At Purpose conference late last year, I had the honour of standing on stage with Jak, the founder of Vavven, a purpose driven ethical sex toy retailer. She was humorous and challenging, and her honest and unapologetic style was something I wanted to emulate as soon as I saw her speak.
Jak is on a mission to take the taboo out of pleasure by retailing sex toys and talking about it. She reimagines the sex industry to be an inclusive and empowering space, committing to donate one third of Vavven’s profits to organisations who champion Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), such as Marie Stopes International (family planning and sexual health), Oxfam and its gender justice program and Women on Waves (a floating and flying sexual health and abortion clinic for isolated women – edgy AF).
Vavven sells vibrators, lingerie, love eggs and more. If you’re not ready for intimacy products, there’s lip balms, conscious socks and tote bags to support the cause. But it’s her content I love: Sex toys for Christians, How to clean your vibrator, and tips from the fabulous Juliet Allen on taboo topics such as How to have great period sex.
When I saw Be Bold for Change was the theme of this International Women’s Day, I called Jak to tell her how she’d made me feel and asked if we could have a chat. I wanted to know how the hell she’d had the gumption to take the leap into the sex industry.
First, why the sex industry?
I had an engineering consultancy which specialised in turnaround and project management for the heavy industry – you could not find two worlds further apart.
I really loved my previous life, the stress, the interaction, the problem solving, the final product. But as satisfying as it was, there was something in me that wanted to do something bigger. Elevating humanity wasn’t going to happen in my old job.
After unsuccessfully trying the traditional route of politics, I decided business was the best tool I had to make change. It didn’t take long to realise the sex industry was ripe for change and economically viable, too.
The sex toy industry is a political minefield with its objectification in marketing, its exploitation of workers manufacturing the products, and the manufacturing standards in practice for “novelty” items. I choose to niche ourselves as only stocking ethically manufactured and body safe products, and standing against objectification.
How’d you get started?
Research, research, research. Research into the sex industry and sexual and reproductive health and rights, and how to best make change in this space.
Society's interaction with sex and pleasure, and the taboo around it, became very clear. And this very inability to talk about sex suppress the conversations which are needed to elevate sexual and reproductive health and rights!
All the standard business research was then needed to kick things off, things like learning how and why the industry operated the way it does, where to source products, how to position ourselves in the market etc.
If it were not for my skills in collaboration and project management this project would not have seen the light of day.
What are some of the challenges you face now?
In Australia we can talk about sex and protection, and sex and reproduction, but sex and pleasure is not talked about. If we don’t talk about it, we can’t see we are just normal, not kinky, not dirty, just plain-Jane normal.
There is no particular age, gender, or politics for buying sex toys. But not understanding sex and pleasure leaves so many people feeling ashamed about themselves, and suppress what makes them feel good sexually. Being connected with yourself is a big factor in your own self confidence, and it’s a big factor in your ability to communicate with your partner. Getting people to see intimacy products in this light is a challenge.
A couple of the barriers I didn’t expect were banking and Facebook’s “other” rules. Sex toys are legal in Australia and they also help many people. So why the moral code against them? We are allowed a Facebook page, but we can not advertise as we sell intimacy products. Given Facebook is one of the strongest advertising platforms to utilise in connection with your community, this places us at a great disadvantage in the social enterprise community (even though we are on an even playing field with other sex toy retailers), and re-enforces the dark undertones of the industry.
How did your community support you in the transition?
Well, my sister was our first sale, which was awesome. She purchased a Vavven tote bag and a pair of conscious step socks, but I also added some love as all good sisters would! Many of my former community from heavy industry sent private, but not public, messages of support and admiration.
I have teenage boys, one of which was mortified to begin with, and is now like, oh, mum’s pretty cool. The other just said “if you save one person it’s worth it, right?”. They’ve heard everything around the dinner table now, and can see how positively people are reacting out in the community and online.
The purpose-driven business community has been amazing, exchanging commonalities, and sparking those feels of passion and energy. I’ve found a number of great mentors here and some really beautiful friends. No matter where you are in your journey, you’re never too experienced to have a mentor, and there is always a skill you have to help or mentor others with.
How’d you find the confidence to take the leap?
I realised the very thing the sex industry needs is more courageous people. If no one ever tries, how will it change for the better? And to do that properly I had to put my face and name to it.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely hesitated. I don’t come from the sex industry so I thought, who am I to try make change within it? There are also real risks, risk to my reputation, potentially finding it hard to get a part time job while trying to build the business. But you can’t care about others uneducated or ill conceived thoughts about you, or you will never jump, let alone be your true self.
There’s no magic bullet for confidence. Confidence is self belief, it’s using the nerves you feel before you speak on stage as energy, it’s having friends around you that keep you honest, it’s garnering inspiration from others to do things, it’s hearing the negative world talking to you but not taking it on, it’s believing what you are doing is good and will make lasting change.
At the end of the day, only you can decide if you can take on a challenge in life, but trust me you can. Even if you have side stepped or dodged many challenges, other opportunities will arise and when you are ready you will act on them.
Be your own bold, not anyone else's.
What a woman! Pledge to Be Bold for Change this International Women’s Day.