At the vape shop where Emily Skelton was an assistant manager, the men worked with the equipment and the women sold the liquids. When customers came in for a tutorial on vape tech, one of the male employees would step in. Skelton would be at the juice bar, working as a kind of vaping sommelier.
Vaping is Skelton's passion, and she was learning the ins and outs of box mods, coils, the necessary voltage, everything she needed to sell vaping supplies. But at her shop, the gender divide was clear. Women who came in to buy equipment were patronized, she said, and not given the sort of detailed attention men were. No one wanted Skelton to get her hands dirty with hardware; her managers told her to get back to the bar. The men working at the shop referred to her and the other five or so female employees as the "juice bitches."
"It's sad, because the only role for women in the industry is being vape models — pretty bodies and a pretty face to put your mod and juice next to, to sell it," Skelton told Mic.
The vaping business, from its advertisements to its conventions, is slathered with ostentatious shows of masculinity. But one group of women vapers have created a secret space away from the leering eyes of vaping's bro culture, and what began as a small oasis is quickly becoming a supergroup.
The Drippin' Dolls: When Megan Sikes first started vaping, she turned to Facebook groups for advice and guidance. She had just started "dripping," a type of vaping that involves hand-made equipment and requires basic knowledge of electronics and some technical grappling. Right now, vaping is in the same stage as personal computers were in the late '70s and early '80s — a nascent community for hobbyists.
And much like in the early computer club days, the Facebook groups and subreddits where vapers post tutorials, answer questions and swap stories are heavily male. Sikes, listed on Facebook as single, was routinely trolled or harassed. Some women in these groups posted inquiries for advice and received dick pics in response.
Sikes wanted a place where women who felt alienated or talked down to could support one another. In July 2014, Sikes created a Facebook group called Drippin' Dolls with a handful of other female vapers from Texas. It's a private group you can't view or even link to unless you've been invited to join by a member.
"In groups where most of the other members are guys, they make you kind of feel dumb when you're asking important questions, and they just spit out some answer," Skelton told Mic. "Guys don't think we're capable of learning, because it's all technical. With the Dolls, the girls take time to explain."
Skelton no longer works at a vape shop.
In the past year and a half, the Drippin' Dolls have gone from around a dozen women to 800 members from across the United States and abroad. They've launched a weekly live-streamed show and a line of apparel, and they're getting ready to organize local chapters with meet-ups and appearances at events.
They post "friendly fire" videos, a type of vape video where you show off your setup, then vape and challenge someone else to make a video of their own. They can ask about building mods and basic electronics without being stifled by the stigma that women can't handle the technical aspects of vaping. No one's going to tell you to "get your boyfriend to do it for you," like some of the Dolls had been told in other groups.
"When women want to be a serious part of male-dominated industries like vaping without just being eye candy, it can be hard to go to men for advice," Drippin' Doll Kylah Hervet told Mic. "You have to understand, there are women who have been abused, women who have had addictions or who have been sheltered their whole lives who aren't comfortable going in with the guys to show their builds."
With three fellow administrators, Hervet co-hosts the Dolls' weekly live-streamed show, ThrowBack Thursday. They talk product reviews, industry news and vape advocacy. They want to educate listeners about the potential health benefits of vaping: Some skeptics still aren't convinced, and most of the established research is insufficient to answer the question. The Dolls help organize fundraising drives, ship enormous boxes of vaping products to veterans and host conversations about etiquette, like where it's OK to vape if you're in the public eye.
The Dolls are organizing for each other, but they're also waging vaping's most important PR campaign to date: the fight against vaping's hypermasculine image.
Vaping has a bro problem: Women are more likely to try vaping or an e-cigarette alternative than men, even though men are 1.25 times as likely to see a vaping-related advertisement — ads that cater to men, with scantily clad female models and names like Boba's Bounty and Straight Jacket that render vape juice barely distinguishable from monster trucks.
"A lot of companies will have models that are basically naked with their juice — it's just lazy marketing to be eye-catching for men," Drippin' Doll and ThrowBack Thursday host Molly Hjelter told Mic.
"The views of the community from the outside are more negative than ever," vaping reporter and blogger Shawn Avery told Mic in September when discussing vaping's reputation. "The non-vaping public sees vaping the same way they see fedoras. They associate it with this awful MRA [men's rights activist] neckbeard culture."
The Dolls aren't just fighting for their corner of a subculture; the stakes are higher than fair representation in brand marketing. They're widening the road for other women whose lives are at stake by smoking cigarettes, who are eager to adopt a safer nicotine alternative and raise a family free from cigarette smoke. All four admins who rep the Dolls on the live show are moms.
"If vapers are viewed negatively in the media, on Facebook and in others opinions, we don't get very far," Sikes said. "Once we get back to the core belief that we're here to stop smoking and not see whose dick is bigger, we'll get more nonsmokers."