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Sex toys, self-care, and the rise of sexual wellness

1 December 2021

Gone are the days where purchasing a sex toy was seen as seedy, now it’s considered a form of self-care. Sarah Murray looks at the changes in the industry (and attitudes) that have lead to this sexual awakening…

WORDS BY Sarah Murray

Image; Gallery Stock.

There’s a big warehouse in Wellington’s Grenada North. Thirty-five thousand square feet type of big. Its industrial-style shelves are lined with bright blue crates that reach 3.5 metres high, and in each crate are decanted sex toys. At any one time there could be as many as 800,000 items in this warehouse. Vibrators, clitoral stimulators, dildos, whips, restraints—the works.

“If you can dream it,” says the owner of Adulttoymegastore Nicola Relph, “I think we’ll have it”. 

For Relph, business is booming. It was well documented that her company tripled its sales over New Zealand’s first national lockdown back in March 2020. And their sales show over 600,000 items have been bought in the past year alone. It’s not just them. The Guardian reports the sex-tech industry is worth US$30 billion as of 2020—while the sexual wellness industry is forecast to hit $122.6 billion by 2026.  So what is driving these soaring sales? Well, quite a few things, it turns out, but at the forefront is the idea that sexual pleasure (whether with a partner or solo) is a form of self-care. 

The rise of sexual wellness

The term sexual wellness certainly wasn’t something I learnt about growing up.  In fact, at my Catholic girls’ (read: repressed) secondary school, the closest conversation my friends and I had to the subject was from a teacher putting the FEAR OF GOD into us that sex, at any time during your cycle, will lead to pregnancy. So I contacted certified holistic sexuality coach Melissa Vranjes who explains that “sexual wellness is an important part of your wellbeing that’s often overlooked”. 

“It focuses on prioritising pleasure and exploring your intimate self to maintain vitality for deeper relationships, either with yourself or others,” she says. 

When I ask Relph the same thing, she says she sees sexual wellness as “the third piece of the triangle”.  “People have talked about physical health a lot—you know, make sure you go out for a walk and get X many minutes of physical activity a day to be healthy,” she says. “Then came along emotional wellness—making sure you’ve got downtime and mindfulness. Now the third piece of the triangle is your sexual wellness. And the cool thing is that sexual wellness is just about having a healthy and fulfilling sex life and meeting your own sexual needs. People are just now more understanding that it’s important and part of human nature.”

Being open about your sexual wellbeing has definitely been championed by the younger generation —and is now seen alongside other self-care rituals like taking a long bath or getting a facial. There is now a widespread understanding that sexual pleasure is integral to your wellbeing. TENGA, an adult sex toy company, says America is becoming more open towards masturbation and sexuality. For the past five years they have published a yearly ‘Self-Pleasure Report’, which looks at habits related to sex, masturbation and sex toy usage. According to their latest 2020 report, they found 80 per cent of Americans now consider masturbation to be a form of self-care. That’s up from 54 per cent in 2016, which shows Americans are more open to discussing masturbation with their loved ones, and are more likely to use masturbation as a form of self-care. Maybe there’s something positive to come out of all that alone time during the pandemic after all!

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Image: Gallery Stock.

Today, women are not only having these conversations with friends, but they’re sharing their thoughts with their followers on social media. Recently, influencer Millie Elder Holmes shared a story to her Instagram about her thoughts on the Kama—a clitoral stimulation and powerful internal vibrator that’s already being touted as the sex toy of the year. Overseas, celebrity-endorsed sex toys may just be this year’s answer to the celebrity perfume. Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson is an investor and co-creative director of Maude, a sexual wellness brand known for its sleek, sculptural sex toys and organic condoms. Lily Allen, on a quest to open the conversation around masturbation, partnered with German brand Womanizer to create her own vibrator, the Liberty. And model Cara Delevingne is now the co-owner and creative adviser of award-winning sex toy company Lora DiCarlo. It’s the latter that had a lot of press when its Osé device (a vibrator/dildo that creates the sensation of stroking and sucking for external stimulation) won an innovation award in the robotics and drones category at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2019. But two weeks, later the award was rescinded because their product was deemed immoral and obscene. The company’s founder wrote an open letter accusing the show of sexism and stifling innovation (the show had featured a sex doll and virtual reality pornography in the past) and eventually, the award was reinstated. It’s clear celebrities and influencers provide a familiar and trusted face when talking about a topic that perhaps some are not yet comfortable articulating. And because celebrities have so many fans and followers, they’ve helped to open up conversations around self-pleasure. But it’s more than that—they’ve normalised it.

A woman’s touch

It’s not just the conversation around sexual pleasure that’s changed, the industry has too. Sex toys that were once considered illicit or taboo are now being sold in iconic stores like New York’s Bloomingdales who last month became the first major department store in the US to launch a sexual wellness shop. Now, the market has shifted to be more female-focused, with the spotlight on products designed by women. These items, with their Instagramable packaging, resemble high-end beauty products.  Relph, who started Adulttoymegastore in 2009, has witnessed the changes first hand.

