Late one spring night in May 2013, Janet Lieberman, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer, and her then-boyfriend, also an engineer, were at a bar in Brooklyn trying to operate a sex toy they’d purchased to celebrate his birthday. She’d worn the vibrator around all day to mark the special occasion—her boyfriend had planned to use its remote control to pleasure her whenever he pleased—but their plan failed when neither of them could determine how to turn the thing on. “I felt so dumb because there were such simple instructions, but we just couldn’t figure it out,” Lieberman says. They finally gave up and threw the toy away. “If two engineers who design products for a living couldn’t figure out how to operate a vibrator that cost $160, what’s happening to other people who are buying these products?” says Lieberman, 31. “I thought to myself, I can make better vibrators.”
By the end of the following year, she’d done just that, cofounding Dame Products, a company that bills itself as “smart women” who make “phenomenal sex toys.” In December 2014, Lieberman and her business partner, Alexandra Fine, proved they had the goods to back up that motto when their debut product, Eva—marketed as “the first truly wearable couple’s vibrator”—made crowdfunding history, raising $575,000 in less than two months on Indiegogo, more than 10 times their initial goal of $50,000.
Eva’s design—two flexible wings that tuck under a woman’s labia, stimulating the clitoris during penetration—was unlike anything on the market and was honed to perfection specifically with women in mind. “We make products for women,” says Lieberman, Dame’s chief technology officer. “Men buy our products, too, but they do so because they think women are going to like them.”
That’s a revolutionary concept in an industry ripe for disruption. But even as mounting evidence has proved women need a little help reaching climax, the sex-toy industry has remained stubbornly male-dominated, with its toys inspired by porn, modeled on penises, and largely marketed to men to use on women as a way of enhancing male enjoyment. “A lot of sex toys are missing the point if you look at what women say they get sexual pleasure from,” says Fine, 28, Dame’s CEO. She and Lieberman are taking a different approach. “What we’ve learned is, women want different things sexually,” Lieberman says. “So how can we make the highest percentage of them happy?”
One way to ensure a wide swath of women will find sexual satisfaction is to have lots of product options available to them. Which is why the two are now back in their lab, working on a second sex toy—the next in what they hope will eventually be a large line of women-focused devices. Their sophomore product, a finger vibrator called Fin, is being designed to maximize female pleasure, and when it launches on Kickstarter this month, Dame Products will be one product closer to accomplishing its mission of “making the world a happier place, one vagina at a time.”
Dame Products is based inside a decrepit-looking, postindustrial warehouse, one of several companies stationed on the grounds of a former rope factory that sprawls across 14 acres of waterfront property in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. On one of the lab’s dark-gray walls hangs a map of the female anatomy, along with some on-theme signs (including one that says good vibes) and black-and-white prints of burlesque dancers from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In a corner sits a sex-toy mannequin named Double Dennis, purchased for testing purposes during Eva’s production. (He was never used, though, because the women found him off-putting and his penis comically large.)
Growing up, Lieberman never would have guessed her job would one day include sex dolls. Both of her parents are statisticians and her older sister majored in math, so it was no surprise when she, too, went into a technical field. In 2007, the New Jersey native graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and got a job as a mechanical engineer at Z Corporation. She went on to work at design firms Quirky and MindsInSync, before landing at MakerBot Industries in Brooklyn as a lead engineer on one of the company’s 3-D printers, which can be used to create everything from cup holders to hairbrushes. She was working there in 2013 when the faulty vibrator spurred her interest in making better sex toys. “Most of the time when you have thoughts like that, it’s not a realistic impulse,” says Lieberman. “But I’d seen companies being built. I was on the design side, but I’d also been involved with the manufacturing, been a quality engineer, and done a fair amount of project management. After a couple of months, I thought, Maybe this is realistic.”
Around the same time, Fine, who hails from Long Island, New York, and has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University, was living in Brooklyn and working at Babo Botanicals, which makes a wide range of organic products for children. Throughout her education, Fine had repeatedly learned about the “pleasure gap”—a term used to describe the fact that only one-quarter of women reliably orgasm during intercourse and that, according to a 2009 study by Indiana University, just 64 percent of women reported having an orgasm during their most recent sexual event, compared with 91 percent of men. Fine was alarmed by those results and vowed to find a way to narrow the gap. She started thinking about how sex toys could help, given that several studies have found that 70 percent of women need clitoral stimulation to have an orgasm. “I felt like there was a clear lack of understanding of women’s needs among the products that were on the market,” Fine says.
The women independently began attending networking events to pick entrepreneurs’ brains about getting their ideas off the ground, and kept hearing about each other. “People either thought that we were the same person or that we were already working together, because there aren’t that many young women in Brooklyn starting a sex-toy company at any given moment,” Fine says. “About the third time that someone mistook me for her, I said, ‘OK, do you have this girl’s contact info? I should just meet up with her,'” Lieberman recalls. The women met for breakfast in Manhattan’s West Village in June 2014 and bonded over their mutual goal over yogurt, granola, and bacon. They were especially excited about the opportunity in the market for their products. “The people making sex toys at the time weren’t people who got into the industry to champion female sexuality,” Lieberman says. “They got into the industry because they wanted something else to make money on in addition to selling porn. When that’s the root of the industry, you can understand why [products are made] without understanding what women want or need.” They thought the industry was ready for their innovations. “There’s been a recent wave acknowledging that women also have sexual needs,” Lieberman says. “When that culture shift happened, it created a great opportunity for women’s pleasure products. These are not gag gifts at bachelorette parties—these are products many women use every day.”
Looking back on it now, Fine says, that breakfast was the moment the company started. Not much was discussed during the initial meeting—not even working styles or how they would interact with each other—but the women liked and trusted each other enough that they decided to build their dreams together.
Fine says her parents were supportive from the beginning (“They were already used to me wanting to be a sex therapist, so … “), but Lieberman’s parents took a little more convincing. She told her parents about her idea before she started the company (she describes it as a “coming out” process) and gave them veto power. They were “very anxious,” but ultimately, “my mom said her job as a parent isn’t to support me in following her dreams,” Lieberman says. “It’s to support me in following mine.” Now, they brag about her accomplishments all the time. “My parents know the values they taught me are the reasons why I wanted to start this company,” she says. “Consumers deserve to feel like the products they get are well-made and a good value.” Still, her “very Catholic” mother hasn’t told her church choir and worries she’d have to change congregations if they ever found out.