Imagine: A dimly lit auditorium, a hushed anticipation in the air, and a single spotlight illuminating the stage. The room was buzzing with curiosity and a dash of trepidation as we gathered for a session that promised to challenge our perceptions and transcend the boundaries of our comfort zones. This was SXSW Sydney, a hotbed of innovation and a melting pot of ideas where creators, disruptors, and forward-thinkers converged to shape the future of technology, entertainment, and culture.
At SXSW Sydney, where the horizon of possibilities extends far beyond the confines of convention, numerous conferences brought to the forefront the burning question of reinventing culture and marketing through the unapologetic lens of femininity. Among them, an enigmatic figure took center stage: Cindy Gallop. Her session, intriguingly titled “How to Reinvent Aspirational Culture and Make a Huge Amount of Money,” invited us to a profound exploration, one that could shatter preconceived notions and rebuild the foundations of our understanding.
Unlike many in the room, I was not yet acquainted with Gallop or her groundbreaking work. I had no idea what to expect, but I could sense that something extraordinary was about to unfold. Gallop’s conference promised more than a mere discussion; it was a revelation, a call to action. It beckoned us to confront an undeniable truth – there is a problem with female representation in the tech world. In 2022, a mere 1.9% of venture capital flowed into the hands of female founders, a glaring disparity in a world striving for inclusivity and diversity.
But SXSW Sydney had much more in store. The conference “Sex, Wellness, and the Big Pleasure Gap,” curated by Flex Mami and featuring LBDO founder Rachel Baker, Sunroom co-founder and CMO Michelle Battersby, and Adore Beauty Head of Brand, Chelsea Healey, offered a compelling exploration of the elusive subject of female pleasure. These women, with their impressive backgrounds and unique perspectives, were ready to dismantle the taboos and misconceptions surrounding women’s desires.
Join me as we embark on a journey through SXSW Sydney and delve deep into how it brought women’s pleasure and equality to the forefront, rewriting the narrative and transforming the future.
Dealing with Bias and Challenging the Status Quo
Gallop is 63, and proudly tells people as often as possible. “Your age is a very special number, it is the sum total of you,” said Gallop at SXSW Sydney. “Everything you’ve lived to date.”
But not everyone shares the same sentiment. When was the last time you saw a woman over 60 used in an advertisement to sell lingerie? Only recently was 88-year-old icon Maggie Smith announced as the face of Loewe’s SS24 campaign, sending social media into a frenzy in response to the brand’s non-traditional casting. And it’s not just older women who face the struggle, ageism exists for women across the spectrum. You can be dismissed for being too young just as you can for being deemed too old. That’s why Gallop coined the hashtag #SayYourAge to encourage women and non-binary people of all ages to share their age.
“We don’t give a shit at this age…we know what really matters in life, in age, in relationships,” said Gallop.
Gallop is also challenging the notion that older women should be silent about sex. “I’m not a relationship person and I enjoy having sex,” said Gallop. “We don’t have enough role models to demonstrate you can live your life the way you want to and still be happy.”
For StyleLikeU, a mother-daughter media company encouraging self-acceptance, Gallop took all her clothes off while sharing how she never wanted to get married or have children. The response was immense, with comments flooding in under the YouTube video. “I’m child-free and in my 30s, and I think this is the first time I’ve heard an older person talk about being thrilled they didn’t have kids. It’s GREAT to see!! Makes me so excited to get older!” wrote one viewer, while another stated “I’m twenty-something and I’m so eager to see representation of bold, sexy, confident single older women but they’re barely any. This interview feeds me! Love love love.”
Transforming the Porn Landscape
Watching porn can be empowering and fun. But for many young, it can also have a detrimental effect with its unrealistic expectations of sex as seen through the male lens. The typical focus of porn is on men getting off – there is a build up, they ejaculate, then the sex is over. But what about the women? According to the majority of porn films, women get aroused really quickly and have multiple orgasms.
So, what if you don’t fit into this idealized standard, despite the fact that most women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm? The truth: Only 18.4% of women orgasm from vaginal sex alone. “I always thought personally, there must be something wrong with my body,” said Rachel Baker at SXSW Sydney. “Instead of being like, ‘there’s something wrong with our society and our culture,’”
With 62% of girls being exposed to internet pornography during their teenage years, these damaging mindsets are often being perpetuated before even coming into contact with sex.
In response, Gallop designed MakeLoveNotPorn through the “female lens to be the safest place on the internet,” with a team that reviews every video and every comment before it’s posted. With members ranging from 18-80, and varying in race, sexual, and gender identities, Gallop has created a space that has the power to change people’s sexual attitudes and behavior for the better. “[It’s] one of the solutions to toxic masculinity,” said Gallop. “Men can be open, emotional, and vulnerable around sex.”
