Sex, Toys & Unbound: An Interview With Polly Rodriguez, The CEO Changing Women's Relationships to Pleasure
Sexuality and pleasure have been defined for women for centuries. We fake orgasms to please our partners, go by their rules, and have learned most of what we know today through porn and media (all constructed from men’s perspective —sigh patriarchy!) I came across Unbound, a sexual wellness company, as I was looking to upgrade the sex toys I have been owning, and immediately fell in love with the packaging, overall design (that pink is yummy), and feminist messaging. I genuinely believe every woman should own a collection of Unbound products ranging from vibrators to lubes and jewelry — and soon to be launched is Palma, a vibrator finger ring wearable anywhere from parties to offices — in case it itches. The era of no sex and bad sex for women are over, and the era of dwelling in any of both can no longer be existent. And I mean it, women from all over the world should break free from the unease around sex and sexuality to pursue honest pleasure.
Polly Rodriguez and Sarah Jayne are the Founders behind Unbound among a group of women sharing the mission to change the way feminists approach their sex lives with a radical belief in pleasure for all. I was intrigued by these women, seemingly revolutionizing the SexTech industry, so I chatted with Polly to learn how it all started, their struggles and share Unbound with the world, to discover its making goes beyond an overnight success, but rather is the fruit of a woman who battled cancer and faced the harsh reality that her disease will lead to a premature menopause and lowered libido — the story of a woman who reinvented a world despite the most tragic of odds.
Fatima: Please tell us about your background, and what triggered the start of Unbound.
Polly: Unbound was started by a group of women who thought female sexuality was underserved by the market. We felt there should be an online destination where women can learn about their bodies and buy well designed sexual wellness products.
For me, it was a cancer diagnosis that brought me to this realization. I was 21 and it was four days before Christmas when I found out I had stage IIIC colorectal cancer. I had to drop out of college and move back home with my parents in St. Louis and begin radiation treatment immediately. I can vividly remember my doctors sitting me down and telling me that I would never have children as a result of the radiation. It was only weeks later when I started having unbearable hot flashes that I googled my symptoms and discovered I was also going through menopause. No one took the time to tell me that this would happen, only that I would never be a mother. I felt too embarrassed to ask my doctors, so I called a good friend who was a nurse, and she walked me through what menopause was. Truthfully, everything I knew about menopause was from TV — you know, moms putting their heads in the freezer and "being cranky." My friend empathetically suggested that I buy some lubricant and maybe a vibrator to help with my dip in libido. So I found the only place that sold these products in my town, which was a seedy shop next to the highway with mannequins in crotchless onesies and plastic penises lined up on shelves. I went in and bought the first thing I saw, because I just wanted the experience to be over as quickly as possible. It left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed to be shopping for these products.
After treatment for cancer, I went on to work for Senator Claire McCaskill on the Affordable Care Act in Washington, DC. I also lost health care coverage as a result of getting cancer, and I was determined to change the system that almost financially destroyed my family. From there, I went to work at Deloitte Consulting on Wall St. focusing on brand building. I knew I wanted to start a business one day, so I chose to join a startup instead of going to business school. The only position I could get at a YCombinator dating startup was as a Customer Service Manager, and so I took the position and worked my way up to an executive level position in less than two years.
Then in 2014, I met my cofounder Sarah Jayne through a women in tech group in New York City. As two midwesterners with big dreams, we hit it off immediately. We decided to team up to create a direct-to-consumer brand that would be the online destination we wished we had when we bought our first vibrators, lubricants, condoms, or accessories... and Unbound was born.
Fatima: What are you hoping women and non-binary identifying femmes get from using Unbound?
Polly: Today, we live in a society where women, femme, and non-binary individuals still need permission to claim their sexuality. I can't wait for the day when we don't need permission to masturbate, have an orgasm, and enjoy our bodies, and I believe in the interim a brand like Unbound can be the catalyst for granting that permission
Fatima: What adversities are you facing in your quest to empower women and non-binary identifying femmes' sexual lives?
