Image: Freddie Harrel
Lipstick, sheet mask, eye cream… vibrator? Welcome to the sexual wellness market.
When I was growing up in Manhattan, there was a notorious sex shop on West 4th Street called The Pink Pussycat. The boys in our class would reference it — frequently — and it held a tantalising, mythic allure in our pre-teen circles. You had to be 16 to get in — our Grace Church School uniforms did not help the cause — so my friends and I would loiter curiously on the sidewalk, attempting to peer beyond the latex- and marabou-heavy window displays for some clue about what was going on inside.
It didn’t look much different to us downtown kids from the scene on nearby St. Mark’s Place — this was the 1980s, full-tilt — but there was still something about standing on that forbidden threshold that felt daring, naughty, and frankly, a little bit shameful. Fast forward to 2018, and The Pink Pussycat is still in business, but a quick Google search immediately dulled its aura of dangerous, gritty glamour, yielding not only Yelp reviews and Foursquare check-ins, but MapQuest directions and Groupon deals. So much for the incendiary fabled underworld of my youth.
Sex is no longer the unseemly, embarrassing, dirty, indecorous subject it once was. In this time of social and political upheaval and awakening, we are watching old taboos crumble around us; we are beginning to speak more openly and confidently about the formerly shadowy pragmatics of sexuality, normalising everything from menstrual cycles to masturbation. It’s human nature. It’s also big business.
And it’s happening under the umbrella of beauty. Sexual wellness is shaping up to be the next big opportunity in a category increasingly focused on wellbeing and ritualistic me-time. An influx of products and services focused on vaginal care is shaking up everything from body washes and cleansing wipes to botanical oils, dermatological procedures and even spa services. (See: vagacial.) The “clean” beauty movement’s push for non-toxic materials and ingredients is especially meaningful for items designed to be used internally, like tampons, lubricants and vibrators.
A recent study by the market research firm Technavio clocked the global sexual wellness market as ballooning from $23 billion in 2014 to a projected $32 billion by 2019. By next year, sex toys will be a $21 billion global business (up from $15 billion in 2014), with vibrators alone surpassing $6 billion (more than doubling in five years’ time).
It helps explain why US pharmacy chain CVS sells a rather stunning assortment of 48 whirring options — merchandised next to straightforward sexual health products like condoms and pregnancy tests — and family-friendly Target stocks 74 different models. Talk about self-care.
Technavio attributes the category’s notable growth to five key drivers: mainstream exposure in the media, ease of purchase and availability, shifts in social norms, a marked increase in the number of start-ups peddling these wares and changing perceptions on the part of investors willing to bet on said start-ups.
In a nutshell, sexual wellness is being normalised, and in the case of some of the higher-end manufacturers and retailers, glamourised. It’s becoming more commercially acceptable, strategically repositioned and fashionably made over as chic rather than shameful, luxurious rather than utilitarian.
When Brooklyn-based Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman founded the sex toy company Dame four years ago, “we felt our products should look like beauty tools,” says Fine, the company’s chief executive. “They should be a certain quality and feel like they were designed for me by someone who understands my body.” Instead of courting purveyors in the traditional pornography industry, Lieberman and Fine took meetings with beauty buyers. They noticed that Dame’s audience was overlapping more with the yoga crowd than the XXX crowd: for the first time, sex toys were being positioned, and accepted, in the same holistic space as beauty, health and fitness.
“Obviously we’re in wellbeing,” says Fine. “What is more powerful in terms of confidence and self-care than connecting with yourself and being able to find joy and pleasure from within your body?” The Eva, a hands-free couple’s device that looks sort of like a tiny sea turtle, briskly sold out at Urban Outfitters-owned Free People. The Fin, a finger vibrator worn like a ring, became Revolve’s number-one beauty SKU overall within one day of launching. Dame has doubled its revenue each year since its founding, and after hitting nearly $3 million dollars in sales in 2017, is on track to double once again in 2018.
If self-care is the new beauty, then perhaps sex-care is the new self-care. It’s a category built around self-investment after all. “I always think of the beauty business as the self-esteem business,” says Violet Grey founder Cassandra Grey. “These tools can help you feel better about yourself. If you feel sexier and healthier, it’s going to affect your quality of life.”
Extract from BOF by Sarah Brown.