STORIES

Quim Rock's Cyo Nystrom on Elevated Vaginal Health

By Celia Gold on March 13, 2019

Maybe I'm influenced by the reason I’m there, but my first impression of Ludlow House, a posh members-only club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is that the former gold-leaf factory looks sort of like a vagina: There are layers of unmarked doors with inconspicuous bells and buzzers, there’s little overhead light and it’s—respectfully—not that easy to gain entrance. This is fitting because I’m here to talk to Cyo Nystrom, the CEO (and co-founder with Rachel Washtein) behind Quim Rock, a plant-based self-care company geared toward vaginal health and pleasure. Preservation is the order of the day. Quim’s products are intended for uses ranging from pleasure enhancement to overall health support, each of which is meant to hold down the fort, so to speak, so that vagina-havers can occupy themselves elsewhere.

It started the way most homeopathic remedies do: a recipe tested in someone’s kitchen as a response to needs unmet by dominant structures of healthcare and the prevailing market. Now Quim products are available in a slew of California dispensaries, and they’re in talks to expand to Nevada and Canada. Their latest product, the CBD-based Happy Clam Everyday Oil, was just released online last month, following previous releases like Night Moves Intimate Oil and the orgasmic latex-safe serum Oh Yes! Between the nods to gender inclusivity/equity and their crowdsourced vaginal intel, Quim is a holistic vaginal care company whose products mean business.

Your website says the name Quim is a Victorian epithet for vagina, and re-appropriating this term seems to mirror the intervention you're making in the marketplace. I'm curious how you landed on Quim, specifically, because there's certainly no shortage of derogatory terms that you could've taken back.

I actually have a Google document of vaginal euphemisms. I loved the way Quim sounded, I thought it was really beautiful, and I didn't know that it meant vagina beforehand. A woman in Colorado who works in the industry was like, “I implore you to change this name while you still have time. I find it so offensive, and I think what you guys are doing is great, but this name could really turn people off.” And I just answered, “Thank you for reaching out to us, and if you're a little peeved, then I think we've made our point.” We're taking back this word because there's nothing offensive about it. It is reminiscent of the protest posters that said, “I would call Trump a cunt, but he lacks the warmth and depth.”

That's so funny! Is this word still in circulation? Who's up on their Victorian slang?

It's in play in the U.K. I wouldn't say it's super common, but with an older generation, it's still definitely in the ether.

You use a lot of natural, clean ingredients in your products that signify an investment in folk medicine. How much and what kind of research goes into product development and ingredient selection?

We spent the last year and a half developing a latex-safe and cannabis-infused lubricant—particularly one that wasn’t glycerin-based. The reason it was hard for us to develop this product is that cannabis is lipid soluble, so it's activated in a fat [oil] and that isn't safe for latex. So we actually had to go through a pretty intense biomolecular process of taking an extract and making it water soluble and then finding a lubricant base that was also water soluble. The most common ones are glycerin-based that turn into glucose, which is sugar. So if you have any bacterial or fungal infections, it's really not something to mess around with.

We identified an aloe base, which is really phenomenal on its own. Many new femme sex tech companies are moving more towards aloe as a glycerin alternative. It's naturally pH-balancing, it's naturally anti-candidal, and it doesn’t get tacky. You can put it on your skin to make it feel softer.

That’s a big one. There are all sorts of people who I think would appreciate that.

People talk about vaginal dryness, especially those who are experiencing menopause, but it is a way bigger problem. I dealt with vaginal dryness when I was 19 years old.There's a myth that all vaginal lubrication is tied to arousal. It can be, but just because I'm not super lubricated naturally doesn’t mean I’m not aroused. Also, just because I'm super wet doesn't mean I'm aroused. I just think it's a dangerous line of thinking that wetness equals arousal because it can be a false indicator that someone is when they aren't, or a false indicator that someone’s not having a good time when they are. The bottom line is that we need more conversations on sex because active consent is a bigger conversation that needs to be had.

