Symphony of Fetish

Bob Johnson

The pleasure products industry is being whipped into a frenzy — literally. What with companies posting record sales of fetish and BDSM items, and new, innovative and even what was once thought of as bizarre products becoming more and more popular, the interest is spiking and there seems to be no end in sight.

Although the “novelty” may be wearing off of traditional novelties, the segment’s “weird” stepchild has become a mainstay of both sex toy and fetish product producers alike. BDSM products are even adding feminine “bling” to appeal to women.

As this trend permeates our culture, we see older shoppers trying adult products for the first time just as we’ve seen a very comfortable attitude among college-aged consumers. -Victoria Bowman-Steinour, Director of Marketing, Doc Johnson

And when for example Sportsheets can sell more than 90,000 grey ties alone — fallout from the “Fifty Shades” phenom — and Doc Johnson’s Black Rose anal training kits fly off the shelves, the dungeon doors are flung wide open for entry products that usher in new consumers with an eye toward experimenting with kinkier goods.

The industry has seen unprecedented growth thanks to “Fifty Shades” popularity. And despite the ad nauseum levels of hype, opportunity seems boundless. Nearly all of the major novelty product players agree that the uber-popular book has taken the stigma out of fetish and put a kick into kinky.

“The current trend has been a gateway to simply get new consumers into the stores (brick and mortar, and online) — once there, and familiar, we are sure many shoppers find themselves exploring like never before,” says Doc Johnson director of marketing and PR Victoria Bowman-Steinour. “I think this is particularly why the anal training kits are selling so well — many people were curious but never willing to take the leap. The distance to that leap has gotten considerably shorter because of the market shift; consumers are showing us this is true with their purchases.”

And LELO communications and marketing manager Patty Callahan adds that the cultural shift to fetish items has created a newfound openness that consumers haven’t considered before. After the “Fifty Shades” craze took off, LELO saw blindfold sales up 80 percent and cuffs up by 100 percent.

“As customers search for their own kind of ‘Fifty Shades’ moment, they of course encounter other products that pique their interest,” Callahan says. “In the case of LELO, for example, it can completely redefine their ideas of what a ‘sex toy’ can be. It’s something that we have appreciated for a while — the importance of context — which is why our portfolio strives to cater to all aspects of intimate lifestyle.”

The executive points to her company’s Pleasure Sets as ideal gateway products where customers can sample a range of different experiences with one seductive package. The package can be a gift to open a partner’s mind to the potential BDSM, or it can transform what was before a kinky joke between couples into a more luxurious form of sensual teasing.

“By combining one massager and two accessories, you are offering your customers a complete night of sensuality, with multiple possibilities. And of course, once they have that first high-quality experience inspired by “Fifty Shades,” the readers start having their own ideas on how to become even more adventurous. It’s a chain reaction and very liberating, but on a whole new level to reading the book itself,” Callahan says.

In July 2012, the company said its Luna Beads — a luxury line of Ben Wa Balls featured in a scene from the book, rose to become arguably one of the world’s best-selling sexual wellness product (vibrators and lubricant included), with an increase of more than 400 percent. And with the launch of its Luna Beads Mini and Luna Beads Noir that give even more options to customers, Callahan expects the numbers to continue to rise.

The trending continues with California Exotic Novelties Orgasms balls that also became a best-seller, moving out as fast as they could be produced. Company President and CEO Susan Colvin says the strategy of the company’s softer lines, like Tantric Binding Love, Fetish First Time and Bound by Diamonds, introduced consumers to the world of light fetish play in incremental stages. She says something fun and flirty like a blindfold and cuffs are perfect for first timers wanting to explore. “It is best to start slowly and carefully, and that’s why CalExotics prides itself in being the home to so many introductory BDSM collections. Once consumers become comfortable they can move onto the next level of play.”

Bowman-Steinour adds that consumers don’t feel that products like Doc Johnson’s Black Rose make too much of a statement about them as a people because they’re light, fun, and their partners won’t be afraid to jump in and play. “None of our Black Rose products have a connotation of severity — they instead convey sensual dominance and pleasurable submission. It brings a wonderfully overt romanticism to bondage, for beginners or occasional players,” she notes.

And Janet T, the sales and marketing director for Rapture Novelties, says the company is also seeing a growing and exciting trend of people opening up to new exploration and taking their experiences to another level. The company’s showroom stocks everything from the more docile handcuffs, paddles, masks and luxury vibrators to the more alluring bondage suits, men’s line and stainless steel restraints. Rapture’s also taking it a step further — embracing the BDSM lifestyle and culture by developing more highend medical, lingerie and restraint items.

Even companies that have embraced BDSM products from the start are adjusting to the new wave of consumers wanting to fly their freak flag.

XR Brands General Manager Randy Alvstad says a common first step into BDSM is sensory deprivation, so he recommends to customers a good quality blindfold, softer whips, ticklers and floggers, and sensory lotions that create tingling sensations for heightened sensitivity. And entry-level restraints usually made of neoprene and using Velcro instead of metal buckles is a great way for new customers to practice because they’re much easier to get into and remove, according to the executive.

