The co-founder of Zivity offers her take on love in 2020, legitimizing the romance space, and sexuality on stage at tech conferences.


By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

When you look ahead at sectors ripe for disruption by tech, the first thing that pops to mind probably isn’t dating. After all, people have been pairing off since the dawn of the species. What exactly can startups and the digital revolution offer the age-old human pursuit of romance?

That’s the question we’re tackling on our The Future of Your Love Life panel at our conference in Las Vegas in November, and it’s a topic that incredibly close to the heart of our moderator, Cyan Banister. Along with her husband Scott, she founded Zivity, a platform that helps photographers and women who want to make money off sensual images connect with a paying audience. We spoke to her to find out what she thinks tech has to offer this space that the magazines behind the counter at your local 7-11 can’t, and what other tech-enabled innovations she sees coming to our love lives.

Beautiful images of scantily clad women have been around forever. What can tech bring to this space?

I grew up in a family of artists, and my mother told me my entire life that there is no money to be made in art and so I should never be an artist. So that was kind of stuck in the back of my mind. I became a computer engineer, but that thought just kept nagging in the back of my head. Is there actually a way that you can help artists make money? And if so, what kind of art are people still willing to pay for? If you look at the artistic landscape, a lot of it is being disrupted —  music, books, or movies. But this type of art is still something that people find valuable to some extent, so that’s really what motivated me to start it.

Did you always have an interest in the erotic art?

I was an incredibly modest person. I was the type of person you would see jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed. Not a person you would have ever expected to start something like this. Then I went out and did my first photo shoot and I had a transformative experience. I didn’t have low self-esteem by any means, but I just never saw my body in that way. So it was really wonderful to see a real photo shoot of myself. I saw my body in a way that I could never see myself when I’m getting ready in the mirror in the morning, when you’re judgmental and critical and tired. My hair was done. My makeup was done. Everything was perfect, and sure the flaws were still there but they weren’t flaws anymore. I realized that I really wanted to give every woman who wanted to do something like that a way to make money doing it, as well as making fans feel like they’re benefactors of this type of art.

You must run into some negative biases about your work. How do you deal with negativity?

You know, the negative perception was mostly in the early days when our site wasn’t launched yet and people assumed the worst. When I told them I was quitting my job to go start this company, they immediately assumed I was starting a hardcore porn site. They didn’t get the vision. What they saw in their heads didn’t match reality once it existed. Now that we’ve been around for as many years as we have, we’ve established a reputation of paying artists, of being above board, so people trust us and think of Zivity as being a very, very tasteful site, a very empowering site for women to participate in and I don’t get a lot of negativity anymore.

It’s actually been a very enlightening filter, if you will, for people that I might not necessarily want to do business with. If they’re going to be judgmental, they’re certainly welcome to be, but I would hope that people would celebrate women’s freedom to make this decision for themselves.

So you just don’t work with judgmental folks?

It doesn’t mean I would never do business with them. Some people, I start talking about what I do and they shut it off pretty quickly. I get social cues: ‘OK, this person is not really OK talking about this,’ and I don’t push it. But for the most part people are very receptive. I live in the Bay Area. This is a very liberal place. I’m sure if I traveled to someplace in the Bible Belt I might have a different experience.

Years ago you presented at a TechCrunch event and caused quite a stir. I was curious about your reaction to the recent controversy at TC Disrupt. When is it OK to have sexual content on stage at an event like this?

TechCrunch is not branded as a children’s event. One of the issues was a nine-year-old programmer was there with her father, and I don’t think we should make a conference that’s intended for adults child friendly. You should warn parents they may see things or hear things that might not be appropriate for children, including cursing. If you’re going to have Dave McClure up on a panel, he’s going to curse the entire time. That’s also not appropriate for children.

When it comes to applications and demonstrations, TitStare was a joke. It was not a real business, and that’s where I draw the line. You shouldn’t be allowed to get up and be Andrew Dice Clay on stage and just be offensive for the sake of being offensive. There are people who actually are trying to make real businesses and it’s legitimate. — other dating sites that have come after us that are a little risqué. There are a lot of sexuality startups that we should also take seriously, so I think it would be a real shame if they took a heavy-handed approach to this and basically said, ‘if you have anything remotely sexual, we’re going to censor you and you’re not allowed to get up there.’

Looking ahead to 2020, what aspect of dating, romance or sexuality today will look outdated or quaint to us?

I hope we look back ten years from now and we don’t understand why anybody had an issue with gay people getting married. I hope that we look back ten years from now and we have no issues with polygamists getting married. I hope that we have a much more open mind as a nation about sexuality, sensuality and love in general, and that we stay out of people’s love lives and we let them, as long as they’re not hurting people, love one another the way that they would like to. And I hope that technology enables this.

I would like to see more products that help people with different lifestyles as well as mainstream monogamous lifestyles find love and happiness. Sexuality and love is core to being human. Without it, you and I wouldn’t exist, and it’s one of the things that we don’t talk about, so I hope that we do talk about it. My hope and my dream is the future holds more discussion and less stigma.

What else are you excited to talk about in Vegas?

The biggest thing for me is to challenge other organizations. Women 2.0 took a stance and said, ‘we’re going to have a panel like this and legitimize this space as a place when entrepreneurs should play.’ This is a space where women need to have a voice and entrepreneurs do matter, so I think that’s one of the things I would like to talk about. I’d like to encourage more women to be brave and to start more companies like the ones that are going to be on this panel.

What do you think will be the biggest change to love and dating in 2020?

Photo credit: Dav Yaginumai via Flickr

jessica Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebelis an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.