I don't do product reviews. That's mainly because my modesty has funny boundaries -- writing a deeply personal essay about sex? Sure! Reviewing a vibrator? Why, I could never. Who do you think I am?! But the recent explosion of companies offering monthly mailings of sex toys and lingerie -- all of them modeled after the wildly popular Birchbox, a subscription service for sampling beauty products -- begs for an exception.
That said, allow me to express my general cynicism going into this. I tend to think that Birchbox, as with most things, is a capitalist invention that helps fuel consumer insecurity and delusion about the potential for the right product to make them finally love themselves. (I have also considered subscribing.) In the same way, Birchbox-for-sex products hold the promise of fixing your sex life, which, if it's really in ruins, can probably only be improved by things that money can't easily buy.
But the novelty and surprise of a monthly mailing service does seem well-suited to "spicing things up in the bedroom," as they say. So I will proceed under the assumption that none of us are expecting to magically gain self-esteem or fix an emotionally dead marriage with any of these products. Deal? Deal.
This service costs $24.95 a month -- or $34.95 for the deluxe version -- and arrived at my doorstep in a discreet brown box, but inside the goods were swaddled in -- what else? -- hot-pink tissue paper. First up: a "$50 Wine Gift Card." "Whoa, awesome," I thought. Then I looked at the small print on the back: “To claim your $50 discount you must purchase wine totaling at least $51." Never mind.
Moving along, there was a plastic heart-shaped bottle reading, "Liquid Love: Warming Massage Lotion." As soon as I opened the top I exclaimed, "Ew, this reeks!" My partner rubbed it on his hand and determined, "It only smells worse when you spread it out." After some reflection, he added, "It does smell like massage oil ... that we've been using to massage each other's buttholes. It kind of smells a little bit like poop." (Did I mention that he's a poet?) We were too distracted by the smell to notice whether it was actually “warming.” Panic ensued when I lost the cap under the couch for a moment and thought I might have to pour the Liquid Love down the drain to escape the noxious smell.
The next item looked no more promising: a test-tube shaped container with orange liquid sloshing around inside. "Sex Shots Ultra: Sexual Performance Drink," the bottle announced. Fully taking responsibility for this project, I asked my partner to try it. He took a whiff. "This smells like something I shouldn’t drink," he said, but took a swig. "It tastes like watered-down cough syrup, or like I accidentally poured some moisturizer into my glass of water -- but not just any moisturizer, like a 12-year-old girl's moisturizer that she got from Claire's Accessories." Indeed, I tried it and immediately spat it out.
The "Octo-pleaser," a purple plastic massager shaped like an octopus, boasted "8 fingers of fun." Applied to the back it feels ... fine. Nothing to write home about.
Then there was the presumed star of the box: The Neon Luv Touch Lipstick Vibe, which looks like a tube of lipstick (I mean, I guess. In the same way that a dog's "Chewy Vuiton" squeaky toy looks like a real designer purse). I popped in the provided batteries and discovered that the toy is nearly impossible to turn off once they're in there. You can twist the on-off knob as much as you want, but the batteries bounce around inside like they've got a mind of their own and will randomly find a connection. I strongly advise against storing this "discreet" toy in your purse.
But, really, the upside of the whole box was two perfectly nice sample packets -- one of lube, the other of massage oil -- which can be purchased on the cheap from your local seller of sexy goods.
The name is an inside joke: When the couple who started the company was first dating, he asked her to come over and tuck him in. She showed up "in a trench coat and not much else." Each box, which costs $30 a month, includes a piece of lingerie and "a few other gifties," as the website puts it. I received an intricate onesie that seemed like it should come with an Ikea assembly manual. Allow me to walk you through the architectural construction: a red g-string is attached to a bunch of small strings with a red-to-black ombre effect. Those strings attach to a little bralet that consists of a band of red lace and yet another series of strings that part in the center, covering -- or rather decidedly not covering -- the breasts and tying at the back of the neck. It's as if a fine piece of lingerie was constructed and then carefully unravelled. You would get a similar effect by hanging a string curtain -- you know, the kind that divides lounge areas in douchebag FiDi bars filled with white pleather furniture -- over your body. Come to think of it, that would actually be sexier. Or, or! It’s like a naked woman went running through the set of “Dexter” -- back when he used to create those elaborate red-string spiderwebs at crime scenes to illustrate the blood-spatter. But I digress. The short of it: My partner’s response was, "I think if I had the choice between t-shirt-and-sweats and that thing, I would choose t-shirt-and-sweats every time."
