The Line Between Innovation & Pleasure: On Tech And The Sex Toy Industry

Presumption of a disposable income, able-bodied access and ability to use any tool, while prioritizing heterosexual monogamy, whiteness and cis identity, all create a sex toy culture that rejects and erases marginalized users.

by Cameron G. on November 16th, 2016

The sex toy industry is a $15 billion dollar business, and technology is transforming it. In many ways, bringing these two together could bring diversity and inclusivity into the industry. However, tech has its own challenges, often alienating the marginalized communities that exist within it; and despite its high profitability, the sex industry at large is still one of the most segregated and oppressive industries left in the market, continuing to rely heavily on exclusive identity presumptions.

For consumers that exist outside the margins – being of color, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, intersex and/or with disabilities – it’s almost impossible to find sex toys that cater to their communities and identities. Consumers with disabilities are often excluded entirely, with inaccessible toys at unaffordable price points. And for people of color who are also queer, representation and marketability simply fails them. As Bianca Laureano argues in this Cosmopolitan feature, the color of our skin critically impacts how we experience sex and pleasure:

…our argument was, “Heck, yeah, it does because some of us are murdered before we even get to experience sexual pleasure. Some of us are detained and assaulted and raped and incarcerated.” So there’s that idea, definitely rooted in this safe, white middle class space of, “I get access to the resources that I need and they’re accessible at the level I’m able to read at.” And that’s just not the reality for many under-resourced communities. It’s an error to think that our skin color doesn’t impact [how we feel pleasure].

From mainstream porn actors who reach commercial success to the sex educators working across the country, the industry remains overwhelmingly whitewashed.

From the outside, it would seem like sex toys are the sex industry’s way becoming more inclusive; however, the missteps in everything from marketing to accessibility make it so that cis, able-bodied white heteronormity is preserved, even when diversity is seemingly at the forefront.

Ways that Sex Toys Fail Marginalized Users

Series of undressed, headless white mannequins lined up in an empty store.

Photo CC-BY Dennis Yang.

Users’ presumed gender identity, role during sexual play or intercourse, ability level, and income all play a role in making the commercial sex industry how it is today. Presumption of a disposable income, able-bodied access and ability to use any tool, while prioritizing heterosexual monogamy, whiteness and cis identity, all create a sex toy culture that rejects and erases marginalized users.

To start, sex toys are heavily gendered. Whether they are skewered towards people with penises or people with vaginas, the marketing of these toys is heavily linked to gender roles, assumed gender identities, and assumed gender roles during sex. Within gender, toys for people with vaginas are heavily marketed to appeal to a heterosexual male gaze – exploring sexuality with the assumption that a male partner will also be engaged in the activity, or at least viewing for his own pleasure. Toys that are marketed to people with penises often assume heterosexism, masculinity, and an aggressive “Dom” role during sexual play. This often alienates cis customers who may not identify with the assumed sexual play identities; it also creates specifically targeted violence for GNC (gender-non conforming), intersex, trans customers and others who exist outside of the cis-sexist, binary gender system that the sex toy industry relies on. The hyperfocus on assumed identities creates a quiet violence for those who are not represented – they become invisible, unimportant because they cannot fit into a presumed box of who the product will be of best use to.

People of color also remain an unwanted and unimportant part of the consumer market – unless it’s through the white gaze. Customers can often find various skin tone options with dildos, but too often, dildos of darker color carry the burden of relying on the assumed customers’ racism; a white customer wanting to engage in play using a “big Black dick” can tie their own sexual adventurism with racism. Toys associated with darker skinned and particularly Black bodies are often “exoticized”, outwardly othered and violently niched. At it’s core, the assumption of whiteness as the default tells customers of color that the freedom and pleasure that comes with sex and sensuality are not for them.

Accessibility is also a large part in preventing sex toys from being truly inclusive tools. It’s not uncommon for sex toys to be an investment; though some toys can be purchased for $20 or less, the quality of these toys are also controversial, as they could be detrimental to the user’s health (especially if they aren’t cleaned and cared for properly). For those looking to purchase safe toys that will last a long time, the investment could be over $100, or pushing thousands. This creates a specific divide with ties to classism and financial privilege. Specific groups like Black women and queer people of color are affected disproportionately by wage gaps, and because of the economic violence these groups often face, the reality of them having the access, ability, and income to purchase sex toys under this model simply pushes them out. By keeping the cost of these products high in exchange for safety, we create a dangerous system that propels not just economical violence, but health and reproductive violence as well.

Of course, the appeal of sex toys comes with the variety of products available to fit “every individual need or desire”. Hence, one of the industry’s biggest failures comes in its blatant erasure of customers with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses. The marketing of toys towards customers with disabilities and chronic illnesses could create an amplification of feelings of desirability that these communities grapple with, specifically stemming from not being visible enough in this light. Sex toys can be direct way for users with disabilities and chronic illness to feel included, desired, and worthy. However, many products that could make sexual play more inclusive fall short, often being too expensive or too difficult (or downright inoperable) for people with specific needs or disabilities. Vibrators, for example, often require the user to have at least some level of mobility in their hands, in order to both hold the vibrator and move it across their bodies. With so much to gain from giving the disabled community visibility within the sex toy industry, there’s much to be said about how few opportunities the sex toy industry grants them to do so.

