Why you should care
Sex toys don’t need to stay in the bedroom anymore — and why should they?
You don’t ever have to tell anybody you’re wearing a vibrator to dinner. But if you want to, you can now flaunt it.
Vibrators and other sex toys for women have in recent years veered away from straightforward penis-shaped apparatuses and toward more creative and ambiguous designs. But now a growing number of innovators are driving a particularly bold revolution: sex toys, and vibrators in particular, as jewelry.
Sex-toy subscription box startup Unbound started selling accessories that double as sexual stimulation — like nipple clamps you can also wear as earrings — in 2016. Now, it’s going a step further with the just-released Palma ring that sells for $128. It comes in silver or gold, looks like a pretty standard metal statement ring you might buy at a stylish but inexpensive shop, and is also a three-speed vibrator. It took two years to develop due to having to fit the circuit board of a vibrator into a ring a person could comfortably wear.
The gold standard in this genre is Crave’s Vesper, a $69 necklace that looks like a minimalist shaft in silver or gold — but is actually a high-powered sex toy. At first glance, there’s something titillating in the fact that it doesn’t really look like a vibrator unless you know it is. Screaming O’s vibrating thongs — which cost $25 — are controlled by a ring you wear on your finger.
People want to wear something that puts the power in their hands on whether to disclose its secondary use.
Polly Rodriguez, founder of Unbound
These startups are promising what sexual freedom is fundamentally about — choice — in a new arena: by letting customers decide whether they want to use sex toys as jewelry and whether they want others to know about it. They’re hoping to cash in on a sex-toy industry that is expected to top $29 billion by 2020 and is growing at 7 percent annually. In the last five years, this niche of the industry has gone from nonexistent to persistent, with at least five companies making overtly stimulating jewelry.
“People want to wear something that puts the power in their hands on whether to disclose its secondary use,” says Polly Rodriguez, founder of Unbound. “It wasn’t that much about pushing people to go down the street yelling, ‘Oh, my God, this is a vibrator!’” It was about designing something that stood alone as a ring so that decision is in the hands of the wearer.”
Among other things, the #MeToo movement also demonstrated society’s struggle over “how to have conversations about sexuality,” adds Rodriguez. That’s particularly the case with communities that don’t control the sexual conversation in American culture — such as the cis and transwomen or nonbinary people who form the majority of Unbound’s customers. For Rodriguez, a vibrator worn in public gives them an opportunity to at least stir that conversation, even if only on an individual level.
The startups driving the emergence of vibrators-as-jewelry are learning along the way too. You could wear the Vesper necklace out to a party without anyone knowing you’ve got a sex toy hanging around your neck — a kind of titillating secret. And, says Crave designer Ti Chang, some people probably choose that approach. But their market research found something else: Many people actually want to talk about it.
“In talking to people, talking to women, there was an overwhelming desire: People wanted to talk about pleasure and talk about sex — these taboo topics — without shame.” she says. “What we found is that when people wear it out, in general, they want to share and talk about it. It makes the conversation about pleasure much easier to have.”
Vesper, which launched in 2014, is Crave’s most popular product. It’s also, as vibrators go, extremely elegant: When your vibrator doubles as jewelry, it has to actually function as jewelry too — and, Chang says, it was important in designing the Vesper and Crave’s other products that they not be something a chic person would be embarrassed to own. Another big factor for both the Palma and the Vesper is that they’re quiet — which ties into the idea of an elegant, understated vibrator.
Of course, sex tech isn’t the only place wearables are taking off. But, Rodriguez points out, wearables that track your exercise or other metrics are designed to be worn every day — and in fact, don’t really fulfill their purpose unless you do. Wearables in the sex industry, by contrast, are meant to function much as other accessories do: to be worn when you feel like it, if you feel like it, with no downside to leaving it at home if you don’t feel like taking a vibrator to the opera. (Though, what if you get bored at the opera?)
So, how well do these work as actual sex toys? Reviews are mostly positive. Of the Vesper, major complaints are mostly that it’s not the reviewer’s style of jewelry, not that it doesn’t function well as a vibrator. It’s still considered the top of the game for high-design vibrators, those that often look more like eggs or artworks than sex organs.
“We’ve found that when you design things that aren’t meant to substitute for human anatomy, there’s a far warmer reception,” Unbound’s Rodriguez explains. Stereotypical fears of being “replaced” by a sex toy can actually be displaced when vibrators no longer resemble human anatomy, she says, which can, in turn, encourage couples to use them together and not feel like there are one too many penises in the room.
“We have to be able to talk about pleasure,” says Chang. “I hope in 10 years we’ll have normalized that conversation. No, actually, we’ll definitely have normalized that conversation.”