We recently received a question: “Why is it more socially acceptable for women to use sex toys than men?”
I immediately found this interesting because... is it? Meaning, regardless of the variety and number of toys manufactured, who these toys are intended for, who purchases them, and who actually uses them, in terms of public perception alone, is it more acceptable for women to use sex toys than men? Or, for that matter, to simply talk about using them?
Let’s consider a few parameters.
Numbers: Sex Toys for Women versus Sex Toys for Men
I decided to design a very simple “study” to get an idea of the amount of sex toys slated “for women” versus the amount of sex toys slated “for men.” While the number of items designated for use by either gender may not tell us all we want to know about social acceptance, it will tell us plenty about perceived market acceptance, including simply being a part of the discussion.
First, I made a few assumptions. Since brick-and mortar retail in general is in a tailspin, due in large part to online shopping, I assumed that many people bought sex toys online. So, I only considered online retail outlets for my illustrative “study” here.
Then, I thought about three main categories of online outlets people might try: big “mainstream” outlets wherein sex toys are just one of thousands of product categories they sell, large catchall sex toy emporiums, and specialty boutiques. Within those categories, I selected an example-store that seemed representative to me. (Like I said, I am making some assumptions here!)
Let’s Go Shopping!
With those assumptions and parameters in mind, I went to AdamEve.com first, where I found toys categorized by gender right at the top of their home page. They had 306 “Men’s Sex Toys” listed under the “For Him” tab and 425 “Women’s Sex Toys” listed under the “For Her” tab. Clearly, more toys are slated and available for the ladies.
Next, I went to boutique sex toy specialty store Babeland.com. Babeland kept things very neutral at first glance, with non-gendered listings for “vibrators,” “couples,” “penis toys,” and more. Though a user may in their own mind assign gender, or even sexuality, to a toy and/or a toy user, Babeland itself did not – at least not overtly. It didn’t take much clicking around to find “Gifts for Him” and “Gifts for Her” listings under the site’s “More” tab. Though obscured, these categories contained 24 and 45 items, respectively.
Finally, I went to Target.com. Though I knew the retail giant sold some types of condoms and lube, I had no idea they sold adult novelty products. A BuzzFeed listicle, however, let me know that Target was considered one of eighteen “best places” to buy sex toys online, so I opted to check it out.
Target was tricky with its offerings though. A search for “sex toys” yielded 153 results. Next, a search for “Sex Toys for Women” yielded a mere eight (8!) items, while “Sex Toys for Men” presented a whopping 1,824 items.
It was obvious that this was some sort of categorization and tagging issue though as some of the items listed were X-Men and Toy Story DVDs. (While X-Men at least serves up plenty of eye candy, it’s a stretch to imagine that Toy Story delivers enough Woody to qualify.) Finally though, a search for “Adult Sex Toys Women” gave me 51 results. The companion search for “Adult Sex Toys Men” yielded 53. Thankfully, these were expected sex-related products.
What do these numbers mean?
So, what do these numbers mean? Honestly, not much.
As I’ve discussed before, there really isn’t anything that actually makes something “for women” or “for men” beyond assigning a label, which is a product of human intent. Be it how you as an individual wants to use an object or what society tells us an object is for, the fact remains that most objects are essentially meaningless until we assign them some value or purpose. So, if you want a “penis toy” to be for women or for men or for everyone, well, that’s entirely up to you.
The fact remains, however, that meaning was assigned to these objects/toys. Even in a space that was striving for neutrality, some gendered meaning was attributed to some objects. As such, regardless of why a person or entity assigned a certain label to a certain toy – and regardless of what selection of toys are available from a particular outlet, because stock does vary and there are social factors that shape that, too – the fact remains that some decision was made and, in turn, was presented as a meaningful parameter in significant consumer spaces. Consequently, it’s worth considering the very real impact these attributions and categorizations may have.
Does “Availability” = “Acceptability”?
When comparing the numbers, we see some pretty strong ratios that point to a greater availability of sex toys “for women” verses sex toys “for men.” Babeland’s ratio of women’s assigned items to men’s is about two to one. Adam&Eve carries about one third more toys for women than men. And Target? Target is actually the most balanced at almost exactly one to one, women to men.
So, when someone asks Why is it more socially acceptable for women to use sex toys than men – which, embedded in the question lies the assumption that it is, in fact, more acceptable for women to use sex toys than men – one factor that’s clearly significant is availability. And with availability comes a presence in the lexicon and a general awareness – and the possibility for conversation.
There are more “for women” sex toys available than there are “for men.” And though the reasons for this are complex (and though there are certainly more factors than just numbers at play), numbers alone from a small sampling of significant sex toy purveyors convey the same message.
I will revisit this topic at a future date, as there are many more social factors to consider here. In the meantime, take a moment to consider: What does it mean to say a specific sexual object is for one set of people over another? And what does that attribution, in turn, mean to you? It’s interesting to consider the increasing presence of items like Motorbunny Original and the Motorbunny BUCK, which have come to realize that a sexual object can be far broader than a prescribed label, and have adjusted their focus accordingly.
Enjoy the thought experiment!
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