Nestled amidst Allen Ginsberg’s dildo, some vanilla-flavored underwear that offers sexually-transmitted infection (STI) protection, and a Braille issue of Playboy magazine, the plastic Unisex Toy sits proudly behind a glass panel in New York City’s Museum of Sex. It’s shaped like a spinning top, with one end elongated into a pole and the other curved into a hole. Unlike its nude-colored, veiny dildo counterparts, the toy’s pink-and-blue color represents the “space between genders, between body parts, and between our desire for connection and the patriarchy,” according to Boston-based designer Ben Durrell.
The Unisex Toy is a great example of how sex toys are slowly evolving beyond their heavily gendered industry. Yet, many popular sex toy brands still overtly cater to a cisgender, heterosexual clientele – for instance, their websites divide the toys into “for him” and “for her” sections. Not only do these descriptions propagate heteronormativity, they also isolate transgender and nonbinary individuals, especially if one is specifically seeking out sex toys to cope with body dysphoria.
Sex toys can be useful not just in facilitating pleasure but also in helping navigate gender dysphoria during sex. There are many ways to make sex toys more gender inclusive, such as using gender-neutral designs, packaging, and marketing. More importantly, sex toy companies should involve the queer community in discussions about their sex toys to effectively cater to customers’ needs and wishes.
Gender dysphoria and sexual satisfaction
Gender dysphoria is a broad term that refers to the distress or discomfort experienced when an individual’s gender identity does not fit with societal expectations of their assigned sex. Although many articles talk about “combatting” or “overcoming” gender dysphoria, I believe these words contribute to the pathologization of trans and nonbinary identities. So instead, I will be setting dysphoria aside and mainly focusing on how we can improve the sexual wellbeing and enjoyment of all bodies.
Previous studies have demonstrated that gender dysphoria impacts sexual engagement and satisfaction for many trans masculine and nonbinary individuals. This holds true especially before one medically transitions, if one desires to do so. Interestingly, research shows that trans masculine and nonbinary individuals tend to avoid sex toy stimulation if they experience distress with a particular area of their body. Meanwhile, these individuals also report enjoying sex toy play over other sexual acts like direct nipple stimulation and oral sex. This is why it is important to have sex toys that make people feel comfortable about their own bodies.
How feminist sex toys revolutionized the way we view pleasure
The early-20th century was a period marked by widespread and draconian anti-obscenity laws as well as heavy social condemnation of masturbation. Companies had to strategically market sex toys as household products and medical devices, such as portraying dildos as “marital aids” to assist men in penetration during heterosexual sex if they couldn’t perform without assistance. If women wanted a vibrator, they either had to travel to male-focused, sordid stores on the outskirts of town with masturbation booths that played porn movies, or to Macy’s, where vibrators were marketed as medical or household appliances. Companies overtly portrayed the vibrator as nonsexual, such as naming their devices vaginal dilators, while covertly conveying its sexual uses through phallic attachments. But regardless of where women bought their vibrators, the act of seeking one out and purchasing it was considered shameful and taboo. Dell Williams, founder of the first sex shop specifically for women, was inspired to sell vibrators after being humiliated by a department store clerk for trying to buy one. Her shop, Eve’s Garden, which opened in 1974, was the antithesis of male-focused sex toy stores at that time, as Williams initially only sold clitorally-focused sex toys.
As attitudes towards premarital sexual behaviors and women’s masturbation gradually became more accepting in the 1970s, more feminist sex toy companies propelled women-friendly sex toys into the market. Although there were some arguments over whether a sex toy could be liberating, many feminists have gradually come to see sex toys as symbols of women taking control of their sexuality. The way sex-positive feminists in the past fought to reclaim the sex toy industry, providing future generations of women with sex positivity and autonomy, suggests how sexual pleasure can be used as a catalyst to transform the sex toy industry into a more gender-inclusive one.
Designing gender-neutral sex toys
Today, our society acknowledges the importance of making products more accessible to a wider spectrum of genders and sexualities. Retailers report an increasing demand for inclusive, gender-neutral designs and marketing. People are becoming more experimental and less prescriptive in the ways they enjoy sexual pleasure. One way to reach all kinds of demographics is to create multi-use or gender-neutral sex toys. Megwyn White, clinical sexologist and Director of Education at Satisfyer, a German brand that provides sexual wellness products and devices, says that depending on what mood you are in, the sex toy Elastic Game can be a cock ring, a lay-on vibrator, or a device to sandwich between you and your partner during sex. Researchers are throwing out creative solutions, too. Dr. Kate Devlin, author of Turned On, hypothesizes a future filled with less humanoid sex robots and more sexy, vibrating blankets designed for full-body stimulation.
Instead of designing more sex toys to emulate the experience of penetration or being penetrated, brands should also focus on making sex toys accessible for all kinds of body, no matter their age, shape, mobility, or biology. It would also be helpful to introduce more color options, so customers can buy a device that is not nude or hot pink. Gender-inclusive devices should not mimic any kind of biological body part, as this may trigger body dysphoria during sex. Cute Little Fuckers, a gender-inclusive sex toy company, designs quirky-looking, monster-themed toys in all kinds of shapes, colors, and textures. This has made them an attractive choice not only to gender-diverse customers, but also to those who have experienced sexual trauma and wish to experience pleasure without being reminded of particular genitalia.
The future of sex toy marketing is gender inclusive
Gender-neutral sex toys are exciting innovations, but they are not the only way to be inclusive. Having toys categorized by type, rather than by gender, acknowledges that body parts do not equate to gender. An example would be labeling a device “for penises, nipples, and clitorises” instead of “for him” or “for her.” Not only are these terms gender neutral, they are also specific to the body part, which makes it easier to find the kinds of toys customers want. So, if a toy stimulates a penis, anyone with a penis can use it, whether they identify as a man or nonbinary or genderqueer or gender fluid.
