Life

How Sex Toys Became the New Celebrity Fragrance

As Lily Allen, Cara Delevingne and a host of micro-influencers hawk sex toys on Instagram, sex workers battle censorship and threats to their livelihoods.
NT
illustrated by Nico Teitel
February 16, 2021, 9:30am
How Sex Toys Became the New Celebrity Fragrance

Late last year, Lily Allen uploaded a photo to Instagram. Posed in a fluffy leopard-print jumper on a dishevelled bed, the image teased an upcoming announcement. “I can’t tell you what yet,” Allen wrote in the caption, “but if you want to feel empowered and give yourself a little self love, stay tuned.” 

Fans may have expected the singer to unveil new music or a sequel to her 2018 memoir. But Allen’s announcement was the launch of “The Liberty”, a suction sex toy released in collaboration with the German sex toy company Womanizer. 

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Allen, who is now a brand ambassador for Womanizer, is far from the only celebrity to lend their image to a sex toy. One month later, Cara Delevingne became became creative director and co-owner of sex tech start-up Lora DiCarlo, stating in an interview that her “repressed” upbringing had not allowed for the open discussion of sex – something that she now hoped to change with products that help women explore their bodies. Dakota Johnson’s sex positive venture closely followed. The actor became an investor and co-creative director of Maude, a sex toy brand known for its “sculpture-like sex toys”

While this isn’t the first time these celebrities’ careers have incorporated sex – Allen and Delevigne have spoken candidly about masturbation and pansexual desire respectively; Johnson was in Fifty Shades of Grey – it is a departure from their usual worlds of music, fashion and film. 

But with growing mainstream interest in sexual wellness, it’s little surprise that high-profile figures are capitalising on sex toys as a symbol of self-care and indulgence. According to research firm Market Data Forecast, the sexual wellness industry is expected to reach a value of $40.5 billion by 2025, with an Edited report partially crediting the sex positive movement for its progress. 

To some, this represents a much-needed cultural shift that moves sexual pleasure from taboo to norm. For others, it signals a worrying commercialisation of sex positivity – a term that grew from feminist movements of the 1980s to promote female sexual agency and nonjudgemental attitudes towards sex.

The pivot to sex positive content has trickled down to the blogging and influencing worlds, too. Sex toy brand Vush has recently sponsored a mass of influencers to promote their toys, all using the hashtag “#MoreSelfLove”. Many had never spoken about sex on their platforms before. One influencer, Megan Marx, was frank about this, stating that she hadn’t given much thought to the normalising of women’s pleasure until she started working with Vush. 

Influencer Grace Latter recently shifted her content to focus on sex and relationships. She took this decision after an increasing number of companies contacted her to promote sex toys, though says that she has always had an interest in sex and “smashing taboos”. The rise of Only Fans and sex influencing has made her more comfortable embracing it. 

“It’s important to do your research when entering this space,” Latter says. “I made sure I learned from LGBTQ+ folx and sex educators who also influence. I do worry other influencers who stumble into this lane won’t be aware of how important it is to stay open, be totally non-judgmental and take extra care with the language they use.”

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when sex positivity and the world of influencing collided. Google searches for “sex positivity” boomed between 2015 and 2017, and publications began reporting the rise of sex positive influencers in 2017. Reed Amber initially joined Instagram as a sex worker, but quickly realised “she was not wanted there” after her profile was removed seven times. In 2015, she joined with her sex education platform Come Curious, and though she and co-founder Florence Bark were still restricted by Instagram’s guidelines, it was safer and easier to talk about sex this way. Two years later, Amber noticed that sex positive influencing had stopped being as rare, with more creators joining the community. However, she feels that many “are mostly just jumping on the bandwagon”. 

“Pay attention to those who’ve dedicated their careers or lives to sex positivity and made a thoughtful effort to educate themselves and can look at all sides of a topic without judgment,” Amber says. 

It’s easy to see celebs joining the sex positive community as little more than a marketing exercise. Just as the body positivity movement has been commodified, sex positivity is now being repackaged by companies to sell products. At the same time, female pleasure has long been side-lined by society. A Chapman University study found that a third of women rarely or never have an orgasm, compared to just 5 percent of men. Women’s pleasure and how it relates to orgasm, masturbation and partnered sex is still vastly under-researched. Models, actors and musicians with big profiles, talking openly about female desire, could be a way to change this inequality. 

Sex educator Kiana Reeves believes that celebrities spreading the sex conversation is a positive thing, but adds that we should question why certain people are selected to represent it. 

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“Most consumers look to brands for education, so when celebs [associated] are not equipped to speak about sex, that’s an issue,” says Reeves. “They should back up their communication with rich, sex positive, educational content.”

The pivot to sex influencing comes with other issues, too. While Allen is paid to endorse a sex product on Instagram, sex workers are regularly penalised by social media. Instagram recently cracked down on “inappropriate” profiles, which resulted in sex workers and educators losing their social media accounts. Advocacy group Everybody Visible has used its Instagram to fight this unnecessary censorship of sex workers and organise in-person protests, while sex educators like Come Curious, Hannah Witton and Zoe Ligon work around Instagram bans to offer accessible educational content – including LGBTQ sex-ed, which still isn’t the norm in UK schools. 

When viewed alongside these content creators and people with lived experience of sex work, should Allen or Delevingne be the upheld as the voice of sex positivity?

“Celebrities have a responsibility to amplify less heard voices, such as transgender people, queer sex workers, and disabled people,” says Amber. 

Reeves agrees: “Any celebrity, ambassador or brand addressing sexual wellness needs to support, create, share and promote diverse voices, sharing their experiences and perspectives.” 

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Groups like the SWARM, English Collective of Prostitutes and The Global Network of Sex Work Projects could benefit from the amplification of a celebrity voice, to reinforce the urgency of sex worker rights and decriminalisation. Sex workers currently have no legal protections at work and regularly face harassment from clients and police. As Molly Smith and Juno Mac note in Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, thousands of sex workers are “arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, deported or fined” for sex work-related offences each year. 

VICE approached Allen, but she did not wish to comment for this piece. 

Topher Taylor, a sex educator and brand manager for queer sex shop Clonezone, says he’d like to see celebs who promote sex positivity address censorship on social media. Taylor’s own Instagram page has been removed four times for publishing sex-related content. 

“Celebrities are free to talk about sex and promote toys but [educators] are censored daily,” he says. “When I post about a sex toy, Instagram tells me off for supposedly soliciting sex.”

Valerie August, who’s been a sex worker for ten years, agrees: “Censorship against sex workers has ramped up, with many of us being removed from social media. I’d like to see celebrities in the sex space share their platform with educators, especially now criminalisation and surveillance of sex workers has increased.”

Sex workers, educators and activists have worked for years towards a society in which sex can be discussed without shame or exclusion. Anyone who now profits from the sex positivity movement would do well to understand their legacy.