“We need to talk to kids”: Meet the startup gamifying Aussie sex education

sex education

The winning team: Tina Funder, Yiyi Wang, Kate Towart and Maddy Mathews. Source: supplied.

Last weekend, Melbourne hosted its first-ever sextech hackathon, and among inclusive sex toys and solutions for medical conditions, an all-women team emerged victorious with a product gamifying sex education for pre-teens.

The hackathon, run by the Future of Sex podcast in partnership with Disruptors Co, incorporated collaborative workshops and mentoring from leaders in the industry, and saw entrepreneurs form teams, come up with an idea, and create and pitch their product, all within 48 hours.

The winners took home a prize including a 12-week accelerator program run by Disruptors Co, tickets to exhibit at a massive sextech conference in Berlin at the end of the year, a slew of vouchers for business services and, of course, a $100 voucher for sex toys.

At the event, Tina Funder, founder of Mother Tongue creative agency, teamed up with serial entrepreneur and UX designer Yiyi Wang and two psychologists — sex therapist Kate Towart, and Maddy Mathews, a masters student with a passion for gender and sexuality.

“One of the reasons it was so successful was because we had four people from four different backgrounds,” Funder tells SmartCompany.

“Had we been missing one of those elements it wouldn’t have turned out as it did.”

“We need to talk to kids earlier”

The online game (the founders haven’t landed on a definite name yet) takes place in a summer camp setting — a time that kids look forward to, but “that raises a lot of issues and insecurities”.

Between body image stress, sleeping arrangements, public toilets and group activities, there are “a lot of opportunities for people to feel insecure, but also to be confronted with issues they’re unsure about and want to talk about”.

It’s a choose-your-own-adventure decision-making game, in which kids choose what they think is the right or wrong response to potentially difficult social situations. Scenarios include a girl getting her period and bullying-based scenarios, as well as covering topics of consent and even sharing nude photos.

There are many opportunities to explore, Funder says, many of which they haven’t yet touched on.

“We’ve done this in 24 hours,” she says.

“All the detail will come.”

Initially, the team started thinking about education from an 18-plus perspective, Funder explains. But, when discussing the issues and talking to the hackathon mentors, they realised “we need to talk to kids earlier”.

There are already modern sex education programs at schools in Australia, but the team realised there was a limit to how many children those projects could reach.

“We wanted to digitise it, and we know that kids are constantly playing games and also learning through animations,” Funder explains.

At the same time, her own kids are getting to an age where they’re starting to explore online, and coming into contact with things they perhaps shouldn’t be, she says.

“It’s quite a confronting and frightening time … I know they’re probably going to encounter porn in some form over the next couple of years — it’s inevitable,” she says.

“What’s going on to educate them about the rights and wrongs associated with that?”

Poo-pooing taboo

This was Funder’s first foray into the sextech space, and going into the hackathon she confesses “personally, I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect”.

Having built her career in the creative industry, what appealed to the entrepreneur was “the fact that there would be really curious and creative and innovative minds in one place, talking about a topic that is considered pretty taboo”.

From medical products to dildos to inclusivity tech, “there were so many incredible ideas coming at solutions from all different angles”, she adds.

At the same time, she says it was a welcoming and non-judgemental environment, with a lot of women and non-binary people taking part.

Speaking at Pause Fest in Melbourne earlier this month, Future of Sex founder Bryony Cole explained how sextech is moving beyond VR porn and sex robots, with products increasingly being marketed to a more diverse audience.

That was reflected in the demographics of the hackathon, Funder says.

“The overwhelming feeling was it was a roomful of non-judgemental people who wanted to change things for the better, regardless of where they were operating,” she explains.

“It’s also about sex being part of your health and wellness regime,” she adds.

“It’s just a natural thing that everybody does, so why don’t we talk about it like that?

“It should be a lot more normalised, especially in Australia where people just don’t want to talk about it.”

A pressure test

Winning the whole event has been “really exciting and quite overwhelming”, Funder says.

But, the founding team is riled up and ready to hit the ground running. Already, they’re pooling contacts and resources, and they’re on track to have a website live by the end of the week.

While details haven’t been confirmed yet, Funder says the accelerator will start within the next few weeks. And it’s notoriously full-on.

“It’s a bit of a pressure-test environment, to make sure the idea is really sound, and that you work well together as a team,” she explains.

But, one of the things she believes set the team’s pitch apart was that the founders believe in this, and are committed to turning it into a real business.

“Our pitch was really serious. It was a business pitch,” Funder says.

“We talked about revenue streams, we talked about potential costs, we talked about the fact our team can literally make this happen if we started tomorrow.

“We are literally ready to go.”

It’s early days now, but Funder is already thinking ahead, and scoping out the potential opportunities for tech like this.

“We certainly would want to roll it out nationally in Australia, because we’re just so far behind on sex education here,” she explains.

“We know there will be backlash too, so there will be huge hurdles we have to overcome to make this happen.”

Also, based on the quick hackathon-style research she’s conducted so far, Funder thinks it could be even bigger.

“There’s no reason this couldn’t be a global thing,” she says.

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