Polly: The largest adversity we face is the inability to access the basic services startups need to grow their businesses. Everything from opening a bank account to finding an insurer becomes a massive obstacle. The most frustrating is the inability to advertise. Despite the fact that condom and erectile dysfunction companies can advertise anywhere they'd like, sexual wellness companies that don't cater to men are banned from advertising on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and the subway. It's infuriating to get on the New York City subway every day and see penis-shaped cactus advertising for generic Viagra, meanwhile our commissioned artwork, that isn't sexual in nature, was deemed "too inappropriate" for the subway.
Fatima: What has been the most beautiful story you've heard from your customers?
Polly: My favorite story, which is an increasingly common one, is when mothers write to ask which vibrator they should buy for their daughters. I think there is something really powerful and beautiful about a mother prioritizing her daughter's pleasure. Growing up, we're so often taught to be afraid of sex and pleasure — that boys will just want to take it from you, and that we have to be careful. It's amazing to see mothers who are telling a new narrative to the next generation — that you can define your pleasure for yourself and that sex can be this wonderful amazing thing that you may or may not choose to share with a partner, because first, you must define it for yourself.
Fatima: What's your favorite Unbound product?
Polly: I struggle with this question SO MUCH. It changes. Palma, the vibrator ring we just debuted at TechCrunch Disrupt is probably my favorite, because it's taken over 2 years to make it a reality. But close 2nd and 3rd would be Ollie and Squish for the rumbly vibration — just be careful, Ollie is all kinds of powerful!
Fatima: What's the most unusual use you've heard of?
Polly: I don't like to judge use — I think people can use these products for whatever makes them feel good. One use that makes me laugh, though, is when our customers share photos of their dogs getting a hold of their vibrators. We offer refunds if you send us a photo of your dog and the chewed up vibrator, and it's pretty funny to see how much dogs love to chew up a good vibe!
Fatima: What are your personal values, and how are these translated into Unbound?
Polly: I deeply believe in the power of resilience. I personally have been told "no" more times in my life than I'd care to count. People will always tell you what cannot be done, but I want to work with the people who find a way no matter what. When I interview candidates, I want to know what adversity they've faced in their lives and how they've overcame it. I want you to have a background full of failures and heartbreak — but I also want to know how it made you stronger and shaped you into who you are today
Fatima: How does it feel to work in a women-only environment, and how is this different from your past experiences?
Polly: Our environment isn't "women only" it just happened to be that the most qualified individuals for the jobs at Unbound were women. It doesn't feel any different than when I've worked in really collaborative, efficient work environments. We genuinely care more about the mission of the company than our individual wins and accolades. I think when the team puts the mission above themselves, magical things happen
Fatima: What are your thoughts on women's socio-cultural conditions today?
Polly: When I first started working on Unbound, I drew a version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but specific to women, femme, and non-binary individuals. At the base of the pyramid is the right to our own bodies — the right to choose if we have a child, the right to choose when we have sex and with whom. On top of that base, is the right to be educated, to attend school and to learn. After that, is the right to vote, and to be a citizen. Lastly, the right to financial independence, as women were not allowed to own their own credit card until 1974. We're still fighting for each of these fundamental rights all over the world, and until we have full autonomy across all of them, I don't believe we will achieve equality.
Fatima: Have you experienced any discrimination or abuse, please tell us more?
Polly: I've certainly been judged and offered less opportunities, because I am a woman. People also make assumptions, as my last name is Rodriguez. I've been told I'm not smart enough or aggressive enough, but I don't pay much attention to it. I don't waste my time thinking about what opportunities weren't offered to me, I focus more on how to create my own opportunities by building relationships with people who want to help me change the world.
Fatima: In three words, what would you tell our readers?
Polly: Just keep going.
Author Fatima Bocoum. Cover Photo via Medium