Toy or Health Aide

For the past sixty years or so the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of sex toys have existed under the auspices of the adult novelty industry. There have always been “massagers” sold through mail order catalogs, department stores, and pharmacies. But these products tend to be marketed for overall health, never explicitly for sexual health let alone sexual pleasure. Sex toys are unique in that they are marketed for the sole purpose of pleasure or sexual connection. As a result, they have remained on the retail and consumer margins; taboo or at the very least non-mainstream. That is, until now. The mainstreaming or legitimizing of sex toys may have begun with the opening of feminist sex stores in the 1970s (shops like Eve’s Garden in New York and Good Vibrations in San Francisco) which tied sexual pleasure to political emancipation. But a much larger, and significantly less political, change is afoot. Sex toys are being re-branded as sexual health devices. The effort is being spearheaded by a few multinational corporations that have seen the light, in the form of the huge profit margins and relatively easy sell that sex toys represent, and want to make these products palatable not only to the broadest buying public but also to their sometimes conservative shareholders who can, presumably, make trouble for them if they want to. Durex was the first brand from a major multinational corporation to enter the sex toy fray. They started in 2003 with a line of lubricants, but quickly moved into vibrators in 2004. Trojan was quick to follow suit with a smaller line of products. And most recently, in 2008, Phillips introduced vibrators into what they described as a new “Relationship Care” product category (to accompany the always profitable Dental Care and Hair Care categories). It isn’t just manufacturers who are seeing dollar signs in the sexual health marketing message. In 2010 a New York gynecologist began a publicity campaign claiming to be the first doctor to sell vibrators directly to patients. Sex Toy or Sexual Health Device Should we welcome this re-branding? Are sex toys the same thing as sexual health devices, and is it a good thing for us that big business and the medical profession are getting into the sex toy business? Let’s consider some of the pros and cons: Pros: Whatever you call them, sex toys can be a lot of fun. They can be a great way to learn about your body and yourself, and they do things none of us can do on our own. Anything that makes sex toys more accessible, and reduces anxiety about wanting to try sex toys is arguably a good thing. Sexual pleasure is part of sexual health. You can’t really separate them. If the only thing your doctor ever talks to you about is disease and reproduction, it’s easy to forget that sexual pleasure is an important part of sexual health and overall health. Having your doctor talk to you about something that’s pleasure based helps develop a bigger picture of sexual health, one that benefits us all. Corporations and governments are constantly reminding us that competition is “healthy” and brings greater choice for consumers. More competition might mean more choice and better quality. Whether this is true (and I’m skeptical), one thing that can be said is that the sex toy industry has been improved by the number of small and mid-size manufacturers who have come from outside the industry. Better quality toys, less offensive and misleading packaging are just two of the ways consumers are benefiting from the lateral growth of the sex toy industry. Cons: When the medical system addresses sexual pleasure it’s still taking place inside a medical model framework. Instead of expanding the definition of sexual health to include sexual pleasure, it’s more likely that the result will be narrowing a definition of what is acceptable or healthy sexual pleasure. Some forms of pleasure will be marginalized (or pathologized) and others will be held up as examples of the “right” way to feel sexual pleasure. So too with big business. As they enter the “sexual pleasure market” they will bring their own way of creating meaning, and bring their considerable marketing budgets to bare on an undereducated somewhat fearful public. Just as the marketing of Viagra has influenced how we talk about sexuality, so too will the marketing of vibrators by multinational corporations. Part of the power of sex toys come from the radical nature of doing something for yourself, on your own terms, in your own time. If sex toys become just another accessory to a healthy, “successful” life, and if they are integrated into those things we must do, we risk losing the radical, potentially transformative, power of sex toys. Of course there isn’t a right or wrong answer here. The way we talk about sex is always changing. It didn’t start with pornography, or Bill Clinton, or Viagra. And once enough of these big companies get on board, the way we think of sex toys will change too. It’s arbitrary to think of change as good or bad, it’s just inevitable. What seems most important is that we prepare ourselves for the marketing onslaught, and we get the information we need to act in thoughtful ways that result in the kinds of sexual pleasure and health we choose for ourselves.