Sexual Wellness Awards

Even Walmart Sells Sex Now

Sexual wellness is front of mind, even as the country slides backwards.

One night in 2011, a guy told me he’d planned a special surprise for our fourth date. He led me around New York City’s West Village, past charming boutiques and upscale restaurants, and right into the Pink PussyCat Boutique. In the front window, mannequins posed in latex G-strings and leather harnesses; there were shelves of enormous, veined, phallic dildos and a table display of hot pink Rabbits. He wanted to buy me a gift. I was speechless and terrified. Yet if this happened today, we could’ve shopped the sexual wellness departments at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sephora, Ulta, or even Walmart, and I probably wouldn’t have blinked.

Over the past 15 years, the adult industry has in many ways shed its sleazy reputation and rebranded as a growing marketplace of stylish products. Today, sex toys marketed toward women are often crafted in sculptural shapes and muted color palettes; there’s also a wide range of serums, oils, and accessories intended to optimize your sex life. How exactly did a nation founded by Puritans wind up here?

Experts point to changing generational norms about sexual wellness, savvy product design, the rise of online shopping, and, well, the pandemic.

The term “sexual wellness” is vague, but the concept is actually pretty simple. According to Shan Boodram, an intimacy expert and host of the podcast Lovers and Friends, “Sexual wellness is feeling good about your sexual expression and feeling like it’s within your control.” Pleasurable sex and masturbation are examples of sexual wellness. So is embracing your sexuality, whether you’re queer, asexual, or something else. Dominnique Karetsos, CEO and co-founder of Healthy Pleasure Group, adds that the term also encompasses education, health care, respecting others’ sexual rights, and the ability to enjoy pleasure and intimacy when desired.

Maude

There’s nothing novel about women loving sex toys. In the 1970s, women bought Hitachi Magic Wands at Macy’s under the guise of needing to work out knots and kinks. In 1998, even prim Charlotte York was passionate about her pink Rabbit, which was traditional in color, shape, and style. But in the 2000s, the concept of a clearly marketed, non-phallic sex toy for women that wasn’t pink, purple, or flesh-toned was radical.

As Boodram puts it, sex toys are now kinda NBD because “women entered the chat.” In the mid-2000s, she says, men had three times as many orgasms during heterosexual sex than women did. Data around female sexual pleasure had been somewhat rare, but researchers began to dig in. A 2009 study found that one in four women had used a vibrator within the past month. They found that toy users were more likely to visit their gynecologists and more likely to experience a range of sexy feelings: arousal, lubrication, and yep, orgasms. By 2018, the O-gap had narrowed to two to one.

“The boom in the market is a direct reflection of that — that we are now talking about what gets people with vulvas off,” Boodram says. “People acknowledged that [equal pleasure isn’t always] attainable in traditional heterosexual play and there needs to be tools [to address] that,” she says. That understanding led to the rise of a new type of sex toy.

One of the first companies to try something new was We-Vibe, which in 2008 launched a U-shaped vibrator for people with vulvas to wear during sexual intercourse. “They changed the packaging, the branding, the look, the feel of the toys. They weren’t phallic,” sexologist Dr. Jess O’Reilly says. A year later, We-Vibe won Most Innovative Product at the adult industry’s most prominent trade festival, and its signature toy soon became a global bestseller. The next decade saw a flood of new sex tech companies inspired by this type of female-friendly design and marketing. Many are helmed by women, even though just 2% of venture capital funding goes to startups with all-female founder teams, Karetsos says.

One item that capitalized on this aesthetic is GOOP’s infamous $66 jade yoni egg, which could reportedly balance hormones and regulate menstrual cycles (among other benefits) through vaginal use. When it launched in 2017, it checked a lot of boxes: it was green, chic, non-phallic. The company’s “beauty guru/healer/inspiration/friend Shiva Rose,” who initially provided GOOP with the eggs, claimed it was a “strictly guarded secret” Chinese queens and concubines used for Kegel exercises in order to satisfy their emperor lovers. (Rose is of Iranian and Irish descent.)

Gynecologists were quick to deem it a dangerous fad. Two researchers examined 5,000 jade objects from four major Chinese art and archaeology collections and debunked the object’s “history.” Sorry, Gwyneth. The company was fined $145,000 for unsubstantiated marketing claims. Despite all this, Paltrow’s wellness shop still carries a toned-down version of the jade egg. It also comes in millennial pink rose quartz.

Unlike with the egg fiasco, the vast majority of gynecologists and sex educators support the use of many new products designed for erotic self-care, and there are lots. A brief selection: Nordstrom carries a discreet vibrator that doubles as a necklace, “Fur Oil” for softer pubic hair, CBD-infused pleasure serum, and a kit called The Nightcap, which contains ingredients for two old-fashioneds (sans alcohol), two condoms, and one vial of lube. At Bloomingdale’s, you can buy strawberry-mango flavored “Desire Gummies,” intimate wipes, and massage candles. Sephora offers 11 different vibrators and Sex Dust, described as “an adaptogenic blend of super lusty herbs.” Walmart stocks TikTok’s favorite vibrator, a rose-shaped device intended to mimic the sensation of oral sex. Walgreens actually has several toys in its brick-and-mortar stores, as does Macy’s (though the latter still calls its clinical-looking models “personal massagers”). Even O’Reilly’s local yoga studio in Toronto sells sex toys alongside mats and leggings.

