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The Toys Story

By: Good Vibrations

Sex toys, pleasure products, personal massagers, sexual health aids...

Lois Lane Shopping GIF by Fleischer Studios

We've been seeing a lot of chatter lately about what we call products like ours- mainly, a call to stop calling them “sex toys.” While we’re totally down with folks using whatever language feels right to them, what we’re not okay with is the dismissal of what that phrase means- both historically as well as in an everyday context.

Let’s start with that history bit, shall we? When vibrators, dildos, and other such products began to be advertised, they needed to do so without alluding to the fact that these were, in fact, designed for sexual pleasure, or at least orgasm. By the beginning of the 20th century, vibrators were widely available via mail order, through drugstores and department stores, and even purveyed by traveling salesmen. Even though these handy household helpers started out as medical tools used by doctors to treat hysteria by causing "paroxysms of relief," they were not sold as sexual implements. "Personal massagers,” “marital aids”-- things that will “invigorate you” and “leave you glowing” -- they were described by using any subtle entendre that kept these products on the market while not raising too many eyebrows.


Dr. Carol Queen, our Staff Sexologist and curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum, says the “toy” language was used quite intentionally.  “This language ['sex toys'] was very specifically adopted in the 1970s to target the ‘marital aids’ discourse and the notions that using such a product means there is ‘something wrong’ with you sexually. There’s no problem with discussing [sex toys] in a sexual health context -- but that is not all they are. They are playthings and pleasure implements and tools for erotic exploration -- all these things are true. No one who ever used the term ‘sex toy’ did so to minimize them, but rather to unlock the idea of joy and fun, rather than ‘you must be broken if you need that.’”

Not to mention the outdated connotations of the language that came first- “marital aids” is not only heteronormative and patriarchal, but also leaves no place for pleasure -- therapy is a marital aid, vibrators are for orgasms. These euphemisms did not serve to promote exploration or curiosity so much as shame, which is why feminist and pro-pleasure sexual pioneers like our Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank were a big proponent of this new and more playful language. Blank knew well that her customers--especially heterosexual women--were often burdened by shame and fear about their sexuality and worried that they were not "normal,” and so her intentional use of the phrase “sex toys” when opening Good Vibrations in 1977 was meant to provoke that idea that pleasure can and should be fun.

So what about “pleasure products” or “sexual wellness tools”? Absolutely- these are titles that can very aptly fit or even define this category of object, there’s no denying that. For a lot of folks, these are specifically to be used for accessing pleasure and/or orgasm that maybe would have been harder to reach without them. They can also help with sexual identity, discovery, and affirmation. Like any tool, they are designed to make a goal easier to meet.

But that doesn’t mean that they can’t also be fun, be playful, be -- well... toys! For many folks who use them, sex toys are about that idea of exploration, and there’s nothing “trivial” or “novelty” about that. Sex toys can be about trying something new, adding in a new sensation or dynamic to the way that we engage in erotic or sexual acts (which, as an important note, are also often referred to as “play”).

There can absolutely be a sense of whimsy in these products, from the way they’re designed to the way that they’re used. There’s nothing immature about it, and using the term “sex toys” doesn’t negate the fact that these products are wonderful instruments to help so many of us unlock pleasure or experience better sex - it simply gives us permission through language to have more fun.

So use them how you want and call them what you need - and we’ll be here for you, bringing you tools, pleasure products, personal massagers, and of course- sex toys.