“When I started, adult toys were imported in pretty unsavoury packaging. And you would have to buy them in what I’d call seedy-looking adults stores,” she says. “Back then it was sort of an old boys’ network—the manufacturers were predominately run by men and therefore the products had a male viewpoint to them. Now, with this whole gender equality, we’re seeing really amazing companies, manufacturers, and retailers, all run by women. So you’ve got women producing toys for women, which has just seen the rise of beautiful packaging and beautiful design. It’s made a massive change in the industry.”

Dame Vibrator from Hello Lover.

Discretion first

A few days after my chat with Relph, I meet Ella Jaggar-McLean, at a PR showroom in Auckland’s Freemans Bay. At 26, she looks too young and too green to be the owner of an online sex shop, but that’s exactly what she’s about to launch in October. Her company, Hello Lover, is set to be part e-commerce platform (selling a range of global sexual wellness products), and part information platform to help facilitate healthy conversations around sexual pleasure. Like Adulttoymegastore, Hello Lover will only be an online store, which provides a discreet shopping experience.  

When I ask what Hello Lover will stock, Jagger-McLean smiles—”I can show you if you want?” She brings over a large duffel bag filled with sex toys and other sexual wellness paraphernalia and places them between us on the white couch. There is a slew of vibrators—in inoffensive colours—purple, teal and bright orange. Surprisingly though, nothing looks too garish, too daunting, or too phallic. A bottle of lubricant from natural Australian brand Figr in a frosted glass bottle seriously looks like an expensive skincare serum you might display on your dressing table.

“This one is Lora DiCarlo—by Cara Delevingne,” she says pointing to a teal vibrator that looks more like a squiggly line than anything penis shaped. “It’s innovative because it has warming technology. And it’s very versatile as you can use it on the vulva and the anus as well.” 

Jaggar-McLean shows me a remote-controlled couples toy, Kegel balls, penis rings, and a penis stroker. She talks me through her products with such unflinching maturity and honesty that instead of feeling uncomfortable, I start to wonder why my group of friends don’t talk about sex toys in this same way? Perhaps it’s the Catholic guilt, or maybe it’s because growing up, masturbation was seen as something we shouldn’t be doing. 

This rhetoric is something Jaggar-McLean is particularly interested in changing. “We are being told that it [masturbation] is naughty and that it’s a guilty pleasure but that’s far from the truth—you’re not being naughty by doing something that’s good for you and you shouldn’t feel guilty about that,” she says. “It’s about eradicating those outdated statements and making it really relatable for everyone.”

FIGR natural lubricant from Hello Lover.

Where has the stigma surrounding self-pleasure come from?  I go back to Vranjes for some answers, and she tells me she believes religion has a lot to answer for. 

“It [religion] taught human sexuality from a negative and hostile perspective as evil, dirty and harmful behaviour,” she says. “It didn’t help that neurologists at the time linked masturbation to insanity. Couple that with the suppression of women and their expected role to please their husbands—no wonder it was never seen as a part of women’s health. Society is slowly dismantling the beliefs created by religions and forming new healthy beliefs around sexuality. I see women feeling more confident to speak up during sex, I see social media normalising all types of sexual preferences, and I see women investing in their sexual wellness as a priority for their health.”

Something else that’s normalising the process and opening up discussion? The Satisfyer Pro 2 . Nearly everyone I interviewed for this story mentioned this particular clitoral stimulator, and there are countless reviews and articles written on the subject, with women saying it brings them to orgasm in less than two minutes. In the last year, Adulttoymegastore sold 55,000 of them—that’s an  average of more than 1000 per week. It’s still one of their best-selling toys. And when I sheepishly tell Relph I’ve never tried it, she gasps. 

 “You must,” she says, adding, “I think it was such a mind-blowing experience for people that they just wanted to tell someone. So they were telling their girlfriends, and those girlfriends were like ‘Really, did that actually happen?’ And they were like, ‘Yes, go and buy it and see for yourself’. It was sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy because more people were talking about it and then all of a sudden multiple people around the table had it. So now, having wine at the end of the week, women are just more open to chatting about it. We now see those conversations happening all over the place.”

So what does the future hold for the sex toy and sexual wellness industry? Relph predicts it will continue to grow and that we will see more products in places like pharmacies and hairdressing salons. 

She offers some final parting advice to those who haven’t yet ventured into the adult sex toy market, saying, “You can be safe in the knowledge that actually everyone is doing it”.

Emboldened by our chat, I compose a message to my school friends on our WhatsApp group. I timidly open a dialogue that, for one reason or another, was previously completely quiet. “Has anyone tried the Satisfyer Pro 2?” I venture.  I wait… and then watch as the responses enthusiastically roll in.

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