The Gender Factor

Transgender and gender expression products are evolving in today’s adult marketplace, due in part to growing cultural awareness and availability. What inspires today’s current products and marketing? And what is the difference between gender expression and gender play products?

Metis Black, president and founder of Tantus, Inc. headquartered in Sparks, Nev., says, “Gender in our culture is evolving. Genitals do not make the gender. People have gained a new acceptability to define their gender for themselves. Our products reflect that, and are inclusive.” She notes that, “Sex toys are basically tools for sexual expression and exploration, and they can be gender expression products. We have designs such as our Pack N Play that are softer for packing but with enough rigidity that if you choose to use it as erect, you can.” Her company’s high-quality dildos have changed due to requests from customers. Their Realdoes were created from a slightly softer silicone, designed “after people reached out to us asking for a Feeldoe that allowed them more gender expression.”

Back in the 1970s and 80s, products were particularly about gender play and more branded for ‘fetish fun.’ Now, trans lives are less fetishized and there are more options. We still have a way to go, but I certainly have seen change. -Carol Queen, Good Vibrations

Black says products for gender expression are used differently than gender play products. “Products for gender expression allow you to enact what you feel your gender is. Gender play, on the other hand, such as sissy play or femme dom, is role playing. It uses gender as part of character development and for scope. While I can think of several toys that could be used either way, I think you have to be very careful developing a line of toys that would serve both.”

She notes that there are few true gender expression products available in the marketplace. “Most come from small boutique brands selling to small boutique stores who have been more conscious to marginalized people and less dependent on mass consumption. At Tantus we made the Pack N Play because we had an employee who needed to use a TPE — thermoplastic elastomer — or TPR packer and originally there were only two made for him. There is very little selection, almost none for the transgender community.”

However, Black feels the community has worked hard to bolster acceptance within the mainstream. “They’ve been active, outspoken and beautiful. They have stepped up and advocated for themselves, changing the narrative, because their marginalization had been horrible. The mainstream, including President Obama, have noticed and started changing language and laws.” The downside of this dialogue? “When the pendulum swings, of course, there is backlash. When there was no notice of transgender, there weren’t any bathroom debates. It’s part of the process of discrimination. You have to defeat it in the courts and in the hearts of those who don’t know better.”

With more awareness, the question arises as to whether gender play such as pegging has become more acceptable for the mainstream. Black says, “I started Tantus in 1997 when pegging was whispered about. Is strap-on-sex gender play? It can be, but it isn’t necessarily so. I think most pegging has nothing to do with gender play. Women put a harness on because it’s fun and different. Men like to be penetrated because they have more nerve endings in their anus than any other part of their body. I think the majority of straight cis-gender couples who peg are just being intimate in a different way. It’s one of the reasons we made a line of Connoisseur Harnesses that were more like lingerie.”

Black says her company catered to the growing market for sexual exploration to fill a void of quality products for the mainstream market. “In the 1990s, silicone was the safest soft material for sex toys, and no one but feminist boutiques knew about it. We wanted to reach couples of all sexual identities wherever they were from. If you wanted to explore your sexuality, Tantus wanted to make sure you were safe doing so.” Today, Black feels adult retail is just starting to make a dent in product development.

At New York Toy Collective, the company’s representative also weighs in on the difference between gender expression and sex toy products, and the market overall. “Gender expression products are anything that folks use to express their gender, including clothing, accessories, and adult products. We make products for gender expression and we also make sex toys. Our packers are made specifically for gender expression, while our dildos and love bumps are used for both.” New York Toy Collective’s rep states, “Whether our products are used for gender expression or gender play is up to the individual, where they are in their life at any given moment. We might describe gender play as role playing a different gender from time to time, and gender expression as part of a full-time lifestyle. But these definitions are highly personal and up to each individual.”

As for pegging, New York Toy Collective agrees with Tantus that the activity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with gender play. “Many people enjoy it simply because there are lots of nerve endings in anuses. Of course, pegging may be considered gender play by either of the persons involved, or both. I wouldn’t call pegging mainstream, but the taboo regarding anal sex is diminishing in some circles.”

New York Toy Collective also notes that while the number of gender expression products is growing, there’s definitely more room for innovation and customization. And as far as awareness and acceptance go “awareness, acceptance and equality are all very different. There’s still a lot of work ahead.”

And how did New York Toy Collective reach out to this market? “We wanted to create well-designed, safe and functional toys for gender play. Everyone deserves to live their lives and have sex in whatever way they want, regardless of the bodies they were born with.” Today, the company sees amazingly large demand for gender expression and gender play products.

Dr. Carol Queen, Staff Sexologist/Historian at the Curator of Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco, Calif., likewise believes that gender expression products are a growing market. “The products support a person in representing their gender, to themselves and partners. This is true whether they specifically eroticize the item, such as a realistic dildo or a packer firm enough to penetrate a partner, or use it as a sex toy, which implies less identity than many people feel about their realistic dildo or packer.”

In regard to pegging, Queen agrees with Tantus and New York Toy Collective, that not everyone even considers this activity a form of gender play. “It has implications for gender role, but I think it’s important to say not everyone would experience it this way.”