Despite the rabid interest, cost still plays a major role when consumers start to explore and expand their sexual interests. Alvstad says by providing entry-level price points, more people are now testing out products and accessories they may be unfamiliar with, but curious to try.

One way XR is taking advantage of the newfound interest is in how the products are presented — another key trend in the burgeoning market. “Packaging, packaging, packaging. Friendly, welcoming imagery with a sultry edge inspires an intimate and erotic mood without discouraging shoppers unfamiliar with the items and clear, well-written descriptions are essential,” Alvstad says, adding that images and instructions showing how the items are used also help remove intimidation or potential fear from trying them out. “We’ve produced education videos available to both the retailer and consumer, which offer a clear visual representation of our BDSM-related products in a concise and friendly way.”

Sportsheets President Julie Stewart echoes the idea of presentation along with price and trust. She says when the company released its Sex & Mischief brand in 2011 it put those ideas into action. “Sportsheets takes feedback from our customers to heart. We’d been asked for an entry-level brand made with the same high-quality standard of Sportsheets Premium but at a more affordable price point, and that’s precisely what we did. Sex & Mischief was born out of a strong dedication to meet our core marketplace with accessible and useful products made for the middle-of-the-road curious consumer who buys on a budget but still wants the most bang for their buck. Sex & Mischief has become immensely popular on the retail level with constant distributor requests from around the world, which shows us that we indeed hit consumers’ sweet spot,” she says.

But what about the more adventurous consumer who wants to bypass the soft approach? Male chastity manufacturer A.L.Enterprises/CB-X’s Nikki Yates says the only way to start out in male chastity is to just jump right in. She says that customers usually begin their adventure by wearing a cock cage for a couple hours or a weekend of tease play. Some couples stay there and use it exclusively for short-term amusement. Others move on to longer-term wear either to increase intimacy or for the fetish of “orgasm denial.”

Given that “Fifty Shades” was far and away more popular with women than men, does that translate into the demographics of the typical BDSM/fetish consumer sparking the recent trend?

It appears to be split down the middle, depending on the type of product and company history. CalExotics’ Colvin says its core has always been women and couples so its bondage and fetish collections appeal to this target audience. “Women are the primary decision maker when it comes to most purchases, so creating items that appeal to their softer, feminine sensibilities is what we do.”

She notes that the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon illustrates the spending power of women. “The women reading this book are typically fans of various romance genres. The book, as everyone knows, started as fan fiction based on the ‘Twilight’ series. The paranormal romance genre is hot right now. This demographic is rooted in areas such as Middle America. As an industry we should take note of the incredible spending power of this demographic. CalExotics is looking very closely at this demographic to create products that appeal to their burgeoning curiosity. As they explore products like those found in romance literature, they will shop, and we as an industry need to be ready to meet their needs.”

Bowman-Steinour adds that it’s not only women but also couples, and of every age looking to inject some adventure into their lovemaking that are spending their cash on kink. “As this trend permeates our culture, we see older shoppers trying adult products for the first time just as we’ve seen a very comfortable attitude among college-aged consumers,” she says.

The fetish faithful have also buoyed BDSM manufacturers and retailers across the pond as can be attested to by Rimba, one of Europe’s largest makers of erotic and leather gear. The company has not only seen an increase in its traditional goods — supported largely by its high-end Leather & BDSM catalog that introduces would-be kinksters to softer bondage items such as Velcro bondage sets, eye masks, and rope for bondage play — but it is also seeing a spike in its electro sex toys.

According to company president Charley Cook, who advertises with, his demographics show an even split between men and women. Fetlife, according to Cook, has more than one million profiles and is described as the Facebook of the kink world. “A simple look at profiles in a specific zip code or a look at an event attendee list will show that the community is pretty evenly split, 50/50 male and female.”

And packaging plays a part regardless of demographics. XR Brands’ Alvstad believes that “fetishism” appeals equally to both sexes, but knowing that women most often make intimate buying decisions in a relationship, his company’s products and their packaging are designed to appeal to a feminine customer who might be dissuaded by more explicit kinds of imagery.

Cook notes that “Fifty Shades” had an emphasis on Kegel exercises that’s created a demand for vaginal strengthening products for women. What’s more, it’s opened the doors to more exotic electro products like Rimba’s 7875 Vib-Stim product, which is a large vibrating silicone dildo with an attached electro sex massage control unit that stimulates muscle contractions, thus working and strengthening the vaginal muscles. “There is only one other similar unit on the market and we’ve seen it retail for as high as $239. The Rimba unit retails for $99.95. It’s a great starter package with fun results,” Cook says.

And a recent trend report from found that BDSM accessories with a feminine twist are becoming all the rage. These accessories include floggers, clamps and more, often adorned with bright, soft accents such as dangling beads and jewels that make a fashion statement.

