NOTNOT LONG It used to be that sex toys could only be found in sex shops tucked away in back alleys or in sleazy parts of town. Today, the devices seem to be sold everywhere, from traditional department stores to large drugstore chains and small health food stores. Retailers are catching up with the growing demand for “sexual wellness” and a greater willingness to talk about it. Mentions of the phrase on Twitter have increased sixfold between 2018 and 2021. More and more big-screen movies and TV series are also focusing on this theme. Bedroom enjoyment is increasingly accepted as an important aspect of overall well-being and seen as something to be maintained and improved upon.
In 2023, this trend will accelerate. Already, 25-30% of adults in America, Britain and France own sex toys. According to a 2021 survey by PwVS, a consulting company, a third of them had purchased their devices in the previous three years. The market will continue to grow rapidly in 2023. Sales will be driven not only by consumer demand, but also by innovative designs that appeal to new users, some of whom may have found the vibrators of yesteryear a throw-off. The large plastic models in the shape of a phallus came out; palm-sized unisex intimate massage gadgets made of soft silicone and in all kinds of shapes.
Bedroom enjoyment is increasingly accepted as an important aspect of overall well-being
Innovative sexual pleasure startups are particularly suited to the needs of female customers, in part because they are, unusually for the tech industry, often led by women. Their products will increasingly be used by couples, rather than solos, as talking about sexual pleasure – in private and in public – becomes less taboo.
These trends will not be limited to the Western world. Nor will they be the preserve of young people or urban, tech-savvy consumers. In India, for example, many sex toys are purchased by married couples in small towns looking to spice up their sex life.
Education about sexual dysfunction, sexual pleasure, and how to tell a partner about it will also improve. But expect little of that to come from public sex education programs. Apps and websites run by businesses and nonprofit groups present sex education and therapy in youth-friendly language and easy-to-access formats. They cover topics that people are usually hesitant to talk about, even with a doctor or therapist, such as masturbation, erectile dysfunction, or difficulty reaching orgasm.
“Digital therapies” for sexual problems – app-based therapies that can include connected devices (such as masturbator pumps or pelvic floor training gadgets) – will become more popular. Some of these therapies may be available by prescription from healthcare providers, such as England’s National Health Service, who have long waiting lists for sex therapy.
But, unfortunately, the expansion of the sexual pleasure industry will likely continue to be hampered by regulators and social media giants who control much of the advertising. On Facebook, any advertising for gels, devices, sexual advice or anything related to sexual pleasure is prohibited on the grounds of protecting users who may not approve of “potential negative experiences”. This is unfortunate and short-sighted because far too many people have unhappy sex lives and far too many relationships are destroyed for common reasons that proper information and a short therapy can easily resolve.■
Slavea Chankova: health correspondent, The Economist
This article appeared in the Science and Technology section of The World Ahead 2023 print edition under the title “Nudge nudge, wink wink”