Sex Toys Have Never Been Just for Single Women
Once upon a time, it was widely believed that sex toy shoppers were exclusively single women seeking a "battery-operated boyfriend." This impression was born of sexist marketing campaigns of yore, and sustained by pop culture portrayals. Think of Charlotte from "Sex and the City," who once started ditching her friends after she bought a rabbit vibrator and didn't put it down for days.
While advertisers may have once set their sights on this specific demographic, unpartnered women have never been the only group interested in sex toys. In a 2010 study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, nearly 44 percent of heterosexual men reported having used a vibrator in their lives, mostly during encounters with women. Plus, more than three-quarters of queer men also say they've used sex toys before.
Regardless of orientation, much sex toy usage during partnered sex likely occurs in the context of a committed relationship. Nicola Döring, a research professor at the Ilmenau University of Technology, explained in an academic paper that this is likely due to factors such as long-term partners feeling a "greater need to overcome routine sex," and being "more comfortable in revealing their sexual needs."
Get a room! And a toy?
Thanks to shifting social mores and the advent of social media, awareness around who actually uses sex toys is expanding at a breakneck pace. It's nearly a new norm to hear of couples shopping for and using sex toys together.
By the time I was hired at the New York sex shop where I kicked off my career, I had to be taught to let only one customer into the dressing room at a time, because of how often horny couples would steal a chance to have sex inside them. This was around 2016, in the midst of "Fifty Shades of Grey" mania, and our new collective willingness to be "horny on main."
It was a singular cultural moment, as that bestselling erotic novel and its film adaptation suddenly had everyone buzzing about BDSM and calling themselves kinky. The story's plot called for showing its central couple with an arsenal of pleasure-enhancing (or pain-enhancing) products, and before long, the world wanted to follow suit.
Sex toy companies were quick to take notice. A representative from German toymaker Fun Factory said they have seen a sharp uptick in sales of harnesses and double dildos in recent years, and that they also "expect a rise in demand for penis-focused toys this year."
The message from consumers is clear: All kinds of people like sex and kink toys, regardless of gender, sexuality or relationship status. In response to the surging interest in partner-focused toys, Fun Factory has newly released the Sharelite, a lightweight redesign of its classic double dildo, the Share, which is meant to be worn without a harness.
That aspect of the design is a nod to the fact that making products suitable for a wide range of people—and potentially two at once—requires careful consideration and creative thinking. It's a task that many other larger companies decline to take on, but for independent creators, it's second nature.
Matt Rand of Atlanta, Georgia, founded Rand Leather in 2012, where he, as the company's sole artisan, produces fetishwear, including harnesses, strap-ons and restraints. Rand launched his business in part to address the needs of customers who were overweight and/or gender nonconforming, which were going unmet by major manufacturers.
Culturally speaking, said Rand, "we don't believe fat people are sexually desirable. Therefore, why bother making things for them? Same thing with gender—our culture has very rigid roles about who wants [to wear] what based on assigned sex at birth." As such, he continued, marketers and manufacturers ignore everyone outside their prescribed binaries.
To understand how he could best serve these neglected customers, Rand once conducted a survey asking about their struggles with their current strap-ons. Now, Rand's strap-on is exclusively made-to-measure, so that the harness is both "adjustable and relative to body size," offering access to as many pairings as possible.
Sometimes, even closer cooperation with a client is needed to get a product for partnered sex just right. Woodworker DeAndre' Towns of Lumberjill Lovecrafts, also based in Georgia, sculpts dildos and other insertables by hand, many of which end up as gifts for the client's partner.
Such commissions are "fairly common," Towns said. "Sometimes it's some simple personalization, like engraving their initials or anniversary date in. Other times, it's something original that they designed on their own, or a design we collaborate on." Either way, it's a labor of, and for, love.
The new normal
When I worked at the sex shop, I loved helping couples who entered together. Some were experienced, knowing exactly what they wanted and where to find it, practically skipping out of the store once they did. But many were anxious newcomers, clearly curious but eager for assistance.
I haven't sold sex toys in a while now, but I imagine there are even more of the second type of couple than before. Since my dildo-slinging days, the visibility of sex toys has grown beyond pop culture (like the "Broad City" plotline that made the discussion of pegging ubiquitous) and into the world of big business, as demonstrated by Sephora's recent collaboration with two vibrator brands.
In this rapidly evolving social climate around sex, anyone not already using sex toys with their partner might increasingly be tempted to consider it.