With the rise of the wellness industry and women taking ownership of their pleasure, adult toy companies are changing their angle.
As one does during a global pandemic, I found myself on Urban Outfitters’s site for the first time in a couple of years. Since my last time on the site, I noticed there was a new section under the “Lifestyle” tab called Sexual Wellness.
The Urban Outfitters of my teenage years was no stranger to risqué (and, in some cases, blatantly offensive) merchandise, but sex toys were new for them. Their offerings include several products from the Instagram-aesthetic sex toy brand Smile Makers, a dildo made to target the g-spot called “The Tennis Coach,” and the oft-buzzed about Womanizer Liberty.
The trendy retailer isn’t the first one to frame women’s sex toys in the context of wellness, but they point towards a larger trend—the wellness industry’s ever-growing umbrella of what falls into their category. From herbal remedies to a repackaged version of diet culture; sex toys and sexual health-related products are an addition to that umbrella in recent years.
Take Goop’s Jade Egg and Moon Juice’s Sex Dust, for example—they’re relatively young brands with a focus on ‘wellness’ (and both have been the subjects of criticism from their use of pseudoscience) that appeal to the sensibilities of well-off, white Millennial women. Today’s sexual wellness products tout ownership of one’s pleasure and female empowerment; they conjure an image of a self-assured woman with one fist in the air and an eco-conscious vibrator in the other. But it wasn’t always this way.
I talked to Debra Petersen, Director of Purchasing for Farvilla Megastores, and she said the shift in marketing women’s sex toys in a more wellness-focused, feminist-friendly light is relatively new.
“I got started in this industry in 1995,” Petersen said. “Back then, women’s sex toys weren’t marketed for women to buy. It was for men.”
Petersen explained that prior to the 2000s, the majority of women’s sex toys were purchased by men for their wives or girlfriends. Packaging was often brightly colored and risqué to grab the attention of straight men.
“Once we got into the 2000s, there was a shift. We started seeing more couples going into sex stores together,” she said. “So, we adjusted. We started doing incremental changes, like hiring educators who talked about things like female pleasure.”
What really catalyzed the shift in marketing, Petersen said, was when Real Housewife of Atlanta Kandi Burruss launched her own toy line. This caused what she called a “boom” in women showing up to sex stores, with or without their partners. Then came social media and the rise of more aesthetically pleasing packaging.
“What we’re seeing now is more subtle packaging, softer colors. You’re not seeing naked women on the packages of a woman’s sex toy, because companies are now trying to appeal to the sensibilities of women,” Petersen said. “We’re also seeing demand for education about sexual wellness.”
Another change to women’s sex toy marketing is the use of influencers to promote a brand’s products. From singer Lily Allen’s collab with Womanizer to create a vibrator in her name to Australian Instagram influencer promoting toys to her 200,000 followers, who are predominantly Millennial and Gen Z women.
The Lily Allen edition of the Womanizer Liberty nods towards the wellness industry by describing itself as “The brightest and boldest way to celebrate self-love.”
Petersen says that the future of women’s sex toys is all about sophisticated tech and inclusivity.
“You know, I only see things getting better. We’re getting more high-tech, app-controlled products for women and couples, more brands that talk about body positivity,” she said. “The conversation of women’s sex toys and pleasure is just more open and honest and healthy.”
She’s right. As brands recognize women’s desires and cater to an increasingly socially conscious market, consumers will start seeing toys that are just as innovative as they are inclusive. I don’t know what type of toys I’ll see the next time I browse Urban Outfitters’ wellness section — but I am certain the industry is evolving at a faster pace than ever.