Lily Allen has one. Cara Delevingne has one. Dakota Johnson has developed her own range. Is the celebrity sex toy 2021’s answer to the celebrity perfume?
For some, getting busy has been the last thing on the menu during the pandemic. Study after study, from India to Italy, has revealed that lockdown libido loss is real and that stress has killed the buzz in the bedroom. Sexual wellness, on the other hand, has reached a dizzying peak. Not only has the conversation around sexual pleasure changed for generation Z, but the industry attached to it – from apps to toys, herbal supplements to specialist oils – is also booming.
“Sexual wellness is about pleasure, and pleasure is health,” says Cecile Gasnault, brand director for Smile Makers, who have seen sales of their chic, pastel vibrators triple worldwide in the last 12 months. “It encompasses more than the physicality of sex. It is about our mental and physical wellbeing. Celebrities have helped normalise this conversation and take away the stigma and shame people have felt before about connecting to their bodies and understanding them.”
Gasnault has a point: the global sexual wellness industry is expected to be worth £90bn by 2026 and is being driven by young women moving away from the naff and seedy preconceptions of old and buying into the idea that sexual pleasure – be it solo or partnered – is self-care that is as fundamental as popping vitamins or finding the right moisturiser.
“People often worry about masturbation being a bad thing, rather than seeing it as a positive part of their health,” says Gasnault. “It’s like saying that if you enjoy jogging, you won’t be able run in a soccer game. They are not competing. They can bring new things to each other.”
In the UK, leading beauty retailer Cult Beauty transformed the market in the spring of 2019 by launching a sexual wellness space on its website. It stocks deliberately cutesy sex accessories by Lelo, Maude, Smile Makers and more, marketed to customers who, according to one brand spokesperson, “wouldn’t be seen dead in Ann Summers” or a specialist sex shop. More retailers have followed. Customers can now find dedicated sexual wellness sections in health food stores Planet Organic and Holland & Barrett, pick up a pelvic-floor trainer in Boots or Selfridges and yoni oils, vibrators and massagers in Oliver Bonas. Last week Bloomingdale’s became the first major department store in the US to launch a sexual wellness shop “full of environmentally friendly and body positive goodies”.
The design is key: the most successful sex-tech start-ups are creating products that are visually appealing as well as physically pleasing. Lionness have built the world’s first “biofeedback vibrator”, while Womanizer are championing the world’s first recyclable and biodegradable sex toy. The language around them capitalises on the distinctly woo-woo tone that wellness industries – be they centred on sleep, skincare or meditation – have mastered in the last decade.
Chloe Macintosh, founder of the free sexual wellness app Kama, which teaches mindful sex, has described her new mission as “more than a business, but a social movement”. The former chief creative officer at Soho House Group has built a platform that is fast becoming a sex, love and intimacy superbrand endorsed by models and sex-positive activists such as Daisy Lowe and Munroe Bergdorf.
On it, there are sex tutorials and practices designed to help users better understand their bodies to bring maximum pleasure. “When your brain is motivated towards pleasure and is drawn to pleasurable experiences, you start feeling better,” says Macintosh. “That’s the reason we focus on creating a pleasure practice at Kama, it’s really a way to create balance in our systems. We often look at pleasure based on our access to material things, but pleasure and desire are what drive our evolution, so it’s important we connect with them if we want to create a world that’s healthy and sustainable.”
Commodifying personal pleasure and linking it to the protection of the planet seems a bold claim, but users are ecstatic and vocal on social media. Many happily share selfies and feedback with Kama, Smile Makers, and Leo, all brands that are keen to be seen as building communities rather than just customers around their products.
“Sex toys are still seen as a taboo,” said Allen, on launching her Womanizer last autumn. “The only way to make subjects no longer taboo is to speak about them openly, frequently and without shame or guilt.”