A social enterprise based in Australia is selling sex products for the benefit of sexual and reproductive health rights.
by Portia Ladrido
Any aspiring physician (or any medical drama enthusiast) would know the classic textbook Gray’s Anatomy. Authored by Dr Henry Gray and illustrated by Henry Vandyke, the thick, hardbound book is known to be the authority on human anatomy. What many do not know, however, is how the book’s editor, Dr Charles Mayo Goss singlehandedly erased the clitoris in 1947 for the book’s 25th edition.
“It’s very interesting and revealing. How come we haven’t been giving sexual health the attention it requires? And what are the ramifications of not doing this?” asked Jak Haines, founder of Vavven, a social enterprise based in Australia that sells sex toys and donates one-third of its profits to charities that have sexual and reproductive health rights as their main thrust.
The then-practicing engineer was looking to create a social enterprise and found that there were two industries that were most economically viable in her research, the sex industry and the funeral industry. With her business background in manufacturing and engineering, she felt that she could start an entity that not only earns well but also affects change.
“I believe that you can make a big difference with business. There are many businesses that make change that is not positive but there is a lot of room to make for positive change,” she said. “The sex industry had a huge area of change that could be made.”
Since its inception in November last year, Jak said that Vavven has been embraced by the purpose-driven community even when there is quite a difficulty in dealing with taboo subjects. She has also found that advertising on social media to be a challenge, especially that Facebook, for example, enables them to have a Facebook page but boosting of posts is not allowed as their products are filed under explicit content.
I believe that you can make a big difference with business. There are many businesses that make change that is not positive but there is a lot of room to make for positive change.
Even if this is the case, Jak draws ongoing motivation not solely on her drive to make Vavven work but also because of the people on the sidelines that have been cheering her on. “Predominantly my network is what you would call conservative, but I do receive plenty of messages in the background, in LinkedIn, from many people saying what a great idea it was and thought that it was needed. I thought that that was quite supportive,” she said.
To pay this support forward, they’ve made a donation to the Unmentionables, an aid organisation that works in the Greek refugee centres. They provide what they call ‘unmentionables’, which are underwear, sanitary products, and anything along the lines of sexual health.
Jak also aims for Vavven not to solely run as a business and a donor to a charity, but for the organisation to also become a platform where they can help people get in contact with sexual and reproductive health services that do not exist in their communities. Vavven initially narrowed down the demographic that they wanted to target into five categories.
“There’s the young millennial; there’s the mum whose children are off their radar; we’re also looking at the older, retired lady that is looking to date again for whatever reason; and then the young guy who’s very aware about rights and being an ethical person,” Jak explained.
However, what they’ve found is that the people that reach out to the organisation to read about information or to purchase their products do not come from the very specific demographics that they had in mind. “We have everyone from every religion, age, gender, it doesn’t matter. I suppose there’s positive in that because it shows that it’s completely normal to be looking at sex as pleasure. It doesn’t fall into one demographic,” she said.
Vavven also flexes their activism arm. Jak has been heavily into campaigning for things like abortion rights and the removal of taxes for sanitary products in Australia, and she aims to sustain and scale this advocacy as the organisation grows across the country.
Whilst Australia may be seen as a progressive Western country, Jak highlighted that there are still concerns especially when it comes to reproductive health rights as there are still taxes on sanitary products and in two states, abortion is still part of the criminal code.
“We just recently had a vote in the New South Wales parliament to remove abortion from the New South Wales criminal code but it was voted down. You can still access abortion in these two states, Queensland and New South Wales, but you have to prove that you are medically, physically, or economically unfit – it’s not there as a choice. It’s something that you decide with your doctor,” she said.
Vavven’s slogan reads, “creating philanthropists through orgasms”, and Jak hopes for her enterprise to be more than an entity that churns our products and superficially helps. “I dream for it to become a movement; not just a business. I would like for it to become something that truly helps people; that people can rely on for good quality information and a political brand that makes people talk.”
Social enterprises can be difficult as it is like running a business and as well as running a charity simultaneously, but Jak said that advocating for a cause one truly believes in is a path certainly worth taking.
“Getting out of bed and really enjoying what I’m doing is really nice. Although there are a lot of frustrations, it’s really nice to put in your time into something that you think will make a big difference in somebody else’s life.”
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.