How sex toys went from “sleazy” to “empowering”

You know sex toys have officially gone mainstream when a profile of a vibrator company graces the Style Section of the New York Times. In case you missed it in all its newsprint glory, that happened earlier this summer when the founders of the feminist-minded sex toy company Dame Products were featured talking about “Eva,” a “hands-free” couples product, which they hope closes the “pleasure gap.” It’s no coincidence that this $105 luxury item was also the first sex toy to ever be funded on Kickstarter, which bent its own internal rules barring such items from being on the site.

Dame Products, which describes its mission as designing sex toys “to heighten intimacy, and to openly empower the sexual experiences of womankind,” and its many competitors seem to have unlocked a fundamental formula for success that is equal parts wellness and women’s empowerment.

“I think the fact that we have a more holistic view of sex than sex as this one act makes us a lot more relatable,” Alex Fine, CEO of Dame, told Salon. “Self-love is the key to all of it.”

Make no mistake, bringing innovative sex toys to the masses is still an uphill battle, even for high-profile companies like Dame. Often, banks and payment processing services have clauses that flat-out ban any adult-oriented business, and venture capitalists are known to avoid such investment opportunities for fear of alienating stakeholders. But on the whole, sex toys just aren’t the kind of taboo topic they once were, as evidenced by the profits rolling in. It’s estimated that the sex toy retail market will surpass $50 billion within the next three years. And it’s more than just sales. We’re also witnessing the advent of corporate appropriation: Broad City, the girl power stoner comedy series set to debut its fourth season on Comedy Central, will soon have its own sex toy line.

All in all, the world of sex toys is a far cry from the seedy, underground image this market conjured until relatively recently. Naturally, part of this has to do with how far these products themselves have come, quality-wise. But this shift can also be attributed to the way women have taken charge of the industry, using real talk to sell wellness rather than pseudoscience, and empowerment as opposed to sexualization.

“If I were making a food product, I’d probably want to make you hungry and make you imagine eating this amazing food, right? So it makes sense that a lot of people have previously marketed sex toys in that way, and that way when done by men tends to objectify women,” Fine said. “But for us, we see these products as being about more than just sensual pleasure. In fact, I can’t tell you how many women don’t really make it sound like a sex act when they talk about masturbating. Sometimes it’s just a fun fast way of disconnecting, letting go, and relaxing.”

This type of approach to making sex toys more palatable to the masses has helped drive growth within the industry, which is more of a woman’s world than ever.

A brief history of sex toy marketing

When sex toys were first introduced directly to consumers in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, they were almost never marketed for what they actually were. Instead, they were sold as pseudo-medical implements. Vibrating chairs, wands, and other manually-operated devices were advertised as massagers meant to “improve blood-flow,” though where exactly that blood was supposed to be flowing to was typically left to the imagination. Later models were even marketed as weight-loss devices.

Fast forward to the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s and suddenly, there was no need to hide.

Throughout the course of the next decade, men typically ran the burgeoning sex toy — formally known as “adult novelty” — industry. The California-based Doc Johnson brand, helmed by country’s most successful pornographer, was founded in 1976 and quickly became one of the most prominent retailers.

While most sex toys being manufactured at this time were meant to be used by women or couples (with the exception of newfangled blow-up dolls and “pocket pussies”), you’d have never known it from the way these items were marketed.

“A lot of the packaging was male-directed in the 1960s and 1970s, with sexy women on it,” said Hallie Lieberman, a “dildographer” with a Ph.D. in the history of sex toys and a book on the subject due out this fall. “Even the packaging of sex toys geared towards homosexual men.”

Ads created by sex toy retailers aiming to target women were typically less pornographic, but often just as plagued by underlying sexism.

“You would see these ads that said things like, ‘I was never able to fulfill my potential as a woman,’” Lieberman says, referencing one gynecological exerciser ad from this time period. “It was about tightening [one’s] vaginal walls so she could provide a more pleasurable experience for her partner. Gender norms were changing, but that was in line with the more traditional gender norms, indicating a women’s role wasn’t really just to have her own sexual pleasure but to please her man and make sure he was enjoying sex.”

It was partly because of this that many women decided to eschew the traditional (and, frankly, sleazy) shops for the rising crop of alternatives. Lieberman says that the opening of the first boutique sex shop, The Pleasure Chest in New York, appealed to many women put off by the image the mainstream media was selling.

“We treat our customers just as though they were walking into Gimbel’s to buy a table and chairs,” one of its founders (both of which were gay men) told reporters at the time.

