America's new sex toy revolution

U.S. sales are skyrocketing, aided by $15 billion in annual revenue from online retailers

Published March 9, 2013 4:00PM (EST)

   (Istockphoto \ clubfoto)
(Istockphoto \ clubfoto)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Xbiz, the adult entertainment industry trade association, held its 11th annual awards gala at the Los Angeles Century Plaza Hotel on January 11, 2013. Dubbed by industry insiders as the "Academy Awards of the sex industry,” the event was hosted by the porn star Tera Patrick. In attendance were such industry “celebrities” as James Deen (co-starring with Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons), Bollywood star Sunny Leone, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, and Ron Jeremy, an industry stalwart.

AlterNet At the ceremony, LELO, a Swedish adult sex paraphernalia company), received the Pleasure Products Company of the Year award. Its products range from high-end vibrators to an assortment of intimate toys including cuffs, ties and blindfolds as well as pleasure enhancements like massage oils, candles and other products. In additional to selling in Europe, it operates in the U.S., Australia and Asia and Europe and had reported revenues of $6 million in 2008.

Adult sex is alive and well in America. The phenomenal success of E. L. James' 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, having sold 20 million books in the U.S., suggest just how receptive ordinary Americans are to the once illicit or immoral.

The Kinky Scene

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, the comedian Kathy Griffin appeared on “The Tonight Show” where, chortling with Jan Leno, she revealed that she had tricked her mother into visiting the Pleasure Chest, a sex accoutrements shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Videotaping the episode for her Bravo cable show, “My Life on the D-List,” she had her mom play with whips, wear leather animal masks and brandish paddles. Griffin and her mom seemed to have a grand time, and so did Leno … and, most likely, so did late-night viewers.

The Pleasure Chest and other adult toy providers are receiving increased media exposure, thus helping to further mainstream the sex paraphernalia market. Earlier in February, ABC’s “Nightline” ran an episode, “The Porn Star Next Door,” featuring James Deen, a 26-year-old actor who reportedly appeared in some 4,000 X-rated films – and also a big winner at the Xbix show.

The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a Discovery cable service, recently ran a 1-hour episode on its “Our America with Lisa Ling” show highlighting the Pleasure Chest. It offered viewers an insider’s look at the kinky scene, profiling a bondage and domination workshop. Another Discovery channel, TLC, ran an episode of its “Starter Wives” reality show featuring a segment at the Pleasure Chest. Sex toys are hot.

The sex paraphernalia marketplace is huge and getting bigger every year. It includes the fetish objects, sex toys, lubricants and costumes that enhance sexual fantasy. Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator in 1902, about a decade before it introduced the electric iron and vacuum cleaner. Trojan, having sold condoms in drug stores for more than eight decades, introduced vibrators in 2010. In 2012, Trojan salespeople were busted in New York for giving away free dildos on street corners using a converted hot dog cart.

Major health-products retailers are jumping into the adult toy business under the guise of offering healthcare products. Walmart and CVS are representative of this trend, both featuring products from Durex and Trojan. However, Amazon remains the largest purveyor of adult toys, offering an estimated 60,000 items.

Stefan Dallakian, owner of Paris Intimates, an online sex toy distributor, estimates the sex-toy business grosses $15 billion in annual sales. Even in a severe economic downturn, Dallakian claims that his U.S. sales have skyrocketed. Perhaps, with less money to go out, couples are investing in their sexual pleasures. A generation ago, men who were part of the "raincoat crowd" sneaked into shabby shops run in down-market sections of towns across the country to buy and look at porn. Catalog shopping and now the web have changed all that, offering near-instantaneous access to tens, if not hundreds of thousand of sex-related sites.

“People no longer have to drive to the porn store and make a face-to-face purchase,” Dallakian said. “Online ordering with discreet shipping saves you the embarrassment of exposing your kinks to strangers, and there’s absolutely zero risk of running into somebody you know while shopping."

Among those who’ve decided to jump on the condom-bubble is Kandi Burruss, one of the “Real Housewives” of Atlanta. She recently opened an adult sex-toy emporium, Bedroom Kandi, which she calls "an intimate luxury line.”

Passion Parties

“Passion parties” are women-only get-togethers where sex paraphernalia, including toys, lubricants and costumes, are sold. A local host, consultant or sales rep organizes the event and receives a commission (often 10%) from the night’s sales. The host acquires products and other materials from a growing number of sex-toy providers. The industry even has a trade association, Certified Adult Home Party Association, representing companies like Athena’s Home Novelties, Fantasia Home Parties and For Ladies Only. BusinessWeek reported that Pure Romance has 75,000 consultants and may hit $120 million in 2012 sales. Some of the moralists waging campaigns against abortion and homosexuality, including fundamental Christian women and heterosexual couples, participate in passion parties and other sex toy get-togethers.

