We’ve all heard that sex sells, but how it’s sold is a lesser-known story.
Historically, sex was only sold to the cis hetero man. Condom wrappers in the 1950s used vaguely erotic images of bobbed blonde women, and by the 1970s sex toy packaging was replete with brightly colored line art of naked, placid women. When selling sex to a female consumer finally became a mainstream concern, companies came up against a central and complex issue: if women have traditionally been encouraged to hide their sexual desire, how are they going to be comfortable enough to publicly purchase anything to do with it?
Today, the graphics around sex look very different to the way they did 30+ years ago, especially in the start-up sector, where innovative companies and educators are pushing for design that’s less about gender binaries and more concerned with safety and inclusivity. I’ve argued before that if the branding of tampons was less floral and patronizing, it would be a major step towards de-stigmatizing periods, and a similar argument holds for sex, too. So how has design been used to de-stigmatize sex, especially for the female-born consumer who’s been brought up not to talk openly about it? And how productive have these shifts in design and branding been? Have they actually led to a healthier, more open conversation around sex?
“A clean, well-lighted place:” Sex enters the mainstream
“A clean, well-lighted place” (no relation to the Hemingway short story of the same name) was the motto of pioneering feminist sex toy shop Good Vibrations in San Francisco when it opened in 1977; the store took dildos and vibrators out of their porn-laden packaging and placed them on white shelving and tables like precious art objects on pedestals. This was partly due to the packaging itself: drawings on boxes “adorned” products with female nudes, the porn cliché of big boobs, tight tum, garter belt, and a shock of blonde hair. Subscribing to the idea that any representation negates the possibility of other representations, packaging was removed by Good Vibrations, especially if it depicted a person. Most importantly, the idea of a “clean, well-lighted place” stood for reclamation of sexuality, a bright amulet against the specter of abused porn stars, seedy 1970s movie houses, and sleazy hot tub flicks.
More sex shops followed suit, especially in the early ’90s—in London’s Soho district, white-washed walls and neo-Burlesque chic reigned supreme in the new crop of feminist shops like Sh! and Coco de Mer, while in the U.S., companies like Babeland and Treasure Chest began to emerge. As staffer Jack Lamon of the world’s only worker-owned cooperative sex shop, Come As You Are, in Toronto, tells me, during this time packaging began to reflect the “clean, well-lighted place” model by doing away with any packaging at all.
“The indie manufacturers making the only high-quality dildos on the market were literally making them in their kitchens,” says Lamon. “As they were selling either to mail-order customers or feminist sex shops that displayed samples on the store shelves, everything was sent simply in Ziplock bags.”
Writer Emily Witt notes in Future Sex, her lauded 2016 exploration of contemporary sexual subcultures, that this “cleaned-out” approach applies equally well in the early years of online dating. “Clean, well-lighted” UX became an antidote for those looking for sex but who were put off by unsolicited dick pics and the visceral rhetoric of “Meet hot babes nearby who want to f*ck.” The interfaces of Tinder and OkCupid, on the other hand, are a sex-free environment; compare the tone and photography you see on Tinder, for example, with that of Grindr, where the sexual intent of a user is explicitly on display and being open about desire is encouraged.
During the early days of online dating, market research indicated that for a lot of women, acknowledging that they’re on dating sites for any intention, let alone a sexual one, is undesirable, so it’s in the best interest of hook-up apps to be soothing and anodyne when it comes to branding.
The typography of Tinder’s “It’s a Match” is a personable, “hand-scrawled” serif that suggests bland enthusiasm more than sex appeal; it could almost be a note of encouragement from a high school teacher. Or think of Bumble, the “female-friendly” Tinder where women start the chat first. Its logo, an insipid yellow, “modern” beehive (modern because it recalls the broadcasting bars of a wifi symbol) connotes community, “forward-thinking,” and friendliness. There’s nothing suggestive of erotic possibility at play; its far more Airbnb than Anaïs Nin.
