Is the wellness industry taking the sex out of sex toys?
Sex toys are cleaning up their act and repositioning themselves within the beauty and health sphere. But is it coming at the cost of those in the sex industry?
In February, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “wellness” brand Goop came out with its first sex toy. Although the company had long sold a curated selection of sexual wellness accoutrements, from organic lube to sex pillows (er, it just goes under your back and costs 70 quid), the pastel coloured “Double-Sided Wand Vibrator” (also retailing at a hefty £70) was the first toy created by the brand – an attempt, Paltrow said, to do something “perhaps a little more intellectual” than what the industry has offered in the past. “So many vibrators look hypersexualised,” she said in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re either really phallic or they look like something you would buy in a sex shop.”
This sentiment, an attempt to distance your brand from the traditional establishments, language and aesthetics of the sex industry, is one that has been cropping up a lot lately as sex toys are repositioned in the same holistic – and retail – space as beauty, health and fitness.
Terms like “seedy” and “overly-eroticised” are frequently thrown around. Vibrator brand Smile Makers argued that buying sex toys should be free from shame and the stigma of sex shops. Jessica Richards, former head of beauty and wellness at Free People and responsible for the company’s “Self Love” category, which stocks a selection of sex toys and lubes, said the category wasn’t “about sex” but “taking wellness to a whole other place”.
Over the last few years, the global sex toy market has blown up as part of the overall growth of the wider sexual wellness trend. In 2015, sex toys were an £11 billion industry. By 2020, that number had grown to £24 billion and is expected to reach £38 billion by 2028. You can now buy sex toys everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Holland and Barrett, and as a culture, we are finally starting to speak more openly about sexuality – particularly queer and female pleasure, which for too long has been shrouded in stigma and uncatered for by the industry.
Sex toys are becoming normalised, even glamourised, by this new generation of brands. By positioning themselves in the beauty sphere, adopting the sanitised language of wellness and the pastel colours of Glossier, and emphasising the health benefits of orgasms (including boosting immunity, clearing skin and healthier hair, according to neuroscientist and sex therapist Dr Nan Wise), sex toys are remaking themselves as palatable to the mainstream.
Now, they’re commercially acceptable and accessible to women who have felt intimidated or uncomfortable by the fetishised image of the sex shop in the public imagination. But are these efforts to clean up the image of sex toys coming at the cost of alienating and disparaging those in the rest of the sex industry? Are we really removing stigma around sex or merely displacing the shame onto fetish and kink communities, in the process creating a dichotomy between “respectable” wellness sex and “seedy” erotic sex?
“I can appreciate the desire to get away from the idea that sex toys are something you buy exclusively in dimly-liy porn DVD shops, but for some people there’s this overreaction to separate yourself from that,” says Zoë Ligon, sex educator, author of Carnal Knowledge, founder of sex positive sex toy store Spectrum Boutique and self-proclaimed “dildo duchess”.
There’s an element of respectability politics present here that Ligon likens to an idea that sex workers and activists Andre Shakti and Tilly Lawless have written about, known as the “whorearchy”. This suggests that within the sex industry, certain work is stigmatised while other types of work are seen as more acceptable. “Perpetuating negativity towards one form of sex work is also harming you, so why would you do it? It reminds me of these wholesome, virtuous brands. Market yourself however you need to but don’t throw other styles of being sexual under the bus.”
Having said that, while Ligon, as a young female owner of an online sex shop, credits and respects the brick-and-mortar stores that paved the way for her, “the truth is that most sex toy companies historically were run by old white men who were designing toys based on their ideas of what gives a vulva pleasure” – and she welcomes the much-needed diversifying of the teams behind the products.
These female founders are innovating the industry, creating toys outside of typical shapes and silhouettes, winning awards for doing so. MysteryVibe, which has a female co-founder, Stephanie Alys, won multiple awards for its Crescendo sex toy, which is billed as the “world’s first truly unisex and universal vibrator.” As has the world’s first hands-free clit vibrator, Eva II, from female-founded company Dame. “Opening up possibilities and options for your audience, instead of prescribing them, is the way you give people the most agency and autonomy over their own sex lives which, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about,” Ligon says.
It is worth noting, however, that these possibilities also tend to come with a higher price tag. With price points often upwards of £100 – and reaching insane highs of £10,000 – it can sometimes seem like respectability is being bought by targeting the approval of middle class women. Meanwhile, those people without large amounts of disposable income are now being priced out of this newly artisanal, luxury category.
Rather than excluding and alienating people, the aim of Smile Makers is to enable more people to enter the category, says brand director Cécile Gasnault. Significantly, two out of three shoppers on the website are first-time users of sex toys, and products prices start at a much more affordable £19.95. Through its use of humour, pastel colour scheme, and approachable tone, Gasnault argues that the brand isn’t disparaging certain sexual preferences but merely attempting to broaden the possibilities of sexual expression, extending the reach of conversations around sex toys.
“We have been given a very standardised script to talk about, and show sex. Specific colours. Specific visual elements. Specific language elements,” she says. “There are many more expressions of sex, and taking a wellness approach to sex toys does not take sex out of the equation – as long as sex remains the topic of conversation.”
Emphasising the health benefits of orgasms, Gasnault continues, doesn’t diminish the pleasure side of sex. However, it does help deconstruct the idea that there is something wrong with sexual pleasure, and the brand accompanies this with masturbation tips, erotic stories and anatomy explanations on its website.
Indie erotic filmmaker Erika Lust believes that rather than disparaging and shaming the BDSM and kink communities, the new breed of sex toy is helping to normalise all self-pleasure. “I totally understand the concern, but it seems to me that mainstream brands are actually spreading awareness that ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sex, ‘reputatable’ and ‘non-reputable’ sex doesn’t exist – but that all sexual practices are valid if they happen within a frame of consent, awareness, and mutual respect,” she says.
This influx of new brands has diversified the variety of needs being met by their products. In 2019, Wild Flower launched the first non-binary sex toy, “Enby”, a vibrator “designed to please a variety of bodies”, while this month Womanizer dropped a bio-degradable sex toy for all those sustainably-minded. Chakrubs’ crystal and quartz dildos aim to stimulate your chakras as you masturbate, and Wet For Her makes toys specifically for lesbian couples.
Ultimately, until society is able to accept sexuality and self-pleasure and not, as Ligon puts it, “brush it off into shadowy corners”, sex toy brands must continue to adapt and conform to mainstream culture – whether that’s using euphemisms like “personal massager” to comply with advertising regulations, the language of wellness to appeal to those taught to be ashamed of masturbation, or subtle designs for places where sex toys are still illegal, from Indonesia to the state of Alabama.
In the meantime, this new breed of wellness sex brand is just offering another flavour of pleasure. Both Ligon and Gasnault agree there is room enough for all the sexuality brands in the world.
“A small bullet vibrator bought in a beauty retailer can be the first step for someone to really explore their sexuality and visit a sex shop for more options or try out BDSM,” as Gasnault says. “What’s important is that everyone feels empowered to start exploring and take care of their sexual wellbeing on their own terms.”
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