Overcoming the Stigma Around Sex Toys

One writer explores the stigma around sex toys and their use by men and women.

Many of us have stepped into the unchartered territory of sex toys. My personal initiation into the world of sex toys was purchasing a shoddy “body massager” from a vape shop. Eventually I got the courage to foray into the realm of actual sex toys. I learned to overcome my own internalised stigma, and ventured down the creaking stairs of my local sex shop, furtively glancing around to make sure no one could see me comparing Satisfyers.

  Furtively glancing around to make sure no one could see me comparing Satisfyers.

Over the years, I learned to embrace my path to sexual self-discovery. Many of my friends have had similar experiences. Even in our increasingly liberal society, a taboo lingers around the use of sex toys and a stigma exists around the people who use them. 

   It is speculated that the first sex toy came into being around 30,000 years ago in the form of a dildo made out of siltstone. The ancient Greeks used phallic shaped baked bread as a sexual aid (biodegradable!). The first vibrator came into being in the late 19th century as a medical treatment for various conditions (including female hysteria). In the mid-20th century, sex shops began opening their doors, driven by the sexual revolution of the 1960s. 

 Sex toys didn’t fully take off until the 1990s, when Sex and the City’s candid exploration of sexuality and sex toys cemented the Rabbit vibrator as a cultural phenomenon. After an iconic episode in which Charlotte becomes enamoured with her Rabbit, sales for the Rabbit’s manufacturer increased by 700%. Sex and the City’s positive and frank coverage of sex toys empowered many women to take control of their own sexualities, just as Charlotte had done. 

  The internet has revolutionised the sex toy industry. Sex toys now include cutting edge features such as being Bluetooth-controllable and having the option to connect to partners across long distances. They have also become much more accessible, giving people the option to receive a discreet package to their door; an experience far-removed from making the excursion into a seedy shop.

Something that is rarely discussed is the ethical consumption of sex toys. Many sex toys are made with plastics containing phthalates and other toxins. Not only are these awful for our bodies, but they’re also highly damaging to the environment. Increased education and decreased stigma around sex toys could help drive the public toward more eco-friendly and sustainable sex toys.

  Nowadays, the market for sex toys is booming. It was worth $19 bn in 2021, having experienced a major boost during COVID-19 lockdowns. Celebrities and influencers such as Cara Delevigne, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lily Allen proudly promote sex toys, framing them as “sexual wellness tools”. More and more women are leading sex toy companies and changing the way we perceive and discuss sex toys. Sex toys have become symbols of sexual agency for women.

The problem may lie with heteronormativity rather than men themselves

 However, the use of sex toys by men hasn’t been as highly publicised. Men are often ridiculed and emasculated for using sex toys. Sex toys are seen as a sign of empowerment for women and a sign of ineptitude for men. With the orgasm gap of 95% of heterosexual men achieving orgasm during intimacy compared to 65% of heterosexual women, it seems much more acceptable for women to bridge this gap by using sex toys. Men are simply expected to get laid. Queer men tend to be more liberal regarding sex toy use, suggesting that the problem may lie with heteronormativity rather than men themselves. There is a lingering stigma around men exploring their sexuality and it manifests in the taboo of sex toys.

  This is beginning to ease slowly though, with (questionably) influential figures such as Joe Rogan promoting male-centric sex toys like Fleshlights. Open conversations around male sexuality should be normalised. Men need a safe space to share their experiences free of judgement. Positive portrayals of men using sex toys in the media would also help reduce the stigma, much like how Charlotte’s escapades empowered millions of women. We need to challenge the toxic gender roles that perpetuate this stigma against men.

Some of the sex toy shame stems from people who are insecure about their partner’s sex toy use. This usually arises from feelings of inadequacy around sexual performance.  Many people hide their sex toy usage from their partners out of fear that their partners will compare themselves. It’s important for couples to approach the topic of sex toys with understanding and an open-mind instead of taking it personally.

 Not only do sex toys enhance pleasure, but they also have proven health benefits. Decreased levels of anxiety, reduced period cramps, a reduced risk of prostate cancer, and improvements with erectile dysfunction and pelvic floor issues are only some of the numerous benefits associated with sex toys. So why do we stigmatise sex toys as symbols of deviant behaviour instead of recognising them as tools that promote sexual wellbeing?

Creating an open discourse around sex toys is a major step towards claiming our own sexual autonomies. In a rapidly evolving industry with constant innovation, it’s clear that sex toys are not just the key to our sexual pleasure, but also our own sexual liberation.