Can you buy your way to good sex?
The business of sex is booming, with new toys and retreats costing upwards of £10,000. Are we entering a 21st century sextopia? Or is kinky capitalism just cashing in?
When Lana spent £229 on a vibrator, she thought she’d “lost her mind”.
Working in admin, she didn’t have a lot of money to be frivolous with. Buying a new pair of work shoes usually sparked an internal debate over whether she could afford them, let alone a swanky, incredibly expensive vibrator.
But Lelo’s The Soraya Wave had popped up on her feed via an Instagram ad. For weeks after she took a quick peek at it, the sex toy brand burrowed deep into her browser cookies and followed her around the internet. It was the promise of a “wave crashing climax” that sold the 26-year-old.
“I had to buy it in the end. I’d never had a really nice sex toy before and I’d never orgasmed with a partner before either,” she explains. “Maybe this is what I needed.”
Lana and her boyfriend got down to it fast, the excitement of removing the new toy’s packaging enough to get their sexual cogs turning. But the couple soon felt shorthanded when she still didn’t achieve orgasm. “The toy basically promises orgasms,” says Lana of their disappointment. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”
Lana’s not alone. Polly* is a 29-year-old camgirl and OnlyFans creator who bought a financially eye-watering yoni wand (for the uninitiated, that’s a sex toy made from crystals). It set her back about £80.
“I can’t remember where it was from because, considering my job, I buy a lot of sex toys,” she says of a work expense that was at least, we hope, tax deductible. “That’s why I wasn’t too bothered about the price of this one. Toys are kind of a business investment as well as fun for me.”
Normally, Polly doesn’t mind if a sex toy doesn’t give her exactly what she wants, because she can always use it for camera performances.
“And since my viewers tip me when they like what they see, I usually make the money I spend on toys back anyway,” she says. But the yoni wand knocked her for six, in a bad way.
“It was so horrible and hard. I couldn’t work out how I was supposed to relax with it inside me, let alone pleasure myself. I was fuming. You can forgive a £5 bullet for not exciting you, but £80 for no orgasm and, actually, a quite uncomfortable and difficult time using it? It’s a joke.”
The last few years have been pretty big for sex (yes, even bigger than before). It’s erupted into pop culture, from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP and Lil Nas X’s sexy queer performances, to Euphoria’s obsession with fucking, Sex Education’s entire premise and Pam & Tommy’s anamatronic cock.
It’s climaxed its way into big business, too, with sex toys now being flogged for up to £10,000. In a move that retail analysts Edited credit to the sex-positive movement, sex toys, gadgets and gurus have now moved out of the seedy back-rooms of adult shops. Now they’re out in the wild, nestled comfortably in the high street, displayed proudly by supermarkets and even fast fashion stores. Sixty-five per cent of women now own some kind of sex toy and, overall, we’re spending more money on sex toys than ever before.
The pandemic is thought to have accelerated this embrace. After all, could there have been a more perfect time to buy a vibrator than when you’re stuck at home with nothing to do? In the two months following the global onset of Covid-19, sex toy retailers Adam and Eve reported a 30 per cent increase in online sales.
Meanwhile, online sales for Wow Tech Group – which owns We-Vibe and Womanizer, and is now merged with Lovehoney – grew by 200 per cent in 2020 compared with the previous year.
Before our very eyes, we’re witnessing tech giants capitalise on the hard work of sex educators, workers and creators, using the current wave of sex positivity to lead us to where we are today. That is, a capitalist sextopia, where we can choose from thousands of high-spec sex toys with multiple functions, speeds, shapes and outcomes, and have them delivered to our door the next day.
And the more the industry grows, the more ridiculous (and expensive) sex products are becoming.
The last few years have seen the arrival of pricey aroma candles, sex retreats, 1:1 classes that teach you how to orgasm, pills and potions to increase libido, and even apps that replace verbal sexual communication and promise to optimise our orgasms.
Many of these high-end sex products promise to help you skip the hard part and head straight to the orgasms in exchange for cash. One sex retreat company assures that the experience will be “Cathartic. Transformational. Dynamic”, suggesting their trip is the “next step” for couples who have struggled with “infidelity or disconnect”. Lelo implores you to invest in “everyday magic” as it promotes a £10,000 toy, because “you can’t put a price on pleasure” – no caveats included.
