Kink Turns Cool With 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' Impacting BDSM Business
It was a typical weekend of running errands. Walking down the aisle of mainstream retailer Target, I stopped dead in my tracks. What to my wandering eyes appeared? A vibrating cock ring? I immediately searched for the store’s trusty logo, in hopes of confirming my surroundings. Yep, Target.
It was at this precise moment that I realized indeed, sex toys had gone mainstream. And the film “Fifty Shades of Grey” was the culprit. In Target, the toy is even specifically called “Fifty Shades of Grey Yours and Mine Adult Vibrating Love Ring.”
No wonder the phenomenon, as Vintage Books announced last year that they had sold 100 million copies of the book, which led to the film. Author Ms. James, a middle-aged mother from Britain, has been credited for her introduction of BDSM to mainstream society. A current annual estimate of pleasure product sales in America is between $1-2 billion, stated Sara Ramirez, XBIZ associate publisher for retailing.
Longing for a professional perspective, a handful of helpful retailers gave us their take on film and their products’ rise in popularity. Other topics of discussion include how BDSM products have evolved; “soft” toys’ selections, past and present; most popular 50-Shades inspired purchases; and retailers’ opinions of the film.
The most provocative comment thus far (and we thank her for her honesty) hails from New York-based Nasstoys Sales and Marketing Director Kathryn Hartman.
“BDSM products including videos, printed materials, furniture and attire were more of an underground niche market which gained some popularity after the Madonna erotica photography book [“Sex”] which was filmed at NYC’s original notorious Hellfire Club,” she explained. “Quality leather and toys used for scene play were often made by and sold by talented leather craftsmen at clubs and private play parties. The majority of the BDSM merchandise being marketed to the mainstream ‘Shades of Grey’ crowd is copies of these original toys made by artists who were also scene players.”
So, what was made before has apparently been replicated.
She further explained, “I think that most of the original lifestyle scene players used things around the house or tackle box or tool shed or kitchen drawer for much of their basic play. For example ... silk scarves, cotton rope, candles, various kitchen or office implements, fly swatters, black painted wooden pins, fishing line weights, sleep masks, pet leashes and collars, handcuffs, equestrian supplies ... the list goes on and on. Many manufacturers used these very ideas and turned them into boxed play kits like the Nasstoys Dominant Submissive Pleasure Kit designed for the beginner couple. Others packaged these mainstream items and marketed them specifically to the fetish customers depicting specific usage.”
The film has also touched another nerve in BDSM community, portraying characters in a negative light, explained Jimmyjane President Robert Rheaume.
“There have been critiques by experts in the BDSM community that the film wasn’t necessarily a proper representation of BDSM play and why people engage in these activities,” he said.
Rheaume explained further. Regarding the Christian Grey character, there are concerns that the book and film perpetuate a stereotype that, like Grey, psychological damage or trauma leads people to this lifestyle. Rheaume believes the opposite rings true, saying that the BDSM play is really about “connection, intimacy and really letting go through sexual exploration, which can be pleasurable and create strong bonds within a relationship.”
Susan Colvin, president and CEO of California Exotic Novelties agreed. “While ‘Fifty Shades’ has done a fantastic job shining the spotlight on BDSM products, there are many who feel the community is not portrayed accurately. It leads to misconceptions. Even as far as the products go, we feel it is our mission to make sure consumers understand how to properly use them.
Additionally we want them to have realistic expectations so they won’t be disappointed — either in themselves or in the product.
“For example, in the book the character Anastasia has an incredible time with love balls, or Kegel balls, as they are popularly known. The reality is this type of product is pretty sophisticated for beginners. Understanding how to use them correctly, knowing that they are mostly intended for Kegel exercises, and that you usually need to build your way to achieve results, is very important for the novice to understand.”
To help people learn and become educated, the company has an entire “Bedroom Insider” video series about the types of products featured in “Fifty Shades” online. Their customers can use them as educational tools and to share on social media. They can all be found on ClubCalExotics.com.
Despite whether the popularity is passé, the overall opinion of our retailers is summed up in a comment by Lovehoney’s co-owner Neal Slateford.
“The jury is still out on this one as there are a lot of BDSM enthusiasts that thought Fifty Shades of Grey brought about a positive change in terms of bringing BDSM into the mainstream and changing people’s perspectives. Others believe it wasn’t a realistic depiction of a domme/sub relationship and others even went as far as saying it promoted abuse. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a fictional love story which highlights an area of sex that many people weren’t aware existed. You only have to look at the sales of bondage equipment to realize it has opened up a lot of doors in people’s sex lives and if people are sexually happy, then we are happy.”
Lovehoney is credited as official suppliers of the Red Room in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie, explained the company’s co-owner Neal Slateford.
