Generation XXX: Beyoncé, Babeland, and the Mainstreaming of Sex Toys

In a time when “Louis sheets / he sweat it out like washed rags / he wet it up” is an acceptable Grammys performance lyric, buying sex toys is really not a lot more risqué than buying lingerie.

Mar 3, 2014 at 11:30am | Leave a comment

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It was a full 16 years ago that Charlotte York did for The Rabbit what Carrie Bradshaw did for Malono Blahniks. At the time most sex shops were characterized by neon lights, blacked-out windows, and sales assistants with creepy mustaches, and Beyoncé’s visual album did not exist. It is, in other words, a time none of us would like to go back to. But when the pro surfboardter and her husband Jay-Z made pun-riddled headlines by spending $6,000 on gold-plated sex toys at Babeland last Christmas, the message was clear: Sex toys are not only mainstream, they’re kind of cool.
 
On a recent Friday, seven women converged around a display table at Babeland’s Soho store, a boutiquey, brick-façade space across the street from Alexander Wang. It was the second official day of New York Fashion Week, and the fourth event in two days centered around some just-launched product or another. But the pièce de résistance here wasn’t some miracle face cream; it was the Crave Duet vibrator, a two-pronged “external,” designed by San Francisco-based entrepreneur Michael Topolovac and industrial designer Ti Chang. “Don’t go sticking it up your bum!” Babeland’s Pamela Doan advised.
 
A distant relation of the hush-hush toy you hid in your sock drawer, the Crave had its insides extracted and laid before us like canapés — because we were color-customizing and building them ourselves.
 
And Babeland isn’t the only one to take advantage of increased popularity of sex toys (a study by toy manufacturer Adam & Eve found that 44% of women 18 to 60 have used one). Just three days prior, luxury online marketplace AHAlife had launched its sexy spin-off AHAnoir with a party in a gallery-like setting on Sixth Avenue. “A curated marketplace for sexual enlightenment, featuring exclusive, high-end adult products and boudoir accessories from artisan designers and brands,” it promised on the invitation, the Net-a-Porter of orgasms. There is a section on the website dedicated to ‘Unusual Looking Sex Toys,’ where they sell, alongside the Crave Duet, pastel-hued pony tail anal plugs that look like the ultimate accessories for a VIP BronyCon after-party.
 
“We’ve come a long way from the dolphin shapes and cutesy faces that were the norm…in 1993!”
 
Celebrity spending sprees aside, Babeland caters to a more mid-range market. While you can still purchase luxury vibrators like the Jimmyjane Eternity (available in gold for $2,750 or platinum for $3,250), the $125–$200 price bracket is where they have seen sales increase most. “Customers want to invest in quality, design, innovation, and customizable functions,” Claire Cavanah, Babeland’s co-founder (and co-author of Moregasm: Babeland’s Guide to Mind-Blowing Sex), tells me over email. “From there, once you’ve got a nice collection, spending a couple thousand dollars on a bedroom toy that is gold-plated with a circle of diamonds or part of a limited edition set is equivalent to spoiling yourself with a gorgeous piece of jewelry, high-end handbag, or shoes. It’s a luxury, and if you can afford it, it’s very sexy!” Cue Miranda’s line in that now-infamous SATC episode when Carrie balks at The Rabbit’s $92 price tag (“please, think about the money we spend on shoes!”)
 
Charlie*, a 25-year-old woman living in New York, points out that using sex toys has nothing to do with being single. “I think going to an adult store with your significant other is a good way to open the doors to a discussion about sex.” She personally likes the sex position cards. Steph, 23, is selective about who she tells, but also doesn’t think sex toys are anything to hide. “My partners, current and previous, as well as certain very close friends are aware. It’s not something I’d intentionally lie about if asked directly.” And those women falling into the 56% who don’t use sex toys aren’t totally ruling them out. “I don’t really use sex toys. I more fantasize about using them,” 31-year-old Alison tells me. “I mostly go in for the free wine and massage oils. But I have always come out with more items to play around with.”
 
Back when Charlotte discovered the Rabbit most of Cavanah’s current target market (twenty-something women) was still playing with Tamagotchis. She says innovations in technology have been fundamental in powering acceptance of sex toys as consumer electronics, even more so than increasingly liberal attitudes toward sex in general. “Choices and sophistication of sex toys has really changed in the past ten years, more rapidly than it did during Babeland’s first decade,” she says. “I think part of it is attributable to innovations in technology that attracted new designers into the industry. Toys that are Skype-compatible, use Bluetooth, have wireless or motion-activated remotes, better motors — all of these advances have filtered into the bedroom.”
 
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OhMiBod founders Suki and Brian Dunham.

 
OhMiBod, a husband and wife-owned company headquartered in New Hampshire, recently launched their blueMotion, a Bluetooth-activated pair of vibrating underwear, at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, alongside Sony’s cloud-based PlayStation Now and a fridge that tells you if you’re low on produce. The underwear, which looks like a solid plastic panty liner, retails for $129 and can be controlled using smartphone features.
 
OhMiBod founder Suki Duham says it’s mostly couples who are filling the blueMotion wait list. “There are people that may have date night out and they have their partner wear it and they’re controlling it and it’s this little secret between the two of them,” she tells me from her hotel on the last day of CES. “Then they go home and are intimate together.”
 
Designing sex toys has become cool, according to Cavanah. “Many of the new and interesting companies, like Jimmyjane, MinnaLife, Je Joue, and Crave were all designers with lifestyle product experience who set their skills to work on intimacy and connection. Many toys now are gorgeous objects that you’d want to display on the nightstand. We’ve come a long way from the dolphin shapes and cutesy faces that were the norm when we first opened in 1993!”
 
The OhMiBod founders also have lifestyle product experience. Suki was a marketer for Apple for over seven years before founding OhMiBod, which penetrated the mainstream market by fusing good sex with good music and clever brand building. One of OhMiBod’s earliest designs was included in the 2010 Grammy swag bag. “There really weren’t that many companies out there taking that clean approach to the industry and promoting these products as they should be, which is as a lifestyle consumer electronics product,” Suki tells me. “Our goal was to create the first socially acceptable vibrator.” OhMiBod recently went live on Brookstone, and the owners hope to soon make their way into more brick-and-mortar retailers in the U.S. “In Milan, there’s a Giorgio Armani store that has an iStuff store in it, and our products sit on the shelves in that store right next to speakers and headphones.”
 
Sex and the City’s 1998 message about vibrators now seems as antiquated as the idea of another sequel: While making the Rabbit as much a must-have item as Carrie’s shoes, it also implied that vibrators are a substitute for — and a threat to — men. The message sent by music’s most powerful couple is that enjoyment of inanimate toys and real men aren’t mutually exclusive. If Charlotte York’s pre-aughts Rabbit is the Discman of sex toys, the blueMotion is the iPhone 5s.
 
In a time when “Louis sheets / he sweat it out like washed rags / he wet it up” is an acceptable Grammys performance lyric, buying sex toys is really not a lot more risqué than buying lingerie. “We have sexy pictures on our website,” Suki tells me. “But so does Victoria’s Secret.”
 
*Names in this paragraph were changed to protect privacy.
 
Reprinted with permission from Styleite. Want more?