Queen believes the difference between products used for gender expression versus items for gender play is more “in the eye of the beholder rather than two separate product categories.” She observes “One person might use an item as gender expression and another might use the same item for fun, not to express an inherent identity truth.”

Queen feels there could be more and new items for this market. “We’re always on the lookout for new items, and often the people who develop them are entrepreneurs who want these products for themselves.” The growing awareness of the transgender community aside, Queen believes the dialog has far to go. “I haven’t seen much discourse in the mainstream adult area. It’s not my sense that many adult stores have taken the step of looking for great gender expression products, which are not necessarily the items mainstream toy companies are creating.”

Queen was driven to cater to this market because of a close relationship with diverse communities in the Bay Area. “We’ve always listened to our customers’ requests and tried to meet them, and we definitely have had trans-spectrum customers who told us about products they wanted us to carry. Plus, many of us over the years have been users of these products ourselves.”

She believes the evolution of the market has brought a striking number of new entrepreneurs to the gender expression and play categories, with some only providing one item. She notes that after 25 years in business “back in the 1970s and 80s, products were particularly about gender play and more branded for ‘fetish fun.’ Now, trans lives are less fetishized and there are more options. We still have a way to go, but I certainly have seen change.”

So has Sunny Rodgers, marketing director for Doc Johnson Enterprises in North Hollywood, Calif. “This market segment is continuing to become more and more popular, and our creative team is meeting its pace,” she asserts.

As far as the difference between gender expression products and sex toys, Rodgers relates the differences in her company’s line. “A perfect illustration of gender expression products is Doc Johnson’s Pack It collection, which features incredibly realistic dildos perfect for packing. A consumer wouldn’t necessarily use one of these flaccid dildos for sex play, but we feel it is important to have them available.” She notes that her company’s realistic products may be used to define gender expression by some, while others view them as strictly pleasure products. “In some cases it depends solely on the opinion of the consumer purchasing the product,” she says. “But for gender expression a realistic cock would be flaccid for packing, For gender play, it would more likely be rigid for use in a harness. We create products used to elicit pleasure regardless of the category.”

And how does the company know what customers really want? “Our development team listens to our customers and potential consumers who write to us directly every day. When a societal trend appears, it’s obvious, and our team works to see if there’s a part of that trend which can be enhanced with a pleasure product.”

As far as pegging goes, she sees the activity as growing in acceptability for the mainstream.

“Pegging is more prevalent on TV and in movies. It was part of a recent episode of Comedy Central’s Broad City – ‘To Peg or Not to Peg.’” Rodgers sees pegging as evolving in a way that has actively affected Doc Johnson’s own products. “Our patented Vac-U-Lock interchangeable harness system allows users to instantly switch their attachments from a G-Spot dildo to a realistic cock, while using the same high-quality adjustable harness. The versatility of the system has made it a staple for anyone wishing to explore pegging.”

Rodgers states that there is indeed more acceptance within the mainstream for the transgender community, but it’s still a work in progress. “We recently spoke with Dan Savage at his HUMP Film Festival about his ‘It Gets Better Project,’ whose purpose is to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. It’s bringing people together to support each other. This bolsters acceptance within the mainstream, and serves people that need their help the most.”

Bernie Fatla, owner and co-founder of Le Dame Footwear explains that the difference between products for gender expression versus items for gender play definitely exists in footwear. “When we first started, everything was high heels, tall boots — items that could be used for gender play.

In regard to gender expression footwear, people may want to have ballet flats or office wear shoes that simply fit well and help them to be the most attractive woman they can be.” Fatla notes that there is not a broad enough selection in the marketplace for gender expression products overall. “I talk to transgender and cross dressing people who want to buy clothing, and the best they can do to find something that fits is to go to women’s plus sizes that are unnecessary. The market is ripe to develop a line of clothing and accessories that address that. Within the Chicago area there’s a fashion line, Transformation by Roni, that covers make-up, wigs and clothing. People want to know where to get those products, but they’re not widely available.”

After reading a news feature that included information on the lack of female shoe sizes available for the transgender community and cross dressing community, Fatla was inspired to start Le Dame. As to how this segment of adult retail has evolved, he says, “It’s been driven primarily by mom-and-pop style businesses, it hasn’t really moved into chain stores and a full inventory. Shoes are what’s in my DNA, and so that is our focus, but there’s a need for more clothing, breast forms, and other items in the market. The hose market alone is huge.”

As to the growing awareness of the transgender community and mainstream acceptance, Fatla notes, “In the eight years since we started, the transgender conversation has definitely opened up. There’s more consistent conversation on Facebook, in the media, and among individuals. I can’t wait to hear the Bruce Jenner conversation. But there haven’t been any major conversations about cross-dressing though people are certainly aware of it. Cross dressers are primarily heterosexual males rather than transgender. And they go shopping and can’t find any clothing that fits correctly. It’s important to ‘listen to the street,’ to know what people need, and what they want to buy. We always listen, but I don’t think enough people are listening yet.”

All in all, transgender and gender expression products are a growing market for adult retail, with sales driven by increased awareness, openness and grass-roots level product interest, and plenty of room for more.