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2020: The year vibrators went totally mainstream

By December 19, 2020No Comments

With celebrities like Dakota Johnson and Lily Allen promoting sex toys and sales soaring, it’s been a good year for the vibrator, writes Lynn Enright

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While 2020 has been a disastrous year for most businesses, there are some that have benefited from the unprecedented events. It’s been a good year for paint manufacturers (Farrow & Ball’s business has grown by over 40%) and patio heater merchants; and those who invested in home-workout apps and through-the-letterbox subscription services are likely to have profited. And then there are the people who make and sell vibrators.

Almost as soon as lockdown was announced, ecstatic press releases from sex-toy companies began dropping into my inbox. With dating more or less outlawed from March, the single among us were turning to toys, the public relations executives claimed. Cohabiting and married couples were buying wands, vibes and stimulators, too, apparently – as boredom set in.

In the spring, when Amazon announced it would only be selling essential goods, like household products and medical supplies, delivery drivers and warehouse workers broke ranks to tell reporters that the company was actually continuing to sell and deliver sex toys.

Even before any Covid-related stay-home orders were issued, the marketing of sex toys had changed. Within the sex-toy industry, there have been vocal, passionate educators talking about sex as part of wellness for almost 20 years now – however, their voices have often been drowned out by the larger retailers who traditionally focused on “naughtiness” or a sense of illicitness instead. By the beginning of 2020, that felt more outdated than ever.

In late 2019, Boots launched a dedicated sexual wellness section on their website and expanded the offerings available in some of their bricks-and-mortar stores. Boots had (perhaps belatedly) discovered that many customers see sexual fulfilment as integral to their wellbeing, in the same way as other elements of health and beauty are – and the company was catering to that need by selling sex toys and lubes alongside painkillers and make-up.

The sex-toy boom of 2020 has been felt by smaller retailers too. Shawna Scott, who runs Sex Siopa, an Irish sex toy retailer that sells sex toys and accessories made exclusively from body-safe materials, tells me that “it’s been wonderful to see people using lockdown as an opportunity to rediscover their bodies and try new things”.

“I’ve had a sharp increase in emails from customers who have never used a toy before and need recommendations,” she says. “Plenty of customers have never had an orgasm before and 2020 has been the first time they have had the time and space to focus on caring for themselves sexually. So that’s been lovely. I’ve also had plenty of couples looking for toys for each other either because they’re in lockdown together and need to shake up their routine or they’re separated and need something fun to use while connecting on Zoom.”

By October of this year, when Lily Allen appeared in The Sunday Times’ Style magazine promoting her collaboration with the sex toy brand Womanizer, it was fair to declare it: 2020 was the year sex toys went totally, totally mainstream. There was Allen, photographed by Ellen von Unwerth, gracing the cover of a magazine the way stars usually do when promoting a new album, book or movie. Talking about the palm-sized, waterproof Liberty clitoral stimulator, Allen reflected on how much of the sex she had before she discovered vibrators was “performative” – she was more concerned with people-pleasing than with her own pleasure or fulfilment. Beginning to use vibrators was “life-changing”, she said.

Just last month, actor Dakota Johnson announced that she had become an investor and co-creative director of the sexual wellness brand Maude. Johnson made her name in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies but the sleek Maude products are a world away from the “red room” aesthetic. With a collection of massage candles, condoms, lubes and vibrators in tones of beige and brown, Maude is like the Aesop or Drunk Elephant of sex: classy and clever-seeming. Johnson – who is dating Chris Martin, former husband of Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow – told Vogue that she had become involved with Maude because “sexual wellness is self-care”.

“[Maude] is boldly and intelligently forward thinking in an industry where the conversation and narrative around intimacy products is antiquated,” she said. “I believe that sexual wellness is a fundamental human right. Consensual sex and intimate pleasure is self-care for all bodies. Every human should have access to quality sexual products regardless of their gender, adult age, or sexuality.”

Shawna Scott has mixed feelings about celebrity endorsements. “On the one hand it’s great for the industry in that it drives sales and pushes adult products into the mainstream, but on the other hand it brings into sharp focus the two-tiered system we have on social media platforms,” she says. “It’s frustrating when adult shops like mine, sex workers and sex educators have been struggling against the current to get our voices and messages out there as we’re not allowed to advertise and are often censored, but Lily Allen is allowed to advertise her partnership.”

Scott points out that the high-profile collaborations between sex-toy brands and celebrities usually involve white, heterosexual, able-bodied women. “I somehow doubt the [social media] platforms would be as kind if Megan Thee Stallion endorsed a brand that makes dildos and anal toys,” she says.

With a recession looming, some in the industry are worried that the sex-toy boom won’t last – but there is still a week of 2020 left so now is the perfect time to invest in a new vibe if you haven’t already. It’s a sure-fire way of making staying at home for the foreseeable more fun…

@lynnenright

Photo from YouTube

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