How much will investing in these sexual innovations set you back? Well, Goop’s notoriously confusing and overpriced “date night box” comes in at £195, a gold-plated bondage set will drain you of £1350 and sex retreats are going for £15,000. If you were to grab one of each in the quest to improve your sexual wellness, you’d need a small loan of around £15,750.
That could also get you a Volkswagen Up or a Skoda Fabia, by the way. But unless you’re the lead character in Titane, I guess cars can’t make you cum.
This boom is lining the pockets of sex tech CEOs pretty nicely: the sexual wellness industry is expected to reach the ridiculously high value of $40.5 billion within three years. To some, this represents a much-needed cultural shift that moves sexual pleasure from taboo to norm. But sex being “normalised” shouldn’t hinge on its economic value.
There’s a deeper problem with relying on sex accessories and tools as a quick fix.
Selling better sex will always rely on us having bad sex, so no business can ever truly be the sex-positive saviour it’s packaged as in Instagram ads. Plus, a lot of products are marketed around sexual “problems”, like low libido, a lack of sex drive or sex finishing quickly – which, in actuality, are not really “problems” at all. The issues these products promise to solve may be frustrating, but that doesn’t mean they’re not normal. Toys and other accessories aren’t supposed to be quick-fix for bad sex.
Despite 68 per cent of people saying bad sex is a dealbreaker in a relationship, a recent survey showed that over half of millennial women are not enjoying sex at all. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that people are dropping hundreds on swanky, weapons-grade sex toys that promise pleasure.
But is spending loads of cash on sex gadgets to get you there faster going to work in the long-run? Probably not. Sex toys should be a “condiment of sex”, as Jess Wilde, a sex expert for E4’s The Sex Clinic, puts it. “In just the same way that a dollop of ketchup can add extra zing to a meal, sex toys have the power to increase your pleasure during intimacy.”
Put simply, sex toys should be an addition to sex that’s already good, used to heighten those existing pleasures.
While it’s great that sex toys are more commonplace (often offering a sexual lifeline to those with disabilities) and people are investing in their sex lives more than ever, Wilde says that “investment” doesn’t have to equate to money. “Sex toys cost money – money which not everyone has to spare. And you don’t need to spend money to enjoy a rounded, thrilling sex life.”
Connecting with your partner and working out ways to heighten pleasure is more important than making provocative purchases. As a sex coach, Wilde encourages couples to invest in their sex life by spending time talking, researching and learning more about their bodies.
“Communication is the key,” she advises. “Not only can talking about sex give you more information as to what your partner likes and dislikes during sex and improve your connection, but the act of talking can also be foreplay. Sex starts in the mind, and one of the best ways to activate the mind is with an engaging conversation about sex.”
So while sex toys, courses and aroma candles are certainly nice to have, connected, communicative and creative sex is unbeatable. Sex is unique, nuanced and different within every individual. Throwing money at an aspect of sex you’d prefer to experience differently won’t work.
If you’re curious about the functions that fancy toys and accessories can provide but don’t have any cash to spare, there are natural ways to replicate those feelings.
“Vibrators and clitoral suction toys are super-popular toys, but they both try to emulate things that the body already does,” explains Wilde. “Try humming while you perform oral sex and, for pleasuring a clitoris, experiment with gentle sucking and tongue-flicking.”
The way the world has embraced sex is incredibly exciting, but it seems a shame to allow capitalism to grasp one of the most human experiences we have. It’s already tainted everything else. While a new sex toy, doll, robot or whatever else the sex industry has up its sleeve may seem more exciting than your Hinge hookups, they’re not they be all or end all.
As a sex journalist, I’ve been sent every sex toy imaginable (except that £10,000 one, funnily enough), but I still regularly reach for the same couple of vibrators I’ve been using for years. Having used G‑spot vibrators, clit suction toys and even gone to some of those pricey retreats, I can confidently say the best thing I ever did for my sex life was talk to my partners. No money required.
Remember: some of the best shags are born from a night in with a Lidl microwave meal and a quick fuck on the sofa.