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How Free People, Urban Outfitters and others are trying to shake up women’s sex toy sales

The increase of companies using technology to hone in on women’s health and sexuality has grown to the point that it has become its own category — called femtech.

A screenshot of Free People's website
A screenshot of Free People's websiteRead moreHandout (custom credit)

From Polly Rodriguez’s perspective, there’s no question that vibrators make people’s lives better.

But Rodriguez, cofounder of a Manhattan-based sexual wellness firm, said some people still feel as if they need “permission” to buy them. The stigma is starting to evaporate as mainstream retailers like Urban Outfitters carry these items online, sold under the umbrella of “wellness” products.

"It’s like, ‘Well, if Urban Outfitters are selling these products, it must be OK for me to buy them,’” said Rodriguez, 32, who founded the company Unbound and a group called Women of Sex Tech.

The “wellness” category — which has expanded to include everything from boutique fitness gyms, athleisure, essential oils, and the cannabis compound CBD — has ballooned to what the Global Wellness Institute calls a $4.2 trillion global market. Experts say it’s no surprise the sex-toy market is becoming part of the movement.

“It’s sort of the last frontier in terms of wellness,” said Beth McGroarty, vice president of research at the Global Wellness Institute, an international group for the industry. “Nothing is more zeitgeist right now than women’s empowerment, body positivity for women.”

Women’s health — including their sexual health — had long been ignored. Now, not only is it being talked about, but some mainstream retailers are championing it, especially as women’s spending power has continued to rise.

The increase of companies using technology to hone in on women’s health has grown to the point that it has become its own category — called femtech — that is estimated to reach up to a $50 billion market potential by 2025, according to the business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

The global femtech sector barely brought in $100 million in venture capital funding five years ago, according to the data and software firm PitchBook. This year, funding has topped all years in the last decade, at $392 million capital invested and 36 deals, as of Oct.31, according to PitchBook.

The adult-stores industry, which reached $9.5 billion in revenue in 2018, is projected to grow only 1.1 percent from 2018 to 2023, according to the market research firm IBISWorld. “Growing social acceptance of sex paraphernalia is expected to boost industry growth,” according to the report, which also credited Walmart and CVS for “carrying some adult products” along with the popularity of the erotic book Fifty Shades of Grey.

Though Amazon also sells “Adult Toys & Games,” under a “sexual wellness” category, the display seems to mimic more of a traditional adult store.

But Free People, which sells clothes, beauty products, accessories, and shoes to young professional women, takes a different approach.

Jessica Richards, Free People’s senior merchant of beauty and wellness, wanted to add sex-related products but didn’t want the items on Free People’s website to emulate what many women experience when walking into a traditional sex shop.

Richards, 34, described that experience as intimidating and crass for many women.

The Free People team brainstormed and came up with a way to rebrand sex toys on their site to something they thought more accurately captured the benefits of buying a vibrator:


“It is important to help women rather than make them feel shamed for something that’s very normal,” Richards said. “If you’re selling a vibrator, you’re not selling sex necessarily. You’re selling something that enhances how a woman feels about herself.”

Many women, empowered by recent feminist movements, say they are frustrated by what they considered poor products in the female-health category. They are transforming what is offered and marketed in the sexual health and wellness sector.

The major companies in the sex-toy industry like Doc Johnson, BMS Factory, LELO, and Luvu Brands, as outlined by the global market research company Technavio, were all founded by men.

The Food and Drug Administration did not start allowing women “with childbearing potential” to participate in drug studies until 1993, and even now most studies are majority male participants, showing how “throughout history, women’s health has taken a backseat to men’s health,” according to PitchBook.

After learning that the pH level of her soap could be a reason for her frequent vaginal infections, Lauren Steinberg, 25, created Queen V, a women’s health company with products that are “pH-balanced, free of harmful ingredients, convenient, easy to use, and affordable.” Items like her $5 “V Bar” soap and $9 “P.S. I Lube You” lubricant are sold on Free People’s website.

The company’s main mission is to “really destigmatize the word vagina,” said Steinberg, whose products are also sold at Walmart. “Women now more than ever feel empowered, and we’re really trying to harness that feeling of power and harness it into our brand.”

Rodriguez and Alexandra Fine, a 30-year-old sexologist who cofounded the sexual wellness company Dame Products, based in Brooklyn, are focused on making items that are not just enjoyable but healthy.

Rodriguez said she wanted to create a company where women were empowered to buy whatever sexual wellness product they desired and those items, like vibrators and anything women put in their bodies, would be made of safe materials. The description of Unbound’s $36 “OH! To Go Bag” at Urban Outfitters, which includes a mini vibrator, lube, and a condom, says there are “absolutely no glycerin, glycol and parabens.” These are chemicals that Rodriguez said people seeking natural products would not want to put in absorbent parts of their body.

Fine and Janet Lieberman, a mechanical engineer, wanted to create sex toys that were made of healthy materials, marketed in an approachable way, and designed to work for women. Dame Products’ $135 “Eva II” hands-free vibrator is made with medical-grade material and designed for female pleasure — instead of simply looking look like a man’s anatomy. It’s also one of the products sold at Free People.

Dame’s website also aims to be informative about sexual pleasure and health.

“We began our mission to close the "pleasure gap,” Dame Products writes on its website. “Studies show a big pleasure gap in the bedroom. In one study, 91 percent of cis-men said they usually or always orgasm during sex, while only 39 percent of cis-women said the same.” (Cis gender describes people whose gender aligns with their sex at birth.)

Even though Fine has made it into Free People’s offerings, sexual wellness companies like hers are still blocked from gaining the capital and access to markets to sell her products.

She said the company has had leases denied and wasn’t able to get a small-business loan “not only because we are women, but we are women talking about sexual pleasure.”

Facebook also doesn’t let those companies run ads because its policy prohibits adult products. There is an exception for ads focused on “family planning and contraception" that do not focus on "sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement.”

Viagra and erectile dysfunction products can advertise on the social-media platform, Rodriguez said. She sees this as a message that male pleasure is more important because men, not women, need to orgasm in order to procreate.

“It kind of furthers the narrative that for women, pleasure is a luxury or an indulgence and not necessary and not part of your health,” Rodriguez said.

Facebook’s ad policy for adult products, like sex toys, applies to items marketed to men and women. Facebook, for example, permits ads for Addyi, a drug used for low sex drive in women, a Facebook spokesperson said.

“Facebook has long had a policy that limits ads with adult content and adult products in part because we take into account the wide array of people from varying cultures and countries who see them," the spokesperson said.

Companies selling vibrators also struggle persuading a mostly male venture capitalist field to invest in them, and many of these women have based their companies in New York “because in Silicon Valley they laugh us out of the room,” Rodriguez said.

Last year, just 2.2 percent of all U.S. venture capital funding went to companies founded solely by women and about 4.4 percent of venture capital transactions were for female-founded companies, according to PitchBook.

Even though Free People has embraced “self-love,” the company is still hesitant on how much to push the products.

Free People has introduced the Dame vibrators in its separate “FP Movement” store in SoHo, along with informational videos from Dame on loop, and Richards said the items are selling well. Even though Richards would love to have Dame Products, among others, in more brick-and-mortar stores, she said the brand likes to “walk before we run.”

“We’re testing it in retail to see how it’s received by other people," Richards said, “and then based on that we will look at different markets to expand into.”

Logan Levkoff, a sexologist in New York, said the feminist movement, social media, and more women in the tech field have created a “perfect storm.”

“We’re going to continue to see retail be more unapologetic about the acknowledgment of sexuality and sexual health products being out there,” she said, “being in actual brick-and-mortar stores and not just online.”