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Illustration by Katie Carey

The vibrators appear coyly alongside slippers, sleep masks and aromatherapy mists at Urban Outfitters’ online shop, nested within its “health and wellness” category. There are conical toys in muted shades of mint and taupe from Maude, a woman-friendly line that hired Fifty Shades of Grey actor Dakota Johnson as its co-creative director. The “Tennis Pro” from Smile Makers, a Swedish company that designs playful toys for women, is neon yellow and made for the G-spot. The “Womanizer Liberty,” a clitoral massager and suction toy, comes in pastels and jewel tones and resembles a computer mouse.

In the large-scale, retail mainstreaming of sexual wellness – a corporate euphemism for sex toys and other intimate aids – Urban Outfitters was a forerunner. So was Anthropologie, which sells its vibrators under the tagline of “self-love and care for down there.” Earlier this month, Sephora joined the fray, with vibrators from Maude and Dame, another woman-friendly brand, on its American online site and Canada to follow this spring. Indigo launched into sexual wellness in the fall of 2020, carrying toys, lubricants and books from sexual health educators such as Jen Gunter and Emily Nagoski. The Bay hopped on the trend in February, 2021, selling vibrators online and at two pop-ups in downtown Toronto. “Sexual wellness is an important emerging category,” chief merchant Laura Janney said.

By 2019, the U.S. sexual-wellness sphere had ballooned to nearly $12-billion, according to market data firm Grandview Research. Lovehoney Group, a British company selling woman-friendly sex toys online, estimated sales revenues at some $509-million last year. The company, which also sells its We-Vibe and Womanizer brands of toys through Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness-franchise Goop and retailers Walmart, Indigo, the Bay and Urban Outfitters, recorded a 210-per-cent spike in Canadian sales between 2019 and the period just after the pandemic intensified in 2020.

Many still associate sex toys with seedy stores carrying cheap novelties, but the forerunners of the mainstream market for women were actually independent, feminist-minded shops, including Eve’s Garden in New York and Good Vibrations in San Francisco, which opened in the 1970s, as well as Toronto’s Good For Her and Halifax’s Venus Envy, which started in the nineties. All catered to women, selling sex toys and hosting sex education workshops. Today, sexual wellness lines at global chains such as Sephora and Nordstrom – as well as a plethora of sexuality apps and websites including OMGYes, Ferly, Rosy and Dipsea, which feature virtual educational videos, community discussion and erotica – are opening the door for more women.

Everything about the new generation of toys and apps – their languid shades, playful names and elegant marketing – is geared toward women enhancing their solo sexual experiences or expanding their repertoire with partners. Selling these products in the name of health and wellness is making entry easier for women who may still harbour shame around masturbation, sex educators say.

“A lot of the issues that women struggle with are deep-seated, how we’re raised culturally and what we feel we have agency for and are entitled to,” said Carlyle Jansen, sex and relationship therapist and founder of Good For Her. Ms. Jansen says that in the new retail offerings and apps, “There is permission to self-pleasure, to feel desire, to not feel desire, to ask for what you want, your fair share of the pleasure. For so many women, we didn’t get that message.” Ms. Jansen sees the new, sleek era of sex toys helping ease stigma: “It’s about making it less dirty and more of a tool” – a tool akin to a toothbrush or razor, she said.

“It’s positive to see sexual health being incorporated and recognized as a regular part of people’s experiences and their overall well-being,” said Natalya Mason, educator at Saskatoon Sexual Health. “It’s a good way for people to dip their toe into the world of sex toys. It can be intimidating.”

At the same time, Ms. Mason and other experts are questioning elements of the mainstream reframing of sex toys. While selling vibrators with a health halo allows major retailers to promote these products without offending existing customers, it also does away with the idea of sex and orgasms for their own sake, for pleasure and fun.

“The newest framing of masturbation is that it’s a part of self-care. The pitch is, you’re doing this for your health. You’re not doing it just because you’re horny,” said Hallie Lieberman, journalist, sex and gender historian and author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.

In today’s marketing, Ms. Lieberman sees parallels to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when vibrating toys were sold under the guise of beauty and health. Take Ms. Johnson, who told Vogue in November, 2020, “To me, taking care of your body in a sexual way should be the same as taking care of your body in terms of nutrients, skincare, exercise.”