Inclusion in Emerging Sex Tech Trends

Series of mannequin heads on pedestals with virtual reality headsets of various colors mounted over their eyes

Photo CC-BY ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

Despite the constant erasure and violence that the sex toy industry displays towards marginalized communities, there is a growing movement to counter it. Three trends in particular – virtual reality, quantified self exploration, and multi-user tools – are reshaping the ways that sexual play and intercourse are viewed and utilized by users… but these too carry their own risks if status-quo assumptions continue to go unchallenged.  

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality has been a growing niche within tech for some time now, also bringing a huge boom for the sex industry. Bringing convenience for clients and customers, they’re now able to view entertainment in the comfort of their home while not being limited to 2-D images. The appeal of virtual reality lies in how it directly centers the user in both the product and end result itself. High price points and accessibility are issues that continue to loom over these products; however, VR could allow for much-needed exploration with how sex intersects with marginalized identities. At the same time, this tech can also re-create and perpetuate a violent culture if it isn’t centered on inclusion of marginalized communities, monitored and updated regularly, or making room for marginalized communities to have a say in their structure, execution, and promotion.

For example, haptic technology (simulating touch) in particular has been a key in increasing the marketability and adaptability of the sex industry within virtual reality; to this point, Kara Melton makes an excellent argument:

The assumption of whiteness shapes who we can imagine having access to these virtual experiences, and, therefore, how we imagine we must build these experiences so that the user is fully immersed. In favor of producing seamless immersive experiences, that are not complicated by our varying, racialized relationships to touch, we seem to be losing sight of the truly complex mechanisms that produce it. When touch is understood only as a tool to produce immersive experiences, we lose sight of the real context of engagement: the lived experiences of the gameplayer. Even in virtual spaces touch is not contextless, and, more to the point, its only context is not the game. In this way, we should take pause when we begin to discuss touch and haptic experiences as if they can produce some sort of neutral reality.

Much in the ways that social media like Twitter and Reddit can become toxic environments for marginalized communities, haptic technology carries significant risks at the same time it has the potential to connect and liberate our norms of who is allowed to explore sex and sensuality.

Quantified Self

Quantified self can connect users with their own orgasms, bodies, or partners; a way for them to explore their limitations or deconstruct notions of what sex means to them. What makes quantified self tools so attractive is their adaptability – regardless of identity, users are often free to engage with or without a partner/partners, exploring how they react and interpret sexual play, pleasure, and intimacy. This has huge potential, especially for those who are relatively new to sex and sexuality, or those who wish to use a new method to explore these themes with partner(s) who are not physically close.

But despite its great potential, we find shortcomings with the marketing and bias embedded in QS tech. Even outside of the sex industry, this is the case; Apple erased people with periods by leaving out a period tracker in its Health app, assuming that this was a “niche” need rather than a component of total individual health that should be normalized and centered. Within the sex toy industry, again, we see quantified self marketing that centers the default of cis, able-bodied, heterosexual/monogamous and affluent whiteness. By not directly challenging this, and leaving the burden of interpretation to marginalized communities, quantified self exploration is an example of how we find violent erasure even within progressive sex tech.

Multi-User Tools

Multi-user tools merge user control with tech and sex, allowing multiple primary users to operate them even from a distance. These coincide with a rise of toys designed to allow users to explore partner intimacy – vibrating or masturbatory tools that can be remotely operated with a cell phone, for example. However, the safety and anonymity risks are more prevalent within multi-use toys than in perhaps any other sub-niche of tech and sex; as doxxing and hacking are valid concerns for anything accessible online, the intimacy of multi-use tools makes them especially attractive to malicious users.

This is particularly relevant as digital violence disproportionately impacts marginalized users, especially women and femmes of color. Users are right to question the ways that online violence leveraging internet-connected sex toys could specifically target them and interrupt the ways that they are able to enjoy these products. At their best, these tools let users of multiple identities freely explore and create rules about their own sexuality – something that marketing within the commercial sex industry fails to do. Multi-user tools could very well be an attractive option for centering and normalizing non monogamy within the sex toy industry. However, ineffective defenses against specific online violence rooted in gender and race threaten to create a toxic environment.

Towards Change

Movie-style billboard for a brightly-lit adult book store reading 'Frisco's favorite toy store.'

Photo CC-BY Orin Zebest.

Companies are beginning to rise to the challenge of creating a more inclusive sex toy culture, but the move is slow. For example, Liberator has been praised for marketing to “every body”, but with toys reaching high price points and marketing still excluding anyone that doesn’t fit the already-established status quo, there’s little that these companies are accomplishing beyond acknowledging the disparity of representation within the industry. Other companies, like RodeoH, or the BuckOFF sex toy for trans men, are working towards improving inclusivity and representation within the industry. However, this doesn’t mean that these companies are perfectly inclusive.

The question remains: can we create both sex toys and commercial sex companies that are rooted in diversity, equitability, and accessibility to all customers? Yes, but it’s going to require major systemic overhauls. First, we need to reevaluate the marketing practices that are currently in place: it’s inexcusable to continue using outdated marketing practices that rely on erasure and violence towards specific communities. By giving a portion of capital and marketing control to individuals of these specific communities, we’d open up the niche towards a more holistic, truly inclusive and sustainable business model. For people (especially queers) of color and/or those with disabilities, who have been especially and disproportionately affected by the violence of erasure within the sex industry, it’s vital that their direct market needs are met – and centralizing them within a new, more equitable business model is the way to go. But in order for this to happen, we need to see marginalized folks who are currently underrepresented or downright invisible as the heads of marketing, as designers, consultants, executives, engineers, and beyond, at every level of the sex tech industry. In the case of sex tech, like in the technology industry itself, real change starts with who.