Mainstream major retailers mostly sell these online. “In a big way, the internet kind of did for sex toys what it did for porn. It moved the accessibility of sexual experiences from these very male-dominated, socially stigmatized spaces and brought them into our homes,” says Samantha Cole, author of How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex. She doesn’t knock the “tons of really great, feminist sex toy shops” that focus on in-person browsing. Those boutiques typically run events (like Babeland’s Self-Love 101 and Anatomy of Pleasure) and are staffed by sexperts whose knowledge of this niche outweighs department store sales associates’. “But being able to pick up a vibrator online is a whole different experience. You don’t feel like you’re being watched. No one’s going to ask you any questions. It’s very much a private thing,” Cole says.

Consumers might feel more comfortable buying intimate items from stores they’ve shopped at and trusted for years, especially if they’re housed under the beauty department. What’s the big deal about adding a vibrator to your shopping cart if you’re already checking out hyaluronic acid and sunscreen?

Celebrities have helped many of these newer brands make headlines. In 2020, two years after Dakota Johnson left Fifty Shades of Grey’s kinky Red Room behind, she joined Maude as an investor and co-creative director. The same year, Cara Delevingne was named co-owner and creative advisor of Lora DiCarlo, where she hoped to “amplify and encourage everyone to take pleasure into their own hands.” Demi Lovato partnered with Bellesa to launch the Demi Wand in 2021. On her podcast, the singer explained, “We have spent far too long pretending we are not sexual beings — it’s time for us to put this stigma to rest. We are all deserving of pleasure.” Kourtney Kardashian (noted fan of oral sex simulators, leather sex belts, and handcuffs) is rumored to be releasing her own sex toys soon.

“In a big way, the internet kind of did for sex toys what it did for porn.”

While the 21st-century vibrator revolution was buzzing away, another major cultural shift was happening. As the body-positivity movement chipped away at diet culture, many people came to have a new, holistic understanding of what it means to care for your body and mind.

The health benefits of sexual wellness are undeniable. Orgasms release oxytocin, a hormone that busts stress, reduces pain and anxiety, boosts circulation and the immune system, and promotes sleep, among other perks. A regular sex life is also linked to better heart health and higher self-esteem.

It goes without saying, however, that the sexual wellness industry is about far more than simply feeling good. “It’s also about the bottom line,” O’Reilly says. “There’s money to be made and everybody wants a piece of it now.”

COVID has fueled this growth. By the end of March 2020, the sex toy industry had skyrocketed. COTR, the company that owns b-Vibe, Le Wand, and The Cowgirl, tripled its sales. Amazon kept shipping sex toys amid calls to prioritize essential items such as medical and sanitation supplies. As the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene earnestly tweeted, “You are your safest sex partner.”

This traumatic time kicked off a global conversation about mental health. “We had real conversations about how we were feeling,” O’Reilly says. “People were open in ways they had never been.” That vulnerability extended to the bedroom. Couples could no longer avoid tough conversations about intimacy and desires. “Sex toys are one of the easiest ways to add variety and novelty. The mere presence of a toy can lead to conversations about boundaries, fantasies, and fears,” she adds.

These changes made a tangible difference. A year into the pandemic, one study found that nearly half of single Americans reported masturbating more often than they used to, and the global sex toy market is expected to grow to nearly $53 billion by 2026. Nearly half were less embarrassed by their habit, too. “In just the last few years, sex toys have been so rapidly de-stigmatized,” Cole says. “It’s not weird or awkward to talk about vibrators or butt plugs or whatever you’re into, especially online.”

As COVID became less of a severe threat, the zeitgeist began to feel… sexy. The highlight of 2021 for many people was Hot Girl Summer (even if it wasn’t quite as freewheeling as people had hoped). Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker competed with Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly in the Outrageous PDA Olympics. Two of the biggest fashion trends of 2022 are corset tops and exposed thongs.

Dame Products

But then things took another sobering turn. I don’t need to tell you that reproductive rights have been decimated or eliminated in much of the United States since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. This country’s severely polarized climate gets especially heated when it comes to tenets of sexual wellness: bodily autonomy, health, safety, pleasure, privacy, and identity.

In the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, a study of Gen Z’s attitudes toward sex had harrowing results: 68% of Gen Z women worried that the ruling would make it harder to have pleasurable sex.

In addition, the loss of Roe may put other rights, such as same-sex marriage and contraception, in danger. Meanwhile, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and a slew of anti-trans bills and executive actions threaten millions of lives. As O’Reilly notes, having the ability to safely and comfortably practice sexual wellness is a matter of privilege.

“Where there is discrimination, there will always be those who fight against it,” Karetsos says. Protest and policy change are two incredibly important tools here, but she believes prioritizing your own sexual wellness is another form of pushing back.

So, I’ll leave you with this: Earlier this month, Dame released a limited-edition toy that perfectly encapsulates this dystopian culture clash. For $80, you can be the proud owner of a dildo that bears Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s face. Department stores likely won’t carry it, but you can purchase it directly on the brand’s site, and 100% of sales will go to abortion rights funds. As Dame says, you’re already getting f*cked by anti-choice politicians. Now you can do it on your terms.

Experts:

Dr. Jess O’Reilly, sexologist

Shan Boodram, intimacy expert

Dominnique Karetsos, CEO and co-founder of Healthy Pleasure Group

Samantha Cole, author of How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex