The CES tech conference aims to improve its reputation with women
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We’re months away from the next CES, the huge tech trade show that draws almost 200,000 people to Las Vegas every January. In 2020, for the first time, sex tech startups will be officially included at the conference — and booth babes will not.
The conference has been criticized for years for not including enough women in its big events and for letting exhibitors hire scantily clad models – something many other conferences have banned. Controversy peaked last year when the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, gave an award to a female-focused sex toy company and then took it away, saying it was inappropriate. And then they gave it back.
Host Molly Wood spoke with Karen Chupka, the executive vice president of CES at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Wood asked her if the CTA has had a bit of a double standard around sex tech. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Karen Chupka: One of the things that we did after the show was we really cleaned up our inconsistencies and said, “Look, we have to really set policies that make it clear as to how we want to address these things.”
But also, there’s always going to be emerging tech that we’re going to have to look at and determine — whether it’s this show or next show — when is best to address it. Some of that was just that there had been some inconsistencies, and sometimes technology gets ahead of us. The show itself is all about new and emerging technologies, in a sense. Sometimes things do hit our desk that we’re not quite sure how to categorize or how to put together.
Molly Wood: Tell me about the decision to get rid of booth babes of both genders.
It’s important to say that what we’ve done is we’ve clarified and cleaned up our dress policy for CES.Karen Chupka
Chupka: I’m not sure if I would say the decision is to get rid of booth babes, as much as I think it’s important to say that what we’ve done is we’ve clarified and cleaned up our dress policy for CES. I say that because exhibitors do hire booth personnel to come in and help supplement their full-time staff at the show. It’s an important role for the show. It’s expensive to fly staff members to Vegas, and sometimes it’s far more cost effective to bring in a professional that you can train and who’s used to doing this and interacting with people throughout the day. And more importantly, what a big step is for 2020 is that we’ve also clearly put in a penalty so that if an exhibitor does cross the line, and if we go and we address it with them on site, and they don’t take care of the situation, that we have a way of penalizing them going forward.
Wood: There’s been criticism around CES and inclusion for a long time, from myself and others — whether it’s women giving keynote addresses to booth babes to the adjacency to the adult entertainment show and the wink and nod that came along with that. And I wonder, do you feel like the CTA has been responsive enough to those concerns?
Chupka: Of course, I do. I think that we continue to make the show welcoming to all. And I think some of those examples that you brought up are reasons why we do have to be very careful and think about things that we’ve done. As you mentioned, at one point there was a time when adult video was part of our show, and that stopped in 2004. But it was still something that people thought was still a part of our category. And again, we’re doing a global event that’s bringing 170,000 people from all over the world together. So, we must also look at how each of those people in groups look at different things and look at different policies.
Related links: more insight from Molly Wood
I should say that at the same 2019 CES that had all this controversy about sex and gender, the CTA did announce that it would give $10 million to venture capital firms that focus on minority and women-owned startups. Last month, the CTA said it would partner with Harlem Capital Partners and New York-based SoGal Ventures to invest those funds.
Now let’s get back to sex at CES for a minute. You heard Karen Chupka mention that adult video was part of CES until 2004. But the convention took place every year at the same time as the Adult Entertainment Expo from 1998 to 2011. And when I say there was a wink and a nod to that show, what I meant is that people who came to CES would get free passes to the porn convention just across the Las Vegas Strip.
There’s an Engadget piece from 2016 that’s a good history of the relationship between CES and porn. The reason CES used to allow adult video booths on the show floor is because porn was considered really instrumental in launching VHS and Betamax, and later driving DVD and even new TV sales. It was in 2011, after CES stopped happening at the same time as the adult expo, that the first vibrator showed up at CES.
The company is called OhMiBod. It’s been exhibiting at the show ever since. And hey, listen, I’m not trying to demonize sex here. I’m just saying, it’s long past time for the rules, the tech and the sex appeal to apply to everyone.