Get on Top
My name is Meika, and I’m on a mission to destigmatize female sexuality. Entirely. To connect women to their sexual health and help them care for and get to know their bodies. To hold them up. To normalize what should already be normal.
The primary way I’m doing this is through Sustain, a sexual-wellness company I founded with my dad, because who didn’t grow up dreaming of selling condoms with their father? OK, not me, but I do just that.
I know. It’s a jarring bit of information, or so people tell me. It begs context, so let’s back it up.
A few years ago, when I was finishing business school at NYU Stern, my dad approached me with an idea he had many years ago. He wanted to start a sustainable condom company. I
know most people find a family condom company kind of weird, but stay with me here. My family has deep, deep roots in the sustainable products world. More than thirty years ago my parents founded Seventh Generation. We also have a long-standing commitment to women’s health. When Seventh Generation introduced organic cotton tampons, I—then a teenager—was super involved. By that I mean I, among other things, drove around in the Seventh Generation “tamponification” mobile for an entire summer (think green tampon fairies painted on a white Prius). I got passionate about reproductive health and involved with Planned Parenthood at a very young age. Women’s sexual health became part of my DNA. Now more than ever I feel like we all need to be talking about it. All day, every day. We’re under siege.
I’ll spare you the business details, but I do want to explain why condoms were of particular interest. Oddly, the manufacture of and ingredients used in sexual-wellness products, including condoms and lubricant (Sustain makes that, too, plus organic cotton tampons, pads, and personal care products), can harm rather than help bodies. There are potentially harmful chemicals and residues in the resulting products, which is of particular concern considering these intimate products are going inside our bodies. So my father and I saw an important opportunity to create better, safer, healthier products. Then I decided to follow my passion and focus on women, like no other condom brand has done ever.
arrived at clarity around this mission for our business over time. It went something like this. First off, when I approached the condom market from a female perspective, in our earliest days of founding the company, I learned some pretty terrifying statistics.
Did you know:
• Only 21 percent of single women use condoms regularly.
• 48 percent of pregnancies are unplanned.
• One in four college freshmen contract an STI.I
I also learned that 70 percent of women feel uncomfortable buying condoms, which is pretty wild because 40 percent of condoms are actually purchased by women.
Have you ever been in a condom aisle? It for sure feels anything but vagina-friendly. I felt fire-under-my-feet compelled to fix that. I can’t even explain how incredibly important it has been to create a brand and a movement that empowers women to feel proud of their sexuality and to get on top of their sexual health, with no stigma attached.
The initial reaction to Sustain was thrilling: retailers responded to the first brand of female-focused, natural sexual-wellness products by saying it was addressing a hole in the market. We were filling a need!
Right around then something crappy happened, and it was the best type of gut check. Just before Sustain officially launched, in 2014, we landed a piece of press on a major media website. The minute I got the link from our PR agency, I clicked through to the article, and excitement flooded over me. That was a super brief moment because then I scrolled down to the bottom of the article, and started reading through the comments.
You can’t see me right now, but I have a not-small freckle on my lower lip. The first comment was: “What’s that on her lip? Is that an STD? Clearly she should be using condoms, not selling them!”
And you know what? This painful/idiotic response and the sexism inherent in it were not isolated. There was that time on a plane when the guy next to me mistook what I did as selling real estate because he just couldn’t believe a young woman would sell what I sell. I had to inform him that, sir, sorry, I sell condoms not condos. I can’t believe people are still so awkward about sex. Our culture is overtly sexual while also sexually repressed in so many ways. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve been repressing women for centuries in every country around the world. So many women don’t even know what their
own vaginas look like, or how best to take care of them. Sex, even safe sex, is a taboo subject. All of these experiences have strengthened my resolve and boosted my drive to do my work.
