We've come a long way.
Image: Lia Kantrowitz
When I was in high school, I thought the vibrating panties my boyfriend controlled from the parking lot were the cutting edge of technology. How wrong I was.
"Stuff we used to sell, we don't even let cross the threshold of the store anymore," says Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Babeland, the glamorous, bicoastal destination for top-of-the-line sex toys.
Looking back at the sex toys of the past with Cavanah inspired a shared grimace at how things used to be: flesh-toned, veiny, toxic, and shameful. When Cavanah and her co-founder, Rachel Venning, opened their first store in Seattle, sex toys were widely considered marital aids—helpers for "frigid" women who had trouble orgasming. Now, sex toys are largely used as a technological enhancement to sex; many are proudly displayed on nightstands instead of hidden away in bottom drawers.
To appreciate just how far we've come when it comes to cumming, and glimpse what the future may hold, I asked Cavanah and some other industry giants about both the physical and social changes in sex toys since my initial foray. According to them, the future is titillating: if current trends continue, soon we'll be stuffing "smart" products down our pants that know exactly how to get us off.
For any woman who has included a vibrator in her sexual repertoire for a decade or more, rechargeable sex toys are a considerable advancement. According to former JimmyJane CEO Kenny Hawk, some of the most groundbreaking physical developments have come on the heels of the wireless industry—cell phones, wifi and all that good stuff.
"With lithium-ion or lithium polymer batteries, we are delivering vibrators that are rechargeable, last a long time and are extremely powerful," Hawk says. "We couldn't have done that 10 years ago with nickel cadmium technology."
Soon we'll be stuffing "smart" products down our pants that know exactly how to get us off
The ability to produce products that can be used without trailing an extension cord into your bed helped advance the industry into the mainstream. Though this new generation of toys was initially more expensive, eliminating the cost of batteries closed the price gap—and has surely prevented several moments of roommate awkwardness over missing TV remote batteries. According to Cavanah, the ease of plugging a vibrator into a USB port was a revelation, especially for those long, lonely business trips.
But it's not just what's on the inside that counts.
JimmyJane was developed not by techies but by industrial designers who wanted to provide an alternative to the gross-looking dildos of yesteryear by offering sleek, ergonomic devices with aesthetically pleasing shapes and materials. Perhaps most importantly, this new emphasis on materials introduced consumers to sex toys that were finally safe to use. Though body-friendly materials are now the norm—mainly adaptable silicone or medical silicone—that wasn't always the case.
"[Previous generations of sex toys] were practically poisonous," Cavanah says, referring to toys made with phthalates, the squishy, jelly-like materials we now know were laden with chemicals linked to a whole host of health problems. "And nobody cared, or nobody could say that they cared."
"There wasn't even any information on what the products were made of, and yet people were putting them on the most intimate locations of their body," says Hawk
Phthalates soften plastic and rubber, but they're banned for use in many baby and beauty products because of their known link to certain cancers and infertility. "When the industry first started, many stores would tell customers to use a condom over the product for protection," Kenny says.
The industrial design revolution in sex toys widened the market, gradually making it the norm for women to own sex toys and talk about using them, and even to display them in their homes like trophies of sexual independence.
"This generation is building collections of toys and displaying them on top of their dresser. They're talking about it and shopping for them together," Hawk says.
Obviously, not everyone is down to mount their vibrators on the mantle, and we still have a long way to go before sex toy adoption truly becomes mainstream. Perhaps the largest impediment to more mainstream adoption is men—specifically, men who feel threatened by vibrators and the implication of women taking charge of their sexuality. Both Hawk and Cavanah acknowledged that some men feel squeamish bringing sex toys into their routines.
"Everyone wants to be a fantastic lover, and to feel outdone by a vibrator? That's unfortunate," Cavanah says. "Who's afraid of a little vibrator?" Besides, vibrators designed for getting women off can enhance sex for both partners. "There are women who have had good sex, but there's stuff you still don't know. Sex toys can give you a lot more information on how your body works," Cavanah says. If women know more about what they like and can communicate that, it takes the burden off their partners to figure it out
Is it also possible men are just jealous that women get all the cool toys?
I emailed Brian Sloan, inventor of the Autoblow2, to get some insight. The Autoblow does exactly what you think it does—simulates a blowjob with a handsfree machine. When I explained the life-changing nature of a lady orgasm with a vibrator, and asked how men's toys compared, Sloan explained that masturbators for men "improve the physical sensation, compared with one's own hand. It's not that it's necessarily easier to orgasm, but the squishiness of the material is closer to the real thing." So Autoblow2 trumps hand, but vagina still trumps Autoblow 2. It seems that no male toy on the market actually surpasses the squishiness of a real-life vagina. Still, Sloan told me he sees hope: "I invented the Autoblow 2 to add to that sense of realism, because it actually jerks guys off automatically, allowing them to experience the sensation that something is happening to them, versus the sensation of doing something to themselves. The future of male sex toys is in automation due to the enhanced level of realism automatic toys can provide." Sloan estimates that between 10,000 to 15,000 male masturbators are being sold daily in the U.S. alone, which is not nothing.
The final frontier of the sex-toy industry will be customization
I wouldn't argue that an orgasm with a vibrator is better than sex, a vibrator orgasm is certainly different; it's apples to oranges. So rather than fear a future with sex toys, smart lovers should welcome them into the action.
"A vibrator cannot replace the human connection," Hawk assured me. "Although the Form 2 is hard to beat," he added, referencing a hand-held vibe reminiscent of a bunny whose ears are meant to encompass your clit.
Indeed, there has been a recent shift in products to be more geared toward couples, such as Jimmyjane's Hello Touch, which features two individual finger vibrators attached to a wristlet. And then there's the whole world of teledildonics—toys that mimic human interaction via other users, who could be across oceans or on the moon.
But beyond these still relatively conventional products, the final frontier of the sex-toy industry will likely be customization. Kenny believes we are moving speedily toward advanced, specialized toys, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all scheme that still prevails today.
"They are going to be intelligent," Kenny says. "For example, learning the inside of a woman's vagina: temperature, pressure, moisture level, maybe even the blood flow. Every person has their own unique orgasmic fingerprint, so as these products become smarter, they'll be able to adjust to it, instead of just having five speeds and four modes and hoping that works for everybody."
Which means there's a lot to look forward to—the liberation of sex toys, the improvement of their orgasmic qualities, and even, maybe, the potential to unlock hidden aspects of every individual's sexuality. It's not hard for me to imagine a world where we all jerk ourselves off with these smart toys more often than we copulate. But ultimately, the real feat will be for us to responsibly incorporate sex toys into our lives as we evolve as a society and, really, to appreciate the power of emotional sex. If you're into that kind of thing. Either way, the future is bright.
Image: Lia Kantrowitz