A few months ago, I was trying to get a desperately needed serotonin boost by filling my online shopping cart with novels at Indigo, a massive Canadian book retailer. After selecting a fantasy epic, the website prompted me with a few suggested purchases, including … a vibrator.
First of all: ouch. Second of all: What? But there, nestled under the Wellness tab among essential oil diffusers and gym totes, were indeed dozens of sex toys, all from the same place I buy slipper socks and Tatler magazine.
The Lelo Ora 3 vibrator—price tag $224— specifies that it simulates oral sex for women, never once actually using the words masturbate or orgasm. The Drop 3 Speed Massager, which looks exactly like a Beauty Blender, doesn’t even say where you should be using its vibration features.
CEO Heather Reisman has called Indigo a “cultural department store.” “[It’s] a name that helpfully underscores the Oprah-esque lifestyle the chain has begun pushing: safe, tasteful, stylish—and, of course, well read,” notes a 2014 Marketing magazine article. What’s unsaid here is the obvious: it is targeting an affluent, cis, female consumer. These days, along with your tastefully-designed vibrator, you can also buy vegan handbags and collagen elixirs.
Indigo is not alone. Nordstrom has a small “Feminine Products and Sexual Wellness” section, where you can purchase a vibrator that doubles as a chic necklace. Clothing retailer Nasty Gal—that of the original Girl Boss—offers a much larger selection, with everything from novelty erotic board games to faux-leather collars and leashes. Most infamously, Gwyneth Paltrow’s e-retail site Goop has sold jade eggs, a candle that smells like a vagina and vibrators. “We have always been really interested in sexual wellness as a really important pillar of wellness,” Paltrow told the New York Times last year.
It’s not a bad thing, at first glance, that sex toys are more widely available. For decades, it was unthinkable that anyone aside from able-bodied, heterosexual, cis men could enjoy sexual pleasure. And for some, buying your vibrator from a bookstore or a famous actress may seem a less intimidating prospect than going into a sex toy shop—not to mention a safer option in the middle of a global pandemic.
But this wider-spread availability isn’t necessarily a giant step forward for sex positivity. When masturbating is another thing we have to add into our wellness routine along with hot yoga and a ten-step face-care regime, it doesn’t feel progressive, and frankly, it doesn’t feel very sexy. Instead, it becomes yet another demand on our time—a goal that we have to fit in with all the others. Take a closer look at what kinds of toys are being sold, and to whom, and it also becomes clear that this sex toy proliferation is less about our sexual well-being and about selling product—while sanitizing out the actual sex.
If you were to flip open the pages of a late 19th century catalogue, you’d probably find advertisements for rectal dilators. In modern parlance: butt plugs. To evade censorship in the United States, many sex toys were sold as improbable health tools to treat a number of diseases, including asthma, while winking at their true purpose. “Dr. F.E. Young was promoting this rectal theory disease in a medical journal, trying to hawk his devices,” says Hallie Lieberman, the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy—he was eventually called out for promoting “sodomaic perversion.” “This is in 1906!”
Lieberman says that for much of the 20th century, wellness has been the halo that has led some acceptance of sex toys in the mainstream. In the 1950s, two of the major sex toy manufacturers, the Marches family and the Malorruses family, were among the earliest to have great sucess selling toys as “marital aids”—to be used between a husband and a wife. “The appeal to marriage and partnership worked because it was less threatening,” Lieberman writes in her book. And like their earlier counterparts, selling the toys this way would help each family evade obscenity charges.
It’s surprising how little this marketing tact has changed in the last century. Even progressive-minded sex stores sell toys that are wrapped up in the language of wellness, displaying wares as if you are in a horny Apple store. “You go to the modern, bourgeois sex-toy store and feel like, ‘Oh, isn’t sex one of the many aspects of a healthy, fulfilled life! How nice!,’” writes Meaghan O’Connell in The Cut. “Let’s add it to our list of things to do so that we can be self-actualized, right after ‘update my blog’ and ‘go to Zumba.’”
There is a practical reason for this, and it’s the same one Dr. Young had for promoting rectal health and early sex toy companies had for hawking marital aids: being able to advertise legally.
“All (social media) platforms make it difficult or impossible to advertise,” says Carly S, the merchandise manager at Spectrum Boutique, an online sex toy shop based in Detroit. Facebook, which owns Instagram, bans nudity and sexual activity on its platforms. Over the past year or so, Spectrum Boutique noticed several instances of its posts disappearing and users not being able to tag the shop.
