The Problems with the Sex Industry

The Problems with the Sex Industry

People...I fucking love sex toys. And I love fucking sex toys. Which is kind of important, since I’ve modelled a large amount of my career around working in the sex industry. But here’s the thing; I have no issue with loving something and still acknowledging that it’s problematic. I do this with the media I consume, the products I buy and even the social circles I engage with. Just because you love something, doesn’t mean you have to stick your head in the sand and loudly declare that it’s perfect. Nothing is. And the first step to getting something closer to perfect is acknowledging what’s wrong with it and trying to fix it. The sex industry and the sex toy industry especially, is very problematic.

As a sex toy store manager, part of my job was training new staff. Every store manager was responsible for the knowledge of their shop’s staff members. The only problem was, there was no real hard and fast rule about what was “enough knowledge”. You know when you go into a supermarket and you’re like “Where is that gluten free, hypoallergenic, vegan bacon that I feed to my cat?” and the shelf stacker looks at you blankly before shrugging and saying “I dunno”. You know that frustration you feel at the incompetence of this pre-pubescent grocery anarchist? Now imagine that you’re asking whether something is going to give you cancer. Or whether something is going to make your genitals explode in an allergic rash.

Knowledge of sex toy products is really important, but most retailers don’t have the time or the inclination to train their staff properly. This can have dire consequences for customers. Not knowing that anal toys need a flared base or that clitoral vibes aren’t designed to go inside a vagina, can mean not just embarrassment for a customer, but potentially an ER visit, or even surgery.

There’s also the issue of ethical accountability for the kinds of products that they sell. Things like clitoral stimulation gel, anal ease lubricants and toys containing pthlates are all pretty dangerous products. Because sex toys aren’t held to the same kinds of manufacturing standards as pretty much everything else in the world, it means that stores can legally get away with selling things that can give you genital burns, rupture your internal organs or give you cancer (and because I love you, I'm not linking out to the articles behind those stories). Because there’s no government body holding them directly responsible, sex toy stores are really only accountable to themselves.

Sex toys are really popular in the LGBTIQ community. LGBTIQ people are fairly sex positive. We kind of have to be, since the rest of the world is determined to be pretty sex negative on our behalf. So, many of us revolt by embracing our sexuality, by exploring it in all the myriad ways that we can. And a very large part of that exploration involves toys. Whether it’s strap ons, bondage gear, masturbators or latex wear, the LGBTIQ community represents a large share of the market.

Given the percentage of the toy buying population that comes from the LGBTIQ community, you would have thought that toy manufacturers and stores would be bending over backwards to accommodate our sensibilities and identities.

Sadly, this is so far from the truth.

Penis masturbators are still, inexplicably called “male masturbators” or some variation on that. Even manufacturers who make the effort to have inclusive language on their packaging might still end up on a store shelf whose signage reads “men’s toys”. Why do they do this when there are so many inclusive alternatives? Dick toys. Cock socks. Penis pleasurers. Phallus Handlers. Even just Fuck Toys?! But the insistence on gendering these toys means that the manufacturers and stores are excluding every person that isn’t a cis-man, and usually a straight cis man at that. Despite a very large corner of the masturbation sleeve market going to gay men, manufacturers are still determined to make their products hetero-centric. Even masturbators that feature an asshole or a mouth instead of a vagina, almost always come in packaging with a naked cis-woman. So if you’re a penis owner who doesn’t identify as a “male” and/or is into men, you’re shit out of luck on the representation front.

Similarly, almost all strap on packaging and marketing is targeted towards hetero couples who are interested in pegging. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that a hetero couple can explore an alternative to the more socially acceptable penis-in-vagina sex model. But as a woman who likes pretending to have a penis and putting it in other women who also enjoy my pretend penis, I feel pretty fucking excluded from this hetero love-in. Even double-ended dildos (dick-dicks) usually only feature images of a lone, cis woman, as though the purpose of a dick-dick is to just shove as much of it up inside you as you can before pulling it out and checking the high tide mark, like you’re testing the oil level on your car.

And all of this is without mentioning the issue of race or gender non-conformity. The whole time I worked in a sex store, ordering stock, going to sales seminars, and browsing product catalogues, the only time I ever saw a person of colour was when it was a gimmick. And when I say gimmick, understand that what I actually mean is “racist on the level of a southern American grandmother who got stuck into the mint juleps and now won’t shut up about how 'ni**er' used to be an acceptable word and hasn’t political correctness gone mad”.

I’ve seen blow up dolls of an indiscriminate shade of brown, marketed as “jungle beast woman”. I’ve seen masturbation toys in colours other than “pasty white person” promoted as “fuck the exotic foreign treasure”. The only time I’ve ever seen a toy with a person of colour on it, that wasn’t spectacularly, soul-shrivelling-ly racist, was when it was modelled on a famous porn star (and even then they photoshopped her to be less brown). 

There seems to be an attitude in the sex toy industry, that because you’re dealing with sex, you can therefore throw the rules of good taste and human decency out the window. Because the rest of the world treats sex like a joke, a lot of manufacturers think that their target market is the lowest common denominator. They think they’re dealing with hillbillies and bogans who only ever buy sex toys as a joke for a bucks party. And so that’s how they treat their consumers. They resort to using offensive language, because they assume their customers will relate to it. They market porn and toys with trans performers and models using incredibly transphobic language. Imagine that you’re a trans person, looking for porn that represents your sexual experience, and you are forced to type in hateful slurs just to find it.

And let’s not forget that almost without fail, every representation in every bit of marketing, packaging or promotional material, will feature young, skinny, able bodied people. The only time you see fat people, old people, or people with disabilities is when it’s a gimmick. And by gimmick I mean “soul crushingly incontrovertible proof that the world is a cruel and heartless place with no hope for redemption.” When I took over the sex toy store I was managing, I found that it stocked a blow up doll called “Fatty Patty” that helpfully encouraged you to “Fuck her until her rolls jiggle” and “Get your dick inside those folds”. It was in the novelty toy section and before I’d had a chance to transfer the stock to another store, we’d sold out of them to customers who wanted Kris Kringle and bucks night gifts. There were other blowup dolls called “Midget Mike” and “Old Granny Fanny” and I’m not even going to repeat the promotional text on that packaging, despite it being seared into my retinas for all time.

People forget that fat people also like sex. People with disabilities also like sex. Trans people like sex. Old people like sex. People of colour like sex. People who aren’t straight like sex. Or to make it simpler, let’s stop assuming that the only people who like, or who are allowed to enjoy sex are young, skinny, able bodied, straight, white people. Let’s stop supporting any company that uses hateful or exclusionary language to sell their toys. Aside from it making them shitty people, it also makes them fucking bad at their job.

They can’t recognise what a great big market there is out there, a market that's waiting for a supportive company to come along that works to include them. So if they can’t see that, don’t support their stupidity. Don’t support their shitty business model. Don’t support their spectacular lack of understanding of sexual and gender diversity. Punish them by withholding your hard earned cash, and instead spend your money with brands who produce good quality toys and good quality social inclusion. We all deserve better.

That is all.

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