As the AIDS crisis mushroomedin the 1980s, at-risk populations realized that condom use was an effective way to make sex safer—but the challenge was to keep it sexy. That’s when Michael Trigg found his calling.
“We saw a clear opening for a quality product that said sex should be sexy and fun,” says Trigg, founder of Trigg Laboratories, the parent company of Wet International, maker of Wet personal lubricants and associated products such as massage oils and sex-toy cleansers.
That was in 1989, and 25 years later he’s still spreading the message of safe and fun sex, continuing to develop new products (he’s hopeful about the potential of a lube with HIV microbicide), and involved in philanthropic endeavors, such as the distribution of safe-sex kits to nonprofit organizations.
Trigg, who is gay, recalls witnessing how AIDS devastated his peers in the ’80s. “I trained at a mostly gay gym in West Hollywood and literally half the guys I knew were gone or very sick,” says Trigg. “I remember people were selling their life insurance policies to other companies for 20 percent of their value, thinking they had a very limited amount of time left. This was before the days of protease inhibitors and good antiviral medications.”
With the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS and the recognition that condoms prevented HIV transmission, condom use skyrocketed, and so did the use of lubricants. “At the time, lubricant use was increasing 15 percent per year,” Trigg recalls. “People were beginning to understand that a lubricant not only eased condom use and helped prevent breakage but also enhanced their pleasure a great deal.”
But the primary lubricant on the market carried an unsexy association with medical applications, and even those sold in sex shops weren’t considered particularly enticing, he says.
“At that time, K-Y promoted their brand for medical uses… The timing was right to hit the market with a ‘fun’ packaged lubricant, which did not exist at the time,” he says. “You could say we pioneered putting the fun in lube.”
Trigg and two partners opened their business in a 1,000-square-foot factory. Trigg raised the start-up funds by maxing out his credit cards to the tune of $150,000 and selling off real estate investments. The company grew and now operates from a 52,000-square-foot facility in Valencia, Calif., a community near Los Angeles.
While packaging and marketing can make a product sexy, they’re not the most important aspects of the product. “Great, colorful, and clean packaging gets a consumer to buy your product once, but it’s the consistent quality inside that keeps them loyal,” he says. “We are constantly improving our products as better ingredients and formulating processes come along.” He says his company was the first manufacturer to rid its lubes of nonoxynol-9, a spermicide once thought to provide extra protection against HIV transmission. Scientists eventually discovered nonoxynol-9 did not provide such protection, and that by irritating vaginal and rectal tissues, it could actually increase the risk of transmission.
Some other components of lubes can have an ill effect on these tissues as well, but Trigg points proudly to a recent University of Pittsburgh study that found Wet Platinum, a silicone-based lube, to be one of the two safest for rectal cells, of six lubes evaluated. The testing was conducted with human cells in a laboratory environment. Scientists are interested in some day incorporating anti-HIV microbicides into lubricants, something this research may lead to. Microbicides, Trigg says, “would be a good second barrier,” along with condoms, to prevent HIV transmission.
Wet Platinum, he notes, is the company’s best seller. “Wet Platinum contains no water, so it doesn’t evaporate and dry out as you use it,” he says. “You won’t need to reapply very often, if ever.” That said, he adds, every lube user has different tastes and needs, the company has more than 80 products, seeking to offer something for everyone.
Wet products, he adds, are all compliant with Food and Drug Administration rules for medical devices, and are subject to intensive testing. Also, they’ve recently received a stamp of approval for use by Jews who keep kosher. He emphasizes that this is “self-certification,” as the Rabbinical Council of California noted that it had not certified that the lubes met kosher standards, but the company would be permitted to indicate they did, based on the fact that the ingredients are known to be kosher.
After doing this for decades, Trigg sees a shift in how people approach lube. “We’ve found that the gay community is more open to sexual imagery and forward communication on the topic of sex,” he says. “For the gay community, lubricant is more of an ‘on the nightstand’ kind of product than an ‘in the naughty drawer’ item. The straight community and the mainstream media especially need to be approached almost sideways with topics on sexual health, romance, and breaking down the stigma of needing or wanting to use a lubricant. The LGBT community allows us to have more fun with the messaging.”
Still, he admits, there’s been a change in general perceptions about sex—and how he markets his products: “People are more open to talking about sex than ever before. The shift occurred at the time that Sex and the City became very popular as the general population’s attitudes started to change toward sex. Our timing was right to move from adult stores to the big pharmacy chains. The latest shift has been from traditional media to online and social media. As with any change in the past, we chose to embrace it early.”
The company has only two major product launches a year, Trigg says, and that’s one factor that helps it keep quality high. At age 55, he’s now semiretired, but he concentrates on new product development and philanthropy. “Wet sponsors and donates to the work of over 300 nonprofit organizations every year,” he says, adding that it donated 250,000 safe-sex kits in the past year alone and participated in major events such as World AIDS Day. “Companies have their own karma, and this is something we have done from the beginning,” he says.
Today Wet boasts dozens of celebrity fans (a few pictured on the Wet site: Mike Tyson, Rihanna, Dr. Oz, Mario Lopez, and Lisa Vanderpump) and has shown up in pop culture as well (on an episode of Tori & Dean and in a very sexy Ludacris video). Trigg got a bit more celebrity this year himself. Last fall Trigg proposed to his boyfriend (now husband), Percy Shroff, while dressed as a “knight in shining armor,” wearing an actual suit of armor and getting down on one knee, in front of friends and family, despite the discomfort of the costume. A video of the proposal quickly went viral on YouTube.
Trigg believes his company has played a role in advancing acceptance of same-sex marriage. “We always use positive imagery in our marketing to plant the right seeds in the minds of those formulating a first opinion or revising an old one,” he says. “The truth is that being gay is not an issue any more for the younger generation… I hope that one day people will be understood like the crew of Star Trek, where everyone is perceived by the merit of their contribution, versus who they choose to love.”