Playing for Keeps: Future of the Fetish/BDSM Market

It doesn’t take a degree to figure it out, but Dr. Clockwork is happy to remind everyone that BDSM and fetish consumers are a very unique market.

“They’re a very discerning group of people,” says the President/Mad Scientist of Dr. Clockwork’s Home for Electrical and Medical Oddities. “Most people in the BDSM communities don’t go to regular sex toy shops to make purchases of BDSM items…that said, there are a handful of shops across the country that specialize in BDSM gear, but those are few and far between. On the whole, BDSM community members put quality above all else.”

The majority of our products attempt to enhance people’s sex lives and relationships, or to simply explore a new fantasy that they were too afraid to try because they didn’t want to approach a dungeon or buy whips and chains. -Rob Phaneuf, Pipedream Products

And members of the BDSM community, he notes, are more than willing to pay for the good stuff.

“BDSM community members are definitely more experienced and adventurous. Many consider themselves to be ‘toy sluts’ and spend ridiculous amounts of money on toys. I know people who could have bought a Mercedes with the amount of money they’ve spent on toys,” says Dr. Clockwork. “That is not to say, however, that they’re not savvy consumers. They’ll ask much more specific questions to really understand what they’re buying.”

And these days, they’re buying a wider variety of products than ever before. Rob Phaneuf, Pipedream Products VP of development, sees an expansion of this category as the overall trend: “Fetish has expended into much more than what people typically thought of as kinky—it’s not just rough and tough, all-tied-up kind of stuff anymore. We’ve included other niche items like strap-ons, nipple jewelry, vibrating panties and more beyond the traditional bondage and S&M products.”

So what else do the top fetish and BDSM pleasure product companies have up their specula?

What’s in a Word?

“We’ve never embraced the word ‘fetish’ because by definition it isn’t what we’re about as a company,” says Julie Stewart, president of Sportsheets International. “Fetishism does not mean restraint play; it’s more of a psychological term that the industry uses incorrectly. In fetish, the desire is around the object of the fetish. We see our products complementing peoples’ explorations of their own sexuality and their relationships. We prefer fantasy play as a category because that’s what our customers are looking for. Our tag line is ‘keeping couples connected.’”

Susan Colvin, president and CEO of California Exotic Novelties, says that “fetish” is really about sexual stimulation or arousal in a non-traditional way. “The cool thing about fetish is it means something different to everyone. There are lots of different types of fetish play. When CalExotics describes a product line as being ‘fetish,’ we’re using the term loosely to describe items that are usually associated with bondage, submission and kink. Really though, the word ‘fetish’ just sounds cute. It isn’t as threatening as ‘bondage’ or ‘sadomasochism’. It is more playful and fun, and that’s what we want consumers to think of when they buy CalExotics’ fetish toys.”

She adds that consumers in the fetish market like fun, pretty, fashionable fetish items. Tough, leathery, hardcore products — while they certainly have their place—aren’t what attract their segment of the market, she says.

“That’s why, for example, the Entice Accessories are adorned with beautiful rose gold. It is trendy and stylish right now. Scandal features the gorgeous red brocade that evokes a Victorian style—which is also very fashionable.”

CalExotics is well known for its various soft bondage ranges. Lines like Bound by Diamonds, First Time Fetish and Tantric Binding Love paved the way for the recent hit collections Scandal and Entice Accessories. And as the market for introductory and intermediate fetish products grows, Colvin says so do their offerings. “We’ve seen a lot of success with items that are cost-effective, luxurious and durable. People expect a lot from their fetish toys, and our goal is to offer something for everyone.”

The Entice Accessories Collection is coming out in May, including French Cuffs (“which go well with the Chelsea Collar and Leash”); the Eye Mask, which gives the user a “total blackout experience”; and an Open Mouth Gag with two interchangeable rings, nickel-free iron and rubber.

At ElectraStim, Hella Walkington, marketing and promotions, says they try to stay away from branding products with the word “fetish” as it can unintentionally imply that someone’s desires are somehow niche or even unhealthy.

“‘Fetish’ might be a great keyword for online business, but it’s also a word that can make consumers feel uneasy. An electro butt plug might seem fetishistic to some folk, but to others it’s a viable alternative to a vibrating butt plug. By fetishizing a product instead of allowing people to make up their own minds, you can inadvertently add stigma that needn’t be there.”