The other approach brands can take is to talk about the toy’s functions and benefits. Cute Little Fuckers breaks their toys into inclusive categories like internal, external, and butt-safe. MysteryVibe’s Crescendo has personalizable, “precisely targeted vibrations.” Wild Flower’s Enby 2, named after the abbreviation for “nonbinary,” is designed to be “humped, rubbed on, tucked in a harness, and placed between bodies.” De-gendering product descriptions helps break down assumptions about how people’s bodies should work and what sorts of sensations they should enjoy.
People who identify as transgender, genderqueer, or nonbinary want to be seen and respected in society – and that extends to brands and marketing. More than half of Gen Z and Millennial consumers believe that the binary gender division is outdated, while 48% of Gen Z consumers value brands that do not classify products by gender. Ignoring these populations is not just a miss from an awareness perspective, but also negatively impacts a brand’s sales. To help sex toy companies be more gender inclusive, management staff can host gender awareness training. Hot Octopuss, a London sex toy brand, runs awareness training with its staff to break down stigmas around different forms of sexual expression and to provide a friendlier experience for consumers.
Collaborating and collecting feedback from the queer community
In today’s world of rainbow capitalism, or the commercialization and commodification of LGBTQ movements, and with brand marketing sprouting inclusive language every time June (Pride Month) rolls around, sex toy brands who wish to be queer-friendly all year long should utilize a community-based approach in designing, packaging, and marketing their products. Trans and nonbinary consultants and educators can help companies with inclusive language and give insights that affirm and celebrate all bodies.
Brands might also send queer-identifying influencers free products in exchange for honest reviews. Princess Preview writes in-depth website-based reviews of a multitude of devices, from rose quartz wands to grinding pads to four-in-one heating dildos. Dave, aka The Big Gay Review, covers hand-held rotating masturbators and kinky bondage accessories. Hey Epiphora, well-known for her snarky yet authentic style, is a popular go-to choice for relentlessly honest sex toy reviews.
Queering up the sex toy industry
It’s time for the sex toy industry to ditch gender norms and queer it up. So what do sex toy brands need to do? First, they should design multi-purpose gender-neutral toys that take into account different body types and sexual desires, and work with queer consultants to nail inclusive designs. Second, they should prioritize desire and pleasure over gender in their marketing. Third, they should seek feedback from queer-identifying individuals throughout the process of pushing a sex toy out into the market. There is no such thing as a default transgender, nonbinary, or queer body, just like there is no sure-fire way to guarantee an orgasm. The only thing left to do is listen to people’s desires, including their sexual ones.
- Wall text, Speculative Design, Museum of Sex, New York City, N.Y. ↑
- Lindley, L., Anzani, A.& Galupo, M. P. (2022, May). Gender dysphoria and sexual well-being among trans masculine and nonbinary individuals. Archives of sexual behavior. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35449364/#:~:text=The%20overall%20results%20demonstrated%20that,ratings%20of%20engagement%20and%20enjoyment ↑
- Bartolucci, C., Gómez‐Gil, E., Salamero, M., Esteva, I., Guillamón, A., Zubiaurre, L., Molero, F., & Montejo, A. L. (2015). Sexual quality of life in gender‐dysphoric adults before genital sex reassignment surgery. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12(1), 180–188. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12758 ↑
- Martin, T. K., & Coolhart, D. (2019). “because your dysphoria gets in the way of you…it affects everything.” the mental, physical, and relational aspects of navigating body dysphoria and sex for trans masculine people. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 37(1), 82–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2019.1696459 ↑
- Lindley, Anzani & Galupo (n 2). ↑
- Lieberman, H. (2016). Selling Sex Toys: Marketing and the Meaning of Vibrators in Early Twentieth-Century America. Enterprise & Society, 17(2), 393-433. https://doi.org/10.1017/eso.2015.97 ↑
- Lieberman, H. (2019). Buzz: The stimulating history of the sex toy. PEGASUS Books. ↑
- Lieberman, H (n 6). ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Fox, M. (2015, March 14). Dell Williams, founder of Sex Boutique, dies at 92. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/14/nyregion/dell-williams-founder-of-sex-boutique-dies-at-92.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare ↑
- Lieberman, H (n 7); Patton, M. S. (1986). Twentieth-Century Attitudes Toward Masturbation. Journal of Religion and Health, 25(4), 291–302. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27505893; Twenge, J.M., Sherman, R.A. & Wells, B.E. Changes in American Adults’ Sexual Behavior and Attitudes, 1972–2012. Arch Sex Behav 44, 2273–2285 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0540-2 ↑
- Hall, J. (2022, June 23). A guide to the evolving world of gender neutral sex toys. InsideHook. https://www.insidehook.com/article/sex-and-dating/gender-neutral-guide-sex-toys-guide ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- The cassius – vibrating cock ring. MOANA LISA. (n.d.) https://moanalisa.co.uk/products/the-cassius ↑
- Bigeye Agency. (2021). Gender Webinar Industry Research Report 2021. https://lp.bigeyeagency.com/2021_gender_research_report/; Francis, T., &Hoefel, F. (2022, February 4). ‘true gen’: Generation Z and its implications for companies. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/consumer-packaged-goods/our-insights/true-gen-generation-z-and-its-implications-for-companies ↑
- Prokopets, E. (2022, May 3). Gender-neutral marketing: It’s more than a trend. Latana. https://latana.com/post/three-brands-gender-neutral/ ↑
- Hall, J (n 11) ↑