Sex & Relationships

Amazon Sells 60,000 Sex Toys and Related Products? Welcome to Sex 4.0

Major retailers are jumping into the growing "sexual wellness" business.

When was the last time you used a sex toy? When was the last time you bought what has been rebranded as a “sexual wellness” or “sex novelty” product? And when you bought the pleasure device, did you get it through Amazon?

According to industry insiders, research studies and news reports, sex paraphernalia is becoming a mainstream business. For decades, shoppers – mostly men, often dubbed the “raincoat crowd” – had to slink into XXX-rated shops in a down-market part of town to purchase sex-related products, whether vibrators or porn movies. Those days are over.

Over the last couple of decades, a handful of sex-affirming retailers like San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, Babeland in Seattle and the Pleasure Chest in New York have offered discriminating shoppers the opportunity to check out and buy something special.

Today, major retailers are jumping into the growing sex wellness business. They range from high-end specialty chains like Nordstrom and Brookstone, mass-market outlets like Walgreens and Target, and even crusty down-market Walmart. But the big-dog outlet is Amazon.com, offering an estimated 60,000 products for those with a certain yen.

The old days when sex was another three-letter word for sin and steeped in shame and guilt are long over. Adult Americans, especially women and couples, are actively incorporating a variety of once-shunned products into their sexual lives. This shift in popular culture can best be described as Sex 4.0, America’s fourth sexual revolution. But does Sex 4.0 really signify a real revolution? Is it only a softer, gentler form of traditional, male-centric sexuality?  

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The keynote speaker at this year’s Xbiz adult-entertainment industry convention in Los Angeles in January was Ethan Imboden. He is not a porn star, but the founder and CEO of Jimmyjane, a specialty producer of high-end sex products.  

Imboden brings a unique skillset to the sex paraphernalia business. He holds a BS in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins and a masters in industrial design from Pratt Institute. He worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory collaborating on the development of a DNA sequencer and other instrumentation for the Human Genome Project. He founded Jimmyjane in 2003, seeking to bring a new ergonomic design sensibility to a very old trade.    

Scott Fraser is a different kind of “sex-preneur.” A former Marine, he found himself commanding a squad of leathernecks in the Saudi desert during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. He discovered that a firearm lubricant could help alleviate the stress of military life. The mythic light bulb went on, and when he returned to the States, Fraser founded a company offering improved lubricants. Empowered Products first offered GunOil, a silicon lubricant for men, and followed it with Pink for women. Now, 10 years later, Fraser runs a publicly traded company.

Paris Intimates is an online adult sex toy and lingerie site. Its founder, Stefan Dallakin, is an artist and former industrial designer who is based in Detroit, and like thousands of others, lost his corporate job to outsourcing. He saw an opportunity for a new type of online retailer that could potentially compete with Amazon by offering a more value-added experience to traditional anonymous online shopping. Dallakin measures his company’s success by the fact that 50 percent of its customers are repeat shoppers.

Robin Elenga is a former member of Alliance of Angels, Seattle’s largest investment group. Elenga started four companies and invested in more than 10 successful startups before turning to the sex products market. He admits, “I didn’t set out to build a vibrator.” But that’s what happened. His startup, Revel Body, is about to launch its first product, TrueSonic, which uses technology inspired by the sonic toothbrush for a new type of women’s vibrator. He’s even using a crowd-funding campaign at indigogo to raise money.

Jimmyjane, Empowered Products, Paris Intimates and Revel Body are four very different businesses suggesting the range of specialty companies transforming the sex products market. Each illustrates how sex is being mainstreamed, reaching a wider consumer audience and undercutting traditional puritan moral prohibitions against sexual pleasure.

The founders of Jimmyjane and Empowered Products began their businesses about a decade ago, the period in which the sex toy business started to go mainstream. In 2005, Amazon, then with revenues of $8.5 billion, sold sex products within the "health and personal care" category, including toys, lube, books, condoms, douches, and performance enhancers -- 37,000 items including over 4,800 toys – along with wheelchairs, toilet seats and vision aids. In 2012, Amazon revenues were $61.1 billion, and it reportedly offers 60,000 “sexual wellness” products.

Jimmyjane’s Imboden recognized early on that to create the right positioning for his company’s products, he had to target high-end, luxury retailers. As Imobden notes, “we initially found greater receptivity in Europe at, for example, Space NK, a British apothecary chain with 72 stores – and that was before selling into the U.S. at Nordstom and Fred Segal in Santa Monica, CA.” His products quickly gained a following, and adding to the company’s cachet, it was featured in several glossy mainstream magazines.