Walkington says they prefer to term things under the umbrella of BDSM if they fit under one of the sub-types of bondage & discipline, domination & submission or sadism & masochism. “Otherwise, we simply brand our electrodes and stimulators as electro sex toys. Very few of our electro sex toys are purely BDSM products, and the feedback we’re getting from customers and reviewers echoes that. They are pleasure products first and foremost, and BDSM products if used in a certain way.”

Walkington adds they have designed some electrodes and stimulators to better facilitate BDSM play. “In our present BDSM arsenal, we have two stimulators, two pinwheels, a genital clamp and a spanking paddle. We certainly have an interest in kink and will continue to develop products for BDSM play, but it’s fair to say the electrodes are quite different in usage to our dildos, butt plugs and other electro sex toys.”

Black & Blue (& Grey)

Sportsheets picked up a win for Fetish Pleasure Product of the Year at this year’s XBIZ Awards for its Expandable Spreader Bar, and has received mention in multiple issues of Cosmopolitan magazine already this year.

“The newbies want an inexpensive yet quality way to experiment (for us, that’s our S&M brand), and the more experienced people want the next thing,” says Julie Stewart. “Not everyone moves on to more advanced products; however, we have always found that the better selling products have a harder edge than most people would expect. Strap-on play and pegging is really exploding. After ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ people are much more comfortable trying things.”

With more than 800 products, the constantly expanding Fetish Fantasy Series at Pipedream Products is the largest fetish line in the world, according to Phaneuf. “We’ve taken the BDSM market to the masses and made this specialized niche affordable and accessible to larger audiences. Fetish Fantasy Series has seen such immense success that it’s garnered multiple sub-collections—Elite, Extreme, Lingerie, Limited Edition, Harnesses, Gold—these market-specific spinoffs have definitely helped make Fetish Fantasy Series the biggest overall bondage line in the world.”

The company is adding 30 to 40 new SKUs to the Limited Edition collection to coincide with the release of the “Fifty Shades” movie. He notes that Shock Therapy is one of the most successful segments of the series, and will be expanded.

“Our approach to fetish is to bring someone’s deepest fantasies to life. They don’t necessarily have to be dark fantasies either, as it typically associated with BDSM and fetish—there are nipple fetishes and tickle fetishes, too. We cater to all different niches and fetishes, from nipple clamps and ball gags to strap-ons and tickle straps,” he says. “We noticed that the fashion industry was using a lot of black croc and gold for purses, shoes, belts and other accessories, so we used this to completely inspire the Gold collection.”

Doc Johnson COO Chad Braverman says the “Fifty Shades” effect is not a hyperbole: “I can’t overstress how powerful of an impact the books have had on the sex toy market. More and more consumers are buying BDSM items, including many of the whips, restraints and masks from our popular Black Rose and Black and Blue collections.”

Braverman is referring to the company’s two most BDSM-centric lines: James Deen Black and Blue and Black Rose. “We knew that James Deen was a major figure in the adult industry and that he has gained mainstream popularity, but we never could have anticipated just how successful his toy line would be. His fans are extremely vocal about how much they enjoy the collection, which is remarkable when you realize that, not so long ago, BDSM-related items were incredibly taboo — something people didn’t really talk about. What’s even more impressive is that the majority of his fans are women from the ages of 18-25, a demographic that nearly every business wants a piece of. It’s interesting how quickly barriers are being broken down as far as what’s taboo and what’s vanilla.”

The “Fifty Shades” phenomenon has also struck at LELO. While the company’s BDSM gear has always enjoyed healthy sales, they got even better once the book came out. “If only E.L. James had had the option to buy stock in every intimate lifestyle company before publishing that series, she’d be sitting on way, way more money than she already has!” says Patty Callahan, communications and marketing manager. “Fetishes are subjective, and with our products we’re enabling customers to live out their passions — the fetish exists in the imagination of the user, not necessarily in the item they’re using. LELO aims to offer a canvas on which customers can live out their fantasies.”

Callahan notes it is an especially exciting time in BDSM. With fetish hotels opening in London and around the world, it’s really hitting the mainstream: “It’s even reached the point that every time new updates of the upcoming ‘Fifty Shades’ movie hits the news, we see a jump in BDSM gear sales.”

