Why Are Sex Toy Designs so Boring?
Step into your local sex shop and you'll likely see shelves filled with dildos, fleshlights and entire rows of pink and purple vibrators. The toys "for him" will likely be black, macho and aggressive; and for contrast, toys "for her" will be packaged like a bachelorette party goodie bag.
There are some wildly creative outliers—more on those later—but when it comes to imaginative sex toy design, is this really the best we can do?
Now more than ever, sex toys are big business
In 2021, the global market for sex toys was valued at $30.48 billion, and it's expected to keep growing. Despite this popularity, there's still scarce research on sexual products, their users and uses, and their outcomes, according to a 2018 article published in Sexologies. As a result, we often see a cycle of gender-specific products that focus on tried-and-tested models as opposed to aiming for innovation.
"The sex toy industry has long been criticized as an outfit of clueless, male-led designs that attempt to poorly close the orgasm gap by offering what they think women want," explained Peter Ovsonka, founder of U.S.-based sex toy brand Zalo. In his eyes, most mainstream products prioritize penetration and the most powerful stimulation possible, which he described as "masculine thinking."
This description checks out. A key explanation for the orgasm gap—the term for statistics showing cisgender men orgasm way more frequently during intercourse than cis women—is that plenty of guys think most people with a vulva can come through penetration alone, which research has indicated is untrue. Powerful vibrations don't guarantee an orgasm, either; in some cases, it can just feel like your clit is being sandpapered off.
When it came to creating Zalo, Ovsonka relied on focus groups and extensive questioning. For design, he had three main tick boxes: art, pleasure and function.
"Good products should start from the perspective of the target market and anatomical design," he explained. "A good sex toy should not only improve someone's sex life, but also show respect for their needs."
Zalo isn't the only brand doing things differently. United Kingdom-based Phreak Club creates ethereal, almost extraterrestrial designs, which come in endless color combinations. Want to have sex with some kind of mythical appendage? Perhaps you're hoping to put a silicone banana inside yourself? Largely, it's indie brands making these dreams a reality.
Lack of research leads to a dearth of creativity
In 2017, Lotte Harenslak, a student at the University of Amsterdam, wrote a thesis on the rise of "realistic" vibrators, for which she surveyed 233 cisgender women older than 18. Although the majority preferred "realistic" sex robots, Harenslak found "applying skin color to a vibrator elicits more negative reactions."
Other studies of vibrators and sex toys focus on their use in heterosexual relationships, their popularity among queer male communities and cultural attitudes, but there's little to no academic information on what gender nonconforming people might want from sex toys, or what could be done to diversify sex toy design.
There are some truly deranged, horny creations out there, although they usually slip under the radar. Few people know this better than Matty Atticus, founder of the wildly popular @dildonightmares Instagram account.
"In terms of sex toys not being creative, there's definitely a ton of the same things being made over and over again," he said. "But then again…there are so many sex toys out there! There are so many creative designs and functions that a lot of people just may not know exist. Do all of them knock it out of the park? No. Would I recommend all of them? No. But they do exist."
There are some truly deranged, horny creations out there, although they usually slip under the radar.
After a decade of working in and around the adult industry, Atticus started a role with a BDSM e-commerce store a few years ago and instantly fell in love.
"I thought I was pretty seasoned when I started working in the sex toy industry, but let me tell you…I was humbled," he joked.
Dildo Nightmares was borne of Atticus' desire to show off his most gloriously unhinged discoveries. The feed is now exemplary of what happens when the boundaries of sex toy design are exploded.
Atticus' goal is never to "mock anyone's desires," but to "share how insanely unique and specific some toys are." From mutant foot-hand sex toys to bubble tea fleshlights, there's some truly wild aesthetic variation out there.
It's not all about aesthetics, though. "Boring" design isn't just about recycled colorways and unimaginative functions, it's about uncritically reinforcing the idea that only cis folks use sex toys.
Trans folks have been "hacking" sex toys in their own creative ways for years; Atticus implored designers to follow their lead and think outside the gender binary.
"I'm dying for some creativity from bigger sex toy companies that are still perpetuating the cycle of sex toys being heavily gendered and only designed for cisgender people," he said. "Cisgender folks are not the only ones who f--k, turns out."