Sex Toys and Pop Culture: Life Imitating Art?

Ariana Rodriguez

This month, we introduce a new “Talkback” section to NoveltyBiz to give industry members the opportunity to share their thoughts on the mainstreaming of sex toys. While many of the supporting responses relate to the booming sexual wellness category in mainstream retail, a significant portion of respondents recall being ushered into the mainstream thanks to Hollywood.

In the “90s, “Sex & the City” put rabbit vibrators on the map; however the tech-obsessed culture of today isn”t so much interested in openly scripted TV shows. No way, we crave a daily dose of “real life drama” (that perhaps we”re missing by keeping up with the information superhighway), but guess what? Sex toys are still making their way into the semi-scripted world of reality TV.

Sex and related products are a part of reality and your favorite pseudocelebrity isn't ashamed of putting it out there so why should you?

Among the most successful brands to bank on the TV trends of Generation Y is The Screaming O. From appearing on an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” to entire seasons of “Bad Girls Club,” there is no shortage of young adult women that would give their best “O” face for that notorious red Screaming O branded tank.

Sex toys also are making appearances on network TV via health-centric talk shows like “The Dr. Oz Show” and “The Doctors,” which have showcased products from a variety of companies, including We-Vibe, CalExotics and (again) The Screaming O, among several others.

No reality show today is complete without a scandalous sex toy episode. “Real Housewives” from coast to coast, “Jersey Shore” twenty-somethings, “Bad Girls Club” ladies and multiple Kardashians have all ventured into the world of pleasure products for the cameras — and with multitudes of impressionable adult viewers watching, the message is clear: sex and related products are a part of reality and your favorite pseudocelebrity isn't ashamed of putting it out there so why should you?

Victoria Bowman-Steinour, Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Doc Johnson

“Sex toys have crossed into the mainstream now more than ever. It is now commonplace to see sex toys alluded to or shown outright on major network television shows, in movies, and mentioned in popular magazines. The luxury brands helped pave the way by making sex toys a sophisticated accessory and status symbol in some regards. Fitting with the emergence of a savvier and more sophisticated consumer, you’re seeing more nonporous material lines being created and bestselling products being reissued in silicone. Desirable attributes in the mainstream arena are: small, colorful, rechargeable, discreet, ergonomic — all strong themes that continue to gain momentum.

Changes in the market can sometimes be wonderfully disruptive and beneficial to manufacturers and retailers, and the flipside of that is sometimes trends have too much perceived influence and cause rash decision making … so you have look deeply at the meaning of what is really happening in our industry and act accordingly if a trend is in line with your company’s goals. You can see how Doc Johnson has responded to consumer demand with our latest assortment of products unveiled at the January shows and in our recent catalog supplement. This is most certainly something we kept in mind when developing WonderLand; we know that WonderLand has mainstream appeal and are excited to see the ripple effect it will have when we release the line in two months.”

Julie Stewart, Vice President, Sportsheets

“The timing couldn’t be better for this question. We’ve all seen the trend of vibrators, vibrating cock rings and arousal lubricants in our local drugstores, indicating that consumers are ready to purchase these products while shopping for deodorant and diapers. What’s really exciting to us at Sportsheets is when a phenomenon like the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ book trilogy comes out and busts open a more taboo concept such as bondage into the mainstream. The response to this series, read by the same moms who have stolen their daughters’ ‘Twilight’ books, is very cool. I’ve read the first book and I think it’s great that erotica like this is available for download on an iPad! Although most readers will likely never incorporate a private bondage room in their house, as the Grey character does in the books, I think people will now have a conception for a dialogue on fantasy role play and what it can bring — in a mutually consensual way — to a relationship.

This is really groundbreaking as it’s the first bondage-oriented literature to be received so openly, as well as being on the New York Times bestseller list (as the No. 1 e-book and paperback fiction). We hope that this expands the consumer base willing to experiment with products found in our Sportsheets and Sex & Mischief brands. And I hope retailers will see a great cross-sell opportunity to carry this book and put it on the website or in their Sportsheets section. Personally, I can’t wait to see these books turned into mainstream movies and then, look out!”