Selling Sex Through the Female Lens
Sex sells, right? Sex through the male lens, however, does not sell – especially to women. Gallop doesn’t hesitate to call out brands that she thinks have missed the mark. On Twitter, Gallop began live-tweeting her thoughts on the Vogue September issue, with an enduring theme being luxury fashion brands showing ads through the male lens. “Ageist fetishization of youth; huge amount of ad spend wasted looking like everyone else; nothing’s changing in fashion’s old world,” Gallop wrote in August 2022. And people are starting to take notice.
“We’ve been almost brainwashed for years on a certain type of pleasure and what’s expected, especially for women,” said Chelsea Healey at SXSW Sydney. “And it’s going to take some time, unfortunately.”
So, what does sex through the female lens actually look like? The movie Magic Mike XXL, according to Gallop, who said that sex in the film is demonstrated “through the female lens. [It is] uplifting, joyous, moving, fundamental, and intimate.” But that’s one film, and isn’t reflective of the general state of brand marketing. 85% of women say that advertising needs to catch up with the real world. If the big brands aren’t going to make the change, sexual health and wellness brands need to plant the seed.
“What I’m trying to do with LBDO, is create products that speak to women and understand that women have this really long history of being shamed and told that we can’t express ourselves sexually,” said Baker.
But Facing Censorship
When it comes to selling sex through the female lens, it’s roadblock after roadblock. Female sexual wellness and health brands face ongoing censorship, even when it comes to providing educational resources. “We can’t advertise on Meta, on Tik Tok because sexual wellness is seen as adult content,” said Baker. “There is this blanket rule against all of sexual, wellness, and pleasure when most of the content that we want to put out is educational.”
Sunroom, an app which its site states is for “women and non-binary creators to monetize their content and connect with their audiences,” faces similar issues when promoting the platform. “You can’t speak explicitly about what your own product is,” said Michelle Battersby at SXSW Sydney. “We have to dance around what we’re doing at Sunroom because we’re at risk of being de-platformed ourselves.”
“It’s that history of shame that is rooted in these community guidelines,” said Battersby. “If you read Apple’s community guidelines in terms of service, if you read the community guidelines, it’s femme bodies that are being specifically called out.”
It’s not just censorship on social media that is the issue. There are practical limitations associated with being a sexual wellness brand, which can often hinder revenue growth. “Not being able to get payment processes on your website, like PayPal and Afterpay because they don’t want to align with the sex brand,” said Baker. “And just having to go through a much more rigorous approval process.”
A Solution: Reinventing the Ad Ecosystem
In a system that’s so broken, where women are constantly sold to through the male lens, how can change happen? By reinventing and recreating the system. Gallop is working to redefine advertising as we know it, fostering an environment where representation aligns with a diverse and authentic reality.
She is currently on the path to scale funding for a groundbreaking venture named HereForTheAds, an adtech platform poised to revolutionize the industry. HereForTheAds isn’t just about delivering ads; it’s about delivering choice and empowerment. It aims to serve ads that people actively want to watch, ushering in a new era where advertising is a form of captivating content, not an intrusive disruption.
It also signifies an opportunity for not only Gallop but also other pioneering creators. It’s a window into a tremendous revenue opportunity that, until now, has been largely untapped. “There is a huge amount of money to be made out of taking women seriously,” Gallop said. If you’re looking to get a return on your investment, fund and invest in the future of women.
That’s exactly what EquityHive, a project championed by Kate Freeman, is doing. EquityHive is on a mission to unlock untapped returns in an overlooked and under-invested asset class: women entrepreneurs. This initiative represents a visionary approach to creating an entire ecosystem where women can not only grow their businesses but also nurture them into unicorns. By providing the necessary resources and support, the future of women-led entrepreneurship can be paved with success.
And Instilling Change From a Young Age
Another solution to implement systemic change? Educating from an earlier age. According to an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald, experts say that kids are never too young to educate on sex. Particularly when it includes conversations on anatomy, consent, pleasure, and LGBTQ+ issues to decrease shame, guilt, and instead, empower. “I think involving people from a younger age in these discussions, we’re going to start to see more incredible apps that challenge censorship,” said Baker. “We’re going to start to see tech and innovation help to give women and all people a voice and to be able to express their sexuality as well.”
For adults, self-educating and continuing the conversation is vital. “It’s such a big issue that it feels almost too daunting to just go out and tackle it,” said Baker. “Start with something really small. Even just writing an educational blog post, having a browse on Sunroom, looking at a beauty sexual wellness category, or following a creator.”
The future belongs to those who dare reshape it. As Gallop’s favorite quote by Alan Kay goes: “In order to predict the future, you have to invent it.”
Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for SXSW Sydney