I’m here to shift the dynamics. I want women to be familiar with their own bodies, and to make sex un-taboo, especially as, due to a combo of not enough and horribly laughable sex education in America, rising rates of STIs, including HIV (particularly among young people), and the patriarchy, our country appears to need a major wake-up call when it comes to women’s health. The more I travel and talk to people about Sustain, the clearer it becomes: our society—even today—still labels a girl who carries a condom a slut and a guy who does the same a hero.
Add that to the lists of things I will change.
What I can’t change—though give me time—is the sexual education you had before you picked up this book. If you can’t remember a single thing you’d be able to technically call sex ed, beyond a lackluster period talk with a gym teacher and maybe a few confusing nights groping with a first boyfriend or girlfriend, you’re not alone. Sexual education is not mandatory in the United States. There is no standardized curriculum, like there is in other enlightened countries, including the Netherlands. (They start in kindergarten!) In 2016, only twenty-two states and the District of Columbia mandated both sex and HIV education, two states mandated sex education alone, and
another twelve states mandated only HIV education. While thirty-seven states specifically require that sex education include abstinence, a sum total of zero states require that contraception be the focus, and only thirteen states require that the information being taught is medically accurate. How scary is that? And yet of course all the public health and various medical professional organizations that count (you know, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, etc.) support a comprehensive approach to sex ed. Without science and a standardized curriculum, a lot of room is left for the personal opinion of whatever adult is tasked with “instructing” impressionable young people about reproduction, bodily changes, periods, and sex. Unfortunately that includes unfounded information, especially about sex—freaky guilt-inducing psychology and just plain wrong details. Maybe you were told something by a friend’s older sibling, or your parents ponied up some watered-down nuggets of information. Maybe whatever you know about sex came from your oversharing hot-to-trot aunt, or from a buttoned-up church elder. Chances are there was a big, strong emphasis on not getting pregnant and very little on hormones or anatomy, including vocabulary. And for sure no one ever mentioned pleasure. Probably sex mainly sounded transactional, something along the lines of A penis goes in a vagina and the girl gets pregnant. The end. Presumably no one suggested you sit yourself down in front of a mirror and give
yourself a good long look or talked about vaginal health or masturbation or lust or love or friendship or the differences and similarities between men and women’s desire or that it’s perfectly normal—and even a good idea—to talk about sex. Often and openly.
You can change all that today, by choosing to make pleasure a focus and by getting to know your body. Though it’s also important to understand that this can be easier said than done. When generations of young people stumble into their sexual lives with very little information and are too embarrassed to talk about sex but have 24/7 access to the Internet, weird things happen. Like porn obsession, rampant STIs, and slut shaming. These are real problems, even though right at this very moment there’s a fantastic growing cultural movement of sex positivity, of being anti–slut shaming. We’re kind of a mess about sex. Like, there’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s team writing about the joys of lube and anal on her website, Goop, but some actresses are still running around like old-school pinup girls, their worth in the world mainly related to how sexy they appear. And then there’s our government trying to defund Planned Parenthood. We have a vice president, at the time of this writing, who won’t eat alone with any women other than his wife, and a president who feels it’s OK to grab women by their pussies. The #MeToo movement is rapidly ferreting out and taking down sexual harassers in every industry from Hollywood to journalism and beyond. There are
endless date-rape cases rocking college campuses across the country, thrusting the critical issue of consent onto the front pages of newspapers, websites, and magazines everywhere. And on campuses like Yale, where the students are ostensibly smart, there are fraternities suspended for years on end after the “brothers” were found chanting active calls for sexual assault: No means yes! Yes means anal! To add to this fractured collective sexuality, there’s Tinder—people can easily swipe right to sex at any moment of the day, with any number of partners, plus lots and lots of dick pics. So despite progress happening on many fronts, we somehow, as a country, still aren’t fundamentally comfortable about sex and sexuality—especially women’s sexuality.
