Aided by an influx of new technologies, the sex toy market has moved thrillingly into the mainstream. By 2023, the global sex toy market is estimated to reach $35.5 billion. Yet even this rapidly growing industry has not fully escaped the stigma around sex, especially when it comes to female pleasure. This was reinforced earlier this year when a sex toy produced by an all-female team of engineers that won one of the most coveted awards in tech, the Osé, was withdrawn from the prize — for being “immoral” and “profane”. Design and tech have played a part in creating a more sex-positive society; there are limits, however, as long as sex continues to be a taboo in large parts of the world.
“We have to realise that sex education is not aimed at the sexualisation of children”
The products designed by Domka Spytek have everything to do with sex and gender, but these are not sex toys as you might expect. Spytek designs educational materials that encourage tangible play and teach users about sex and gender stereotypes at the same time. The designer was prompted by the gaps she saw in her own education in Poland — a majority-Catholic nation — around sex, pleasure, and her body. “As a woman growing up in a conservative and patriarchal society, I am constantly referring to my own experiences in the things I design,” she explains.
Spytek developed her education kit, ero.edu, as a response to the culture of shame prevalent in Poland, and the personal struggle the designer experienced in trying to connect with and take ownership of her body. It started as a prototype for her Design BA at the Pedagogical University of Kraków. For the project, she consulted Ponton and Spunk, an independent organisation in Poland that runs sex education programmes outside of the school curriculum. This was to find out what educational tools they were using, and then to understand the most common questions teens asked about sex. Though Ponton and Spunk work with schools, Spytek discovered that classes only last a few hours at a time, after which students return to textbooks imposed by the Ministry of Education.
In her experience, these textbooks only reinforce patriarchal narratives and teach young people to be ashamed of their bodies. To understand just how damaging they are, you only need read the news story from October 2018, about a school in Warsaw that came under fire for using a textbook that warned girls not to dress provocatively, stating openly: “if they harass you, it’s your own fault.” By comparison, Ponton and Spunk provide education that is reliable and not politicised. “They teach facts, not myths,” Spytek states.
Sex education is not compulsory in Polish schools, and in 2017 the ruling Law and Justice party voted against introducing it into the national curriculum. At the same time, the nationalist government has been trying to make abortions illegal. The proposed “Stop Abortion” bill of 2016, which would have made abortions illegal and punishable, provoked a nationwide protest movement, known as Black Monday, that helped block the bill — for now. Spytek, who like many others is fighting against the political tide, calls the lack of sex education in Poland unacceptable. “It has a huge impact on reducing the level of life satisfaction in our society. I believe that education can positively affect the overall level of happiness and I do not understand why we would take this away from ourselves,” she explains.
The Black Monday protests inspired various sex-positive initiatives in Poland: one example is “Let’s Save Women”, which is fighting to allow women the right to abortion on demand. Another is Anja Rubik’s #SexEdPl, launched together with Polish women’s rights organisation Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, which takes the form of a series of online education videos, “pop-up” sex ed classes, and a book, #sexedpl — the only publication in Poland to give information on sexual health, sexuality, and LGBTQ rights. Since we wrote about it earlier this year, #sexedpl is reported to have been banned by some school directors.
“We have to realise that sex education is not aimed at the sexualisation of children,” Spytek affirms. “It is aimed at educating people, to empower them to set their own boundaries, and know what is happening with their own bodies — at every stage in their life. There cannot be situations in which mature women undergo ovarian removal surgery and don’t know anything about their ovaries and how this will affect their futures. There cannot be situations in which young people are afraid to go to the gynecologist for contraceptive pills, so they begin their sex life and risk getting pregnant, to then not have access to safe abortions.”
Ero.edu, for instance, consists of two magnetic boards and a set of magnets with information about each part of the female and male reproductive organs. The designer hopes to launch the product, which has been amended to reflect non-binary bodies, in Polish and English by the end of this year.
“Everything that the politicians want to forbid us, women have already been doing for a really long time”
Sex education doesn’t end with a better understanding of our bodies and sexual health, though. That’s why Spytek developed CROSSxTOYS to confront the topic of gender, which underpins much debate around sexual equality. CROSSxTOYS was presented at the 2018 New York Design Week, and has been displayed at exhibitions throughout Poland. It is a stackable game with interchangeable units of different shapes and textures. Each element represents a stereotype, whether physical or behavioural, associated with either men or women: “soft”, “cold”, “aggressive”, “energetic”, and so on. The game encourages its users to build a true version of themselves, and the result is always a mix of masculine, feminine, and agender attributes. As an object it recalls a totem pole with no fixed aesthetic, offering endless possibilities.
“For me, norms and stereotypes are something very abstract: they cannot be seen and yet they affect our lives so much,” Spytek says of the interactive nature of CROSSxTOYS. “I wanted to make them tangible. It’s important that you’re able to hold the social constructs in your hand and move them around. I kept the design simple to highlight the fact that it might take just a couple of steps to redesign one’s thinking about gender.”
Play is crucial in her design practice, and while online campaigns like #sexedpl can reach a mass audience, physical games remain ever-popular. “I really admire The Period Game [a children’s board game aimed at de-stigmatising menstruation] designed by Daniela Gilsanz & Ryan Murphy,” Spytek says, noting that while there is still stigma around some sex and gender-related products, positive innovations are entering into the industry at large. “I have noticed that menstrual product are changing constantly, becoming more comfortable and both user and environmentally friendly.”
The designer is currently pursuing an MA in Design at Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, and researching sex education in Sweden. The political situation in Poland is a difficult subject for Spytek, but she feels no less involved since moving abroad. “Whenever I am in Poland, I participate in marches and protests. I still create things that comment on the power structures I grew up with.” On the ongoing battle for reproductive rights, Spytek comments: “Everything that the politicians want to forbid us, women have already been doing for a really long time. One in three women in my country have had an abortion and restricting our reproductive rights will not change this fact. A government that pays no interest in what society really needs is barbarity. People also have to look each other in the eye and admit that each of us knows someone who has had an abortion and, contrary to what politicians think, every day one of us has it provided. What we are fighting for is a basic human right.”
She has just finished a short film about the gender imbalance in publishing and continues to explore issues connected to sexuality and gender identities in her design projects. She says moving to Sweden has made her more aware of how she can make her work more inclusive. Though her products revolve around sex and gender, her approach is ultimately rooted in the same questions that motivate all conscious design methods: “How do I translate my experiences into something that could change society for the better?”