They’re not the only ones to notice social media censorship. In August, sex toy company Womanizer launched it’s #UnmutePleasure campaign after Instagram deactivated it’s account. Similarly, a 2019 white paper produced by PleazeMe, a sex-positive social network, found that when contraceptives were marketed as “health devices,” the ads remained up, but were often pulled if there was any mention of sexual pleasure.
It’s not just online. In 2019, sex toy manufactuer Dame took the MTA to court for not allowing ads for its products, because the transit agency claimed it didn’t allow advertising for sexually-oriented businesses. “We’re arguing that the MTA’s arbitrary censorship is unconstitutional because they have not clearly defined the term ‘sexually-oriented business,’” CEO and co-founder Alexandra Fine told Vice. “It’s fully at their discretion who gets to use their platform, and that sort of censorship violates our first amendment rights.” Lieberman notes that on social platforms and the New York subway system, you’ll find plenty of ads for erectile dysfunction drugs. (Dame settled with the MTA in 2021, and became the first female-founded sex toy company able to advertise on the New York City subway system.)
Many of the companies that are producing sex toys are founded on progressive values. Sex toy company Unbound was started by Polly Rodriguez. “At 21, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. I went through menopause because of the radiation treatment—with no warning from my doctors,” she told Shape magazine. “I was googling to find information on what was happening to me, and I couldn’t find a place with information and products, like lubricants for vaginal dryness. I knew there was a real need for this, so I set out to create it myself.” Unbound’s website, clad in millennial pink, offers Q&As and instructions about each product. Products like Cuffies, tie and lock-free restraints, could be great for disabled kinksters or anyone else who has access needs.
But at the end of the day, these businesses are exactly that: a business. It is estimated that the sexual wellness industry will reach market value of $45 billion by 2026. To make money, these companies will sell their products in a way that has been deemed palpable—which right now, means wrapping their wares in the cashmere softness of wellness.
Is that a problem? It can be. From a purely practical lens, many mainstream retailers don’t actually explain how the toys they are selling work—leaving customers to guess what their functions might be. In contrast, at Spectrum Boutique, staff work directly with clients to help them find products that will meet their desires and needs. “You have to be able to mitigate shame and guilt around these things and be able to assure them that just because this toy didn’t work for you, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you,” says Carly.
Not all sex toys are going to work for every single person. A cis woman’s sexual needs can differ from a trans woman’s needs, for example. But rarely will Goop or Indigo’s site get into that minutiae—and while they do offer some limited bondage equipment and butt plugs, much of what is on offer is mostly for people with clitorisises. While sex toys designed with trans people in mind have become more popular in recent years, you’re unlikely to find them for sale through large retailers.
“I can tell you from personal experience that people don’t care about the products that they’re putting out there and that a lot of the time, capitalism is the bottom line,” says Carly.
But that hasn’t been the case for every store and company selling sex toys. As Lieberman notes in her book, in the 1960s and 70s, Betty Dodson promoted the idea that women didn’t need men to have orgasms, and that learning how to masturbate the way you want to was a radical act. The silicone dildo was invented by Gosnell Duncan, a parapelegic Black man who wanted to find a way for people with disabilities to enjoy sex. Duane Colglazier and Bill Rifkin, two gay men, opened the Pleasure Chest in New York City in 1971, a store that brought sex toys out of the shadowy stores catering to heterosexual cis men, and created an environment that was safe for women and LGBTQ people to express their own desires.
These pioneers showed that by taking control of pleasure was a political act—it was a demonstration of owning your sexuality and who you are as a person.
“The politization of sex toys, has that gone away? Has capitalism kind of shaved off the rough edges of that?” says Lieberman. “Absolutely.” She points out that while many cis, female celebrities have become spokespeople for sex toy companies, its rarer to see trans or nonbinary people take on the same role—a move which would make a much bigger political stand. “People who really feel like outsiders, people who are really trying to figure out their sexuality, those people need sex toys as well,” says Lieberman.
Presenting sex toys as wellness for well-heeled women isn’t revolutionary—it’s another attempt to dictate what is acceptable sexual pleasure. What we lose sight of when sexual pleasure is commodified is that, in fact, who gets to experience sexual pleasure, and who controls sexual pleasure, is political.