I’m 35 years old, so I don’t know much about TikTok, but I did get sucked into that gut wrenching viral trend where adults pretend to talk to their younger selves about the way life turned out. Like any self-centered millennial, I immediately started to think about what I would say to younger me: “Hey, Polly, so, there’s no easy way to tell an eight year old this, but uh, you…. you end up running a sex toy business.”
And then I’m sure the younger me would burst into tears immediately.
But that’s okay – younger me will go on to learn that life never really turns out the way you think it will. For me, that meant battling stage three cancer at 21 and starting a sexual wellness business with my Co-Founder, Sarah Jayne, in 2014. We created Unbound because we wanted there to be an online destination that made buying vibrators, lubricants, and sexual accessories fun – like, really, truly, fun.
Eight years and 50+ products later, we’re still standing, growing and messing up each and every day and then coming back the next day to try and do a little bit better. I am nowhere even remotely close to having any aspect of life figured out, but these are some of the things I’ve learned along the way:
1. Oh, the assumptions they’ll make!
I knew back in 2014 when I got into this business that people were going to meet me and immediately wonder why a fiesty 5’2” woman in Ann Taylor business casual would leave Deloitte Consulting to design vibrating butt plugs. It’s not a normal career progression, but it also isn’t the world’s job to figure out what propelled me into the business of sex.
The truth is, I’m not a qualified sex therapist, educator, or medical expert. I’m not a sexual savant or sexpert either. I’m just a gal who got colon cancer, went through radiation treatment and subsequent menopause, and found myself buying a vibrator in a strip mall next to the Lambert airport. That’s how I got into the business of vibrators. I had a crappy shopping experience and I saw a market opportunity to build something better.
Unfortunately, that story just wasn’t as exciting as the world wanted, which also made me constantly question whether I was sexually experienced enough to start a sex-related business.
Dating was the activity that brought out the most self doubt. All of a sudden I was being asked deeply personal sexual questions in Bumble DMs. Men made so many assumptions about my sexual proclivities just because of the industry I was in. I even had a man show up to a first date with a crop in-hand (I guess he thought we’d discuss our safe word over some piping hot spinach artichoke dip). At first, it was gutting to be judged so quickly and specifically, but then I realized that I don’t owe anyone my cancer story or my sexuality unless I want to tell them. It’s my story to tell, not theirs.
2. We know so little about how our bodies work
When I was diagnosed with menopause at 21, I didn’t even really know what menopause was. Sure, I knew the tropes about older women putting their head in the freezer, but I had no idea that when your body no longer actively produces estrogen, there are lifelong side effects like insomnia, hair loss, and osteoporosis.
This became a pattern in my self-taught learning: that more often than not, we’re taught the tropes, not the science behind them.
Generally, for women and femme individuals, these tropes center on being too SeXuAlLy NeEdY or just plainly being told we don’t like sex as much as men. This couldn’t be further from the truth – which is that – our bodies just work differently. For example, 95% of men say they “almost always orgasm during sex” vs. just 65% of women – which makes sense because 70% of women* need clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm, and this doesn’t occur naturally during penetrative sex. If you aren’t taught these basic biological facts, it’s only natural to assume that you’re “just not doing it right.” The reality is that you and/or your partner might just need a better understanding of how the clitoris works or the mental implications of stress on arousal. There are so many contributing factors to sexuality, many of which science has yet to even understand.
What I do know is that sexuality is not one-size-fits-all, and everyone deserves access to the information and tools to figure out what feels good to you. And that, yes, you and your body are normal – because all bodies are.
*I’m using an oversimplification here with the word “women” here but truly this is applicable to anyone who has a clitoris
3. Every young person should have access to tools and information to explore their sexuality
I want to live in a world where public school Sex Ed includes masturbation and pleasure. I want young non-binary, trans, cis women, femme – and everyone on the spectrum – to be able to explore their bodies without shame or pressure. We should be encouraging young people to masturbate instead of telling them they’re going to burn in the fiery pits of hell because of it.
One of the trends that inspires me most is when I see mothers buying vibrators for their daughters – which I know might sound jarring, but really, should it be? Wouldn’t you want your kid to be able to discover what pleasure feels like for them before engaging in sex with a partner? To me, the more jarring concept is expecting someone to provide consent when they haven’t even been given permission to explore their own sexuality.
Including pleasure is not only the honest approach to sexual education, it’s also the necessary one if we ever want to truly improve our ability to understand, encourage, and foster consent-driven sexual experiences.
4. Maybe I’m cynical, or maybe the world really does want to control our bodies
It will take everything in me not to turn this insight into a vengeful diatribe, but the older I get, the more certain I am that the world is determined to weaponize our bodies. I mean, anyone who is watching what is happening with Roe v Wade right now and doesn’t feel similarly is living in a bubble of delusion.
In addition to constantly having to fight for equal access to health care (yes, including abortions), we also live in a world that regulates when and how our bodies are allowed to exist. At Unbound, this takes shape in the never-ending censorship and regulation of our products. Despite allowing erectile dysfunction companies to infiltrate all channels in advertising, sexual wellness companies that service femme and non-binary individuals are banned from advertising on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, the subway, radio and TV. We live in a world where AK 47s are considered less dangerous than a vibrator – and when you live with that reality each day, it’s hard not to become a cynic who knows, deep down, that the world is really just afraid of women being in control of their bodies.
5. Not knowing how to do 96% of your job is the job
My last insight is not sex-related, but it is the piece of wisdom I hope to share with anyone who also feels imposter syndrome when it comes to starting a business: feeling like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing means you are doing it right.
I cannot count the number of times I have felt like I was an absolute idiot for thinking I could do this job – and I’m not talking about being a #GiRLbOss, I’m talking about shipping hundreds of thousands of products internationally during a global pandemic or figuring out how to pay out sales tax in 48 states with 48 different tax codes. That shit is hard (!!) – but you will figure it out.
You actually only really need two things in order to start a business: a willingness to fail and a relentless ability to bounce back. If you can harness those two abilities, you will figure it out and you will succeed. You will not have all the answers, you will still wake up at 3 am remembering that one thing that didn’t get done that you forgot about, but you will also learn and grow beyond your wildest dreams. You’ll enable others on your team to do the same, which is the most rewarding part of all of it, in my honest opinion. And even if your company does fail, the adventure you take to get there will have made it all worth it.