The box also came with sample packets of lube reading, "Intense Orgasm Gel," "Oral Sex Gel" ("Oooh...Cotton Candy") and, my favorite, in terms of awkward phrasing, "Sex Arousal Créme." Lest you think it a French company with a bad translator, it's trademarked in Chatsworth, Calif.
For $19.95, SecretSexBox (don't ask me to explain these companies' seeming distate for spaces between words) will arrive on your doorstep with an array of items organized around a particular theme. The box I received was focused on "her pleasure" and included a toy named "ClitOriffic." Not even making this up. The tip of the metallic turquoise vibrator had a protruding flat surface for direct clitoral stimulation. This cheap-looking battery-powered number certainly packs a punch, although, as my partner put it with genuine concern, "Seems like you should put a condom on that thing."
There were also a sample of überlube, a clean-smelling lubricant; a "personal moisturizer" by Lelo, which had a perfectly inoffensive smell; and an overwhelmingly coconut-scented massage oil candle called "Livin' La Vida Coco!" Also, there were a couple sample packets of "Orgasmix" which is described as "clitoral stimulating gel." I can verify: It is stimulating. But I also felt the overpowering need to immediately wash it off my body.
This guy's $35.95 a month and certainly comes packed with odds and ends. Unfortunately, they feel like the odds and ends you would find at a cheesy bachelorette party: oral sex dice and a bottle of "GoodHead Oral Delight Gel," for example. I'm not going to lie: I didn't even try the latter. After the "Sex Shots Ultra" I felt I had reached my lifetime limit for taste-testing things that smelled like cheap drugstore perfume. The "Wet Together Couple's Lubricant" and "Screaming O" cock ring seem perfectly serviceable, if cheap.
At $59 a month, this one is the priciest of all and -- surprise, surprise -- by far the nicest. Finally, a Birchbox-for-sex that doesn't seem like the result of ransacking a seedy adult store! It came with a sleek, attractive vibrator (the kind that doesn't scream, "put a condom on me!"), a decent-sized soy-based candle that doubles as a massage oil once it starts to melt, a small bottle of "hot pink" lube, a blindfold and a bright-red lace camisole with a matching thong. The products were all lovely -- but that isn't the best thing about this service, which also offers a platinum $159 monthly package. Its standout asset is that each box includes instructions -- one might even call them dares -- for ways that couples can increase intimacy, communicate and experiment.
But it isn't enlightened in all ways: It's completely hetero-centric with directives "for him" and "for her." Big boo.
Before I got to the goodies, the box instructed us to complete two enclosed surveys and then discuss our answers after a romantic dinner. Some of the multiple-choice questions were a wee bit ridic. For example, one prompt "for her" begins, "I am turned on by" and offers the option "walking into a room lit with candles & music playing & you there standing with a rose." Which is to say, the survey portion frequently veers into the cliché and formulaic, quickly becoming reminiscent of a 3rd grade slumber party -- or "The Bachelor." But points for encouraging couples to candidly share their feelings about everything from public displays of affection to anal sex.
It's the second part of the instructions where things get interesting. You're told to agree on who will be the "follower" and who will be the "leader" for this exercise; it also, to its credit, encourages establishing a safe word, even though nothing extreme is suggested. The leader is told to open the box, hand the blindfold to the follower (and the negligee if the follower "is a woman") and tell them "where to go, what to wear ... & how to wait for you (lying on the bed, kneeling on a pillow by the door, etc.)." The leader is encouraged to make use of the toys in the box: "Light the massage candle if you have decided to use it. Start to touch them lightly. Kiss up their leg. Trail something light across their stomach. Maybe bind their hands with a necktie." Not revolutionary stuff -- but there is something freeing about having outside instructions provided to you. It feels like a dare and, weirdly enough, takes the pressure off. If that necktie move bombs, it's on that stupid box, not you.
It might have had its moments of cheesiness, but this one certainly came with the highest percentage of things I will not throw away, and my highly-skeptical partner actually offered, "I might be into subscribing." That's about as positive of a review as any of the current Birchbox-for-sex companies are going to get.