The cost of commodifying pleasure

Sex toys are aesthetic, available and inaccessible

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

It was blue, sparkly, worn like a Finger Monster and possibly bought at a gas station. The first vibrator I tried was a whining hum compared to the roar of the second.

Pastel purple, dual-motored, well out of my price range and incompatible with nearly every battery brand on the market, I soon replaced it with a garish, glittery neon wand somehow reminiscent of both a Bop It and Koosh balls. One arm was designed to look like a butterfly. Another segment spun.

I might have missed the memo by a few decades. “There was a time in the ’90s and early aughts when the sex toy of choice was a plastic, brightly colored, battery-operated vibrator with rotating iridescent beads in the shape of a bunny, ears and all: the Rabbit,” Fiorella Valdesolo writes for The Wall Street Journal. In general, “sex toys have gotten a lot sexier.”

They’re sleeker, like the curved, stainless-steel njoy Pure Wand. Flexible and waterproof, like the LELO Enigma. Décor worthy of display, like the Chakrubs crystal dildos.

“The fact that the new generation of sex toys ... look like design objets has also helped overhaul their image,” Valdesolo explains. Hyper-realistic silicone phalluses still exist, but rarely amid the metallic accents and ergonomic handles found in boutique-style sex shops.

This marketing move away from the overtly visceral and erotic costs consumers.

“Pick a word, any word, and it has probably been once tied to a wellness trend,” Daisy Jones invites Vogue readers. “One of the more insidious cultural shifts, though, has been the repackaging of sex as ‘sexual wellness.’ In other words, the positioning of sexual pleasure (one of the last frontiers of filth) as a health-adjacent endeavour.”

“When I use the term ‘sexual wellness,’ I’m not referring to the very basic practice of getting regular STI checks and learning about consent (which is what it should really mean), but a way of positioning sex as a vaguely medicalized form of self-care that, crucially, requires financial investment.”

And it works. In 2020, the United States’ sexual-wellness industry was valued at $5.8 billion. In 2022, Sephora and Ulta Beauty launched “intimate-wellness” collections and began selling vibrators.

“People tend to be cooler about sex toys as tools for wellbeing over being tools for pure sexual pleasure, and selling wellbeing is more palatable for Sephora and other major retailers,” Bethany Allard explains in a Mashable article.

They’re peddled by social-media influencers, offered as giveaway items alongside promo codes and messages about self-care, connection, joy. Commenters speak about empowerment, ending stigma, closing the famed pleasure gap.

“We’re now being marketed sex – and sex products – as if having an orgasm were comparable to getting a dental check-up or going to therapy,” Jones writes.

Like those medical appointments, boutique-style “wellness” toys are often expensive and not covered by healthcare plans. Pastel colours, silk accessories and airy storefronts don’t change the fact that many people can’t afford one designer dildo, let alone a nightstand full of play options.

Vibrators, harnesses, blindfolds and plugs are assets but often inaccessible when sold as luxury items.

As Jones summarizes, “Sex is one of our last free pleasures. It can be a space to explore taboos, or to let loose, or to form connections – whatever sex means to you personally. But it has nothing to do with branding.”

A former sports broadcaster, Danielle Doiron is now a writer, editor and educa- tor. Find them in Winnipeg, Philadelphia and, occasionally, on the airwaves.

Published in Volume 77, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 26, 2023)

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