When Will Sex Toys Make a Real Play for This $8 Trillion Income Market?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
People with disabilities are a growing demographic. The sex industry is slowly catching on.
By Fiona Zublin
When disability activist Andrew Gurza imagines a sex toy, it doesn’t necessarily look like a penis. It might look like a bean bag. It might look like a noodle. “Things that don’t necessarily look like sex toys that could be used to create pleasure,” he says. “Stuff that’s completely outside of the box.”
Gurza is one of the founders of Deliciously Disabled, an organization devoted to researching and designing sex toys for people with disabilities. It has completed the first stages of research and is now on the hunt for investors. Deliciously Disabled says it would be the first line of sex toys designed by and for the disabled community. But it’s not the only organization trying to tap into this demographic, which not only controls an estimated $8 trillion in disposable income but is also anticipated to grow in the coming years.
Bloggers concerned with issues of accessibility have long been issuing recommendations of sex toys suitable for those with mobility issues. Now, companies and sex shops around the world are beginning to catch on to the fact that they should be catering specifically to the market of people with disabilities. Just in the past six years, at least one high-end sex toy brand — Hot Octopuss — has been founded on principles of inclusivity, including that of people with disabilities, and multiple sex shops have opened or expanded services to cater to this community.
Hot Octopuss toys can be used on flaccid penises and don’t require vigorous hand motion or penetration. Meanwhile, guides specifically for people with disabilities can be found on major sex-positive toy sites like Good Vibrations in the U.S., Désir in South Africa or the multilocation Adult Lifestyle Center in Australia. While the sex toys highlighted may not have been designed exclusively with the disabled community in mind — and often the websites for these toys still feature only able-bodied people using them — sexperts have identified them as particularly friendly to those with physical mobility concerns. And the shops do sometimes stock gear aimed at those with mobility issues, like the Intimate Rider, a Michigan-based business that manufactures sex furniture designed for couples where one member is in a wheelchair.
Products should come with the features to make them for everyone.
Ernesto Morales, Université Laval
Still, this is only the start, suggests Julia Margo, one of the founders of Hot Octopuss, which began trying to manufacture a male vibrator and has become a flagship firm catering to older people and those with disabilities. While she thinks the next five years will likely bring expansion in the market of sex toys aimed at seniors, she says it’ll likely take longer for people with disabilities — partly due to enduring but fallacious stereotypes about who has sex and who doesn’t.
“The whole sector is kind of complicit in selling this narrative that to have sex you need to look sexy, and looking sexy requires you to look a certain way,” says Margo.
There are myriad issues of accessibility at play here, some logistical — the weight of a toy, the grip strength required to use it, the accessibility of its buttons or the length of its battery life — and some cultural. While the former is a huge problem (Gurza points out that even sex toys made for those with disabilities often design for a narrow slice of the community that has a lot of dexterity), the latter may be the more difficult to design away, given long-standing societal prejudices about people with disabilities and sex. Some companies have seen a backlash in recent years for what was interpreted as ableist language on their instructions or disclaimers, but very few companies explicitly reach out to the disabled community or feature anyone other than able-bodied young people on their websites.
These aren’t the first sex stores to cater to the disabled community. Dallas Novelty, a small Texas outlet, has been specializing in this arena since 2003. The Intimate Rider was launched in the 1990s. But those were isolated pioneers. The broader shift with major sex shops targeting customers with disabilities marks an empowering change.
Still, a real sea change in the industry may require a rethink of how sex toys are designed altogether, says Ernesto Morales, a researcher on accessibility at Université Laval whose work has involved a significant focus on sex toys. “Products should come with the features to make them for everyone,” he says, comparing a sex toy to an iPhone that can be customized to the needs and desires of each individual user — and makes everyone feel their circumstances are taken into consideration.
Change has come slowly to this industry … and the activists, designers and academics interviewed for this story were nearly unanimous in hoping that that change will snowball and lead to a radical reinvention of the market — and unanimously skeptical that it will actually happen. That would mean “we have to open our minds and change how we think about disabled people having romantic relationships and having sexual relationships,” says Gurza. “We really have to start there first before we can expect a huge shift in the industry overall.”