally, right after, everybody was giving him high fives, and I didn’t exist. If anything, I was spoken poorly of.
It really sparked this whole thing for me, where I really shaped the way I was going to explore sex to make sure that people weren’t going to say negative things about me. And I don’t know if I always did a great job with that, but I remember really wanting to have sex with a boyfriend and making him wait. I tried really hard to wait until I was 16 because I was so scared of being slut-shamed.
Going back and thinking about that, it’s so silly. I was ready. I was excited. It was what I wanted to do, but I prevented myself from experiencing life because I was so scared of being slut-shamed. Then I got HPV and I wanted to tell everybody about it. All of these things essentially led me to want to become a sex therapist. I got my master’s in clinical psychology from Columbia and was going down the researcher path. I started realizing that I wanted to talk to people more than researching was going to allow. And I wanted to just do more. I’m really impatient.
I started to realize that I could take this passion for redefining what sexual pleasure is supposed to be for us, what it specifically really means for women, and do it in a different way by creating a brand with products and services. The universe put me in touch with my co-founder, who went to MIT for mechanical engineering. She took this crazy idea I had and made it into a reality. We launched it on Indiegogo. We raised $575,000.00 in 45 days, for our first product. I think growing up for me it felt like academia was the only way, but I’ve been able to find my own path that allows me to impact the world, to have the conversations that I wanted to have, and that aligns better with who I am and what my skill sets are.
How would you define femininity and how you would define masculinity?
I think it’s a really exciting thing to think about. Femininity and masculinity are ultimately social constructs. Of course, I think that both characteristics can exist within one person. I think in a lot of ways those terms are socially constructed and we’ve made them up. What’s truly feminine? What is 100% masculine? To me, femininity tends to be softness and curves and masculinity is right angles and sharpness. When I’m negotiating, when I’m doing business, I often really do feel, I try to tap into what feels like the masculine part of me. But, again, I do think that all of that is made up. These are layers of socially constructed things that maybe had a seedling of truth at one point. When I think of nurturing, I think of the fierceness in nurturing and this really powerful love that feels really strong to me. We can expand on femininity, so it feels stronger.
The idea that masculinity is strength, and femininity is weak, that’s got to go.
What role do you think culture plays in the development of our identities?
“Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” It’s a Buddhist saying.
I don’t think we exist without culture. I think our culture shapes us tremendously, and we exist within it.
There’s this fantastic photo of you in your wedding dress and it says, “I’m a lady and I poop. I’m big and I am tiny. I’m a wife and a child. I’m a successful business owner and I’m truly lazy. I am of many identities.”
I’d love for you to speak to the contradictions that exist within each of us.
This is me on the toilet in my wedding dress, right? First of all, that picture is my favorite picture of the whole wedding, and I’m not even joking. I think getting dressed up in a wedding dress feels so silly, and in a lot of ways, I did not feel like myself in that dress. I just think that there are simultaneous truths that exist in all of us and it is so beautiful to hold all of them all at once; to acknowledge that like you can be strong and you can be soft. You can be a lot of “different” things. It makes me have a lot of self-love when I hold space for my contradictions.
I’ve had people ask me what the definition of love is, and I think it’s different for everyone.
I think that when we try to understand love, it’s best understood as an action, more than a feeling. I’ve read a bunch of different definitions, and the one that I’ve always really liked, “It’s the choice to spend your energy to help somebody else grow, or yourself grow. When you love somebody or when you love yourself, you’re giving it the energy and the time to spiritually grow.” I like that one because it’s beyond just this idea of good feelings. Like tough love. When you really love somebody, sometimes you want to push them because you think they could be doing more, or they’re struggling with something and you want them to stop doing ‘x’. That can be a loving act, even if it doesn’t make them feel good.
I think that when we try to understand love, it’s best understood as an action, more than a feeling.
And there’s the contradiction. Love doesn’t always feel good.
Love is interesting, but love should make you feel like you’re growing.
You spoke earlier about the versions of ourselves, and I think people really focus on trying to be a certain version of themselves, rather than trying to find as many different versions of themselves that they can.
Oh, my god. That is beautiful.
It’s difficult to grow if you’re not challenging yourself, trying new things, or trying on different perspectives. I think that exploration and learning sometimes require different versions of ourselves and that’s OK.
It’s cool to think that you can wake up and be a different person. I think a lot of people think that they can never change—but we can. This also feels like a good analogy to sex. I think it’s really important in sex, in finding our sexual selves, to know the things that we like and don’t like. For example, to explore different things and find out if we like pressure vs. light touch, or our nipples touched, or the back of our necks touched. It is so beautiful to find out what you don’t like and who you don’t want to be. Knowing that about yourself is really wonderful. I think who you are is predominantly the things that bring you pleasure, knowing the things that bring you pleasure, and knowing the things that you don’t like.