Callahan says that with LELO’s upcoming launches, they’re seeking to build on the success of the oral sex simulator ORA, “which was the most shared sex toy video on YouTube ever: 400,000 views in around four weeks. At the same time, we’re planning to add exciting new items to our BDSM gear collection.” Diff’rent Strokes…

Susan Colvin says it’s a myth to think that BDSM/fetish consumers are so much different than everybody else. “There is a little kink in all of us; the trick is letting people know it’s okay,” she says. “Helping them to understand that exploring new levels of intimacy through bondage, role playing, submission and other styles of fetish play is crucial.”

Colvin notes that one of their Expert Sexperts, Sunny Megatron, devotes most of her time on Club CalExotics to educating people about fetish products and introducing them to the many forms of light bondage play.

“Our target consumer is female, she’s married, has kids and probably lives in the Midwestern United States. She likes to find ways to spice things up in the bedroom and gets inspiration from the erotica and romance novels that she reads. She is curious. She is drawn to products in Scandal and Entice because they are creative, non-threatening and sensual.”

That same beginner to intermediate demographic is targeted at Doc Johnson. Braverman notes that while there are many layers of modern-day BDSM, the majority of their consumers tend to be interested in exploring the light-to-moderate side over the more extreme play. “Restraints, blindfolds and spanking paddles, for example, have gained tremendous mainstream acceptance. When we come up with ideas for toys, we often look at the market and determine what it needs most, as far as supply and demand goes.”

The company has found that its BDSM products especially appeal to two groups: women in the 30-54 age group (“the same demographic that currently dominates the ever-growing erotic romance novel market”), and men and women between the ages of 18-25 (“the trendsetters”). Braverman says there will be a shift in the market where BDSM gradually becomes more and more mainstream. “Just look at the widespread success of James Deen. Yes, he has the ‘look’ of a Hollywood celebrity, but it’s his porn scenes (that often incorporate everything from domination and submission to hardcore bondage) that landed him on the cover of GQ.”

At Pipedream, Phaneuf says their consumers are typically curious couples. Although Pipedream’s products are made sturdy enough to satisfy hardcore fetish fans, its Fetish Fantasy Series is geared toward couples who want to spice up their sex lives, he says. Each different spinoff brand caters to a different market: Elite for the high-end material market, Extreme for hardcore fetish users, Gold for fashion-forward couples.

“The majority of our products attempt to enhance people’s sex lives and relationships, or to simply explore a new fantasy that they were too afraid to try because they didn’t want to approach a dungeon or buy whips and chains. We made the category more approachable with friendly packaging…that’s always been our challenge — to remove the stigma of fetish and make it more accessible, more affordable and something that anyone can enjoy.”

At LELO — which focuses on the luxury product sector — Callahan notes their BDSM customers are nearly universally in committed relationships, “a fact that I think other companies specializing in luxury BDSM gear will tell you as well; these aren’t items that necessarily lend themselves to solo use or a casual one-night stand… the fact that these couples can forge such long-lasting relationships is really a nobrainer — BDSM and the give and take required needs a lot of trust and communication to be enjoyable for both partners.”

Walkington at ElectraStim says they don’t have any specific type of customer. It used to be that the hardcore gay market was its biggest target, but these days electrostim is more well known and more people have tried it.

“Electro play will always have prevalence in the BDSM scene, but much like with handcuffs, bed restraints, blindfolds, bondage rope and other paraphernalia that the average housewife wouldn’t have owned 20 years ago, electrostimulation toys are going mainstream,” Walkington says.

“The days of electro toys being considered niche seem to be coming to a close. The same people approaching us for product reviews are also reviewing the likes of LELO, Je Joue, Tantus, Doc Johnson and other mainstream brands, and they’re using our toys in a similar way to other luxury sex toys. Electrostimulation can seem daunting if you know nothing about it, but good marketing will explain how the product feels and make it easy to put people in the picture.”

The company does a lot of hands-on training with adult retailers so they can experience estim before they market the products.

“It’s sometimes tricky to strike a balance between the BDSM and sex toy markets as those curious about electro sex toys can easily be rattled by more extreme toys. For that reason, it doesn’t always work to group all electro sex toys together — it’s the equivalent of putting The Great American Challenge next to the Itty Bitty Cupid Butt Plug in your anal sex toys section,” Walkington says. “We’ve formatted our website in a way that separates products into type, and we’d recommend that sex toy retailers do the same. There’s space for electro sex toys in both the sex toys and BDSM categories of retail sites and shops, so it’s worth segregating your pleasure toys from your BDSM gear to improve product image and sales.”

