Once beloved by feminist sex workers, bloggers, and educators for its sleek vibrator designs, the Swedish adult toymaker is now courting controversy by using a man with a long history of violence against women—both alleged and admitted—to sell condoms. It’s a criticism that the company saw coming and tried to deflect in advance.
“We know Charlie may be a divisive choice for many but it’s also a bold one, and in the fight against STIs we need to make an impact,” LELO wrote on the IndieGoGo page for the “reengineered” HEX condoms, which have honeycomb-structured shafts.
Sheen, who came out as HIV-positive in a Today show interview last year, appears in a new promotional video for the condoms in which he uses his own life story as part selling point, part cautionary tale.
“People still want to be like me or experience my life but there’s a little detail that they want no part of,” the former Two and a Half Men star says, referring to his HIV status. “So they can avoid that by using this.”
But for many feminists, Sheen is not just a “divisive choice” but an unacceptable one, especially for a company like LELO. Caitlin Murphy, a writer and sex educator who publicly called out the manufacturer under the hashtag #BoycottLELO, told The Daily Beast that Sheen has eroded whatever feminist goodwill the company once enjoyed.
“It’s a shame that a company which was founded on women’s pleasure, luxury, and quality has resorted to gimmicks and attention-grabbing controversy rather than quality,” Murphy said. “And the condom itself doesn’t seem all that ‘revolutionary.’”
Murphy is one of many who have criticized LELO for making Sheen the face of HEX.
Sex toy critic Dangerous Lilly vowed to never again review a LELO product, writing that the company “went from being first to the party to the late, drunk, rich frat boy that nobody invited.” Sarah Nitchkey, who runs the sex blog Marvelous Darling, called Sheen the “last straw,” arguing that LELO “only care[s] about women’s health when it sells sex toys.” And sex toy reviewer Formidable Femme also promised to boycott the company in a moving blog post entitled “I’m a Survivor, and I Will Never Support LELO Again.”
“It is clear to me that this decision was purely motivated by shock value and publicity, without any concern for their customers or the educators, reviewers, or stores that work with them,” Formidable Femme wrote.
At the heart of this criticism is a litany of allegations and violent incidents involving Sheen. In 1996, Sheen pleaded “no contest” after adult film star Brittany Ashland alleged that he beat her, slammed her into a marble floor, and split her lip open. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor third-degree assault charge after his then-wife Brooke Mueller said that he threatened to kill her with a knife.
Jezebel has compiled a list of other claims against Sheen: allegations of abuse from ex-wife Denise Richards, a temporary restraining order from Mueller in 2011, claims of abuse from adult film star Capri Anderson.
Sheen has also insulted women who work in the sex industry—and recently, too. When he came out as HIV-positive last year, he actively stigmatized the sex workers he once hired, calling them “unsavory and insipid types” with “saltless reputations.”
Taken together, it’s not exactly an ideal résumé for a company that wants to make women feel sexy. But LELO, which did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, has so far been standing by their man on Twitter.
To one critic who brought up Sheen’s history, LELO wrote that the partnership is “not an endorsement of the past,” claiming that it is “about promoting condom usage, preventing STIs and change.”
To another critic, they wrote that he’s not “a face for LELO.” They tried to reassure yet another critic that the company’s “commitment to feminist porn is absolutely unchanged.” The LELO Twitter account has since stopped responding to criticisms, even as former fans abandon the brand.
Writer and consultant Lux Alptraum, who runs the popular sex newsletter Lux Letter, decided to publicly “unendorse” LELO in a recent issue. Ten years ago, she recalled, LELO was “one of [her] favorite sex toy companies.”
“Yes, the company that supposedly stands for luxury, quality, and sex positivity decided to associate itself with a violent abuser who has a history of publicly humiliating his past sex partners (among his many other awful traits),” Alptraum wrote.
Alptraum told The Daily Beast that a Sheen partnership might make a certain sort of business sense for LELO from an “all PR is good PR” perspective, but predicted that he will ultimately prove to be the wrong choice for their customers and for their brand.
“I can see someone who is HIV-positive being a really great advocate for this product,” she said. “That person is not Charlie Sheen.”
LELO, meanwhile, seems certain that person is Charlie Sheen. They introduced him as the HEX spokesperson at a lavish Manhattan affair last Monday. As described by The New York Times, the party featured a condom-covered phallic ice sculpture and erotic dancers in “hexagon-patterned leotards.” Sheen, LELO announced, would travel the world promoting HEX condoms.
LELO chief marketing officer told the Times that Sheen was “the perfect choice for LELO” and “a symbol of change with the strength and the courage to confront key issues head on.”
But when LELO’s feminist former fans look at Sheen, they don’t see a courageous choice; they see a hypocritical one.