Empowered Products carved out a similar approach. Fraser identified gay men as his initial target audience selling into gay-friendly mass-market pharmacies in San Francisco’s Castro and LA’s West Hollywood neighborhoods. With the introduction of its women’s lube product, the market expanded both in terms of number and range of outlets.

Dallakin founded Paris Intimates in 2008 during the Great Recession, recognizing that couples had less money for going out. He sought to differentiate his site from Amazon by reconfiguring the conventional anonymity of online shopping. While he has a hard time competing on price because manufacturers often specify selling prices of their products, he has sought to offer better customer service and provide a social networking environment that can fashion an online community. “We are creating a social space in which people can honestly talk about sex,” Dallakin says.   

Revel Body’s Elenga shares his fellow entrepreneurs' assessment of the changing marketplace. He acknowledges that Amazon is the mass-market leader, offering a nearly infinite selection of often essentially the same vibrators. He developed his new class of vibrator through extensive focus groups, interviews with women of all ages and input from industry experts.

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There is a shared perception among these entrepreneurs and others industry insiders that the rebranding of sex paraphernalia from “sex toys” to “sexual wellness” signals the mainstreaming of the market. Over the last decade, as much of the U.S. was enmeshed in a culture war over abortion and gay rights, a very different culture war was playing out, this one involving the changing nature of sexual pleasure.  

Adam & Eve is a leading sex-products retailer that was founded in 1970. It estimates that Americans spend $15 billion annually on sex products. In its own 2010 internal study, it found that 82 percent of adults it surveyed use toys; 44 percent of women 18 to 60 years have used a sex-enhancement product; and that 78 percent of those women were in a relationship when they used the product. (Dave Levine, the founder of CNV.com, a sex-products wholesaler, estimates total annual market sales at between $750 million to $1 billion.)

No matter the actual size of the sex-paraphernalia market, there has been a major shift in sexual mores over the last half-century, recasting personal values. This is most evident in the growing acceptance of homosexuality as a part of human nature, no longer a pathology or perversion. Imboden, Fraser, Dallakin, Elenga and others in the industry identify a number of factors that have contributed to the shift in cultural values. First, innovative products have invigorated the industry. Second, the entry of major retailers like Amazon, Walgreens and even Walmart have complemented the efforts of established boutiques like Good Vibrations, Babeland and the Pleasure Chest as well as multi-level market programs through “passion parties” to bring sexual wellness to a growing market. Third, major advertising campaigns by Trojan and Durex, especially targeted to younger, 18- to 34-year-old audiences, have helped legitimize once stigmatized, under-the-counter products. And finally, women (and couples) are far less ashamed of their erotic desires.  

One of the major indicators of social change is female premarital sex. A 2007 report from the Guttmacher Institute found that three-quarters (75%) of women of 20 years of age or older had premarital sex; among women who turned 15 between 1964 and 1993, more then nine of out 10 (91%) had had premarital sex by age 30. Of women who turned 15 years between 1954-1963, one quarter (26%) had premarital sex by age 18 years and the median age of premarital sex was 20.4 years. For those who turned 15 years between 1994-2000, more then half (54%) had premarital sex by 18 years and the median age of premarital sex was 17.6 years.

These developments, while significant, may not really signify a new sexual “revolution” as much as the further integration of private life into the market economy. Betty Dodson, a longtime champion of women’s sexual pleasure, warns that the new sex-paraphernalia retailing environment does not necessarily put an end to the male-centric sex culture. As she says, “the G spot has both men and women looking for a magic spot while the clitoris gets ignored.”

Back in 1973, Dodson shocked conservative feminists at a NOW conference when she championed different genital styles while pointing out the clitoris as the primary organ of female orgasms. Dodson is concerned that without shifting to what she refers to as a female-centric sex model, Americas will continue to suffer under the tyranny of the tired old controversy of vaginal versus clitoral orgasm.  

“Without shifting the locus of heterosexuality from penis/vagina intercourse to include the clitoris,” Dodson argues, “the potential for a real sexual revolution will not occur.” She fears that the new sexual openness only furthers traditional women’s roles of serving her partner’s sexual needs. In addition, she says, “the explosive availability of online porn which can be abusive of women, combined with a decade of Bush-administration abstinence-only instead of real sex-ed, has left two generations ignorant of healthy sex information and education that includes pleasure.”

One can only hope that today’s new sexual climate will permit both women and men to better relate to each other, socially and sexually, as equals. This is surely the only way they can better fulfill each other’s real sexual desires.