Pleasure products have taken on a transformative power throughout the evolution of the manufacturing industry. Beyond better motors and flashy charging stations, these former primitive, plastic cylindrical tubes have morphed into devices capable of instilling confidence and empowerment. For Sportsheets, such lofty goals are all in a days’ work, and the power of connection is their mission. Founder Tom Stewart has been creating harnesses, slings and strap-ons for playful duos since the early 2000s. For able-bodied kinksters, these products are most often the answer to a boring weeknight or a Saturday sans children. For disabled veterans, Stewart’s brainchild devices are more than just sex toys; they’re life changing, invaluable and even healing.
Since 2011, Stewart, a military veteran, and wife Kimberly Harding have brought their inventions to the Road to Recovery Conference. Run by the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the event is completely donation-driven and only gets off the ground once every couple years. Through volunteer efforts and corporate support, the conference provides a family-friendly resource for severely wounded veterans seeking to regain some normalcy in their newly changed lives. The crowd of 100-something couples is characteristic of the typical American military family: blue-collar, Christian, and slightly uncomfortable with the prospect of talking about sex in public. However, in true Sportsheets fashion, Stewart’s humorous and enlightening presentations have become the most well-attended by this usually conservative audience. Stewart finds himself an oddball choice among the list of PhDs and certified educators on the lecture bill, but ultimately it’s this humble attitude that wins him such a large audience. “What the hell am I doing here?,” muses Tom. “I’m the least educated here, but I’m a vet and I make sex toys.”
A lot of these guys are on antidepressants and meds, but the VA only hands out four Viagra per month, and it’s just not enough.
Stewart shares the spotlight with several speakers, including famed sexuality author Lou Paget and the similarly unique Bill Stayton, a Southern Baptist minister and sex educator. Stayton’s church roots seem to ease lecture-goers into warming up to sexual topics, leaving Stewart and Harding with a hospitality suite full of eager product testers back at their hotel. “We invite all the attendees to visit our suite and try everything first-hand,” says Stewart. While he was busy getting a visiting couple locked and loaded into his strap system, Paget caught a moment of intimacy that struck a cord. “Lou was taking pictures while I was doing my thing, getting everyone strapped in and set up,” says Stewart. “The looks on their faces were the most unbelievable thing; there was this magic and love,” Stewart said. “Those are the kind of moments that show you the value of what you’re doing, and that you’re making a difference.”
Stewart’s Road to Recovery creations are the culmination of years of one-on-one work with para- and quadriplegic veterans. Dr. Linda Mona, a psychiatrist at the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and long-time pleasure industry colleague, first called on Stewart to assist a couple in Colorado. The experience had Stewart hooked on the potential to help his fellow men in uniform. “Dr. Linda and I go way back,” he said, “and she needed me to create some slings and harnesses for a quadriplegic veteran desperate to start a family with his new wife.” After several visits to the couples’ home, Stewart crafted a device that could connect to the vet’s electrical lift system and hoist him into a Superman-style position on top of his wife. “It was the missing link in their sex life,” says Stewart. “The sling got him back into the groove and they wound up having two kids. From there, I realized I wanted to do anything I could to help these guys.”
Stewart is no stranger to volunteer work. His own not-for-profit Drums for Drummers places donated drum sets into schools with underfunded music programs. Stewart has also lent his hands to the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity providing myriad services to disabled vets. For the 2016 Road to Recovery, Stewart called on the pleasure industry to support the troops. Vibratex, Classic Erotica and ID Lubricants responded with toys and lubes for Sportsheets’ popular goodie bag give-aways. Stewart says he hopes to amp up colleague support over the coming year to prepare for the next conference. “Companies that want to help can make a plan to set products aside during the year for about 100 couples,” says Stewart. As for what to send, his request is simple: “Anything to get couples back in the bedroom.” However, Stewart notes that hollow strap-ons are in particular demand. “A lot of these guys are on antidepressants and meds, but the VA only hands out four Viagra per month, and it’s just not enough,” says Stewart.
Stewart’s passion is a reminder of why we need to turn an eye to our wounded veterans. “When you meet these guys and realize what they’ve been through; they lose a leg or come back with an injury,” says Tom. “They’ve truly given so much of themselves beyond what the uninjured vet has.” Stewart counts himself more than lucky to have returned mostly unscathed from military service. “The uninjured vet is dedicated to his career, too, but the guys that pay that price of losing a limb, or having a brain injury, or debilitating post-traumatic stress; how can you not say ‘thank you,’” says Stewart. Surprising and unfortunate, veterans are given very little aid regardless of how their injuries affect basic daily tasks. “The government has made it difficult for these guys to get treatment, and that’s the biggest sadness of all,” says Stewart. “The support that they receive isn’t sufficient, the suicide rate is huge, and sometimes the closest VA hospital is 100 miles away.” Such injustices only add fire to Stewart’s drive. Where bureaucracy fails, the human spirit compensates in spades. “These couples have the issues of regular, able-bodied couples mixed with their injuries from war and are just trying to put their lives back together,” he says. “When you see these guys and their sacrifices, you realize how lucky you are and think, what can I do to help?”