Sexual wellness is an industry trying to normalise sex and move it from polars of being either taboo or pornographic
One of the challenges for entrepreneurs and investors alike is to pinpoint verticals are showing signs of future growth but have not become saturated.
For example, in 2016 the fintech industry exploded in Singapore and companies that had built their infrastructure in 2014 or 2015 were well positioned to take advantage. In 2018, startups that are entering the fintech space will face stiff competition while fundraising from investors who may have deployed their capital in the previous year or two.
In Singapore, an industry that is showing demand without an oversupply are the products and services in the sexual health and wellness genre. Specifically, there is a desire to buy items that normalise sex as a regular part of maintaining overall personal health.
This applies just as much to those people who wait for marriage as it does to the sexy active individual.
Over the weekend, the city hosted its first ever festival dedicated to sexual health called SparkFest. Erin Chen, one of the Co-founders, said the goal was to create a curated space to help people talk about relationships, pleasure, sex and, yes, love, in a public forum.
“We do find that once people get a glimpse or experience the kind of new conversations and approach we are creating, they are very receptive and enthusiastic,” she said.
“I think this is because [Co-founder Sinnead Ali] and I have always maintained the philosophy that SPARK is not about telling people how sex should be or not be. We are not here to give dogmatic answers.”
Chen compared the industry to Mindfulness — a concept that was unheard-of just a few years ago but has grown into a massive industry.
“A huge opportunity for forward-thinking entrepreneurs is to address issues that impact sexuality beyond the obvious, from sexual violence and abuse, to global health crises like AIDS and STDs, to education models that help us live healthier lives. This is the true intersection of sex and technology,” said Chen.
A vibrant industry in a conservative market
At this point, we should probably define Sexual Wellness as an industry. It can encompass sextech and dating apps, but it also includes feminist literature, erotica, companies fighting sexual exploitation, clothing, hygiene products and even something as basic as food.
One such project is a publication dedicated to intersectional feminism called ‘‘. It is run by university-aged students and prints a hardcopy collaborative magazine. In its most basic sense, intersectional feminism is a theorythat transcends race, gender, sexuality and other identities to make the ideology as inclusive as possible.
Myra, who preferred only to use her first name, explained that starting this magazine was risky because of restrictions and taboos — or example, not being able to openly take a stand on homosexuality.
But, she pointed to an online community that was supportive and grew to become enough to turn this into a legitimate publication. Myra pointed to Twitter as the means in which The Local Rebel got off the ground.
Myra expressed optimism about topics of sexuality because she was seeing more people wanting to join The Local Rebel community.
“Now, the youths are now more well-versed about issues that maybe back then we weren’t very informed with, so now that they are informed about it, they decide to seek platforms where they can discuss it; where they feel like their own voice is heard,” she said. “That’s where we come in”.
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Another example of this growing openness within Singapore is the vibrator manufacturer Smile Makers (which is under the Singaporean company Ramblin Brands).
The Smile Makers business plan is driven by one simple rule: They do not sell their products in sex shops. Rather, any adult in Singapore can find a vibrator at the local Guardian or Watsons pharmacies. People can even order the product via RedMart.
“We found that over 50 per cent of women want to try [a vibrator] out, but they are turned off by the retail environment,” said Jacqueline Husin, the Brand Manager for Southeast Asia.
“So that leads to why we only want to be sold in drugstores. That allows us to normalise it and make it known that sexual well-being should be a part of general well being,”she said.
As for the industry, Husin said there are some restrictions because Singapore is a conservative market, pointing to the fact that when they launched in Watsons in 2015 they opened the sexual health category (besides condoms and pregnancy tests). Husin said convincing the pharmacy that there was a market was difficult but, after launching, the demand has arrived and competitors are also being sold.
“Even now advertising can be difficult. Even though we look very cute, accessible, nothing vulgar, we are still associated with the more vulgar brands. So places like Facebook or Google Ads, it is difficult for us to do that kind of stuff.”
Husin says new products are being launched all of the time and, like a lot of young markets, they have been collaborative.
Much like Myra, Husin said the region is becoming more open, using the imminent launch in Indonesia as an example.
Couples also like to be sex positive
While the modern millennial is very familiar with hookup culture of dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, once those one-night-stands turn into something real it is as if the entire industry shifts to the old-school incumbents.
GaiGai, an offline dating company owned by Paktor, is launching a new product called Adventures that, for the first time in the company’s history, is targeting couples. Essentially the project is bringing a travel agency model to relationships. They curate, recommend, plan and act as a payment portal so couples just book and show up.
Jeanne Chai, the Chief Date Designer, for GaiGai said part of the job is breaking the domination of our devices.
“I think people are very connected digitally at the moment ands sometimes they lose the personal touch. We want them to be reminded of why they first fell in love, we want to recreate that, we want them to stay connected. We are trying to bring them back to that, to doing things together, to things that bond them,” she said.
And for those times when life just prevents a couple from being together? Well the SparkFest hackcelerator champion, Closr, has that covered.
The product is basically vibrator-turned-necklace that can be controlled by the other partner via an app. So instead of sexting during a 5-10 minute break, couples can turn-on the vibrating necklace and engage in foreplay despite being separated.
If the point has not been driven home yet, here it is in its most blunt form: When it comes to sex, Southeast Asia is very conservative, but underneath the surface is a vibrant industry promoting — and selling — an approach to sex that is both open-minded and healthy. For entrepreneurs that can approach the industry with open-mindedness and creativity, sexual welness is a vertical that seems full of opportunity.
Finally, I just want to give a shoutout to SHE Rescue Home which provides a safety net to young girls (under the age of 16) who have been victimised by sex trafficking in Cambodia.
The world needs more organisations like SHE.
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