How retailers can change the conversation around sexual wellness

Fact: Sex is a normal part of everyday life.

Also a fact: Sometimes (many times? All the time?) people need, want and enjoy something besides themselves — and each other — to make the experience more pleasurable.

This is not new news.

The vibrator was invented in the 1880s during Victorian times. And though the first commercial lube was on the market in 1904, our ancestors have been using plant oils, seaweed and yams for thousands of years.

So, why do so many consumers feel so weird about buying what they want today?

On the one hand, the options are practically endless. Exquisite design is everywhere. Sophisticated technology abounds. And, on the other hand, stores that sell these products are mostly places the consumer is afraid their mother-in-law will drive by and see their car in the parking lot, or online purveyors that will ship “in discrete brown packaging” so no one will know your “secret.” If you search in your local mass drug store, you might find a few options from the major players, but they are tucked away. Often between the period care and the pregnancy tests. There’s no aisle sign. There’s no endcap. There’s no in-store celebration of new products or featured brands.

All of these scenarios perpetuate the idea that sexuality — and pleasure, in particular — are taboo. By carrying only a small assortment and hiding away the products that actually do have shelf space, the message the consumer gets is that she should hide away her needs, her wants and her desires.

This is in direct conflict with so much mainstream editorial. Note, I don’t say the media because it’s still mighty hard to advertise pleasure products. Major fashion magazines regularly have reviews and top 10 lists. Blogs on beauty, healthy living, self-care, wellness and design all feature the what, how, where and why of sex toys and intimate care. All ages have been welcomed to this conversation, as everyone from Gen Z to baby boomers and beyond are becoming more vocal about what works for them and the fact that a sex life is real life.

These mixed messages are not doing anyone any favors. Women are feeling more confident in their sexuality and are willing to spend on it, but the in-store experience tells them that doesn’t matter. They don’t matter.

Imagine if there was an aisle dedicated to, and labeled as, “Sexual Wellness.” It would be a place where all the major players were stocked, but also, where some new brands — smaller brands, women-owned brands — were featured. Imagine if store associates were trained and knowledgeable about the different products, able to answer questions, and suggest options. Imagine creating a judgment-free zone where people were encouraged to feel good about wanting to make themselves feel good. Imagine getting customers to spend more time exploring, putting more items in their baskets and building more of a rapport with your store. Imagine.

One thing we learned in 2020 is that the sexual wellness business is big business. We had time on our hands during lockdown. Time to experiment. Time to add a little spice to the same old same old. Time to spend thinking about what we really wanted — alone or with a partner. Time to try a lot of different things. Sales in the category skyrocketed, and now that we’re feeling so comfortable purchasing, we’re only going to be looking for more.

So, here’s the opportunity: as advertisers, marketers and retailers, we can impose puritanical points of view on people, we can use innuendo and subtlety, and we can imply that their desire for pleasure needs to be hidden and is therefore shameful. Or, we can recognize the turning tides of culture and use our powers of influence to help people express who they are, have what makes them happy and enjoy every aspect of their lives.

It’s up to us.

a woman smiling for the camera

Katie Keating is co-founder and co-chief creative officer of Fancy, a New York City-based advertising agency dedicated to elevating what’s important to women and changing the cultural conversation around topics traditionally considered taboo.

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