“We have a very close relationship with E L James and she asked us if we would be willing to supply high-end bondage equipment for the Red Room which we were more than happy to do. We were thrilled when we saw the Red Room in the film, as it was exactly how you imagine it would look after reading the books. We all enjoyed trying to spot our products in the scenes when watching the film.”
Mainstream Madness, Surge In Sales
Turns out, BDSM is much more mainstream then one would expect. Joanne B. Queenin, executive administrator of Sportsheets International, Inc., stated that their sales have increased steadily each year, prior to the book and film release. She also makes us take a second look at each person we encounter out and about.
“Many people don’t realize but BDSM is a very popular lifestyle that people from all walks of life live,” she said. “From the guy that pumps your gas to CEOs of billion-dollar companies, BDSM transcends all walks of life.”
Sportsheets witnessed a huge surge in sales across the board since the release, with an influx of new customers looking to experiment with their products. Their Sex&Mischief provided the vehicle for these beginners.
They even cleverly timed marketing methods to coincide with the film’s release. Following the book release, they unleashed new product, The Grey Tie, which was in the first book and sold more than 200,000 pieces. They also have a new line called Sexperiments, which are gift boxed kits that range from the beginner to the advanced. “We timed the release to launch at ANME, just one month before the movie hit theaters,” said Queenin. “We held a private screening before the movie even hit theaters and every seat in the theater was filled. Our products were also featured in a number of mainstream publications on top 10 lists of products that would help you reenact Christian Grey and Anatasia which is what I think added to the surge in sales.”
Lovehoney’s Slateford also shared great news. “When the book trilogy first caught people’s imaginations Lovehoney saw the sale of bondage items increase by 109 percent, the sale of whips and floggers increase by 235 percent and the sale of blindfolds increase by 230 percent.
“Fifty Shades of Grey was instrumental in bringing BDSM to a mainstream audience,” he said. “They gave people the confidence to explore their sexuality and to try new things that they previously thought were taboo.”
Lovehoney witnessed a surge in sales now and in future.
“We sold over a million Fifty Shades of Grey items in 2014 and we can already see that 2015 will be bigger — sales in advance of the movie release and in the weeks that have followed have surpassed all expectations. Considering the popularity of the first film and the announcement of two more films, we are sure that this brand is here to stay. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is already the most pre-ordered DVD on Amazon ever so we’re expecting another surge of interest when that is released.”
Susan Colvin, president and CEO of California Exotic Novelties also saw sales skyrocket, especially their Kegel balls. Prior to the book they sold an average of 80,000 of various types per year. After the book took off, their sales escalated to a million in just one six-month span.
In addition, the company made a clever marketing tactic.
“To appeal to the more sophisticated user and a new consumer segment being drawn into the category, we introduced the Scandal and Entice Accessories collections.”
“We’ve seen a huge demand for the Scandal Collection and Entice Accessories, and continue to see strong sales,” she added. “We agree, this is mostly a fad, and interest in the movie has already waned. However we created both these collections to stand the test of time.”
Regarding their line of “soft” products, “over the past 20 years we’ve offered hundreds of products in this area. Since Fifty Shades raised awareness, we’ve been able to offer more varieties and more creative types of products. The Over the Door Cross, for example, in the Scandal Collection, is very unique. Additionally, items like the Posture Collar with Cuffs and the Collar Body Restraints are more advanced versions of all-time classics. The beautiful rose gold accents and plushy quilting of the Entice Accessories is also an evolution in fetish fashion. That’s what the Entice Posture Collar with Leash, the Passion Wheel, and the Mystique Mask are all about…pushing the norm and being deliciously inspired!”
In contrast, companies like Nasstoys cannot accurately attribute a rise in sales due to the film, since the release was on Valentine’s Day, a holiday that brings an annual increase in customers.
Jimmyjane President Robert Rheaume also admitted to not seeing a surge in sales due to a limited stock of BDSM products. However, the company did plan ahead and developed two new items in anticipation of the film including the Seduce Me Line and the “HELLO TOUCH X”, which can be used for BDSM play. They have seen a lot of interest in these new items, as couples are looking to expand their bedroom repertoire and push the boundaries.
It seems like the only store that opened after the film’s release was Kink Shoppe, which also cannot reference the increase of sales, but happily stated that numerous customers reference the film when shopping. About half the company’s products are BDSM.
Artemis Morrow of Kink Shoppe is confident in BDSM’s future. “One nice thing about the film release is that customers who are maybe just curious or exploring are a lot more open to higher-quality, more “serious” toys (like actual leather restraints, spreader bars, etc.), which might have looked scary to them in the past. They didn’t have as much of a visual frame of reference for what toys they might like to try pre-movie.”