In 2013, ElectraStim launched its successful ElectraPaddle, which brings a new edge to spanking play: You use the leather side for spanking and flip the paddle around to caress the spanking area with the electro contacts afterward. It prolongs the sensitivity the sub feels during a spanking session as well as throwing in some new sensations to enhance the afterglow, says Walkington.

“We’ve also had some great feedback on our urethral probes. For those inexperienced with inserting things into their penis, the prospect of an electro dilator can be pretty terrifying. We sent one out to a U.K. sex toy reviewer called Ruffled Sheets and he gave us a glowing report. It’s nice to see products with a bit of stigma attached getting the recognition they deserve as pleasure products instead of torture devices. That’s not to say that electro urethral sounding can’t be good for a bit of BDSM play, but it’s much better to have both sides of play out in the public arena.”

Walkington says anal sex toys are hot property when it comes to erotic e-stim. “Electro anal sex toys seem to have an edge over vibrating toys when it comes to prostate stimulation, and we’ve noticed a few mainstream manufacturers starting to include electro stimulation in their prostate tools.”

The biggest seller in the company’s range is the Flick EM60-M Stimulation Pack, which includes the Flick single-channel stimulator, a pair of cock rings, an insertable probe and a set of conductive pads. “It’s a mini-kit that allows individuals and couples to try all kinds of erotic stimulation from hands-free internal and external stimulation to sharing sensations with a partner. You can even virtually spank your partner using the pads and the motion-activated Flick setting.”

At XR Brands, a variety of fetish-focused and niche brands are under their umbrella. The LoveBotz line features a variety of mechanically superior sex machines and the Maestro is the industry’s first to feature a fully adjustable metal frame with thrusting power of up to 300rpm. “We essentially gave the traditional sex machine a much-needed makeover using all-metal construction and familiar industrial steam punk styling common in modern technology and fashion trends,” says General Manager Randy Alvstad.

XR Brands also recently expanded its Master Series’ brand with six male chastity confinement cages featuring professional-grade locking mechanisms and unique attachments for a more advanced experience. Most notable is the Oppressor, “our most striking cage” featuring a hollow urethral plug, detachable anal stimulation hook, and removable ball “crusher” clamp. Alvstad notes it’s the industry’s only male chastity device with the capacity for quadruple-factor confinement that can be customized to fit every man and suit his — and his captor’s — most sensational desires.

Alvstad says their products play with the malleable definition of fetishism, which allows XR to get creative when developing items that play a very specific role in people’s lives. “One of our favorite parts of the job is discovering an under-served category and creating something that caters specifically to its eager consumer base.”

He has noticed that anal cleansing and care has become a common part of men, women and couples’ sex lives not just for hygiene purposes, but for the tremendously intimate sensation that enemas provide. “CleanStream is the world’s No. 1 anal care and cleansing line and we’ve found that our deluxe shower systems have been selling like hot cakes,” he says. “We’ve also noticed more retailers in the U.S. carrying advanced fetish and sensation play items, especially those from our Master Series and Zeus Electrosex lines. Chastity devices, nipple clamps and pumps, violet wands and urethral sounds especially. It simply shows that BDSM and fetish play as a whole is ‘in’ and attracting a wider consumer base across the country.”

At A.L. Enterprises, which manufactures the CB-X brand, CEO Nikki Yates says sales have taken off as the fetish market has expanded. The company recently produced a POS brochure titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Male Chastity” that has been successful in introducing its products to customers.

“Our CB-X devices are much easier to sell to the educated BDSM/fetish customer as they usually come in asking for our products by name. Often the mainstream customer needs the function of our products explained to them,” Yates says. “The fetish customer is looking for complete security. They often will replace the locking pins with stainless steel pins so they cannot ‘break out’ of our CB-X devices. The more mainstream client is often sold on our device when they find out that there is a ‘fail-safe’ built in. If the key holder loses the key, they can turn the locking pin firmly and the pin will break.”

The company will soon be releasing the CB-3000 in pink, a result of overwhelming requests. “We sell to both the fetish and the more vanilla market. Our product started out with an almost exclusive fetish demographic. Now, however, the majority of our sales are to couples looking to spice things up for a few hours or a weekend of tease play.”

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