How a New Wave of Inclusive Sexual Wellness Products Ensures Pleasure Is for All
To be sure, there's a lot of work to be done regarding inclusivity in the sexual wellness industry, specifically in the way products are marketed. "As a gay man, I knew how beneficial lubricants were, but there just weren’t any on the market that stood out as the best [for me]," says Cake co-founder and CMO Mitch Orkis. "As a straight man, Hunter [Morris, Cake's co-founder] knew about lubricants, but often found the many offerings and strange ingredients confusing. As we began to ask others about their sex life and preferences, it became clear that there was an opportunity to offer something better."
Cake's lubricants are geared toward different sexual activities, rather than just a "his/hers" approach. This not only validates varying identities, but also acknowledges a range of preferences and experiences in a way that maximizes pleasure for all. "Someone trying butt play for the first time should not reach for the traditional lube they use for penis or vaginal play, and those who use toys will want specially formulated ‘non-drip’ lube to avoid unwanted messes," Orkis says. "The 'Aloe' lubricant is organic, including quinoa and oat extract, and aloe-based for vagina play, whereas the ‘Backside Slide’ product includes non-absorbing, long-lasting silicone ingredients ideal for anal play."
And that specificity matters. While it's great that, on a cultural level, the understanding of sex is expanding beyond a heteronormative, monogamous, P-in-V approach, there's still room for growth. The next phase of making pleasure accessible to all people focuses on the growth of inclusive sexual wellness products, like Cake's, so everyone's specific needs can be recognized and celebrated.
The current problem with labels and oppressive language in pleasure products
My first encounter with personal lubricant was with a "his/hers" two-pack I snagged from a drugstore shelf. The not-so-subtle messaging of this product? There are two genders, and they are the only ones that can please each other. The packaging and marketing conveys that there's no space for solo play, for same-sex loving, for people who don't subscribe to the gender binary. Unfortunately, the "For Her Pleasure," "For His Pleasure" dichotomy remains rampant and is certainly not limited to drugstore brands.
Take the beloved Sliquid Sassy lube for example: A quick peek at the hot pink bottle immediately signals to me that it's for those who identify as women, and the vaginal-looking flowers with the "women" symbol on the label really drive that point home. This needlessly genders the product, leaving trans, genderqueer, non-binary folks entirely out of the conversation.
And remember, identifying as a woman and having a vagina aren't the same thing. That why Alexandra Fine, CEO and co-founder of pleasure-product company Dame Products and Well+Good Changemaker, notes how important it is for products and brands to be mindful of the differences between sex and gender (sex refers to a biological genitalia, whereas gender refers to how a person identifies). Accordingly, Dame’s products cater to those who are "vulva-havers," not women. "Especially when talking about sex products, clearly communicating which body part a product was designed for helps us to best share how to use the product in the most pleasurable and safe way possible," says Fine. "By using this language, we aim to make all people with that body part feel seen and welcomed into our Dame family, no matter their gender identity."
"Especially when talking about sex products, clearly communicating which body part a product was designed for helps us to best share how to use the product in the most pleasurable and safe way possible." —Alexandra Fine, CEO, Dame Products
Since sex toys are for all bodies—just used differently for different bodies—the packaging needs to reflect that reality. When we gender pleasure products and, by proxy, people, it can harm someone’s mental health as well as their sexual health.
"Psychologically, it can cause folks to distrust and discount their own feelings and desires, which, over time, can lead to folks struggling in many other ways sexually,” says sex educator and trauma specialist Jimanekia Eborn, who adds that gendering people who are keen to explore new sexual possibilities does them a disservice and can make them doubt themselves.
And as Step Tranovich, creator of sex-positive toy brand Cute Little Fuckers, points out, people of all identities and sexualities enjoy sex—and product offerings need to reflect that. "It’s time for inclusivity, time to make toys that don’t just make people’s bodies feel good, but also to make people feel good about who they are," they say. Cute Little Fuckers aims to do just that with its language and design. The toys are shaped like aquatic monsters (Starsi, $79, is a starfish-shaped vibrator), and the brand even has a companion comic strip where the CLFs go exploring. Injecting a sense of playfulness can help bring an arms-wide-open approach to sexuality.
In addition to a product's appearance and language choice, the sexual-wellness products can be more inclusive by offering education as a facet of the brand. Kiana Reeves, chief brand educator at sexual wellness company Foria Wellness, says education and storytelling are crucial to the brand’s ethos (it offers sexual health information via its on-site blog).
"One of our main focuses is making sure our language and visuals are inclusive and represent a range in age, body, gender identity, race, and sexual orientation, especially when it comes to our intimacy products," says Reeves. "Most of our intimacy line was developed for people with vulvas, some of whom identify as women, and some who don't. We’re careful with our language not to encourage gender binary or heteronormative narratives."
How can sexual-wellness brands be more inclusive?
According to Eborn, brands need to listen to consumers—their needs, their desires, their voices percolating in comments sections. There’s also a powerful need for companies to not only reflect diverse identities, but be composed of diverse individuals.
"Hire folks that are not white, cis, and hetero to work for the companies, not just because you want them to fill a spot on a checklist, but because your company genuinely wants to be better and grow and supports all humans," says Eborn. These are the leadership moves that can help democratize sexual pleasure, which is key.
By exercising specificity in language, amplifying diverse voices and visuals, employing people of all identities, and just giving a damn about providing access to pleasure for all people, brands can be more inclusive. "[A brand's] responsibility is to show up and respect the consumer. Create things for the consumer, and not just the consumers that look like you," says Eborn.
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