Sex Toys Go Mainstream

Led by the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' phenomenon, the sex-toy industry has found a new customer base: mainstream America

Photo by Jon Estrada

Karoline Khamis in her Las Vegas boutique Toyboxx. | Photo by Jon Estrada

America may have been founded by puritans, but we’ve mellowed a bit over the years, be it our stance on revealing clothing, explicit language or what the ratings board calls “adult situations.” Even with the loosening of those and other social restraints, some things stayed discreetly hidden … until recently.

In case you haven’t noticed, the vibrator has come out of the nightstand drawer.

Sex toys now receive exposure everywhere from premium cable to home shopping programs, and seemingly every sitcom drops a dildo joke. Even In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) was a Pulitzer finalist in 2010. Of course, the biggest boost has come from Fifty Shades of Grey, which has lured an increasing percentage of soccer moms into the market.

“I feel like there’s been an opening up of a women’s market and a couples’ market; those have really been developing over the past decade,” says Karoline Khamis of Las Vegas boutique Toyboxx. Indeed: The worldwide adult-novelty industry has seen sales steadily increase to about $15 billion a year, with about one in four adults admitting to using sex toys.

At the recent AVN Expo, one of the best-attended panels was “Fifty Shades Frenzy,” a discussion about how adult businesses can capitalize on E.L. James’ book series and the movie that hits theaters February 13. “This category is going mainstream so quickly. I call it ‘vanilla bondage,’” says Marcus West of Joydivision, a company that manufactures adult toys. He predicts that businesses like his will soon be seeing an increase in first-time customers. “There will be a lot of newbies. They’ll say, ‘I’ve seen the movie; I want to have that experience. How do I do it?’ It’s up to your staff to guide them, to hold their hand through this process.”

The goal, as with any business, is to welcome the curious and turn them into repeat customers. “We have to make it accessible, make it appealing,” says Tom Stewart of Sportsheets, a company that sells linens with Velcro, D-rings and other features not available at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Khamis concurs that to entice this new clientele, the purchasing experience must be made more comfortable, pointing out that the stereotypical sex shop isn’t exactly inviting. “It smells like bleach, it’s painted white. The kind of places I wanted to see were friendly, more like a bookstore,” she says. “I don’t want to go into a store and feel ashamed or out of place.”

As important as the setting is the service. Khamis notes that many new customers don’t just want to be handed a dick in a box and sent on their way. “They want information,” she says. “Being such intimate products, there’s still really not a lot of intimate communication [about] it.”

Further proof that the sex-toy industry has gone mainstream: You don’t even need to go into a conventional sex shop anymore to procure the goods. From the platinum dildo at high-end lingerie retailer Agent Provocateur to the “intimate massagers” found next to the condoms at Walgreens, sex toys are everywhere. “People are like, ‘Oh, I can sell that, too,’” Khamis says.

And then there’s the massive online market. Search Amazon for “sex toys,” and you get more than 400 pages of results. Groupon may be best known for discounts on manicures and sandwiches, but they also recently added an “After Dark” section for items such as lace panties, scented candles and the Oh Naughty Thrusting Rabbit Vibrator. “We’re constantly expanding and evolving offers— particularly within our ‘goods’ category—and the Sexual Wellness collection is just the latest to really take off,” says Barnicus Stapleton, general manager of Senior Citizen Sexual Insights (SCSI) at Groupon.

With increasing demand and expanded supply, it would seem the adult-toy industry’s sales arc isn’t going limp anytime soon. Sure, the Fifty Shades buzz will eventually fade, and those officially licensed Fifty Shades of Grey Pleasure and Pain Nipple Rings eventually will be lost somewhere under the bed. But the stigma long associated with the business of intimate pleasure has forever been erased. “It was deep down in the closet—the dungeon, as it were,”’ Stewart says. “Now it’s coming up to the living room.”



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