The “clean, well-lighted” approach has succeeded in making online dating enter the mainstream in a very visible way: hook-up culture is more accessible than ever, and as of late 2014, an estimated 50 million people use Tinder every month.
A shift in marketing to appeal to the female demographic—one that emphasizes the clean and indirect over the direct and “seedy” to create a space, online and in-store, where sexual consumption is more “acceptable”—now also extends to the design of sex objects themselves. Instead of toys that were realistic and explicitly phallic (i.e. skin-colored and veined), feminist sex shops in the ’90s sold bold and brightly colored toys that were abstract or playful in shape. There was the famous Rampant Rabbit, or Tom Dixon’s The Bone, a monolithic black slither that elegantly recalls a Brancusi sculpture.
Disguising desire: “Maybe I should try something a little less intimidating”
A sense of playfulness and fun can make users more comfortable not only with sexual consumption, but with sexuality. Off the back of this idea, in the early ’90s German sex company Fun Factory created a host of animal companions to accompany the Rampant Rabbit in the drawers of bedside tables. With names like Dolly Dolphin, Dinky Digger, and tail-coat clad Paddy Penguin, Fun Factory spearheaded a “playful” tone in the new world of designer sex toys as made possible by the sex boutique.
To make sex consumption more accessible to a female demographic, there are multiple sex products designed with the pretense that they’re not a sex product at all—whether that’s a smiling, animal-shaped vibrator or the interface of a hook-up app.
I ask writer, body-positivity activist, and sex educator Laura Delarato about the element of disguise that’s become necessary to sell sex to women. “As far as sex toys, women especially are taught from a young age not to touch themselves ‘down there’ and that it’s a secret place. When there’s that kind of conversation going on, companies then have to design toys that are a bit more infantilized so that there’s an easy transition from ‘I shouldn’t touch down there’ to ‘maybe I should try something a little less intimidating.’”
It’s a double-edged sword then: on the one hand, playful and evasive branding has helped women gain access to experiences they might have been socially conditioned to feel too shy about. On the other hand, packaging designed to disguise perpetuates the idea that in order for women to be sexual consumers, they have to mask their real desires.
Delarato also points out the strange emphasis on softness and fragility in sex toy branding. “Our bodies are designed to give birth to a child! Our vaginal walls are strong and we can stretch to the point of literally pushing out a baby. We can take a lot more than we’ve been taught to think we can,” she says. By equating female sexuality with small rabbits, marketing perpetuates the idea that the female body is delicate, not strong, making women nervous about exploring bigger toys, more pressure, more vibration, and harder thrusts, and therefore discovering all kinds of possibilities for pleasure that the body is capable of.
The rise of sex tech: monopolizing pleasure?
A potential remedy to evasive design and imagery that draws away from the femme cliché is the branding that tech-savvy sex companies have established over the last 15 years. Since the 2000s, upmarket Swedish sex company LELO and others have dominated the mainstream sex toy market with minimal, gender-neutral packaging that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Apple store.
LELO is clear about what you’re putting inside or on your body; the packaging details how a toy works, what it’s made of, how it stimulates you, and how your body functions in response. The graphic design reflects the expense and innovation behind a toy; vibrators with multiple motors, settings, and long-distance remotes arrive in sleek, space-age boxes. As Lamon at Come As You Are points out, the branding for companies like LELO, Jimmyjane, Je Joue, and Aneros contain a lot of Futura-esque fonts and design reminiscent of other mainstream consumer electronics.
“With these technological shifts, the sex industry has gotten much safer with cleaner designs; making them more accessible and less intimidating,” says Delarato, a huge fan of the emphasis these brands place on education. “But there does need to be a conversation around sexual pleasure and economics, too. Not everyone has $200 to spend on a fully silicon toy with two motors.”
As sex toys continue to veer towards the realm of the rose gold, Silicon Valley gadget, with that shift comes an inevitable price tag and an elite monopolizing of certain kinds of sexual pleasure.