Ms. Lieberman cautions that this retail-driven repositioning of sex morphs it into one more aspirational pursuit for women to optimize in. “There is this cultural pressure. When you’re saying this is a part of wellness, then it’s another thing to add to your checklist: ‘I have to eat less meat, I have to exercise and I need to masturbate because orgasms are good for health.’”

Sex toy marketing has changed, as have the toys themselves.

Today, they are sculptural, aesthetically pleasing art objects a world removed from the veiny offerings one might imagine in a suburban sex shop, its windows blacked out, guys in trench coats roaming the aisles. “The toys look sleek, non-human and non-threatening,” said Ms. Lieberman, who describes them as abstract, alien phalluses. “That defangs the sex toy. There’s nothing in the design that screams the dirty messiness, the animality of sex.”

The aesthetic upgrade, body-safe materials and inclusive marketing have all worked to make the category more attractive to more women: “It’s like, ‘This is going to look great on your Instagram,’” she said. “You can show off that you’re sexually free.”

Ultimately, Ms. Lieberman sees it as a sign of progress that major retailers are treating sex toys like just another revenue stream: “If sex toys are innocuous enough that they’re willing to take the risk by putting them on their website because they don’t think consumers are going to boycott … it shows the status in the culture.”

At Indigo, luxury-arousal serums and high-end vibrators from brands, including LELO and Le Wand, are available in store and online, providing “an accessible and approachable option,” said Calli Ramirez, Indigo’s category director, lifestyle, who curated the “complex and highly personal” section. Ms. Ramirez said that while customers were initially tentative, demand increased once toys were coupled with books from trusted sexual health educators. She believes the retailer is “reducing stigma, normalizing the conversation and empowering customers to understand and be comfortable with sexual wellness and pleasure as an important part of their overall wellness.” To maintain trust with Indigo’s clientele, the toys chosen were chic and artful, nothing pornographic: “Customers should feel comfortable to leave their vibrators on their nightstand,” Ms. Ramirez said.

Buying vibrators online or through a major retailer can give women more discretion than walking into a specialty sex shop, allowed Kim Sedgwick, a sexuality and relationship coach in Toronto: “You could be buying a book; you could be buying a vibrator. No one really knows.” For women living in rural areas, this expanded access and anonymity are welcome, said her sister Amy Sedgwick, an occupational therapist in Antigonish, N.S.

Still, they worry that staff at large department stores might lack the expertise or nuance to guide first-time customers in this realm. When the two opened Red Tent Sisters, a sexuality store in Toronto’s east end in 2007, they remembered getting into hour-long conversations with customers about complex intimacy issues that lay beyond the fix of a toy or lubricant. Today, they run Kim and Amy, offering therapeutic services focused on communication in relationships, including helping women in their conflicts around desire.

“Having the toy in your hands doesn’t necessarily guarantee pleasurable experiences. There are elements of sexuality that are also about social connection, emotions, your own body and what’s going on with your mind at that point in time,” Saskatoon’s Ms. Mason said.

Since different people prioritize sex differently, pressure-loaded messaging around intimacy and orgasms as the new cornerstones of wellness feels problematic to Ms. Jansen: “It’s this idea of, you’re missing out if you don’t do this, you’re not living life to the fullest, you’re not a full sexual being.”

Pressure is off the table for Johanna Rief, director of public relations and “head of sexual empowerment” at Lovehoney Group. “There’s not a right amount of sex. That’s a really personal choice,” Ms. Rief said. “There’s a German saying: ‘Everything is possible, nothing is necessary.’”

While Ms. Rief believes that wrapping sex toys in a banner of health and wellness invites more women in, she questions if the label isn’t a step back: Why not pleasure for its own sake? Take the directness of British singer Lily Allen, who spoke candidly about her masturbation habits when she partnered with Lovehoney’s Womanizer brand in 2020 to create “Liberty,” a magenta and clementine-hued clitoral pump. Ms. Rief hopes the next era of retail messaging will advance past the euphemism of “self-care” and be more forthright.

“Orgasms for fun? That could be the next step,” Ms. Rief said. “It just needs time.”