It all started with a decidedly unsexy sex predicament. While on vacation in Mexico, Melanie Cristol and her then-wife wanted to have oral sex with a dental dam but couldn’t find one in stores. They’re difficult enough to track down in the United States, Cristol notes, “much less the coast of Mexico.”
But that minor inconvenience sparked a line of thinking that would change Cristol’s career trajectory entirely. “I thought to myself, One of the reasons that this product is so difficult to find is that it’s not a great product,” she recalls. “It moves from the back to the front, which can cause UTIs. It’s just this flappy sheet of rubber. It’s not tailored to the body at all, and it’s called a dental dam. How unsexy is that?”
Today, Cristol, a former Lambda Legal volunteer, Columbia Law School alum, and veteran attorney, thinks about just how unsexy dental dams are for a living. In November 2018, she launched Lorals, a first-of-its-kind product she invented to make oral sex more convenient and comfortable for people who might otherwise use dental dams, or turn down oral sex altogether.
“I started thinking about that a lot after getting back from the trip,” she remembers, joking, “I should’ve been writing legal briefs, but instead I was thinking about oral sex.”
Cristol talked to people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and a few common themes emerged. For one thing, plenty of queer women and people with vulvas confided to her that they’d frequently decline receiving oral when the sensations would “feel great,” but they “just didn’t want the skin-to-skin contact.” Others described wanting to explore rimming, but being “totally freaked out by poop.”
Enter Lorals, Cristol’s portmanteau for the words love, oral, and always. Lorals are single-use latex panties that act as a barrier between one partner’s mouth and another person’s vulva or anus. (A pack of four will set you back $25.) The product took about three years of development, testing, and funding from Cristol’s own bank account to create. Unlike dental dams, the product’s design—they’re wearable for anyone sizes 0-14—means they easily stay in place during sex. They’re silky to the touch, lightly scented with vanilla fragrance, and colored black with a matte finish. They’re also designed to maximize sensation.
It’s worth noting that Lorals are currently not FDA-approved for STI/STD prevention, although Cristol and her team are in the process of obtaining that designation. (The CDC still recommends dental dams as a suitable barrier for safer oral sex.) It’s not as simple as one may think, though, she relays. For one thing, they’d need an entirely new machine to test Lorals’ material for microscopic holes in order to attain that approval status. (The machine already exists, Cristol notes, but it’s shaped to test latex or latex-like material in the shape of condoms, not Lorals.) And Cristol, who funded the bulk of Lorals startup costs independently with money she earned as a lawyer, can no longer afford to cover business costs with her personal funds.
Asked if she has any advice for fellow queer women entrepreneurs, Cristol quips back right away: “Well, first of all, I probably wouldn’t use my own money!” She points to the wide range of funding and investment opportunities that now exist for first-time entrepreneurs, noting that newer options like pre-seed funding are available as early as the ideation stage. (About six months ago, Cristol and Lorals’ LA-based team actually received funding from Backstage Capital’s inaugural business accelerator program.)
Entrepreneurship is a labor of love, Cristol admits, especially for first-timers, doubly so for marginalized people, and triply so for creatives designing sex tech products. But the gratification of designing a product that enriches peoples’ relationships—and allows people with vulvas of all gender identities and sexual orientations to experience more pleasure via oral sex—is priceless.
Cristol says happy Lorals customers run the gamut. She’s received kind messages from trans patrons who experienced too much gender dysphoria to enjoy oral sex before Lorals, as well as a woman in her 60s who allowed a partner to go down on her for the first time ever while wearing Lorals.
She also credits other inclusive, innovative sex companies—like Dame Products, a sex tech brand that specializes in vibrators, and Hims, a more discreet, aesthetically packaged Viagra alternative—as other keys players in the fight to take any shame or stigmas out of sexual wellness. Historically, discussions of sexual pleasure have centered cisgender heterosexual men (and penetrative sex, specifically vaginal intercourse), but Cristol sees that trend beginning to shift.
“Oral sex leads people with vaginas to have an orgasm three times more often than vaginal intercourse,” Cristol says matter-of-factly. “Oral sex is a really great thing for a lot of us to be incorporating into our activities, so if we can make it easier… then we’ll be having more oral.”
“If we’re talking openly about erectile dysfunction,” she adds, “it’s a much smaller step to then talk about oral sex, you know?”