Susan Colvin, President and CEO, California Exotic Novelties

“CalExotics has a unique pointof-view of what it means to ‘go mainstream.’ Rather than looking at individual products that make it into mainstream retail outlets or get play in mainstream entertainment and media, we consider ‘going mainstream’ to be about adult businesses adapting mainstream practices.

As an industry, when we adjust our collective marketing and merchandising strategies to appeal to a mainstream audience, we better position ourselves to grow and thrive. Product packaging, store displays, plan-o-grams, merchandising tools, store displays, advertising, public relations and social media are all part of the marketing mix needed to ‘go mainstream.’”

Kevin Johnson, Public Relations Manager, Pipedream Products

“Pipedream has received a lot of mainstream media attention, possibly the most of any adult novelty manufacturer thanks to its line of celebrity parody love dolls, the Super Star Series. There have been times we haven’t even gotten a press release out for a new doll, someone will spot the image on our site and it gets out all over the Internet. Next thing you know our traffic is breaking a million visitors a day. We saw similar traffic to our site when a news story started going viral about the sex shop bandits who robbed adult retailers specifically targeting our Mega Masturbators from Pipedream Extreme Toyz.

“In addition to that Pipedream has had products featured on all sorts of TV shows, music videos and in movies. Last year alone we got some major attention when items from the Fetish Fantasy Series were spotted in singer Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ music video, and when our products were featured on ‘Outsourced’ on NBC, as well as ‘Tosh.0’ and ‘The Daily Show’ on Comedy Central.”

Nikki Yates, Corporate Director, A.L. Enterprises

“‘The Daily Show’ did a segment on our product a while ago. Graham Norton gave one of our products to Jennifer Love Hewitt a few years ago. We had a write up in Maxim and Jane magazine also a few years ago.”

Leon Benz, Vice President of Marketing, Standard Innovation Corporation

“There are a lot of signs telling us that this is certainly the trajectory. Accessibility to these products has changed and in doing so, it has opened up the conversation with more mainstream audiences. We see mainstream retailers, like your local drugstore, starting to recognize the sexual wellness product category as a profitable and growing industry evidenced by the growth of the shelf space they are willing to dedicate to these kinds of products. You can find them in the mini-bar in your hotel room, or to see them featured in the latest episode of an HBO show, and as a result it has become more comfortable for consumers to purchase and talk about these kinds of products. There is still a lot of work to be done, in terms of mainstream availability and on in terms of consumers feeling more comfortable in their purchasing process, but we have come a long way.”

David Mazer, owner, B Cumming Co.

“From the big screen, to the small screen to your bedroom, we have lubricated the world for over 30 years. We’ve had product placement in movies such as ‘8MM,’ ‘Terminator 3,’ ‘Blades of Glory,’ ‘Another Gay Movie,’ its sequel ‘Gays Gone Wild,’ ‘Fight Club’ as well as TV shows ‘Weeds’ and ‘Sex in the City.’ There will be more releases to come in 2012!”

Kathryn Hartman, sales and marketing director, Nasstoys

“Our dear friend, Miss Taylor Wane, renowned adult industry actress and Hollywood celebrity shamelessly plugs all new Nasstoys items, and especially the Nasstoys Taylor Wane Collection, to the huge audience on Playboy Sirius Radio each Tuesday night. The smoking hot mechanics at the NYC Dodge dealership where I service my car are her biggest fans! Talk about mainstream! And then there is the occasional sighting of a Nasstoys item in checked luggage by TSA on a flight from JFK to Heathrow, that makes the news, I believe it was a Rampant Rabbit — one of our top sellers.”

Tiffany York, Creator/Founder/CEO, FixSation

“Yes, some of the classier, understated and high quality sex toys have managed to cross over into the mainstream. If we can sell sexual health aids to protect against pregnancy and STDs in every store in America, why not also sell sexual health aids that enhance the sexual experience. Whether for protection or pleasure, both items are sexual health accessories and there is a market for both, as the consumer is the same.”