By Jack Hafferkamp
One in 10 adult Americans uses a sex toy.
That’s one conclusion from a major 1997 study by the University of California, San Francisco. It found that about 13.9 million American adults use sex toys.
And who is the most likely person to use a sex toy?
Would you guess a married, monogamous, college-educated, white, Christian, Republican woman in her thirties?
That’s the surprising conclusion of a related survey, known as the Toys in the Sheets survey of sex toy users. The study noted that this typical woman
has children at home, and a family income greater than $40,000 a year. This most typical sex-toy user owns one or two vibrators and possibly other sex toys, and uses them occasionally in both masturbation and partner lovemaking because she -- and her partner -- consider them an enjoyable way to add spice and variety to sex.
Chronologically it was the smaller sex toy users survey that helped framers of the larger study to consider asking questions about national sex toy attitudes. The Toys in the Sheets study was based on a random sample of 246 people who purchased toys from the San-Francisco-based Lawrence Research Group.
The other much larger study, 7,700 telephone interviews with people aged 18 to 90, was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco for the National Sexual Health Survey. It produced mountains of data, which are still being sifted and analyzed. One major finding is that 10.2 percent of respondents said they had used a sex toy with a partner in the last 12 months.
And as the NSHS study notes, Actual sex-toy use is probably higher because many people without sex partners use them in masturbation.
University of California Associate Professor Joseph Catania sums up the situation this way: Sex toys may have been on the nation’s sexual fringe years ago, but not anymore. The sex toy business now adds up to a multi-billion dollar industry. And if it weren’t for archaic state laws prohibiting many of them, it’s likely even more would be sold.
Madam, Don’t Tell Me What You Want It For
Whether you’re looking for a three-speed, rainbow-colored vibrator shaped like a gourd or a flesh-colored dildo that looks like a penis, certain states have tried to make sure that you can’t buy it -- at least not overtly. The New Good Vibrations Guide to Sex notes that several states -- Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Kansas -- have statutes outlawing the sale of devices considered obscene: That is, as any type of mechanism designed or sold to stimulate human genitals. Kansas and Texas do allow sex toys to be sold for therapeutic and medical reasons. But some states even prohibit sex-toy dealers from explaining their use and function to customers.
For retailers, circumventing the laws of these states can be a problem. At a minimum, they must not acknowledge their potential use as sexual pleasure-giving devices. They must resort to covert labeling, calling vibrators novelties or calling dildos condom demonstration models. Or else manufacturers must package and market their products under labels that ignore their most obvious use. The classic case is plug-in vibrators sold as massagers for achy or tired muscles.
Another reason for the diversionary packaging is to provide a convenient cover for women or men who wouldn’t want to be seen purchasing a sexual-pleasure generating device.
I think it’s one of the most closeted forms of sexual entertainments, says Cathy Winks, co-author of The New Good Vibrations Guide to Sex. A stigma has existed that sex toys are only for people who need some kind of help with sex. And they often have been associated with masturbation, which is another taboo area.
But the stigmas seem to be dissipating, thanks to a combination of factors. People are becoming more comfortable with the idea of sex toys, and toys are more readily available for sale. Specialty boutiques, such as the Pleasure Chest stores in New York and Chicago, Eve’s Garden in New York and the San Francisco-based, Good Vibrations have sprung up in many cities. They offer a clean, comfortable atmosphere for people to shop for sex toys. Brian Robinson, president of New York-based Pleasure Chest explains the approach in these terms: We’ve created a place where people don’t feel guilty, dirty or sleazy about what they want to explore. They come in and shop and have fun.
Mail-order businesses spun off from the stores, as well as those strictly catalog-generated, can deliver toys quickly and anonymously. And toys are a growing source of commerce on the internet, where sites such as www.SensualSource.com combine sex toy sales with a entertainment and educational elements.
According to the University of California study, sex-toy usage is most common among 30-to-49 year-olds, 12.5 percent of whom have used toys. A summary of the study’s results published in Sexual Science, the newsletter of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, reveals that, at 4 percent, older people are the least likely to use them.
