In 1998, the cast of Sex and the City went vibrator shopping. The scene — shot at New York City’s Pleasure Chest — gave viewers a window into the experience of visiting one of New York’s women-friendly sex shops, a nice, brightly lit alternative to the scuzzy porn shops where many vibrators were sold.
Yet upscale as it was, the excursion clearly took place in a sex shop. In the background of the opening shot are stacks of boxes decorated with scantily clad porn actors’ bodies; another wall of the store is covered in floggers and bondage gear. For many real-life Charlottes, that kind of shopping trip still seemed a bit threatening; something destined to remain fantasy rather than become a part of real life.
Twenty years later, anxious women eager to acquire their first sex toy don’t have to venture to a porn shop, or even a brightly lit feminist sex toy boutique in a fashionable area of town. For the past decade, sex toys have been popping up in more and more venues. The endless shelf space and discretion provided by online shopping made big retail brands like Amazon and Walmart more comfortable stocking adult products on their sites, and over the past decade, cheap, battery-operated cock rings have started popping up in drugstore condom aisles.
And in a major development, we’ve reached a point where mainstream retailers feel completely comfortable stocking quality vibrators, not just in their digital warehouses but on the shelves of their brick-and-mortar stores. Just this month, PlusOne, a new line of premium sex toys, debuted at Walmart stores around the country, marking the first time that the retailer has carried high quality, rechargeable vibrators on the shelves of its brick-and-mortar stores. (Walmart did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)
How did sex toys get from the Pleasure Chest to the shelves of Walmart, a store so conservative it banned Cosmopolitan from its checkout aisles for being too risqué? That Sex and the City trip certainly helped push sex toys out of the shadows and into the mainstream, kicking off a run of media appearances for pleasure products, with not just 50 Shades of Grey but also shows like Girls, Transparent, and Sense8 all featuring sex toys within their storylines. Broad City, in some ways a quirky, millennial successor to Sex and the City, even has its very own line of sex toys.
Feminist activism, improved sex education, and the liberalizing effect that internet has had on discourse have also helped — it’s all a part of what Carol Queen, a staff sexologist at the sex toy boutique Good Vibrations, refers to as “an increasingly sex-comfortable environment that let sexual diversity, pleasure, and toys take their place in the discourse.”
And as the culture has warmed to sex toys, mainstream stores have responded to that demand. Initially, online retailers and drugstores were the major entry points for sex toys. Amazon began stocking erotic products in 2005; that same year, Scotland’s Superdrug began carrying the Durex Play vibrating ring (or, to be more straightforward, cock ring). Sainsbury, Tesco, Duane Reade, and Walgreens soon followed Superdrug’s lead, while online, major retailers like Target.com and, yes, Walmart.com got a little more open-minded in order to compete with Amazon.
Online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores displayed wildly different attitudes toward what sorts of products their clientele might be comfortable with. Online, pretty much anything was allowed: Many major retailers opened their platforms to third-party distributors, allowing a wide variety of risqué products to be sold under a mainstream brand name — Walmart’s website currently stocks a penis extender, a hyperrealistic dildo (complete with balls) capable of suctioning to whatever surface you wish, and a vibrating butt plug designed to look like a puppy tail, all products that will, presumably, never see the inside of a Walmart brick-and-mortar store.
In brick-and-mortar stores, where staff feared alienating customers who didn’t want to be surprised by a dildo while doing their shopping, things were much more chaste. Trojan and Durex have long been the favored sex toy brands of mainstream retailers, with the sexual health connection lending the products an air of respectability. And the products themselves tended not to get too creative. Vibrating cock rings were often the first item to appear on store shelves.
“One of the reasons that was socially acceptable, I think, was that it was still a device worn by a man to pleasure a woman,” says Hallie Lieberman, author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, explaining that a device that could be packaged as a “couples toy” was far less scandalous than something explicitly sold for masturbation.
PlusOne offers customers an entirely different option. A dedicated pleasure brand, it makes no bones about the purpose of its products — yet its design is far classier than, say, that suction cup dildo on Walmart’s website. And with waterproof silicone exteriors and rechargeable batteries, it’s a step up in quality from the Trojan products currently stocked in store, all while been sold at a significantly lower price point than either the Trojan products or the more luxe offerings available at a store like Babeland. PlusOne’s rechargeable bullet offering retails for less than $10; in contrast, a battery-powered Trojan bullet vibrator for a little over $30, and the NYTC rechargeable bullet vibe is available at Babeland for just shy of $25.
PlusOne’s origin story is, in some ways, the natural endpoint of our increasing comfort with erotic products. The brand is a subsidiary of Clio, a Massachusetts-based personal care company known for devices like the beautytrim hair trimmer and Palmperfect electric shaver.
About eight months ago, the powers that be at Walmart reached out to the Clio staff to let them know they were interested in investing in a high-quality, low-cost sex toy line that could comfortably fit in on the shelves of Walmart, one that would give them a competitive edge over retailers like Amazon. Clio worked hand in hand with Walmart’s higher-ups to develop a line that would feel sexier and more female-friendly than some of Trojan toys, while still being entry-level products that wouldn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities — and from there, PlusOne was born.
Jamie Leventhal, president and CEO of Clio, envisions a future where Walmart shoppers can stop by the store to do their grocery shopping, grab a PlusOne vibe off the shelf, and go through discreet self-checkout, getting access to quality pleasure products without ever stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s a wildly different mode of buying sex toys than the trip that the Sex and the City girls took 20 years ago — and it’s a future that could bring sexual pleasure to a much broader audience than ever envisioned before.
“It’s amazing how quickly the consumers are saying yes” to PlusOne, Leventhal says, noting that in just a few weeks, the brand’s sales have approached what many of their competitors might sell in a year. It’s taken decades to get to the point where a vibrator at Walmart is met with excitement rather than outrage. But now that we’ve gotten there, big-box stores are excited to cash in.
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