Sex Toys Are Finally Getting the Update They Deserve

Walking into a sex toy shop for the first time can be overwhelming. You’ll find dozens of products, maybe hundreds, all in different sizes, shapes, and colors. It’s a buffet of erotic options. But the seeming abundance is misleading. Beneath their exteriors, the vast majority of sex toys are all pretty much the same.

Most sex toys — especially sex toys designed for vulvas — are designed to do one of two things. There are vibrating devices, which use unbalanced motors to generate pleasure, and there are penetration toys, which stimulate internally by creating a delightful feeling of fullness. (And, of course, there are some toys that do both of these things.) These two stimulation modes have long been the unquestioned defaults in the world of sexual stimulation, even though there’s no proof whatsoever that the human sexual pleasure response is fully encapsulated by just vibration and penetration.

Over the years, some innovative companies have attempted to shake up the duopoly of vibration and penetration, debuting toys that stimulate through pressure or mimic a flapping tongue. But most of these products have remained niche and relatively unloved — until the Womanizer.

When the Womanizer arrived in the United States in 2015, most people didn’t think much of it. Designed by a German man named Michael Lenke, the product had an off-putting name and a confusing design. But as women began to try it, the toy — which uses a combination of suction and air pressure to deliver intense stimulation to the clitoris, resulting in rapid orgasms — developed a passionate following. “I really, truly think that it was a word-of-mouth campaign, from friend to friend,” says Coyote Amrich, director of purchasing and product development for the San Francisco–based sex toy shop Good Vibrations, explaining that multiple customers would come into the store asking about the Womanizer after hearing about it from a friend. “It was an almost evangelical response to feeling the type of pleasure that [the Womanizer] gave you.” Although there’s no public sales data for the Womanizer, retailers report that the product (and the numerous knock-offs it has inspired) has done remarkably well.

“It definitely hasn’t knocked the Magic Wand off its perch,” says Amrich, referencing the longtime bestselling vibrator. “But Womanizer sales have definitely shifted the balance of some of our longtime bestsellers.” In other words, new air-pressure toys have become a robust segment of the store’s sales.

What is it about the Womanizer that enabled it to succeed where so many other products have failed? How did it overcome a clunky name and an uninspiring design to become a breakout star in the sex toy space? Is air-pressure stimulation just dramatically better than every other innovation that’s been attempted before — or has the sex toy market shifted in a way that has made retailers and consumers more open to novel designs?

To understand the answer—and what the future of sex toys might look like—it helps to know a little bit about the history of these gadgets.

Vibration and penetration didn’t become the default method in sex tech after an extensive amount of research into human sexual response. To the contrary, penetrative toys gained popularity because they mimicked penetrative sex, while vibrators were a massage technology coopted for sexual purposes once it was discovered they could help people reach orgasm.

When sex toys started emerging in porn shops and adult stores in the mid-20th century, they weren’t exactly peddled by people with a deep commitment to improving the field and destigmatizing sexuality — they were sold by businessmen who wanted to make a quick buck. Those retailers put little thought into anything other than whether people would buy what they were selling.

As our culture liberalized, and as women in particular began to feel more comfortable chatting about sex and sexual pleasure, the sex toy industry underwent a dramatic transformation. “[Sex shops] are more comfortable than they’ve ever been,” says April Lampert, co-host of the Shameless Sex podcast. “There are no more sticky-floor stores.”

Sherri Shaulis, senior editor of pleasure products for the adult industry trade publication AVN Media Networks, similarly credits women with being a transformative force in the sex toy industry. In an earlier era, she tells me, it was assumed that men purchased sex toys for their wives and girlfriends. What women wanted out of their erotic products mattered far less than the qualities that would catch the attention of their male partners.

But as women have come forward as buyers, they’ve forced retailers and product designers to rethink their sales and design strategies. It has become far more common to see experienced, talented product designers becoming invested in the sex toy industry — an influx of talent that has helped to dramatically improve the quality of sex toys and led to innovations like the Womanizer’s air-pressure technology.

For the industry experts I spoke with, the Womanizer’s success, as well as the numerous copycat products it has inspired, feels like a sign that things might be changing in the sex toy space. New forms of stimulation could continue to be developed and further shake up product sales. Alexandra Fine, co-founder of Dame Products, which manufactures toys like the Eva hands-free vibrator, reminds me that as new and novel as it seems, the Womanizer is, in some ways, just an updated version of the clitoris pumps that sex toy retailers have stocked for years. With the right fine-tuning and packaging, it might be possible to breathe new life into some other niche products — water jet toys? electrostim toys? — and help shake up the industry even further.

Change won’t come easy, however. We might be more open to sex toys and less hamstrung by shame than we were at the turn of the century, but the stigma around sex still creates roadblocks for would-be innovators and entrepreneurs.

“If we were a [nonsexual] company doing all the things that we’re doing and having all the success that we’re having, people would have invested a lot more in us,” Fine says — and that investment would have freed up the company to take many more risks in its research and development. Sex toy development isn’t lagging behind that of other tech categories because there’s something inherently inferior about tech designed for sexual pleasure. It’s the stigma we place on sex that keeps this category from living up to its full potential for innovation.

Sex Toys Are Finally Getting the Update They Deserve

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