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Web Summit is just the latest conference to get sextech wrong

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Intimate, an Australian cryptocurrency start-up aiming to deliver safe transactions on adult sites, was banned from a large tech conference last year on the grounds that its application was ‘inappropriate’.

Although initially being accepted as an exhibitor, the firm’s application to Web Summit 2017 was later rejected on the grounds that its presence at the show might make attendees, “especially female entrepreneurs”, uncomfortable.  

And it’s by no means, the first time conference organizers have made odd decisions about adult exhibitors. In 2016, Los Angeles’ E3 gaming expo – one of the biggest in the world exploring VR technologiesonly had one ‘adult’ company on the floor, “hidden away in the corner”. CES, the world’s largest consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, only welcomed a handful of sextech exhibitors the following year, despite the demand for sextech in the consumer market.

Following the withdrawal of Intimate’s ‘inappropriate’ exhibitor space at last year’s Web Summit, its co-founder has spoken out about why the business has chosen to avoid the 2018 show next month.

Here’s a run-down of what happened last year: at the Web Summit 2017, Intimate’s co-founder, Reuben Coppa, had planned to showcase the Rendevu app at the event, which makes escort meet-ups safer by verifying people’s identity. It also planned to exhibit its latest business pursuit, Intimate.io, a cryptocurrency site which facilitates payments on adult sites.

Two weeks before the show opened at the Altice Arena on November 6-9, 2017, Web Summit withdrew Intimate’s application via email, saying that its business wasn’t appropriate for the event. An email from the organizers said: “At a technology event where we want to ensure that all attendees, especially female entrepreneurs, are comfortable, we do not think that your line of business is suitable.”

Intimate co-founder Leah Callon-Butler exclusively told SEXTECHGUIDE: “My first thought was: This is a knee-jerk reaction. With some careful persuasion, we will get it reversed. In general, sex is still a highly stigmatised topic, and many people aren’t sure how to approach it. In my experience, some men have a harder time talking about it than women! What’s important is that we demonstrate our ability to facilitate the conversation with intelligence, empathy and respect.”

Callon-Butler appealed the decision, saying Intimate had been completely transparent throughout the application process about what it would be exhibiting during the show.

“I genuinely thought that Web Summit would welcome us with open arms once we could prove that our team were treading a different path to the general stereotype of mainstream ‘adult’,” added Callon-Butler. “Unfortunately, I was wrong.”

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that one of Intimate’s co-founders also started the escort directory RD.VU. The Web Summit team said it had confused the firm with an unrelated business – Rendevu.io – during the application process. It said Intimate’s application was not in line with the Summit’s anti-harassment policy, which stipulates “sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.”

“Why does discussing the sex industry automatically equal ‘harassment?'”: Leah Callon-Butler, Initimate co-founder

Callon-Butler told SEXTECHGUIDE: “The reason given was that we didn’t fit with their anti-harassment policy. This is sad in itself, don’t you think? That discussing the sex industry automatically equals ‘harassment’? Unfortunately, this reflects a broader societal problem around the treatment of sexuality in policy-making. Until better frameworks are implemented to promote sex-positivity and sexual empowerment while identifying what is non-consensual or unhealthy sexual behaviour, we will never see change.”

Despite its application being withdrawn, Intimate was still invited to visit as attendees of the show. As flights and accommodation were already booked, they went along as it seemed like a good opportunity to network.

This year’s Web Summit has already caused some major controversies, including National Rally president and French politician Marine Le Pen being named as its headline speaker (although her name has now been taken off the bill following a huge backlash).

But why are sextech firms being given the same treatment as far-right politicians? For how much longer can tech-focused events championing future innovation choose to ignore the booming market of sextech – and the numerous women working within the sector?

Callon-Butler told SEXTECHGUIDE: “We need more effective frameworks to help decide what is appropriate content for consumption within a public setting and who is best equipped to deliver that content. Human sexuality exists on a spectrum and we need to welcome those people and organisations that are working hard to challenge public perceptions about what sex is and who it is for.”

Web Summit had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

Intimate’s ethos is “being passionate about creating a sex positive discussion that can facilitate real change”.

The real question is, when will some of the world’s biggest tech expos give the sextech industry the platform on which to do so?

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