Walk into any sex shop in the 2000s and early 2010s and you'd likely be met with garish colours, lacy garments and dildos with names like “Big Daddy Destroyer”. Back then, sex was something to be sold behind glittery curtains and within strictly gendered categories. Sex toys were branded sleazy, porny and not for prudes. Think Lovehoney, Ann Summers parties and crotchless panties arriving in the post in a hot pink box.
Over the past few years, there’s been a gradual but noticeable shift – specifically in relation to what sex toys look like, how they're marketed and who they're for. Gone are the peak days of fluffy handcuffs and plasticky neon Rampant Rabbits. The must-have sex toys of today are discreet, neutrally-coloured and reminiscent of stylish Scandi kitchenware. They're also no longer “sex toys” – they're “intimate wellness” products, filed under the same general category as CBD oils and healing crystals.
This shift appears to have made sex toys a lot more “palatable” within the mainstream. Around 2018, retail giant Urban Outfitters began selling sex toys from Unbound, a US brand making cute, candy-coloured products that look as though they could have been designed by Petra Collins (it's hard to imagine H&M flogging anal beads back in the day.) This proved to be a success: Have a scroll through Urban Outfitters today and they now sell “Smile Makers” – twee-ly named vibrators that come in pastel colours with a smiley face imprinted on the side.
Urban Outfitters are by no means the forerunners – they simply hopped on a budding trend. Brands like Y Spot, Vush, Dame and Foria have been selling products of a similar ilk for the past few years. These are matte and pastel products which look good on Instagram feeds beside copies of Beautiful World, Where Are You? and glasses of kombucha. “Sexual wellness for babes,” reads the Vush tagline. If it wasn't for the word “sexual,” you might think you were looking at a new Glossier skincare range.
Adult PR – a PR firm specialising in the adult industry – tell me that they're seeing a “huge shift” when it comes to sex toys approaching them for marketing. “Previously, brands wanted to be as ‘out there’ as possible, shouting from the rooftops that they're the biggest, brightest and quite frankly scariest toys around,” says agency director Sarah Ryland.
While these toys still have their place, she says, “brands have now realised they’re restricting their sales as they aren't inclusive and appeal to certain kinks and fetishes, rather than your everyday consumer”.
Ryland points out that dildos, for example, might look more like “everyday” household objects these days simply because female pleasure has become more normalised. “Sex toys are being seen more as an essential for wellbeing, rather than a guilty pleasure. Branding has had to keep up with this,” she says.
“Quite often, now, if you put the branding of your favourite makeup brand next to a new sex toy brand’s logo, there wouldn't be much difference. Rebranding as health and wellness products appeals to the mainstream and places sex toys as an everyday, household object.”
Biz Sherbert, a culture specialist at The Digital Fairy – a marketing agency specialising in youth trends – agrees that sex toy branding has shifted alongside our views on sexual pleasure.
“The idea of 'intimate wellness' repositions how sex toys can sit in relation to the rest of your life, by disrupting the long-standing trope that they’re something to be thrown under your bed or into a dusty drawer,” she says. “Sex toys are now marketed as part of your wellness routine, like doing yoga or deep conditioning your hair, which means they have potential to help you unwind, be more productive and mindful.”
The minimal look of more recent sex toys, Sherbert adds, can also be attributed to wider cultural style trends. “The sex toys of the recent past were often visually aggressive and juvenile-feeling, usually containing some mixture of glitter and neon pink,” she says. “In contrast, this new generation of sex toys looks much more artful and pairs well with what’s trending elsewhere in fashion and design – from Bottega Veneta’s puffy purses and sandals to the squiggly candles and mirrors that are all over Instagram.”
“Soft, organic-looking shapes are winning,” she continues, “in part because they look great on social media. Additionally, the adorable pastel ‘blobbiness’ of these neo-sex toys is strategically designed to look cute without feeling infantilising, which can make self-pleasure feel less taboo, intimidating or routine”.
This shift in branding largely feels like a positive thing. The new wave of sex toys seems made for Gen Z: sex and body-positive, made from ethical materials and often more gender-neutral than in decades prior. (Many of these brands, like Dame, for example, avoid using gendered language in their marketing, with colours and designs that are often read as neither feminine nor masculine.)
That said, for the self-proclaimed pervs among us, the idea of “intimate wellness” can feel a bit sanitised. Has pleasure for women and marginalised genders become less taboo, or has the branding just become more palatable? Can we not have sleazy, dirty, kinky designs that are also gender neutral and ethically made? Sex doesn’t need to be marketed as a guilty or shameful act, but does it have to be positioned as an almost medical one, right next to skincare or gut health?
While sex toy branding for women, non-binary and genderqueer people has evolved, the sex toy market for cis straight men appears to be having an identity crisis. When it comes to straight male pleasure, nobody wants to return to the eye-rolling days of American Pie wank jokes, Loaded magazine and wet t-shirt competitions. But if straight male pleasure doesn't look like it did in the 90s and 00s, then what does it look like? Sure, sexual acts like pegging might be marginally less taboo in the 2020s, but it’s not as if we're going to see Urban Outfitters stocking cute-looking Fleshlights anytime soon.
Sherbert thinks a rebrand isn’t necessary – at least, not when male pleasure has historically been pushed front and centre. “Cis straight male sexual pleasure doesn't need an updated ergonomic design because it's not seen as taboo in society,” she says. “There’s no impetus for Fleshlights to appear in unexpected places, like the Urban Outfitters check-out aisle, because there is no need to tip the balance in the other direction.”
Sex toys – like any other product – will evolve with culture. If fashion and design take a turn for the wild and garish, then our sex toys will, too. For now though, dildos and vibrators remain sleek and Instagram-friendly. And as ideas about sex, tech, pleasure and gender shift and open up within the collective consciousness, so too will our sex toys.