Xbiz lists about 150 “novelty manufacturers” offering everything to enhance one’s fantasy life, including oils and lubricants, lingerie and g-spot wands, whips, paddles and other BDSM gear, and even silicone sex dolls and edible cookies. All you need is a credit card, a mailing address and a certain yen.

A quick glance at a few of the sex toys suggests the range of the adult market. One of LELO’s most popular devices is called the Tiani-2, which it describes as “the Remote-Controlled Couples' Vibrator to Wear When Making Love,” going for $159. Fans of the HBO series, “Sex and the City,” may remember when the Rabbit became all the buzz among a lot of hip, younger women. One of the show’s characters, Charlotte, got hooked on this vibrator, helping legitimize sex toys and female masturbation. The product came from Vibratex, a company founded in 1983 that makes vibrators and other items for women.

Doc Johnson, based in North Hollywood, CA, is on of the leading sex products suppliers. According to a feature piece in Los Angeles Magazine, it's the "Procter & Gamble of sex toys.” It claims, “each month the company pours 125 tons of rubber, manufacturing 330,000 dildos, vibrators, and synthetic buttocks.” The article estimates that the company generates over $100 million in sales through brick-and-mortar and online retailers like Hustler Hollywood, Adam & Eve and Amazon.

Aneros started as a medical device supplier offering prostate stimulators for the treatment of prostatitis. Physicians reported that patients wouldn’t return the devices and so a new business was launched. Crystal Delights started as a novelty in the online game, “Second Life,” a virtual adult toy product and then jumped to real-world business. Its first commercial product was the Crystal Delights Anal Plus and it has never looked back. In terms of the mainstreaming of adult toys, OhMiBod has an app on the iTunes App Store, which seeks to link music technology and sex-toy technology in a fantasy experience. This is an amazing accomplishment, as Apple runs probably the most puritanically walled-garden site on the web.

Sex 4.0

America is in the midst of a fourth sexual revolution, Sex 4.0, this one pushing the revolutions of the 1840s, the 1920s and the 1960s even further. It has matured over the last decade, for the most part invisible amidst the Christian right’s culture wars. A century ago, women wore ankle-length dresses with corsets, masturbation was decried, intercourse was for procreation not pleasure, birth control prohibited, abortion a crime, interracial sex a hanging offense, premarital sex forbidden, pornography an obscenity, and homosexuality a sin. Today, these practices and many others constitute the sexually acceptable.

Today’s sexual revolution is based on two premises. First, sex is morally acceptable only if it’s consensual, among age-appropriate, rational people. Second, all consensual sexual practices are acceptable as long as they do not harm either party, whether through unsafe sex, lust murder, and auto-asphyxiation.

Among some psychologists, the old concept of sexual perversion has given way to the postmodern notion of “deviance without pathology.” Sex 4.0 is grounded in a legal and cultural belief that consenting adults have a right to privacy … and to pleasure. This is adult – consensual and noncommercial -- sex after Roe v. Wade in ’73, after AIDS and safe sex, and after Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. Equally critical, it is sex after the wide-scale adoption of the Internet and smartphones that revolutionized communications, including pornography.

The New Sexual Culture

Over the last decade-plus, the courts have struck down repeated efforts by the FCC, bowing to political pressure, to block obscene materials from the public’s broadcast airways and Internet. The Supreme Court has been tentative, uncertain with regard to the new sexual culture taking shape. In Reno v. ACLU (1997), it invalidated provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that criminalized “indecent” and “patently offensive” forms of Internet communication.

Yet, a decade later, in 2007, the Court wouldn’t extend the same logic to the real – as opposed to the virtual Internet – world refusing to hear an appeal by Sherri Williams, owner of Pleasures adult stores. She challenged an Alabama law barring the retail sales of sex toys, for which she was convicted. A handful of states, mostly in the South, continue to bar retail sex-toy shops and even attempt to break up private “passion parties” as unlicensed commercial operations.

Last year, the Court sidestepped the thorny question of what is indecent by voiding FCC fines to two broadcasters. One was Fox for carrying “fleeting expletives” or words like “fuck” and “shit” uttered by Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie at the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards. The other involved ABC’s briefly showing an actress’ nude buttocks during an episode of "NYPD Blue." The FCC also passed on a case involving the 2004 NFL Super Bowl broadcast of Janet Jackson’s “costume malfunction.”

In Salem of the 1690s, adulterers, sodomites and women having sex with the devil were hanged. Today, extramarital affairs are common, gay marriage is legal in a half-dozen states and the devil has become an erotic spectacle, symbolized by Lady Gaga’s exaggerated persona. There is no going back.

By David Rosen

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a public affairs consultancy specializing in the strategic applications of political psychology. Follow him @firstpersonpol.

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