Products For People With Vaginas: The Shift Toward Gender Identity Inclusivity In Sexual Health And Period Care
Not everybody with a vagina identifies as a woman.
Many period care and sexual health companies are becoming increasingly inclusive in their language, marketing and branding to acknowledge that usage of their products extends beyond traditional gender identity boundaries. In particular, they’re doing away with conventional category descriptors like “feminine care” and “feminine hygiene” that narrow the audience to within restrictive bounds. This lexicon evolution isn’t seamless, though, as companies can be hemmed in by the existing structures of retail and the standard verbiage their principal customer base of cisgender women is accustomed to while attempting to welcome a broader audience.
Instead of talking about feminine hygiene, Quim, maker of CBD-infused vaginal serums and lubes, for example, has taken up the tagline “for humans with vaginas and humans without vaginas who love vaginas.” The turn of phrase is intended to recognize people with vaginas that don’t relate to the term “feminine” and incorporate them in the company’s potential customer pool.
“From the very beginning, it was extremely important to us that we make sure and use inclusive language when referring to our products and company mission,” says Rachel Washtien, who co-founded Quim in 2016 with Cyo Nystrom. She emphasizes, “We wanted to make it extremely clear that we make products for the love of vaginas, unrelated to gender identification.”
Janeen Singer, founder of menstrual care company Holy Sponge, noticed gender-focused language modifications starting six to seven years ago. Her own trajectory to adjusted lingo hasn’t always been smooth. She says, “I made some mistakes in my use of ‘women’ regarding my products and, after receiving feedback, I apologized to my customers, shifted my language, and really reconsidered all of my assumptions regarding bleeding, cycles, bodies, and how varied each experience it.”
This shift is accelerating at a time when menstrual care, a segment within the white-hot wellness industry, is itself heating up, growing quickly and gaining institutional attention. In the past year, tampon and pad subscription service Lola raised $24 million in series B funding, organic pad and tampon manufacturer Rael raised $17.5 million in a series A round and, in February, personal care giant P&G acquired Y Combinator alum This is L. Sexual health products, too, have gone through a their own renaissance in recent years. Companies like Dame and Unbound have created refined pleasure accessories stylish enough to be sold at Revolve, Urban Outfitters and even Neiman Marcus. Increased investment and consumer interest in an industry is usually followed by increased scrutiny, down to the letter, literally.
Sexual wellness brands are revising spelling, too, in an effort to eschew heteronormative standards. “I’ve always reverted to the spelling of ‘womxn’ to denote that it’s inclusive of femme, trans, cis and non-binary,” says Polly Rodriquez, CEO of sexual wellness company Unbound. “It used to be that the vast majority of outlets would say, ‘Hey, there’s a typo in this!’ and, now, I rarely get push back. While that’s a small example, I do think people are becoming more aware that we don’t live in a binary world.”
It’s not just the words, but the look of period care packaging and products that those words appear on that’s transforming to reflect a wider idea of the menstruating population. The Flex Company houses its menstrual cups and disposable discs in gold, white and black packaging that stands in stark contrast to what you’d find in your local drugstore. “Mainstream menstrual care products are still often overly-feminized, featuring pink, purple, flowers, and exclusive language,” says founder and CEO Lauren Wang. “As if menstruation itself isn’t a challenging reminder, a person might be forced to select a product that doesn’t feel like it was made with them in mind.”
“Our team very intentionally says ‘period products’ or ‘period care,’ especially when talking to major retailers that might use different nomenclature. If over time the category as a whole adopted this change, it would certainly move the needle in a positive direction.”
In several cases, the products themselves are allowing people to handle periods differently than they might have in the past. Pyramid Seven sells boxer briefs that it tags as being for “periods, not gender.” AC Dumlao, program manager for Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), praises the brand for “filling the void between feminine-cut underwear, which pads are made for, and men’s boxer briefs, which do not provide support. There are a number of other independent queer-owned or queer-friendly companies who have this inclusive mindset at the forefront.”
As they morph their look and language, period and sexual wellness companies bump up against the terms they’ve left behind. Feminine care “is the ‘official’ category name, so, in some ways, it can be hard to escape, but it’s not a term that we align tightly with,” says Wang. She prefers to concentrate on function and anatomy. Wang explains, “When referring to the category, our team very intentionally says ‘period products’ or ‘period care,’ especially when talking to major retailers that might use different nomenclature. If over time the category as a whole adopted this change, it would certainly move the needle in a positive direction.”
In a segment notorious for euphemistic language, some founders eager to be inclusive and anatomically correct are apprehensive about making cisgender shoppers and big retailers uncomfortable by adding words such as “vagina,” “vulva” and “clitoris” to packaging. Alicia Sinclair, founder of premium anal play toy company B-vibe, maintains striking a balance is possible. “There are companies that are responding in a way that doesn’t polarize the heteronormative folks,” she says. “If inclusivity is the goal, that does therefore mean inclusivity of all people. Everyone deserves the same level of equality. We can’t create equality and then shut people out.”
