clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How do you sell erotica to millennial women? Make it more like podcasts.

Think of it like a much sexier Headspace.

A still from the Dipsea app.
Dipsea
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

The first time I listened to one of Dipsea’s “sexy audio stories” was on the subway. This was an incredibly uncomfortable experience; New York City’s Financial District at 6 pm on a Thursday is possibly the most unsexy environment in the universe, not least when you are on an unfortunate-smelling train rumbling underneath it.

And yet according to the voice in my ear, I was not grasping a bacteria-infested metal pole while trying to avoid brushing elbows with exhausted strangers. Instead, I was entering my very cool Airbnb in Tulum, Mexico. I was there with Noah, a man whom I was apparently in love with, and my voice broke with the raspiness of a Los Angeles artist-girl who always sounds like she’s trying not to laugh.

You can tell that the app Dipsea — part subscription-based audio business, part erotic fiction content studio — is aimed at millennial women because a sizable portion of “Tulum” is spent detailing how sweet the Airbnb is. This is part of its strategy: Dipsea, which launched on December 5 and costs $8.99 per month ($5.99 a month with a year-long subscription), currently comprises 50 stories (you can listen to a sampling of them here) that include relatable references to dudes with eye-rolly Hinge profiles and the experience of not knowing what essential oils are supposed to do. There are categories for hetero, queer, and group situations, as well as “heat” levels. Think of it like a much hornier Headspace.

Like many slickly designed tech companies based in San Francisco, Dipsea came out of a conversation between friends. Gina Gutierrez, a brand and design strategist, and Faye Keegan, a technical product manager, would often stay up late talking with their group about sex stuff, and say that while everyone could easily wax poetic on vibrators, there wasn’t much to discuss in the way of content.

“There wasn’t any good, interesting, erotic sexual content that felt made for us,” Gutierrez explains. “They was only this black market where people are like, ‘There’s this one chapter of this book that I think is super sexy and it’s stacked on my nightstand,’ but that’s kind of it.”

Dipsea co-founders Gina Gutierrez and Faye Keegan.
Dipsea

There is feminist porn, sure, but “porn” is not really what Dipsea is trying to be. “Tulum,” for instance, ends right before Noah and I (spoiler alert) hook up with the hot couple next door. Instead, Dipsea is about getting women ready for the “before” part of sex-having.

“We don’t just think that this is an end, like, ‘let’s get you aroused,’” says Gutierrez. “That end could be feeling more alive and awakened. That could mean feeling more in touch and connected with your body. That could mean feeling more connected to a partner. That could mean feeling more flirtatious before a date. And then, of course, there’s the classic use, and I’m sure people can [use] this to masturbate. Which of course you could as well.”

And when you are creating erotica for fancy millennial women, you have to care about the details. Stories are edited in house and come from a network of freelance writers and voice actors, and the most important part of the process, Gutierrez explains, is making sure the listener feels safe.

“How do we make sure the partner that [the narrator] is talking to sounds empathetic and trustworthy? How do we make sure that she’s really feeling herself? How do we make sure the environment that she’s in feels really conducive to that experience, [so that] she’s not threatened from a privacy perspective or she’s not feeling like uncomfortable with anything? Those are all the details that we’re tending to make someone feel like ‘this is right’ and ‘this is good for me.’”

Dipsea is not the first player in the erotic audio space — there are plenty of podcasts about real-life sexual escapades, traditional romance short stories, and sex tips — but it is the one that has most adopted the sleek aesthetics of venture capitalist-backed startups. It has actual venture capital, too: Though Dipsea declined to give numbers, it has raised funding from Bedrock Capital, which has also invested in the trivia game HQ and the celebrity shoutout app Cameo, as well as from angel investors like Heidi Zak of the bra startup ThirdLove.

It’s also notable in that it’s a women-led company that says it hasn’t experienced dead-eyed stares from tech dudes. “I think it’s really interesting that the expectation is that we would have had a really tough time talking to the male-dominated tech community,” Gutierrez says. “I think men actually have an interesting perspective in the sense that they are catered to in terms of sexual content. They have good options, and so they get [that] it’s weird that women don’t. So if anything, there actually has been, ‘Oh, wow, why doesn’t this exist?’ Less, ‘I don’t think it should.’”

The skepticism, then, seems more likely to come from people like me. While technically among Dipsea’s target customers as a post-college 20-something woman, when I was invited to an event to learn about an “app for short audio stories designed to turn women on,” I had doubts. I was prepared to cringe while, I assumed, listening to the sort of women who unironically referred to themselves as “goddesses,” who started cheesy brands as a means to ride the wave of “feminist” “wellness,” which is now an enormously lucrative industry.

“Of course you are skeptical, because what references do you have for something like this?” says Gutierrez when I tell her this.

Ultimately, however, Dipsea charmed me the same way any other brand would: It uses cool fonts. Its founders seem like real people. There was free wine that came in cans. I understood it, because it looks and sounds like every other successful startup for millennials. In 2018, it often seems like you can pretty much spin the wheel of business ideas, slap on a sans serif font, funnel venture capital into it, and millennials will trust it.

This is not to say Dipsea is a bad concept — it’s not! But ultimately what convinced me that the app wasn’t the most embarrassing thing to have on your phone was the superficials — that it looked, aesthetically, like any other cool wellness app.

And like many businesses in the women’s tech space, “wellness” is what Gutierrez says Dipsea is all about. “[It’s] the idea of Dipsea being something that is more than just a feel-good or entertainment tool, but is really is related to a greater goal of wellness,” she says. “Audio is such an amazing medium to do that in, because it feels like you have someone in your head talking to you in a very safe and personal way.”

Because wellness in 2018 doesn’t just mean eating non-garbage and moving your body once in a while. Wellness is face masks and crystals and THC-infused lube peddled by Goop. Simply having sex, it seems, is no longer sufficient in order to be truly “well” — now there are fancy subway ads for vitamins to increase women’s libidos and multiple products that claim to make your vagina pinker (do not buy these).

Which is all to say that there are all kinds of things to spend your money on to increase your “sexual wellness.” Whether women are willing to pay for their erotica to look less like porn and more like wellness, meanwhile, is still anyone’s guess. But Dipsea certainly looks the part.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.