It’s official: the use of sex toys is on the rise. And it’s little wonder why, considering that in 2020 most of us who weren’t in a committed relationship had only ourselves for a sexual partner. Within this increase in use, the category progressing most rapidly has to do with female pleasure—in other words, toys made for the vulva and the vagina, including vibrators made for the clitoris, suction toys and dildos that stimulate the G spot. Even before the pandemic left us to our own devices (hey-o!), these toys accounted for more than 59 percent of the market share in 2019. Their popularity is due in large part to the current positive discourse on pleasure— especially online—led by educators who are breaking taboos and democratizing everyone’s satisfaction, regardless of gender, body type, preferences or orientation. Marketing pros are also helping to change the conversation surrounding sex toys, staying clear of the pornographic imagery that was prominent in the past and instead presenting items with messages of self-love, health, self-care and the importance of an enjoyable sex life. These days, almost everyone wants to (and can!) explore the pleasures of innovative, more thoughtfully designed toys, in part because an area that was previously considered niche is now going mainstream.
In a global market worth more than $25 billion, it’s companies led by women and non-binary people—new players entering the pleasure game—that have gained attention, and they’re climbing the ladder of this competitive world at full speed. With good reason: Who better to understand women’s and non-binary people’s pleasure? “When you can test your product on your own body, it changes everything!” says Alexandra Fine, president and founder of Dame, a New York-based company whose sex toys are made to enhance intimacy and sexual experiences for users as well as empower them. “You can adapt your design and its functionalities according to not only what gives you the most pleasure but also the way it fits into your routine and your day-to-day. Sex toys are now a part of our lifestyle, and they should be thought of that way.” According to Fine, a sex toy is more of an everyday item now rather than a luxury one used only on special occasions. “I personally use my vibrator every day—just like my toothbrush!” she says with a laugh. “It can be gold-plated or diamond-encrusted, but it won’t brush my teeth any better. And it’s the same thing with my vibrator: I want a product that is aesthetically pleasing but also easy to use and convenient—and one that works, depending on my desires and needs.”
This kind of statement resonates with Isabelle Deslauriers, president and founder of Désirables, a Montreal-based company that specializes in luxury intimate products—specifically, ceramic dildos—and values mindfulness and well-being. “If I were creating a toy for people with a penis, I would make sure to have someone with a penis on my team,” she says. “Isn’t that logical? And yet in the past, the people who created sex toys for women were mostly men. It’s not surprising, then, that most things coming out of factories were phallocentric and focused on the spec sheet and the engine’s horsepower. Those products were pornographic or infantilizing. Just think about the little butterflies and bunnies that adorned some old-school vibrators. Today, the toys we see on the market, made for and by people with a vagina and vulva, are more ergonomic, more aesthetic and more diverse, and they’re centred on the positive mindset that surrounds masturbation and pleasure. Even the packaging is different, prettier, more luxurious. The market is transforming itself to satisfy the diversity of users.”
Both Fine and Deslauriers agree that their journey into the world of sex toys has been paved with challenges and obstacles. The biggest culprit? Good old sexism. It’s not easy to rise in the female-pleasure industry when the higher-ups making both the marketing and financial decisions are men. “At tech fairs, men have been presenting sex robots and pornographic video games for years, winning awards and receiving financing for their work,” says Deslauriers. “Web giants like PornHub are led by men, and they have a lot of money. But when a woman decides to create a product centred on female pleasure, a barrier goes up. We struggle to find funding. People are increasingly open to the topic, but institutions remain conservative. It’s the same thing when it comes to corporate insurance or advertisers and their ‘ethics codes.’ On Instagram, for instance, you can post hypersexualized photos of women to sell just about anything, but don’t even think about discussing pleasure, the clitoris or tools that help women take their sexuality into their own hands. To this day, those remain huge mountains to move.”
These innovators (along with many more just like them) have persevered in spite of these obstacles so they can offer top-quality, safe products made to give women and non-binary people orgasms with a big O. What’s more, current products on the market offer cutting-edge and ergonomic design, luxurious looks and the latest technologies. They’re increasingly safe, crafted with materials that pose no danger to our body—or our planet—and, on top of that, they’re becoming more and more inclusive. “Before, toys were categorized in sex shops,” says Henri-June Pilote, who spent many years working in a sex shop before becoming a specialist in LGBTQIA2S+ sexual health and education. They are also executive director at AlterHéros, a Montreal-based non-profit that helps foster the development of individuals in relation to their sexual orientation, gender identity and sexuality. “You’d find sections for women, men and gay men, and people would usually stick to their assigned section,” they say. “That has changed over the past few years. We’ve broken down those barriers, and I think it’s a matter of not only [a different] generation but also education. Straight men are now shamelessly interested in anal sex, women want gender-neutral products rather than candy-pink toys and people from all walks of life are interested in BDSM. It’s fun to see people trying new things.” Pilote also salutes the growing number of initiatives that focus on trans and queer people’s pleasure. “With my platform, I wanted people from the LGBTQIA2S+ community to have access to products that suit them,” they add. “I realized that sex toys have a lot of power; they can help people combat gender dysphoria and find sexual euphoria. I’m happy that over the past three or four years, the community’s sex-toy knowledge has exploded—from how they’re used to how they’re made—just like the diversity of toys available has. We’ve come a long way!”
Nox Shop, a Montreal-based boutique co-founded and managed by Amy Johnson, has been riding this wave. “I think that before the offering was diversified—before the industry was taken over by women, non-binary people and queer people—a lot of people felt left out, unincluded and misrepresented in this space, which was definitely not accessible to all,” says Johnson, who offers non-gendered toys that suit all preferences and budgets. Now, boutiques like Nox are making the shopping experience more inviting and inclusive because they are focused on communication, education and positive sexuality. According to Johnson, we owe the destigmatization of toy play in large part to social media, which Nox’s team and their peers use to raise awareness. “Just think about the language surrounding sex toys and how it’s constantly evolving to include as many people as possible,” she says. “The words we use are increasingly less gendered, we try to avoid false promises like ‘the best orgasm in the whole wide world in three minutes max’ and we centre the conversation on getting to know your body, your desires and the sensations you find enjoyable. Sex-toy marketing is also more focused on solo pleasure, whereas before we often focused on couples. It normalizes taking charge of your own pleasure.”
Breaking taboos surrounding masturbation, satisfaction and toys as tools for a more enjoyable sex life is good for everyone. And it looks like, finally, this pleasure will truly be available to all.
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