Here’s what is clear: women are sexual beings and should feel free to embrace this. In fact, the clitoris is the only body part—male or female—whose only purpose is pleasure. It has more sensory nerve endings than the penis. Also? It’s similar in size to a penis. It goes way beyond the hooded nub most people refer to as a clit (more on that on page 17
). But we have our own kind of sexuality. Imagine if there were standardized sex ed and it included information about how and why sex feels good. And girls and boys learned—starting young—not just about pregnancy and disease but also about masturbation and orgasm and that regular old penis-in-vagina sex results in orgasm for only 30 percent of women because of anatomy. And that for the remaining 70 percent there are a lot of fun (and safe) other ways to play.
This is science. This is black-and-white fact. What if the mark of losing your virginity was when you had your first orgasm with a partner—not penetration? What if we let young adults know that emotions and being comfortable with a partner play a big role in sexuality and pleasure? The brain is really the root of sexuality when it comes down to it—the center of desire. One study showed that 38 percent of college-aged women don’t enjoy first sexual encounters (hi, Tinder), but by six months with the same partner, 68 percent of these women are enjoying themselves.
With better information, and a level of comfort that comes with communication, that number can be higher. And it can be achieved with women’s health in mind. Sex and wellness should go hand in hand. Sex is good for you—especially when practiced safely. I can’t tell you how badly I want women not only to buy, carry, and use condoms, but also to feel great about doing so. I created a campaign around this very topic and launched it during Women’s Health Week 2016 (#GetOnTop). I felt a personal responsibility to create a way to enable women to talk about sex and feel comfortable doing it. So I got together nine female founders—ranging from an eco-activist to the cofounder of Refinery29—to film a short video about sex and sexual health. My goal was to get one hundred thousand women to pledge to practice safe sex.
Within hours of launching the campaign, thousands of women from all over the world were pledging to “get on top”
of their health and practice safe sex. I was interviewed by everyone from Fox News to Fast Company and people just seemed to get it. Did we reach one hundred thousand pledges right away? Not quite. But people are talking. If Sustain shut down tomorrow, I know I will at least have started a vitally important conversation. Keeping this conversation going is everything.
Sustain, thankfully, is very much alive. And I have tons of work to do. A few months after we launched the pledge, I got invited to do a Tumblr “Answer Time,” fielding questions from women about all things sexual health. I thought it would be a breeze. I mean, at that point I had probably answered five thousand sex-related questions in real time. But then the queries started rolling in. And I was struck. I was so taken off guard. Because you know what? Women are suffering. Women, especially in the eighteen-to-thirty age range—but older and younger, too—are suffering from misinformation, fear, intimidation. They’re suffering from vaginal dryness, or are too anxious to talk to their partners, or can’t understand why sex hurts. They’re worried about side effects of birth control, confused by pimples on their vulvas, don’t know what—if any—soap to use to wash themselves, don’t know when or always even where to seek medical attention. They’re confused about consent, sexuality, odors, cheating. They want answers about chlamydia, masturbation, pregnancy scares, and what it means to be a slut. They really want to know why if they can orgasm with a vibrator,
how come it’s not also happening with oral or penetration. They really, really need answers from someone they trust. From a partner.
I want to be that partner. I want to help women get cliterate. I want to help them access all the facts they need to make smart, healthy, and safe choices when it comes to sex, and I don’t mean by selling them organic lubricant (though everyone should have some—lube is for sure the short answer to most of those pain questions!). I mean by continuing the conversation, by helping them tune in and think with their vaginas, by answering questions, by providing the information I have access to in a relatable and totally normal way. Not sexed up, not sleazy, not patronizing, not dumbed down. Just smart, actionable information for any and all vagina-related questions. Not clinical, but rooted in science. Un-self-conscious, straightforward, real, and enlightening. And all of this information delivered in a pro-pleasure, safety-first, and empowering sex-positive way.
And that’s exactly what the following pages are all about.
Meika Hollender I
. All facts and figures in the following pages come from the kickass resources listed on pages 235