At 12 percent, sex-toy usage is most popular among Caucasians. Six percent of Latinos report using them, while only two percent of African-Americans use toys. Toy usage increases with education and income, peaking at 13 percent among people who make over $60,000 per year. It also increases based on the number of a person’s sex partners. Among people with at least four partners, sex-toy use reached 18 percent. Nine percent of married couples said they use toys. Among the separated, widowed or divorced, the number hit 15 percent. For gays, lesbians and bisexuals, the number jumps to 27 percent.
Both Good Vibrations and the Pleasure Chest stores report an increase in female customers over the past decade or so. Women now account for about 60 to 70 percent of Pleasure Chest’s customer base, and 65 percent of the buyers in Good Vibrations’ store are women.
Sex Toys Aren’t New -- Or Necessarily Plastic
Anne Semans, Good Vibrations’ catalog manager and co-author with Cathy Winks of The New Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, says that what qualifies as a sex toy is pretty much up to each individual. The conventional sex toy is something marketed by the adult industry, such as a vibrator or a dildo. But we say that if it’s not a body part and you use it to get off, it is a sex toy.
Finding factual information on the history of sex toys is difficult, most likely because of the secret life they have lived. However, it is clear that sex toys of one variety or another have been around since the dawn of man. In The Prehistory of Sex, author Timothy Taylor shows dildos depicted in Upper Paleolithic art created more than 30,000 years ago. They’re also found in Greek art and literature from the third and fourth centuries B.C.
According to The New Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, butt plugs in the form of wooden eggs were prescribed by a European doctor during the Victorian era to help prevent loss of sperm through wasteful ejaculation. The eggs supposedly helped send semen back to the bladder. The first electric vibrator became available in 1869, when an American doctor designed it as a tool to treat what was then known as female disorders. The most common of these afflictions was hysteria, which was understood by medical professionals to mean pent-up sexual frustration. Doctors used vibrators to bring the women to orgasm, which, understandably, released significant Victorian tension. A battery-operated model invented by a British physician followed in the 1880s.
Later, vibrators were marketed as a remedy for a variety of ailments, including headaches, asthma and tuberculosis. Obviously, at some time or another their sexual benefits became known and talked about, quietly, among women.
What’s the latest?
Part of women’s increasing interest in sex toys stems from technological advances that are enhancing the quality of vibrators. American manufacturers are now using Japanese-inspired technology to produce minute motors for electric vibrators, allowing for smaller toys that still produce effective sensations but can be worn under clothing.
Ron McAllister, product designer/developer for Doc Johnson, a major Los Angeles-based adult-novelty manufacturer, points to a trend toward more realistic products. People are willing to spend more to get better perceived quality from products that are realistic and lasting, he says. Doc Johnson makes most of its vibrators, dildos, and artificial vaginas from body casts and is introducing a flesh-like material that feels like human skin. McAllister also notes that anything to do with anal is a best-seller in his outlets.
Another major buzzword in the industry currently is "women’s and couple’s market." The Pleasure Chest’s Brian Robinson reports that vibrators and rings that fit over the clitoris or around the penis to massage the clitoris are a hit in his store.
At the dawn of the new millenium in America, then, sex toys have rather quietly become a significant industry that sells its products across a wide range of social divisions. According to Michael Castleman, a medical journalist who worked on both the NSHS and the Toys in the Sheets surveys, when it comes to sex and sex toys people have compartmentalized their lives in ways that make them more similar in sex habits than in a wide range of other measurable characteristics.
In other words, one might reasonably conclude that in the last quarter century sex-toy usage has been thoroughly democratized. Now writes Castleman, No matter where people live -- the biggest cities to rural areas -- seven to 12 percent of heterosexuals use sex toys. Sex toy users, he says turn out to be a statistical snapshot of middle America in the 1990s. Sex toys have become one more form of home entertainment for married couples.