Being a woman in Silicon Valley (or Hollywood, or politics or really anywhere) is particularly fraught at the moment. As sexual harassment allegations and reports of trolls taking harassment to the web continue to surface, it’s time for a new conversation about sexual wellness.
“I believe that starting with personal and bodily agency, is really important,” says Andrea Barrica, a former venture partner turned founder in Silicon Valley.
Enter Barrica’s startup O.School, a virtual classroom launching November 3 that provides shame-free, troll-free sexual education for women in the hope of changing the way we talk about the female body online and off. “As one of our educators, Afrosexology, always says ‘How can you have political agency, social agency or professional agency, if you don’t have agency over your own body?’ “
Before becoming a venture partner, entrepreneur-in-residence and startup coach at Silicon Valley accelerator and seed fund 500 Startups, Barrica entered the tech world in 2010 in software operations. “There really weren’t a lot of women in tech—even just building accounting software, it was tough,” she says. “Now, looking at what the tech world is like and starting a sexual wellness company, it’s a different industry.”
A New School of Sex Ex
Barrica’s tech-fueled crusade is part of a larger ecosystem of startups zeroing in on women’s health and empowerment. As of January 2017, health-focused Femtech companies had raised over $1.1 billion, according to CB Insights. “I’m so glad that there’s all this funding going into this area but sexual wellness was hardly touched at all,” Barrica says. “I’m like, ‘Wow— women’s health is way more than menstruation .’”
A “live streaming platform where anyone in the world with a smartphone can access amazing sex and pleasure education,” O.School is accelerating the sexual wellness conversation in the world of femtech.
The positive, pleasure-based resource, runs on the expertise of a team of sex educators who specialize in everything from trauma, to cultural shame, to sex-positive parenting. The philosophy is that by starting conversations around these taboo, often overlooked issues, the company can create a safe space for women to foster agency and empowerment. “We’re really excited to create space on the internet that doesn’t look like other spaces where abuse and harassment are almost something that’s normalized,” says Barrica.
It started with empathy. “You can watch a hundred videos on loving your body, and it just doesn’t click. But you can be in a group of women on the internet where everyone has the same kinds of negative thoughts about their body and have it be totally healing. I was so fascinated with why that is,” says Barrica. Ultimately, she thinks it’s about simply being heard. “A lot of software isn’t built by people who really value empathy. We’re trying as a team to do that.”
Taking On The Trolls
As anyone who’s ever posted something on social media—let alone tried to create an internet community—knows, building a safe and empowering space for women online is no small feat in the age of trolls.
In fact, it’s why a community like this doesn’t already exist. Prior efforts by some of O.School’s experts to start conversations via live streams on Periscope, Facebook Live and Snapchat were met with harassment and abuse. “I put together a technology team that really understands how to build secure products because, as a woman, online harassment is a really big problem,” says Barrica. “I wanted to build something where that wasn’t necessarily the case.”
First, she emphasizes the importance of relying on human moderators—not bots or other users—to keep O.School troll-free. “This differentiates us from a lot of [online] communities where the philosophy is that the community can govern itself. We’re not really taking that chance.”
Second, there’s a focus on community guidelines that don’t play around to stop harassment before it starts. “[We have] direct community guidelines that trans-phobia, racism and sexism are just not welcome on our platform. If you defy that, we will ban you,” she says. “A lot of other platforms haven’t done that and if they have, they’ve done it too late.”
And finally, Barrica emphasizes the importance of curating a diverse community. Of the 60 educators on the platform—dubbed “Pleasure Professionals”—half are people of color, over 70% are queer and over 15% are trans or non-gender conforming.
From Pleasure to Power
“The core of why we need to exist is what we’re seeing now on college campuses, in the tech industry and on social media with the #MeToo campaign,” says Barrica. “We’re not playing defense at O.School. We see this as a call to action to other communities.”
As a sexual wellness entrepreneur, Barrica’s mission is much bigger than what goes on in the bedroom. “When barriers fall in these very vulnerable spaces, more power is created,” she says. “The core mission that we have is for people to unlearn shame, own their desires and just be comfortable in their bodies.”