Quim seems to be participating in a move toward inclusivity embraced by some brands who create products at the intersection of sexual health and cannabis—Foria and Whoopi and Maya being the first to come to mind. Your tagline, "A self-care line for humans with vaginas and humans without vaginas who love vaginas" is a good example of this, and there are certain other places on your website where you use gender-inclusive language. Do you want to talk a little bit about the role gender inclusivity does or doesn't play in Quim?

For me it's incredibly important to have different perspectives of all sorts—age, gender, race, socioeconomic class, ability—because everyone's experience is varied. My experience of being a human is deeply impacted by the fact that I'm white, I'm cis, I can walk around on two legs, I can walk four miles pretty easily. These are all aspects of my personhood that impact the decisions I make about my body. I firmly believe that if we're going to serve people better, we need to have different perspectives.

It's something I'm dedicated to in a lifelong sense. We're not going to arrive at being a "woke" company. I think there's so much performance of being woke that it's only there for an audience. The social justice elements of this industry are very personal to me: My dad was incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis crimes when I was four years old. Even though that is true and in some ways I feel like I involuntarily entered the cannabis industry as a child because I carried that shame growing up, I'm not the poster child for someone who has been [most] impacted by the war on drugs. In fact, I'm the poster child for someone who has an easy time getting involved in the cannabis industry.

Gender is a construct, race is a construct, but we are brought up in a society where these things are very deeply ingrained. I saw a video the other day about teaching different gender neutral pronouns like “zie” to elementary school kids. The [kids] get it like this. (Cyo snaps her fingers.)

You're examining your unconscious biases and encouraging other people to do the same. There's no outside with this. It's all around us, all the time, but it's in us, too.

Absolutely. It’s not just about getting more people at the table... it's about getting more voices at the table. I think the way we structure corporate environments has historically not been designed in ways that either encourage women or people of color or queer people or people with varying abilities to really get involved. I'm trying to really consider that as opposed to knitting a bunch of pink pussy hats. Pussies aren't pink. I don't know if you've seen one recently, but I get where it's coming from. Anyway, it's not just about how I've been oppressed. That's not what Quim is about. It's about appealing to a wider audience and about normalizing conversations around vaginal health.

I know normalization is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and in the best case scenarios, that's because people are working to destigmatize cannabis. But at the same time, part of the trap in normalizing is that it pushes assimilationist politics by implying that deviations from norms are more of a problem than the norms themselves or the ways they're enforced.

Yes! My version of “normalize” is “elevate." It's like, oh really? So now that white investors are putting money in it, it's elevated? That's really fucked. If I see one more picture of a white woman doing a bong rip on her yoga mat in Vogue while black and brown people are still incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis crimes… it's completely tone def.

Your products are intended for lots of uses, many of which are geared toward promoting vaginal health. Most vaginal care products are marketed on the basis that vaginas are inherently in need of being modified and sanitized somehow. The subliminal message is that there's always something wrong, and vaginas are dirty. You center on restoration and health maintenance, which is an important intervention.

We say vaginas are snowflakes. As we talked to people, there was this overwhelming motif of people with vaginas talking about their health issues with doctors and feeling gaslit, explained over, handed a Z-Pak when they didn’t need one, given a pregnancy test for the hundredth time when you say you just had your period. People had an inherent sense of intuition about what was going to work and what wasn’t. Hence our hashtag #YouKnow, which we put on everything. It's less a call to action to stop or start doing anything, it's more that you are the number one expert on living in your body.

I love that. Is there any particular direction you'd like to take Quim in the next few years, especially as we seem to be inching closer and closer to the dangled carrot of federal legalization?

Yes. Quim is going to be a plant-based vaginal care company, and I'd love to take this global in whatever capacity. I think for us, starting in the California cannabis industry made a lot of sense because it was where I was based, it's where my network was, and on January 1, 2018, it became the largest cannabis market in the world. There was so much attention, globally, so much press and attention on California, because it would be a model for national legalization. But there are also many new sex tech companies. So for us to be able to enter into California’s cannabis scene when so many people are looking was a great place for us to make a name for ourselves. But it's a long game, and it's gonna take some time. I'm more okay with that than I was last year. I’m still not patient, but I am trying.

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