opinion

Sex Toy Tech: Form Follows Function in Adult Pleasure Product Market

Gram Ponante

There’s a reason that the adult novelty market has slowly been rebranded as pleasure products, and that the transition has paralleled the growth of social media and a backlash against fly-by-night technology. As shame decreases (thanks, Facebook), consumers are more free to discuss things that used to be dirty little secrets, and are demanding quality and practicality—elegant tools rather than easily breakable bachelorette party gag gifts.

This is because sex toys are like Iowa’s Field of Dreams; if you build them (right), they will come. More and more, savvy adult companies incorporate technology to go where human extremities can’t, trading gimmicks for innovation, and serving the emerging rival functions of secrecy—the clever vibrator that looks like a lipstick—and pride of purchase—the gold-plated Crave vibrator displayed on the computer desk.

Many of our customers wanted to use something like our Rabbit vibe with a partner, and didn’t need the penis, because their partner already had a penis. So we made the Forms remote controlled, so a partner can operate them. -Molly Murphy, Marketing Director, Jimmyjane

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Brian Vatter of OhMiBod, the family of elegant adult products that brings the rhythms of your digital music library to your most private places. “We’ll be selling high-end adult products in mainstream stores sooner rather than later. And it’s because people expect the technology.”

Suki Dunham, OhMiBod’s co-founder (and Vatter’s wife), demonstrates the company’s Club Vibe, which comes with its own special thong.

“It translates ambient club music directly to (the wearer’s) clitoris,” she says. “Hands can’t do that.”

Simple, functional, sleek design—think Apple-meets-higher-end-IKEA—is moving the marital aid industry away from the stigmatizing term “novelty” (“‘Novelty’ sounds cheap,” says Taylor Means of Synergy Erotic, a Las Vegas company), toward “adult pleasure products.” JimmyJane vibrators find their way to the “Rachael Ray Show” and Real Housewife of Atlanta Kandi Burruss has her own licensed vibes through OhMiBod: The “Bedroom Kandi” line.

Social media technology has played a major part in marketing and acceptance of sex toys, as what would have been an eyebrow-raising revelation 10 years ago (“I use a vibrator”) is a nonchalant tweet today.

“We moved to a new level when Kandi Burruss tweeted about us,” says Vatter.

And that gradual (but technologically measurable) breakdown of shame amidst an ocean of blogger entries and Facebook “Likes” made the national sex toy dialogue that much more present.

Asked how soon her company’s stylish, high-tech vibrators would be selling at Macy’s, JOPEN’s Robin Stewart says, “Under five years.”

Why? Because tech trends point to elegant design, and elegant design necessitates raising the stakes for adult products, both in discretion in mixed company and glamour among friends.

“These are pieces you’re proud to show people,” says Stewart (“But you can also hide ’em easily,” says Dunham).

This trend is also reflected in packaging, from OhMiBod’s distinctly Apple-esque font choice to Synergy’s reserved graphic design.

“I would never buy an (adult pleasure) product with a naked woman on the package,” says Synergy’s Means. “Which is why our packaging is very discreet in its imagery but very clear about what the product does, so women aren’t forced to ask at the counter.”

Means points to a line of Synergy’s submersible vibrators. “You can use them in the tub,” she says. “Even the battery pack is submersible.”

Technology-aided discretion is central to JimmyJane’s products, many of which feature a lock function. “It prevents the vibe embarrassing you in your carry-on bag,” says marketing director Molly Murphy.

At the same time, a growing popular acceptance of sex toys brings those same products out in the open—for use with a friend—such as JimmyJane’s creation of the Form series, vibrators disembodied from a shaft.

“Many of our customers wanted to use something like our Rabbit vibe with a partner, and didn’t need the penis,” Murphy says, “because their partner already had a penis. So we made the Forms remote-controlled, so a partner can operate them.”

The Form series is recharged in a cradle via metal contacts, the technology allowing it to be like a piece of insertable art.

The pleasure product that most exemplifies the technology-as-personal-earnings-statement is the Duet Lux from Crave.

A vibrator that incorporates a 16GB flash drive for charging and data storage (“for your most intimate bits and bytes”), the Duet Lux is 24-karat gold-plated and sells for $349 ($359 with personal engraving). The chic and petite device vibrates through its silicone horns rather than at its base, so there is less risk of dropping it in the champagnefilled tub.

What with all the plug-less, waterproof, USB-powered sex toy innovation available, people might be reminded of The Dude’s reaction to progressive pornographer Jackie Treehorn in “The Big Lebowski.”

When Treehorn extols the virtues of interactive erotic software and a 100 percent electronic experience, The Dude replies, “Yeah well, I still jerk off manually.”

(“Of course you do,” Treehorn replies.)

Which brings us to California Exotic Novelties, the venerable sex toy institution with a Bible-sized 2013 catalog. While the company touts its own waterproof, double-motor tech marvels, it proudly displays an old-school flourish on its Futurotic Dong series; customers can get the vibrators in either “Ballsy” or “Veined.”

For many years the adult industry in general has gone to lunch on its early adoption of VHS, the Internet, and video-on-demand. But just as often it follows trends or ignores them, like “reality” programming or comprehensive piracy litigation, respectively. But one trend that has caught on with adult’s pleasure products wing is popular design aesthetics, and that might be the ticket to these fancy personal machines breaking through to the exponentially more lucrative mainstream market, with vibrators lining the shelves at Walgreen’s and Macy’s.

Aside from the increased warehouse space and cash flow, what will the major benefit of mainstream acceptance if sex toys break through?

“It’s not if, but when,” says OhMiBod’s Vatter. “And the benefit will be when you meet people at cocktail parties, you tell them what you do for a living, and they consider what you’re doing as a legitimate profession.”

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