It is so beautiful to find out what you don’t like and who you don’t want to be.
I think figuring out what you don’t like—or who you don’t want to be, or what careers you don’t like—help us get closer to what it is that we do want to be.
I’d like you to speak to the struggles you have had with restrictions on advertising, which BBXX has similarly struggled with.
Facebook said that The New York Times article about my business was too risky and that some of their viewers might find it insensitive… Sex should be safe, consensual, and pleasurable — and I cannot believe how “controversial” that statement is, according to them.
It’s a restriction on conversation. Sex and sexuality are an incredible part of human society. It’s an important part of our personal health, it’s an important part of our romantic relationships. We do not have the proper language for it and are not really allowed to talk about it. I can’t think of anything else that is this important that we simply don’t talk about. It’s harder to have a podcast in this category. It’s harder to start a business in this category. Everything that tries to make it better is met with institutional and societal resistance in a way that just seems so illogical to me. It is so profoundly stupid of us as a society. We exist because of sex.
We have become very aware of how unhappy many people are with certain sexual experiences. I think if you ask men how is sex supposed to feel, they’re all going to tell you it feels good. While if you ask a young girl who’s about to have sex for the first time how she’s feeling about it, she might tell you that she’s scared it’s going to hurt. But we can make it better. We’ve made so many other things better. We have made sex better in some ways, but we need to talk about it in order to improve it more. It’s wild to watch those congressional hearings with Zuckerberg, listening to him talk about connecting people, freedom of speech, raising voices, and helping businesses grow. They don’t help me do any of those things. They have shut down my voice and they are putting free speech in front of truth. Our advertisements, the messaging—it’s all based on science. Sex should be safe, consensual, and pleasurable—and I cannot believe how “controversial” that statement is, according to them.
You mentioned that they censor conversation. BBXX aims to change the conversation and the culture surrounding intimacy and relationships.
After having our promotions rejected so many times, as a test I once tried to run an ad a picture of somebody hiking with the caption, “love your family.” It was denied for being “inappropriate,” a.k.a. our entire profile was flagged, not just any single post.
This denies people access to quality content and the exposure to information necessary to be able to start a different kind of conversation in the first place.
I don’t think people really understand the severity of it. They assume that I’m trying to run an ad that shows a vibrator. I wish I could do that because I can target that and then you would know what you are clicking on. But since I couldn’t run ads to Dameproducts.com, because it sells vibrators, I was trying to be clever and I was running advertisements as a person, not as a company.
For example, I ran an advertisement that said, “Thank you so much to The New York Times for featuring me, and my story of female entrepreneurship”, or something to that extent. I did the same thing with a BBC interview and the Today Show. I tried to run ads to a W Magazine article and, essentially, all of these articles were shut down because Facebook said those articles were inappropriate. Facebook said that The New York Times article about my business was too risky and that some of their viewers might find it insensitive. I can’t help but wonder—whose sensitivities are they worried about?? Because the lack of information is causing harm. And I’m sure you see it too, but Facebook prompts me to try and boost my posts all of the time.
They say, “spend money here!” and then they slap you on the wrist. Well, the same thing happened with The York City Metro (MTA). While I’ve been suing the MTA, they’ve reached out to me to see if I want to run ads.
And as you mentioned, Dame’s goal is to redefine sexual pleasure. How would you define sexual pleasure?
Our understanding of sexual pleasure is mostly locked in our collective shadow consciousness. “Sex is bad.” “Sex is naughty.” “Sex is for dark times, at night.” We need to be able to have conversations about sex in the light, where we frame sex as something that is beautiful, good, and important. It’s a profoundly special way to connect with yourself, a partner, or whoever else.
A lot of people tend to see pleasures as being outcome-based, rather than an actual measurement of pleasure or enjoyment.
Yes. We also talk about the pleasure gap. Before we were talking about the pleasure gap, a lot of people were talking about the “orgasm gap.” We decided that we wanted to refocus the gap on pleasure because orgasm doesn’t mean pleasure. It’s not the same thing. I think the idea that orgasm is the goal of sex is really limiting. It’s about reframing pleasure in general, and I think pleasure is a beautiful goal. Feeling good, feeling pleasure in our lives is what makes us feel alive. So, I think that not feeling pleasure, not feeling joy, not enjoying the sensations in our breath as we breathe is what makes us feel dead—when we’re really alive.
Orgasm doesn’t mean pleasure. It’s not the same thing. I think the idea that orgasm is the goal of sex is really limiting.