Women Play Pivotal Role in the Evolution of the Pleasure Products Market

Colleen Godin

For my generation of millennials, Women’s History Month brings back memories of college research papers and grade school art projects. Like many government-designated yearly events, we might think briefly of the honored, such as Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie. If such women are even designated a few seconds of our time, they are quickly forgotten before the first week of the month is up These women struggled for recognition in their own time, and they ironically continue to fight for their place in the modern world even after their passing.

Women’s History Month is unique for those within the pleasure products industry. We are birthed from a rather interesting concept: products for women, designed by and unintentionally marketed to men with the intention of drawing a female consumer base. Though many companies and educational organizations have since brought us out of the Dark Ages, the industry’s female powerhouses recognize the long journey we’ve traveled to get there. The month of March is a lot more than an afterthought for pleasure products industry’s businesswomen.

The femme-powered future of the pleasure product industry isn’t difficult to foresee. Manufacturers, retailers and sexual health organizations are aiming their products, education and social engagement at female consumers.

If anyone knows the struggle of women in the sexual health realm, it’s the organizers of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation. In addition to their year-round contributions, the group is most well-known for the annual Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit. The event brings together sex educators, political fighters, proponents of health-conscious products, and sexuality enthusiasts, all eager to teach, learn and evolve.

“Woodhull Freedom Foundation honors our namesake by fighting for a world that recognizes sexual freedom as the fundamental human right,” Executive Director Ricci J. Levy says. Victoria Woodhull’s name might not be found in any school history book, but in the late 1800s, she was quite possibly the most (in)famous woman of the U.S.’ political and financial realms. She shocked her peers by starting a newspaper, holding the first female seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and becoming the first woman to run for president. She was also a Suffragette who rallied loudly for sexual equality and freedom. “She inspires us to continue her work that all individuals should be able to develop, express and enjoy their sexual dignity without societal or governmental interference or stigmatization,” declares Levy.

Thanks to pioneers like Victoria Woodhull, females have lead the way in developing the pleasure products industry into a place where progression can thrive.

“Since being in the industry, it has been an honor to work side-by-side with many amazing and creative women,” Sportsheets President Julie Stewart said. “I have been inspired by pioneers in our industry like Metis Black, Jennifer Downey, Patty Brisben and Susan Colvin.”

In the early 1990s, sex toys were an afterthought. Packaging and product design left much to be desired. Susan Colvin saw this enormous gap in the market and headed the first all-female design team at her company, California Exotic Novelties, in 1994. Less than five years later, Metis Black emerged with a revolutionary concept: to create mass-market toys using only body-safe materials. Crafting her own unique, pure blend of silicone, Black was the first to push the industry in a direction of sexual health. On the retail end, women have been writing their own futures since the 1980s. In ’81, Jennifer Downey started Ambiance, a nationally recognized boutique retail chain in Ohio, based on the need for an approachable adult store sans the typical sleaze factor. By 1983, Patty Brisben was bringing women’s health into the household with one of the first mass-marketed home party companies. She single-handedly raised four children during Pure Romance’s humble beginnings, and has since grown the company to include the Patty Brisben Foundation. The organization raised more than $3 million dollars for sexual health research and educational initiatives since its creation in 2006.

Male dominance might be the standard in many industries, but Stewart counts our female figures as the headliners of change. “Women have evolved this industry to reach a bigger demographic, elevate our standards, and enhance the lives of millions of women and couples across the planet,” she notes. “We have changed the retail landscape to a more sex-positive, female-friendly experience.” Stewart has always mirrored her career on freedom fighters for women’s rights. “There have been so many women I have admired, even before I joined the industry 21 years ago, like Betty Dodson, Annie Sprinkle and Gloria Steinem who have done so much to improve women’s sexual health,” says Stewart.

The femme-powered future of the pleasure product industry isn’t difficult to foresee. Manufacturers, retailers and sexual health organizations are aiming their products, education and social engagement at female consumers. Companies like Stewart’s Sportsheets aim to help women better connect with their partners. The Woodhull Foundation receives support from the likes of industry reformers and female-positive businesses like Tantus. “Everywhere you look, there are strong women at the helm taking charge of the change that’s already taken place and pushing for the next steps,” Sportsheets International Sales Manager Corrin Brubaker said. “Their tenacity and hunger for growth paved the way for all of us.”

When March 1 rolls around, try an act of modern female defiance. Walk into your local adult boutique and go on a shopping spree. Victoria Woodhull would be proud.