“If you don’t have a lot of money, or if you’re 18 and trying to explore, or in your 50s and have never had an orgasm, it’s hard to walk into a shop and see that the best thing there is $250 and you can’t even try it out first,” says Delarato. This same message is communicated by the tempting white box encasing a designer toy: like the packaging of a new iPhone, it radiates the promise of a sleeker, more attractive lifestyle, but it’s a promise that’s accompanied by a sinking feeling that this product—and therefore that life—is infinitely out of your price range.
Normalization: would you hide your condoms while having a dinner party?
De-stigmatization is the perhaps the most important effect a sex product’s branding can have. That’s why there’s something intriguing about the black-and-white sans serif designer sex toy boxes that—for a certain class of consumer—look as everyday as any other home electronic items. But what if a sex product didn’t look like an expensive electronic, but as normal as something you might find in your local pharmacy?
So-called “normalized” design has already begun to make its way to sex products like condoms, lube, and porn. Take a look at the layout of the porn site by Swedish feminist collective New Level of Pornography, for example, designed by Kimberly Ihre: a pale pink background is paired with large, bold typography that’s proud and loud about the content, but other than the words on the page, the website looks like any other “normal” portfolio site.
At Come As You Are, Lamon says that a lot of new lubes produced by organic companies come in bottles that look like natural oils or scented bath products. Delarato has noticed this shift, too. “I love the fact that lube is starting to have a bit more normalized packaging, like soap or shampoo or toothpaste, for the pure fact that those things are so very normal.”
New start-up Maude, founded by a team of women and designed by former Pentagram designer Hamish Smyth of Order, is a unisex sex essentials brand intent on making sex “smart and fun,” and perhaps most crucially, displayable in the home. While Maude may still fall into more elite territory with a design-conscious demographic in mind (this is the sex range for the couple with Aesop soap dispensers in every bathroom), it’s worth examining as a case study for how a sex product can combine playful and abstract imagery that’s still clearly sexual with the visual language of non-sexual body products.
“The biggest goal for the Maude branding was to make something you’d want to display,” says Smyth. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘If I was having a dinner party, would I hide this condom box?’ If the answer was still yes, we had not yet done a good job.”
I enjoy the sense of inclusivity subtly implied by the design; the “M” of Maude has been designed such that it can look like a penis, a pair of breasts, a bottom, or a vagina—and these body parts are arranged randomly so that different organs seem to converge. These “body parts” don’t suggest a particular body shape or ethnicity, either.
“We hope that the “Ms” are a subtle wink to sex, without being overt,” says Smyth. “I do think design can help defeat some of the taboos still surrounding sex.”
Smyth’s comment reminds me of Ladybeard, a London-based magazine started by a group of seven women who chose a title that boldly declares another way (though a louder and more explicit one than Smyth’s) to normalize sex through art direction. A giant, pink rabbit vibrator on a silk blanket featured on the cover of its first sex-themed issue forced potential buyers to ask, “Is this something I would read comfortably on the subway?” It’s a powerful visual statement and a useful conversation starter, reminiscent of the effect of Peter Dyer’s fantastic green cover for Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, which also became the locus for discussions around subway reading material and stigma. “The real problem stems from the silencing around sex,” says the Ladybeard team.
Significant shifts in the sex industry’s design reflect what mainstream companies believe a demographic desires (or doesn’t yet know it desires), which has historically been rooted in prescriptive binaries, i.e. women want something discreet and luxurious to take them to another place, whereas men want something explicit and brash. In the ’90s, large sex toy companies realized that women were a major demographic for them (made clear by the efforts of feminist movements and stores like Good Vibrations), and the narrative that women should not be sexual consumers was clearly detrimental. Companies have had to look for new narratives, communicated through branding, to sell sex; they’ve had to find ways for women to consume sexual products in spite of growing up in a society that tells them to not to. With solutions, new problems have emerged, whether that’s through packaging that disguises intent and perpetuates the myth of female “discretion,”or branding that infantilize, or marketing that engenders an economic divide. The movement that’s currently swelling is one of normalization, and when paired with genderless imagery, it’ll ideally be a landscape where sex is something sold to everyone.