The Pleasure Chest was a place where women could feel comfortable to explore their sexuality in an “adult” environment that didn’t make them feel like they were among vultures — unlike adult bookstores, which were almost entirely patronized by men at this time, according to Lieberman’s research.

Other more sex-positive shops explicitly geared towards women, like Good Vibrations (the first of its kind) and Eve’s Garden, were soon to follow.

Lisa Lawless, who runs a “mom and pop” style online sex toy shop called Holistic Wisdom, has been working in this industry for almost 20 years. In her view, another significant cultural shift in the way sex toys were approached came when at-home sex toy parties similar to Tupperware parties began to take off in the 1980s. Now, sex toy saleswomen were able to reach their customers directly, and use the knowledge they took from this experience back to the male-run suppliers.

“I used to say this all the time, ‘Who are you marketing these products to when you have vibrators that have, you know, pornographic imagery all over them? You’re not marketing to women when you do that. We want more Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Bodyworks-style packaging,’” she said. “That’s when you started to see [brands] realize what it meant to be marketing these things to women.”

Today, marketing in general takes a vastly different form than it used to back in the 1960s and 1970s, when sex toy advertisements were largely limited to adult magazines. The bulk of most retailers’ marketing and promotion now occurs online. Though Google and Facebook still refuse to advertise sextech-centric content, sex toy companies commonly make use platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to build out their brands. This change allows them to do more with their voice and puts far more power in the hands of consumers, the most open-minded of which tend to relish the newfound ability to interact with these materials directly. Sex bloggers and toy reviewers in particular now serve as the primary influencers in this space, enabling them to call the shots and in their writing dictate the tone companies vying for their attention will take.

The result? Sexism — which once was inextricable from the sex toy industry — is perhaps the only taboo that remains.

Just ask sex toy entrepreneur Brian Sloan, who does not shy from controversy or using overtly sexual marketing tactics to get attention. In fact, his primary strategy in marketing his male masturbation sleeves has been to embrace it. His first major publicity grab, a “Vaginal Beauty Contest” in which the winner’s labia would be 3D-scanned for modeling a product, raised eyebrows.

Last month, he tried another bold move: creating a promotional video for his new “military-grade” masturbation sleeve, the Silicone Stroker, that aimed to highlight his product’s supposed superiority to women.

“It’s just kind of like crude humor. I don’t know how else to put it,” he said.

Sloan reached out to, among others, sex blogger and sex toy reviewer Miss Ruby and asked her to review the product. What she found on the website appalled her.

The animated promotional video that Sloan had commissioned struck her as fat-phobic, ageist and, worst of all, depicting a sexual assault. In the opening of the video (backed by a cheery jingle), a man appears to jump a bar and chase a woman, a frightened look on her face. She’s next seen blocked by him as he faces her, her legs up in the air on a table. What exactly that moment was meant to represent was ambiguous, though Sloan claims it had always been implied her was scanning her genitalia to use as a model for the product he then introduces.

Later scenes in the 45-second video were, if not as overtly questionable, filled with content that objectified women. At one point, the lyrics assure viewers that while real human women age and “go to ruin,” the Stroker will not. Sample lyric: “A man loves a woman but what he loves more is pushin’ his manhood into silicone.”

“I am unequivocally disgusted,” Miss Ruby wrote in a widely-circulated blog post on the video. “This is 2017.”

Readers and fellow reviewers shared the post, and some reached out to Sloan directly to share their thoughts on his handiwork. As a result, he changed the content of the video to more clearly show enthusiastic consent at the video’s outset.

“There’s a kind of internet bullying aspect to what they did that I don’t like,” he said. “Am I supposed to be politically correct in my marketing now? Is this like a requirement?”

“I might be a little less aggressive in my next video,” he admitted.

A similar PR fiasco occurred when Whizworx, a company that also sells male masturbators, tried using body-shaming tactics to sell their products in 2015, which resulted in negative coverage in places like the Daily Dot and Cosmopolitan after sex bloggers spread the story. Sex toy reviewers swore off working with the company by the dozens.

And then just last month, the UK-based sex toy retailer Godemiche put out Snapchat video in which an employee could be heard “shaming” pubic hair. After the incident led to comparable blowback from sex bloggers and others employed in the sex toy market, the company put out a formal apology for having been so “stupid and thoughtless.”

In the new sex toy economy — one that is more democratized than it has ever been — it’s clear that women are enjoying a new kind of power.


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