When it comes to sex toys, a one-size-fits-all philosophy just doesn’t work. That’s because sexual interests and tastes can be as unique and singular as the bodies that contain them. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting a rainbow glitter dick, lipstick vibrator or hyper-realistic, flesh-colored dildo, many of these products can be alienating to individuals who may identify as gender non-binary, or feel put off by the gender essentialism of toys created “for men” or “for women.”
Thankfully, in light of an increased cultural awareness of trans and nonbinary gender identities, many sex toy retailers and manufacturers are now creating products that aren’t explicitly gendered in form or function. Mostly gone are the days when “sex toy” strictly meant a hot pink, phallic contraption with vibrating jelly beads, particularly among high-end manufacturers. Sleeker, tech-friendly, discrete products are breaking away from the old model.
Vestiges of the industry’s tradition of explicitly gendering toys still remain among some retailers, however. Even at the higher end of the market, pink still seems to come standard with many products, and even for those who do identify as gender binary, this explicitly gendered design can be off-putting.
According to Stu Nugent, of design-led sex toy company LELO, the mainstream sex toy industry has a long history of playing to such gender stereotypes. “I remember about 14 years ago I was in a product development meeting for a major sex toy retailer,” he says, “and they were unveiling a prototype penetrative vibrator, a big, ugly, wobbly, penis-shaped thing, purple in color, with rotating beads in the shaft.
“One of the execs said, 'We should have a smaller one for girls who've never tried a dildo before,' to which another exec replied: 'OK, shrink it and pink it!' And that was that.”
Luckily, Nugent continues, the “shrink it and pink it” philosophy has mostly fallen away in recent years. “But some of those old attitudes are still lingering in some darkened corners of the sex toy business.”
As pointed out in a recent Instagram post by Zoe Ligon, the founder of Spectrum Boutique, “Sex toy companies need to stop infantilizing their customers. While some of us like pink rhinestones, not all of us do, and you’re only alienating customers by making sex toys in solely ‘femme” colors and animorph-like shapes.”
Because sex toys have the ability to teach us about our own bodies and the function of our sexuality, it’s important that the language used to create and sell them doesn’t “double down on negative societal messages about bodies,” says Lauren Clair, from Nikki Darling.
“There is nothing worse than the feeling of walking into a store or browsing a website that claims to be diverse and inclusive, and not seeing yourself and your needs reflected in the marketing material or product selection.
“I’d worked in the industry for a number of years and had always found it frustrating that even in progressive, feminist stores, sex toys were presumed to be for women,” Clair adds, “and then there would be a small section of masturbators, pumps and rings for the men. It is such a limiting way to categorise your products.”
Changing the rigid binaries about sex and gender woven into the fabric of the industry would require a major overhaul of typical, exclusionary marketing practices that categorise products as for men or for women. But that makes sense when you think about what sex toys are, says Nugent: “inert, inanimate … They come without prejudices or preconceptions about their users. They’re just silicone and machinery.”
What makes purchasing a sex toy so fraught for some individuals are the ideas that come attached to them. One way to counter this, Clair explains, is to eliminate gender in their marketing altogether. This might make things like SEO difficult, but on the upside, even for those who do identify on the gender binary, genderfluid-friendly toys can open up new worlds of possibilities around sexual expression.
“By removing gender, folk are given permission to explore sex toys with less limitations, and that can lead to people making discoveries and choices they previously wouldn’t have considered,” Clair says.
“Take for example the humble bullet vibrator. For so many years, bullet vibes have been marketed as as a woman’s toy for use on the clitoris, but you needn’t be a woman or have a clitoris to use one. They’re [also] great for stimulating the perineum, the frenulum, inguinal canals and nipples.”
Nugent agrees, explaining that the focus of sex toys should be what they do for bodies, not the respective genders assigned to them. Like “the G-spot vibe, for people with G-spots. Or not.” The same G-spot toy, Nugent says, may “also make an excellent prostate massager.”
“With gender-neutral toys like the Lelo Transformer that can function as a double-ended vibrator, or a cock ring, or a wrist restraint, or a rabbit vibe, or a prostate massager, the sky's the limit,” Nugent continues.
Eliminating gender pronouns and imagery that might deter genderfluid or non-binary individuals can also make products more accessible to a wider range of customers, says Matt Smith, founder and managing director of Cherry Banana. Smith points out that this doesn’t mean completely eliminating the hot pink glitter dick.
“Of course, we understand gender neutral folk might be interested in phallic objects [but] the body has tons of erogenous zones without being specific to the penis or vagina,” Smith says.
According to progressive retailers, the ultimate goal for the future of sex toys is not to dictate who can access them and who can’t. As Clair suggests, “Let’s acknowledge and honour the complexity of gender, sex and bodies and stop trying to force folk into these limiting boxes.”
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.