“Manufacturers have responded to rising nipple-clamp sales with lines of alligator, tweezer and other popular styles that are as much a fashion adornment as they are sex accessories,” the online retailer says. “Featuring colorful pinks, golds, purples and dangling beads, jewels and charms, these all-time favorites make a style statement that shoppers love. Fresh Pink Alligator Clamps by PHS International and Pink Crush Vibrating Nipple Clamps by Trinity Vibes — featuring a pink bullet vibe and heart charms — are two stand-outs.”

Even floggers, paddles and sensation accessories have received a makeover with ornate handles, colorful accents and sleek styling without losing their sexy impact. The report points to The Master Series Dazzling Eminence Flogger that features a gleaming metal handle and 23 whip tails, the Strict Leather Heart Tip Crop and Icon Brands Fashionista’s Glass Riding Crop — two traditional floggers that feature ornate detailing. Sportsheets’ Sex & Mischief Feather Slapper is also is designed to strike a balance between hard and soft.

The rise in “pegging” among female shoppers has even pushed strap-ons to a new, delicate redesign that keeps the harness in place with slender straps that expose more of the wearer’s skin.

“It’s fascinating to see trends like these develop and grow from the eye of a distributor, especially when they show rising popularity in categories once considered too ‘kinky,’” SexToyDistributing Senior Manager Beth Brown said. “Now we’re seeing BDSM items in an array of attractive and eye-catching colors with materials and accents that are irresistibly soft and sensual to the skin. BDSM manufacturers have officially found the balance between form, function and fashion and we’re excited to bring these new designs to retailers worldwide.”

And even though male chastity maker CB-X reports that men make up the bulk of their kinky customers, the idea often comes at the suggestion of their partners.

When it comes to the more daring electro stimulation products, the market favors men.

ElectraStim producer Cyrex’s CEO Andy Smith says men — particularly gay men — seem to be more interested in electro play than women. “Whether that is due to the fact that men are looking for the elusive hands free orgasm (HFO) or that there are not so many choices for male toys, especially if you are not into anal play, the male gay market is very educated on electro sex as it can be used for more hard-core couples play,” Smith says.

In fact, electro toys are quickly becoming the hottest trend in the field, due in part to their techno-geek appeal and for the BDSM aficionado who’s ready for something a bit more “shocking.”

Smith says like standard fetish toys, the more esoteric electro products also have an “introductory” market. “We have got a basic electro stimulation starter pack and a multipack option for those wanting to get some erotic accessories at the word ‘go.’ These options are available for both the Flick, single output, and Flick Duo, dual output, units. The basic packs still come with some self-adhesive electrodes which are great for partner-to-partner play, but most people tend to want an erotic add-on of some kind.”

Sales of the ElectraStim brand have been steadily growing, according to Smith who notes that the [“Fifty Shades”] phenomena has boosted sales even more. He’s happy to report that electro sex has become a “must category” and notes that his company gets daily wholesale from stores and websites alike.

Even though these types of products can sell for as much as $150 each, Smith maintains that the uniqueness and quality of the products and his company’s leading reputation in the sector has kept sales very healthy. “Our dual output SensaVox stimulator with audio input features is selling very well, but our new ElectraStim Flick stimulators are flying off the shelves. This revolutionary product has multiple built-in programs including escalating patterns but the game changer is the Flick feature, which enables the handset to be used as a stimulation controller by physically waving the unit, adding a new dimension to fetish role play and domination. Play can be gentle or hard, depending on the aggression on the motions.”

The combination of a newfound interest along with more offbeat and techno products has created an environment that’s tantamount to a kid let loose in a candy store, according to self-styled sex toy “mad scientist” Dr. Clockwork.

Clockwork’s company offers a variety of electrosex items, including its most popular Dr. Clockwork’s Violet Wand, a solid-state violet wand that retails for $199. The toy weighs less than a pound, runs for more than six hours without overheating, and has a sleek finish. Clockwork says it delivers a range of sensations, from mild to wild, allowing greater accessibility to electrical play regardless of experience level or budget.

But the wand portends just what may lie ahead for the ever-growing fetish product field. There are also accessories that Clockwork sells, including the Edison Adaptor and the Body Contact. The Adaptor instantly makes any light bulb a useable electrode; the Body Contact transforms the human body into the toy, allowing safe conduction of electricity via touch between everyone involved and conductive objects. “Both of these items encourage creativity in the bedroom where a variety of ordinary, household objects can be used in play,” Clockwork says.

The mad scientist advises newbies to not use the products on the face or in the shower, or if they have heart problems. In fact, the latest trend in fetish products is creating opportunities for developers to school folks on how to use the new technical toys.

Clockwork and others present the proper techniques at events and classes across the country, quenching consumers’ thirst for the next wave of BDSM and fetish toys and broadening the spectrum for manufacturers seeking new product lines.

BDSM appeals to everyone across the entire spectrum of gender and sexual orientations, Clockwork says, adding that the community welcomes all who are interested. And from all indications, the kinkier the toy, the better it will sell.