Sex & Relationships

Why Sex Toys Need a Woman's Touch

Sex toys for women used to be mostly designed by men, with varying degrees of success. Today, women are creating sex toys for their own needs.

It was a 19-year-old girl’s nightmare. My mother had found my vibrator.

Now, if a sibling or cousin decides to rifle through your things when you’re not around – read your diary, check out your underpants, look for your weed or some such glaring breach of privacy – they generally leave things as they found them so as to avoid detection. I came home to find my love toy -- a long, tall, slightly rounded version of the Washington Monument cast in hard, unforgiving beige plastic -- standing on the end table in my flawlessly cleaned room. Note to those of you still living at home: This is a prime example of why you should tidy your own damn room.

You see, there weren’t many options for moderately adventurous young ladies interested in self-exploration back in the day. This was pre-Internet. And although there were innumerable, um, boutiques in nearby Times Square (a place very different from the one we know today) that stocked such items, none were particularly appetizing to a young girl unless she was looking for a "date."

My vibe was a moderately pleasurable clit buzzer – granted, one so loud I could only use it while home alone – but beyond that, it was useless. Its unyielding material was cold and hard, its shape preposterously ill-suited to the graceful, sinuous bends of my soft, intimate anatomy and its vibration mechanism had only one setting: chainsaw.

Clearly, I needed a better mouse for my trap.

An Exceedingly Brief History

The earliest known dildo, eight inches of stone, dates to 30,000 years ago, and scientists have noted the use of sex toys in ancient Egyptian civilization as well as ancient Greece. Extra-phallic penetration is a concept our ancestors embraced enthusiastically.

Other materials for these early clam hammers included wood and tar, and pliable fruits and vegetables have been employed since the dawn of masturbation. Industry progressed. Rubber was introduced. A large interior coil gave newer models flexibility, but as the product aged its sheath would often crack, exposing the spring and subjecting users to some pretty heinous injuries.

Moving forward, we developed PVC and jellies, although issues with the unpleasant scents of such materials and the inability to properly sterilize them, as well as the unsafe phthalates they contained (used as a softener, phthalates have since been linked to some nasty health problems) led to the various grades of silicone we see in use most often today. Other materials – wood, glass, metal – are making impressive inroads today for reasons both ecological and pleasure driven.

A Woman’s Touch

While some folks are more concerned than others about the physical makeup of their sex toys, most would be surprised to find that speaking with the people who make them is often akin to interviewing Betty Crocker or Mrs. Butterworth about their own respective specialties.

“I don’t think people realize the labor and the thought and the love that goes into it," says Leslie Shwartzer without a trace of irony.

Shwartzer is the U.S. director of sales and marketing for Rocks-Off Ltd., a U.K.-based company one might describe as a “mum-and-pop sex toy manufacturer."

“Our first product was more or less dreamt up by two guys at a bar,” she says. “And we still work that way.” Though based on the company’s success, I have to assume it’s more often than not without pints.

“We start a product from its inception. We build the mold, we build the product, everything is ours and from our own factory. It is an absolute labor of love.”

The company’s debut toy was the phenomenally successful Rock Chick – a vibrator designed specifically for women to ‘rock onto’ in order to discover and massage the G-spot.

“The problem,” she says, “was that women were looking for their G-spots and 80 to 90 percent of the manufacturers were making a stick with a ball on the end of it! This would work fantastic if you didn’t have a pubic bone. But the simple fact is that you do, and it’s in the way.”

The Rock Chick is a quantum leap forward when placed side-by-side with my aforementioned masturbatory artifact, designed meticulously with the female anatomy in mind. It took women to turn the industry around at the outset.

“There was definitely a lack of understanding of what a woman wanted in a sex toy,” says Susan Colvin, speaking of the old days. Colvin is the founder and owner of California Exotic Novelties (aka, CalExotics), a veritable empire of love toys that manufactures more than 500 different kinds of rabbit-style vibes alone. It ships more than two million units a month worldwide, a solid indicator that sex toys have in fact gone mainstream.

“Everything pre-1994 was a product designed by men, geared to men who were the consumers back then. Men were making all the decisions, even about what their woman should try.”

Sixteen years later, she says, the atmosphere has done something of a 180. “If putting women-friendly products in packaging that appealed to a woman’s sensibilities helped bring about this change – then guilty as charged!”

Rhythm Method

Unlike Susan Colvin, who paid her dues in adult distribution before becoming an industry mogul in her own right, Suki Dunham was a techie with zero experience in the adult realm. If anyone had told her during her tenure at Apple that she’d one day come up with the idea for the world’s first music-driven vibrator, “I probably would have laughed out loud.”

OhMiBod, a sex toy so hot it was recently included in the Grammy Awards swag bags, is the progeny of two stocking stuffers Dunham received from her husband around the time he was traveling a lot for work: A vibrator and an iPod. “I found myself using them at the same time,” she says, “and I started to think about what a big part music plays in our sex lives, in setting a mood.” Bringing the two together, she thought, would be a killer combo. “And it didn’t hurt that I am a gadget girl at heart!” And so, the OhMiBod was born.

The most popular of OhMiBod’s technology-enabled products are music-driven vibrators that buzz to the rhythm of the music on the user’s iPod, iPhone, MP3 player or smart phone – anything with a 3.5-mm jack. “It offers a dual sensory experience,” Dunham explains. “Since no two songs are alike, the experience can be different every time.” The products are versatile, as well. “Users can switch from music to manual mode easily and transform the product into something that yields a completely different sensation.”

Fun Factory

Making a new sex toy "takes a group effort from start to finish,” says Al Bloom, director of marketing for CalExotics. The product development team gathers all new ideas and creates a master list sorted by category – vibrator, masturbator, couple’s item, etc. – for a weekly meeting. Decisions are made as to which will move on to the development stage. Bloom’s recounting of the process is a verbal data-flow diagram, a nonmusical – if slightly more risqué – “Schoolhouse Rock.”

“Our design, research and testing methods were established many years ago,” says Colvin. “They are the roadmap to the great success we’ve enjoyed in the marketplace to this day."

Bloom says often the biggest challenge is not getting ahead of the curve. “We have innovated items that were way ahead of their time, and ended up discontinuing technologies that have later come back full circle.” Bloom acknowledges this is a common pitfall in any industry, “but ours doesn’t have the luxury of mass advertising to educate the masses.”

People didn’t understand Susan Colvin's idea of waterproof toys 12 years ago, he explains. “The truth is that the only ‘alone time’ many women get is in the bath or shower, and waterproof toys are the perfect companion! Only a woman would have recognized this in the early days of this business.” Today, almost everything CalExotics makes is waterproof.

“Women are the ones who know how a given toy feels and which designs are relevant and user-friendly,” says OhMiBod’s Dunham. At the outset, her company gave the original vibe to 500 testers – a pool of people enthusiastic to try the product – and used their feedback to make tweaks in design. Today, she employs a method that crosses the columns – expert input, anatomical research, consumer reviews of other products, “but oftentimes what really takes place is personal testing by me!”

Susan Colvin also embraces her role in the industry. “I love what I do, how it impacts women’s lives and improves relationships and personal self-esteem,” she says. “I’m surrounded by people who are as dedicated as I am and that feeling flows into our worldwide distribution and retail partners. When you love what you do, it shows.”

Though touched – in very special places – upon discovering how much thought and care go into the products we ultimately lodge in our love holes, I remain nonetheless indebted to my nondescript, unremarkable 1980s vibe.

I have a great relationship with my mom today. If she had found a thick, veiny, 9¾-inch Ron Jeremy dong in my bedside table that afternoon, I’d never have been able to look her in the face again.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018