It was supposed to be a highlight for the startup Lora DiCarlo — in the form of a booth right on the show floor, a transparent little sculpture with the inscription "CES 2019 Innovation Award" on the table and the attention that comes with being an honoree at the world's biggest tech show, the CES in Las Vegas.
After all, more than 4,500 companies exhibit their most innovative and new products here every year, to audiences exceeding 100,000 visitors.
Instead for Lora DiCarlo it meant no official booth, no award, no CES this year. A misunderstanding? Or does Ose, the robotic pleasure toy for women that the startup wanted to present, not pass the CTA's standard of decency?
'Immoral, obscene, indecent, profane'
So what happened? In September, Lora Haddock, CEO and founder of the startup Lora DiCarlo, submitted Ose for the CES Innovation Award in the Robotics and Drone product category.
Ose is the startup's first product — a hands-free pleasure device for women developed in collaboration with the robotics lab of Oregon State University by a team of almost entirely female engineers. "It combines micro-robotic technology and bio-mimicry for an experience that feels just like a real partner," Lora DiCarlo says in a product ad.
In early October, the company was notified that its personal massager passed the independent panel of judges and was indeed selected as a CES 2019 Innovation Awards honoree in that category.
"My team rejoiced and celebrated," wrote Haddock in an open letter, published on Monday. "A month later our excitement and preparations were cut short when we were unexpectedly informed that the administrators at CES and CTA were rescinding our award and subsequently that we would not be allowed to showcase Ose, or even exhibit at CES 2019."
Asked why the award was revoked, CTA told the company that it reserved the right to disqualify any entry "deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not keeping with CTA's image."
"All we heard was: Sounds a lot like you don't like women creating technological products for women in sexual health," Haddock told DW at a press event on the sidelines of CES, where the startup got the chance to present its Ose after all, even if not on the CES show floor.
Later on, CTA administrators revised the explanation. "The product referenced does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program," the CTA told DW in a statement.
"CES does not have a category for sex toys. CTA had communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo nearly two months ago and we have apologized to them for our mistake."
Haddock called this "an even more insulting and frankly ridiculous assertion", pointing out the close collaboration with the robotics lab of Oregon State University, one of the most highly ranked in the country, in the designing process of Ose.
"The question we keep asking ourselves is: Is women's sexual health and wellness not innovative, not worthy of innovation?" Haddock told DW. She accuses the organizers of CES of double standards when it comes to allowing male versus female sexuality on the show floor.
"Men's sexuality is allowed to be explicit with a literal sex robot in the shape of an unrealistically proportioned woman and VR [virtual reality] porn. Female sexuality, on the other hand, is heavily muted if not outright banned," she said.
Sexism and gender bias at CES is an ongoing issue. From "booth babes," scantily clad women hired to show off products on the show floor, and all male panels of keynote speakers to the lack of female-focused products on the floor — the accusations return every year.
This year, the CTA has seemingly made an effort to demonstrate its dedication to diversifying. Fifty percent of the keynote speakers were women. And on Tuesday the CTA announced a $10 million investment in firms and funds focused on "women, people of color and other underrepresented startups and entrepreneurs."
And yet, as the Ose case demonstrates, there is still a long way to go. Lora Haddock and her colleagues are trying to stay positive. After all, the incidence has attracted a lot of attention. She hopes it will set something in motion.
"What we are really trying to do is legitimize the conversation about women in sex tech and women in tech, period. People that have vaginas get to be here too."