Startup Bros Trying to Bio-hack Vaginas Is the Problem with Silicon Valley
Don’t look now, ladies, but your vagina is getting disrupted. As if this week didn’t have enough Uber-style Silicon Valley dirtbags for you (every week has one too many), a couple of startup bros went and outlined their visionfor Sweet Peach, a probiotic supplement that lets women “bio-hack” their vaginas and supposedly make them smell like ripe peaches.
If you are a woman, you might wonder which problem this is really solving. If you are a woman and have heretofore eschewed the douchebag industrial complex, you might, in fact, be perfectly happy with your healthy vagina’s natural smell and have never felt the slightest urge to have the scent of fuzzy fruits waft up from your lady garden. And you almost certainly would wonder why two guys have such firm ideas of how your vagina should smell.
Well, to give Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome their due, it wasn’t even their company – and the goal of Sweet Peach Probiotics’ actual founder Audrey Hutchinson wasn’t to eliminate vagina-scented vaginas at all. The probiotic wasdeveloped as part of an accelerator program run by Cambrian Genomics, a biotech startup that just raised $10m to fund its DNA-printing systems (Heinz, its CEO, owns a 10% stake in Sweet Peach). She used Cambrian’s technology to print a virus to kills off the microbes that cause things like yeast infections – and, though Gome told reporters that the fruity smell is an added bonus that lets women know it’s working, the name is reportedly only a reference to the fruit’s long history as reference to vagina.
(Gome also offered that, to take an idea from Linda Lovelace in Deepthroat, a women could “hack into her microbiome and make her vagina smell like roses and taste like diet cola”, so apparently the vaginal smell of women’s vaginas is a big focus of his.)
One (male) tech writer has suggested that it’s “unfair” that the media has focused, as Sweet Peach’s story went viral late this week, on changing the smell of a woman’s vaginal secretions when its “product” has these other, nobler, functions. C’mon, ladies, he seems to suggest, you owe it to the creators not to get worked up about making you smell nicer while fixing your nasty yeast issues!
You see, in today’s digital world, it is apparently a tad old-fashioned to think about vaginas as just tubular sex organs that form part of the female reproductive tract instead of as input/output devices whose functions can be reprogrammed. InHeinz’s words: “We print life. Life is very simple, it’s just code.”Still, since it’s called Sweet Peach and not Dead Yeast, the founders of Cambrian Genomics Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome took it upon themselves to explain how sporting a peachy vagina will help women “better connect to themselves”. Heinz, for instance, told reporters “All your smells are not human. They’re produced by the creatures that live on you”, and Gome added, “We think it’s a fundamental human right to not only know your code and the code of the things that live on you but also to rewrite that code and personalize it.”
But life is not very simple, and it’s not “just code”. Making women’s mons Venuses smell like they’ve sat on a fruit basket isn’t empowering, but it does reflect the tech industry’s increasingly apparent problem with women. It does reflect the male-dominated, megalomaniac conviction that a complex world can be boiled down to a series of discrete problems to be solved via algorithms, flowcharts, “culture” and an answer that it’s all in the name of “progress” – even if you want to spy on a woman who calls you an asshole.
And when the problem that the bros think needs solving is how vagina-y vaginas smell – even when the product won’t do that and the actual founder never intended it to – it’s no surprise the people choosing what problems to solve are largely straight, white men, funded by other straight white men. According to a recent study, the vast majority of US venture capital investments go to companies led exclusively by men: only 15% of nearly 7,000 VC-backed companies analyzed in the research had a woman executive and only 2.7% had a female chief executive. Even more troublesome is that women are actually losing ground in venture capital leadership – the total proportion of women VC partners dropping to 6% in 2014 from 10% in 1999.
There is a crusader-like zeal to the way in which startup types talk about how they plan to change the world, how they plan to hack the future and disrupt the present – “inspiring”, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick put it this week, “the public at large”. There is a sense that all technological advancements are positive advancements and that while to err is human, to code is divine. (The current controversy around Uber’s internal data-mining feature, referred to within the company as “God View”, is a case in point.) But innovation is only really meaningful if it contributes to a more equitable society – and much of what Silicon Valley terms “disruption” is simply a bleeping, blorping version of the same social status quo.
• This article was amended on 22 November 2014 to clarify that, while Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peach Probiotics, its founder and CEO is Audrey Hutchinson and the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.