– It’s a Modern Reality – Driven by the Modern Woman
Wired Editor’s note: Some links in this story lead to adult material and are not suitable for viewing at work. All links of this nature will be noted with “NSFW” after them.
Did you know that you — yes, you, my internet-savvy brethren and sistren — have transformed the business of pleasure?
A panel discussion Monday at the Adult Novelty Expo revealed some dramatic shifts happening in adult retail. To survive, say the experts, the industry needs to focus on quality products and services, support more comprehensive sex education at all levels, and develop its communication skills.
And all four speakers pointed at the internet for the reasons why.
“Consumers today are much more informed,” says Dr. Charlie Glickman, education program manager at Good Vibrations. “The internet has a lot to do with that. People go online, research materials and costs — and because customers are so much better informed, (retailers) really need to make sure we stay ahead of the curve.”
Even shy customers arrive in adult stores armed with knowledge gleaned from a myriad of advice columns, blogs, articles and online videos. Sometimes the information is accurate and sometimes not, but it’s a far cry from the days before “anal sex” was a household term and people still believed “tennis elbow” was caused by tennis. (Now we know it’s actually caused by playing with your Wii.)
But I believe the trend toward more knowledgeable and less embarrassed consumers has more to do with the millions of people participating in adult communities than it does with all the how-to and what-is articles. (Adult Friend Finder: 23.5 million. ICQ: 8 million daily logins. PalTalk video chat: 4 million active members. And every one of those people has flirted at the very least. That’s quite a force for change.) We’ve had sex books available for decades; if it were just a matter of writing it down, the play business would have reached this point long ago.
Everyone who has ventured into online communities to talk sex contributes to a cultural shift away from sexual embarrassment and shame. You might not see it yet, especially if you work as a sex educator and you cringe at the stereotypes and misinformation so prevalent in our mass media.
But it’s happening. In tiny, incremental steps, one by one, people are casting off the fetters (or putting on the fetters, depending) of yesteryear, when everyone still did everything we do now, but in shameful secrecy. Engaging in sex talk with others breaks down inhibitions that once kept us from acknowledging, much less expressing, our sexual needs. We might not know the ins and outs of every aspect of sexuality, but after a few months of online practice, we’re less afraid to ask.
Even if you have never chatted online about sex, you know someone who has. At the very least, one person in your circle has flirted in e-mail while dating online. These folks bring a new openness into conversation — if they’ve participated in adult communities online for more than six months, they almost can’t help it.
Ask anyone who invents, sells or writes about sex on the side and they will tell you: as soon as people find out, there’s a moment of shocked laughter, followed by a flood of relief that they can share their sexual thoughts with you. “That’s so interesting! Does your day job know?” “How does it work?” “Do you have one with you?” “Where can I get one?”
Julie Stewart, vice president of Sportsheets (NSFW), says the only way to get user feedback when she first began developing Sportsheets’ “sexual positioning and restraint system” in the early 1990s was to take it to lifestyle conventions. “We found that swingers were very willing to come to our booth, take the products, use them, bring them back and say ‘here’s what I liked and what I didn’t’ and suggest other things for us to make,” she said.
Today, that frank, open environment exists online. Today, we’re lining up to test-drive adult products and share our opinions with designers and manufacturers. Every review posted in a blog, at OrgasmArmy (NSFW), at Amazon’s Sexual Wellness site, sends a message that we will no longer silently sit back and have our sexual interests force-fed to us.
“Women today are demanding control over their own sexual well-being,” says Al Bloom, marketing director at California Exotic Novelties (NSFW) and industry veteran. (Bloom entered the business in 1970, when the height of innovation was offering a badly cast plastic dildo in two colors instead of one.) “That’s why the (adult) business is growing the way it’s growing.”
Women have always talked amongst themselves about sex. Now we’re blogging, chatting, camming and bonding across borders with other women and in mixed-gender environments. No woman with an internet connection has to feel isolated in her sexuality, whether she has questions about toys or the effect of medication on libido or what to do with allergies to certain lubes.
Women see quality workmanship and materials as a sign that product developers respect our sexuality. Consumers of all genders are increasingly supportive of designers who pay attention to how we will actually use the darn things — even if it means a bump up in price. A cheap plastic phallus with sharp seams packaged in hot pink porno dismisses the importance of female sexual pleasure (and creates a safety hazard at the same time).
Women are pushing for changes not just in how the adult retail is run but in how the wider culture feels about female fulfillment. When entire states ban items designed to provide us with gratification, it sends the message that female sexuality should be limited and contained. Lest we be unladylike, I suppose. Oddly enough, I’ve never received a single email in support of those policies — but I have floods of protests from women and men alike.
“These products are about improving people’s lives, giving people pleasure,” says Stewart. “No matter what some might say, that’s the heart of this business.”
Bloom says education is the key factor in the future of the novelty business, at all levels: consumer, retailer and manufacturer. Customers want documentation, demonstrations and in-depth, hands-on advice — even online, where 3-D models and instructional videos are becoming more important.
Glickman says a nugget of accurate information can mean the difference between fantastic sex and a trip to the emergency room. “People come to us and want us to be even more informed than we used to be,” he adds. “They want to know about allergies, menopause, pregnancy, impotence — things we used to say ‘maybe you should talk to a doctor about that.’ But the truth is, most doctors are ill-equipped to deal with sexual issues.”
Stewart agrees. “What are you going to ask? ‘Doc, while I’m here for my pap smear I was wondering what you know about strap-on harnesses’?”