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The Mainstreaming of BDSM Gear

The Mainstreaming of BDSM Gear

August 22, 2009
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" Fifteen years ago, when it came time to do the Q & A portion of his visit, there was just as many questions of the ‘Do you worship Satan?’ variety as there were legit questions about BDSM, or about Stockroom as a business. "

What do you imagine of when you think of bondage? “Whips, chains, leather, scary, David Carradine” — these are some of the responses Todd Carter, director of sales and marketing at Sportsheets, has heard from retailers when discussing the marketing of his company’s sexual positioning products.

Ann-Marie Holman, brand manager for bondage gear manufacturer and retailer Stockroom.com, said the company’s founder Joel Tucker used to experience the same stereotypical assumptions as a guest speaker in human sexuality college classes.

“Fifteen years ago, when it came time to do the Q & A portion of his visit, there was just as many questions of the ‘Do you worship Satan?’ variety as there were legit questions about BDSM, or about Stockroom as a business,” Holman said. “Students were uncomfortable with the idea of BDSM, and relieved their discomfort by making fun of it. Nowadays, though, Joel says that he could be in front of the same college class, with the same instructor, and all students want to know, when the Q & A comes, is the correct address for our retail sites.”

Carter blames the media for the sterotypes, including the exploitation of actor David Carradine’s accidental death involving autoerotic asphyxiation with giving bondage a negative connotation. Adding to that, the misuse of the word often causes confusion.

“Bondage, electrosex, pumping — none of those things have to be fetishized,” eXtremeRestraints.com’s James Medina said. “Not everyone who ever gave a foot massage is a foot fetishist and not everyone who plays outside of the straight and narrow rules of sexuality is a fetishist. Electrosex is mostly about stimulating muscles and nerves for sensual and sexual stimulation. To refer to it as a fetish is like referring to vibrators as a fetish.”

Nevertheless, Medina credits mainstream manufacturers, including Sportsheets, for creating a middle market that is more accessible for those consumers wary of such products. “Sportsheets with its nylon and neoprene gear and Strict Leather with its solidly constructed leather and locking buckles [have quality products],” Medina said. “Their stuff tends to be more cheaply constructed pleather or leather. It tends to look better than standard neoprene gear but does not have the durability of better stuff. It’s a great well marketed mid-range product.”

Medina added that a lot of mainstreaming of fun, experimental bondage products has been done through pricing.

“With our Zeus Electrosex brand we’ve brought down costs substantially,” he said. “We’ve made it so that an adventurous couple can buy a solid electrosex toy for under $50 whereas two years ago people would more likely need to spend over $200. Now we have a range of products for under that and people don’t need to commit so much to trying things out.”

Carter does not consider the products sold by Sportsheets as bondage. He said labeling such products puts a limit on sales because of the fear it may instill within consumers. Nevertheless, some of the company’s products, such as doggystyle straps and harnesses, provide a comfortable middle ground.

Spartacus Leathers Operations Manager Laurie Bergquist also said she is grateful for the mainstream toy manufacturers that are creating more affordable, beginner-type bondage equipment.

“I think there is more of a focus on BDSM because there are more companies making and marketing the products,” Bergquist said. “Consumers have more options and many retail stores offer expanded selections. We love all the expansion by the majors, as consumers will start with these entry-level items and then progress up to ours.”

Stockroom also offers BDSM products for beginners. Its Kinklab line is exclusively targeted at the curious but inexperienced.

“Every product is of a quality and sturdiness that would satisfy even an experienced player,” Holman said, “however, every item is still a safe and intuitive choice for those who are just starting out — for example, Kinklab cuffs are removable with teeth, though you can struggle to your heart’s content without breaking out of them.”

Holman added that the Kinklab line is sold outside of the BDSM specialty niche through mostly top mainstream retailers.

Bergquist credits the curiosity of couples and education to the acceptance of BDSM play.

“The market has changed in the last 20 years,” she said. “BDSM has come out of the dark and into the focus of consumers interested in new intimate encounters. There is a focus on education and exploration — thanks to a few great companies. There had been a stigma around all things dark, and the education has shed some light on our products. A lot of our products enhance natural responses. Nipple clamps only hurt if you want the pain; cockrings need to get out of the bondage sections; bondage is about being restrained and building trust.”

Medina and Carter both characterize their respective company’s main consumers as adventurous couples that don’t necessarily identify themselves as part of any fetish community.

“Many of our customers aren’t engaged in fetish communities,” Medina said. “Many, many products are purchased by people just looking to have fun and explore either by themselves or with a partner. One can live a fetish lifestyle and be part of a fetish community and purchase a flogger for that purpose, but one can just as easily buy that flogger to try it out on her boyfriend. Couples across the spectrum have experimented with power plays and added some restraints to their relationship at some point. Couples have bought a lot of fuzzy handcuffs. Here at eXtremeRestraints.com we tend to think that upgrading to leather cuffs is comfier and cooler looking.”

Carter said Sportsheets’ Sedeux line of harnesses mainly used to attract lesbians, however he’s seen a rise of interest among hetero couples. In addition, he said the company’s Ménage a Trois for Two is a fun way for couples to try double penetration without a third partner. With brick and mortar boutiques and retail websites, Stockroom is a distinctive bondage retailer.

“Our retail sites and brick and mortar boutiques both attract a lot of adventurous people who don’t typically play BDSM games and who certainly don’t identify as being part of that subculture at all,” Holman said. “On the other hand, we also have a very devoted customer base of folks for whom BDSM is a lifestyle, and not just an occasional indulgence to add color and spice to an otherwise vanilla relationship. We try to address both markets, making sure that we provide beginners with the tools, education and customer service support they need to explore BDSM safely and intelligently, while at the same time, providing the kind of expert product advice, cutting edge specialty products, and kink community support that our lifestyle consumers rely on us for.”

Learning about BDSM practices and products is the most important factor playing into acceptance of this type of play. The Internet has opened the doors for curious couples and individuals to privately satisfy their fantasies.

“Not only is there all this information out there on how to do things and footage of all these exotic practices in action,” Holman said, “but users can explore it all in the privacy of their own homes. BDSM play is education-and information-based — learning how to use that equipment properly takes time and some instruction. More people have easy access to that information than ever before, so they can now put their curiosity into practice.”

Medina agrees that as people continue to become educated about bondage and BDSM, it won’t be so shameful to be interested in trying new ways to seek sexual pleasure.

“People are recognizing that bondage and BDSM happens between consenting caring partners,” he said. “As more people open up about their own experimentation and stop being ashamed of their sexuality it becomes more commonplace not to be vanilla. It really shouldn’t be taboo at all.”


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