Why Do Sex Shops Still Sell Gender Categorised Sex Toys?
By Cara Sutra
The majority of online sex shops still sell gender categorised sex toys. In an admittedly slow to change world where education about the existence of people outside of the gender binary is on the increase, should sex shops really still sell toys in this way? I personally don’t believe sex toys should be sold via gender labelled categories. Is there a reason why online sex shops still sell gender categorised sex toys? Yes, there is. Can something be done to change the way sex toys are sold? Yes, I believe so… but it will take some time and will be through a different route to simply calling out online sex shops selling sex toys via gender labels rather than anatomy.
Many years before I worked in the adult industry (when I went to sex toy parties without blogging about it afterwards), my friends very definitely shopped simply for ‘sex toys’ or ‘lingerie’. Although no-one uttered the phrase ‘women’s sex toys’, there was an unspoken understanding that cock rings fell under the ‘couples’ sex toys’ label and penis sleeves came under the ‘men’s sex toys’ label. This is undoubtedly because the group of friends and/or colleagues I found myself with were cis (born with anatomy and gender identity matching up) and hetero. Identifying as bisexual myself, I did find the constant assumption that all couples were made up of man and woman, and that anything else was a novelty, to be irritating – but it was the way the world was. Those in the LGBTQ spectrum were and to some extent still are seen as a novelty in many groups of friends or in a work environment, but that’s a ranty article for another day.
I must confess that as a cis woman I didn’t understand the struggles of non-cis or non gender binary people – in general, or in terms of shopping for sex toys. I still can’t hope to understand all the challenges non-cis and non-binary people have to deal with, but at least I’m a little more enlightened and educated these days. The most important revelation being that non-cis and non-binary folk actually exist (yeah, I know: duh). I guess because it hadn’t been an issue in my life I just hadn’t thought about it all that much, as selfish as that may be. Due to my sex writing and sex education work I do my best to be broad-minded and inclusive in both my own perceptions of the world and my discussions with others these days.
Changing my perceptions from what I’d accepted as ‘the norm’ due to social circles, lack of being affected by gender identity issues and just absent-mindedly going along with a majority voice on and offline has taken a shameful number of years for me. I’m very sorry for that; in fact I feel really bad about it. Until about a year ago I was mirroring online sex shops’ product categories for my own sex toy reviews area on this very blog. I had categories for men’s sex toy reviews, women’s sex toy reviews, ‘male’ masturbators, etc. In fact just the other day I mistakenly titled a guest review as for a ‘male masturbator’ before I realised my error and hurriedly changed it to ‘penis masturbator’, berating myself the whole time. Not everyone who has a penis identifies as male. Not everyone who identifies as male has a penis. Gender and anatomy: two different things. Sometimes they match up, sometimes they don’t. Pretty simple concept, but one that a lot of cis, non-gender-issue-affected folk struggle to deal with, understand or even remember. [shame face]
I’m a sex writer/educator as well as a cis woman who has been unaffected by gender identity issues on a personal level. If I struggle at times to remember complete inclusivity, absolutely without meaning any offence to anyone, it’s no wonder that the sex toy shopping world at large still categorises sex toys by binary gender labels. Since sex toys started being sold and steadily became more popular, people shopped for what they identified as. A shelf in a shop for ‘men’s sex toys’ next to the big area full of dildos and rabbit vibrators ‘for women’. This way of shopping spread to other adult product sales as well: ‘lad mags’ and tickets to ‘girly nights’ aka ‘male’ strippers, with ‘alternative’ products and porn meaning ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ rather than non-cis or non gender binary.
Because sex toys have been shopped for and therefore categorised via gender rather than anatomy labels for such a long time, this is how people have continued to shop for sex toys – and this has spilled over into online sex toy shopping. When the first online sex shops launched, sex toys were still shopped for via gender labels – and this is how the incoming traffic/potential customers would navigate to products on the website. Thinking a little more recently, a large part of incoming traffic to the online sex shops I have worked with are through browser search terms such as ‘women’s sex toys’ and ‘men’s sex toys’. Right now, it makes sense for online sex shops to not only sell gender categorised sex toys, but to also optimise their site that way so it’s more easily found by potential customers – particularly in what is today’s incredibly competitive adult e-commerce climate. I can’t even imagine how much income the phrases ‘men’s sex toys’ and ‘male masturbators’ generate through Google Adwords every single day.
No matter how lovely the look, feel and attitude of any particular online sex shop, how inclusive and aware of non-cis and non-binary folk their staff may be, selling sex toys is big business. In business it makes sense to do the things which maximise your income, your profits. That’s how you stay in business, after all. It’s all very well being a joyful breath of fresh air and setting yourself apart by refusing to categorise sex toys by old-fashioned and narrow-minded binary gender labels on your new e-commerce site, but how many sales will that online sex shop achieve? How many people shopping for sex toys online will find their website? Ultimately, how long will that sex shop stay in business? Can any adult e-commerce keep their business afloat merely due to how much their social media followers love their ethos or because they keep sending out tons of free sex toys to reviewers? It’s a nice idea but incredibly naive in my opinion; working in this way will probably generate next to nothing in terms of day to day sales. Instead it’s about optimising that well designed, easy to navigate adult e-commerce website intelligently to gather maximum traffic from the search engines, backed up by that social media presence and interaction, the toy testing scheme and other community-building constructs.
That’s why I don’t believe the solution to online sex shops selling gender categorised sex toys is to criticise the shops themselves. Yes, selling sex toys this way is annoying and no, it’s not enlightened or inclusive. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t believe it’s correct or respectful to do so. But as long as the majority of people in the sex toy buying population believe that to shop for sex toys they have to search via binary gender labels, it’s going to carry on.
As bloggers, I believe we are part of an important ongoing educational process here. We are able to use our online platforms to spread not just honest reviews on adult products but also inform and educate readers about how to shop for sex toys in the first place. We can teach people that sex toys are designed not for gender but for anatomy. Instead of writing about ‘women’s sex toys’ write about penetrative sex toys, vaginal dildos or clitoral stimulators. Instead of writing about the ‘best male masturbators’ write about penis masturbators, penile strokers, prostate massagers. Remove your own gender categorised labels relating to sex toys if appropriate, lead by example. Don’t stop communicating through your articles and via social media that sex toys are for all sexually interested adults – with gender identity irrelevant.
In my opinion the major overhaul of online sex shops gender labelled categories will only happen when most people shop for sex toys based on anatomy, and not gender. It’s not enough to call out any and every sex shop selling gender categorised sex toys. They’re doing it because that’s how the majority of people shop. Ongoing education and loud communication to the general public is key here, rather than simply criticising sex shops for being non-inclusive.
This article contains affiliate links