Rodriguez argues meaningful inclusion results from companies taking the time to fine-tune their messaging. “I think we can live in world where products exist for non-binary individuals and for those who identify as women,” she says. “Will it take up a bit more space on your packaging to write more inclusive copy? Of course, but it’s important we create space for all types of identities versus trying to determine which is better or best. The most important thing is that we work together to make space for mistakes and ensure companies are committed to learning, improving and growing.”
“While a brand might believe that non-cisgendered customers might be a small percentage of their overall customer base, many of our customers at least know someone who is non-binary or trans, and have a sensitivity to support inclusive brands that welcome everyone.”
Until the period segment’s legacy players adapt, advocates like Dumlao contend it’s the job of brands to audit messaging that’s cisgender-, woman- or feminine-focused. “‘Feminine care products’ such as pads and tampons are also used by trans men, non-binary and intersex people who menstruate,” they point out. “Additionally, this excludes trans women who do not menstruate. When brands only market towards cisgender women, it sends a message to other genders that we don’t matter or even exist. It turns us off to the products. It alienates people who could have otherwise become loyal shoppers.”
In the sexual health industry, 20-year veteran Sinclair has witnessed 40- to 50-year-old brands struggle to transition to inclusivity and credits retailers for much of the progress made. She says she’s spotted feminist-run stores “using words like clitoris and penis more than man and woman, using terms like ‘partner’ and ‘sleepover friend’ versus categorizing what that relationship might look like, really being aware that there are people having sex with multiple people, and that there are all these dynamics that were being ignored inside of the narrow scope of how sex toys were sold and marketed. The more you talk to sex positive, progressive retailers, you’ll realize they position products to everybody.”
Wang notes commitment to gender identity inclusivity can win wallet share from cisgender customers as well as from trans men, non-binary and intersex people. She says, “While a brand might believe that non-cisgendered customers might be a small percentage of their overall customer base, many of our customers at least know someone who is non-binary or trans, and have a sensitivity to support inclusive brands that welcome everyone. Consumers now have an array of products to choose from. Often, their choice comes down to whether or not it’s a brand that they want to support.”
“Younger generations are increasingly identifying outside of the gender binary and, if companies don’t keep up, they run the risk of putting themselves out of business by ignoring a huge consumer market.”
Inclusive language could be good business for companies catering to the 61 million members of gen Z who are already menstruating and sexually active, a number that’s growing by the day. Dumlao warns, “Younger generations are increasingly identifying outside of the gender binary and, if companies don’t keep up, they run the risk of putting themselves out of business by ignoring a huge consumer market.”
Brand founders marketing products to millennial and gen Z customers agree that what today is progressive will tomorrow be table stakes. “As someone in this realm, listening and paying attention, it really does feel like that’s the direction we’re moving in by demand of the younger generation,” says Sinclair. “Their relationship to gender is so different. Those lines are shifting, and they’re shifting quickly. I’d like to think it means we are moving into a kinder reality. It’s encouraging to see that we can indeed change our world.”
Implementation of gender identity inclusive messaging is aided by a diverse collection of brand founders that represent the LGBTQIA population. “As a queer womxn, I want my community to feel represented, especially in a sea of gender norms attached to period products,” says Singer. “I have had several conversations with trans and non-binary friends about language and what words they feel connected to when I address my audience. It often varies from person to person, but those conversations help me get an idea of how words invite or push away potential customers.”
Singer admits she’s not perfect, and stresses true inclusivity is an ongoing process, even for the most progressive entrepreneurs. She mentions Holy Sponge’s Postpartum Sitz Blend said “for mamas and babes,” but there are “parents don’t identify with the term ‘mama,’ so I am in the process of editing those labels this week. The depth of gender programming is sometimes frightening, but that’s why I feel like it’s important to be honest, to question everything, to apologize when needed, and to make changes. A lot of businesses want to erase mistakes and move on, but, from the beginning, I’ve sought to stay in conversation with my audience. We are all unlearning together.”
“It’s important to be honest, to question everything, to apologize when needed, and to make changes. A lot of businesses want to erase mistakes and move on, but, from the beginning, I’ve sought to stay in conversation with my audience. We are all unlearning together.”
If a brand’s leadership doesn’t include executives from the LGBTQIA community, Dumlao encourages the brand to forge relationships with trans, non-binary and intersex people. “For brands looking to be more inclusive when it comes to making their products gender inclusive, it must go beyond marketing and copywriting,” they assert. “Brands need to hire trans, non-binary, and intersex folks to include our voices.”
- Period care and sexual health companies are shifting language, packaging and imagery to be more inclusive of a range of gender identities.
- Brands across the wellness spectrum looking to become inclusive face the challenge of operating inside retailers that still adhere to the traditional descriptors “feminine care” and “feminine hygiene.”
- Companies seeking to be more inclusive can go beyond marketing and copywriting by hiring trans, non-binary and intersex employees.
- Gender identity inclusivity is likely to be good business as gender fluidity becomes mainstream.