In 2022, women can purchase their sex toys and other intimacy products from the same retailers they rely on for their $40 lipsticks and indie designer clothing. They may come in the form of beautiful, wearable jewelry or they may be as innocuous as an objet d’art. There are a few reasons for the expansion and evolution of this industry, but if you take a peek behind some of the most buzzworthy (pun intended) brands in the business you may notice one major thing in common: A woman at the helm. Regardless of their varying aesthetics and functions, more female-founded sex toy brands are working to make women’s orgasms more accessible and enjoyable — sans any sense of shame.
It is first important to state the perhaps obvious fact that all persons who identify as women are different. They may have varying anatomy and experiences that can shape their sexual preferences and how they perceive pleasure. That said, brands like the ones interviewed here focus on factors that, by and large, women-identifying consumers weren’t seeing represented in the market, including more modern design (as opposed to novelty), intelligent and inclusive marketing, and careful consideration of common erogenous zones.
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Starting with the anatomical aspect, before the last decade or so, most sex toys weren’t designed with the nuances of vulvas in mind. When Dame launched in 2014, that was the goal of founder Alexandra Fine. “[At that time] we were one of the few companies who made sex toys for people with vulvas, by people with vulvas — who understood the anatomy of who we were designing for,” Fine tells TZR. “Many sex toys are marketed as novelty products, but that wasn’t my experience with sexual pleasure.”
The first offering Fine developed to fill this gap was a vibrator designed to fit snugly inside the labia for hand-free clitoral stimulation. “I had an idea for a vibrator that could be worn during penetrative sex to help close the pleasure gap,” she explains. “I joined forces with an MIT-trained engineer to make my kitchen experiments into real-life products, and together, we launched with Eva, the first truly wearable couples’ vibrator.” To date, Eva is one of Dame’s bestsellers, but the brand has also expanded its vulva-focused pleasure products, including the Aer, a suction toy that simulates oral sex, the Pom, an ergonomic, palm-sized vibe that’s flexible enough to hug any erogenous zone, and the Arc, a curved vibrator designed for external (clitoral) and internal (g-spot) stimulation, among others.
“Our vibrators are designed to cater to all body types and needs, so that even more people can start exploring their pleasure,” says Fine. “We have an entire research arm of our product development process called Dame Labs, which enables us to use real, human feedback across the gender spectrum to intentionally and thoughtfully design products. As one of the few sexual pleasure companies to incorporate human feedback to our engineering process, we’re proud to create a safe space to host honest conversations that help people explore sexuality and health.” And Dame’s inclusive approach hasn’t gone unnoticed: In February, it became the first pleasure product and sexual wellness brands to be carried by Sephora, a move that shows the destigmatization (and importance of) women’s sexual health.
Six years before the launch of Dame, Ti Chang, designer and co-founder of Crave, was also seeking to fill a gap for women in the intimacy product market, one she believed was due to lack of representation within sexual wellness brands. “On a basic level, I didn’t see products that were properly designed with the rigor and seriousness of modern consumer products, which includes a team that actually reflected the people they were designing for,” she shares. “I didn’t see products with great user experiences, since a vast majority of products had to be stashed or hid in embarrassment, and this is still the case today.”
Chang first founded INCOQNITO in 2008, a line of sex toys that multifunctioned as jewelry. She later teamed up with entrepreneur Michael Topolovac to co-create what Crave is today: A women-led team dedicated to offering women a component of beauty and emotion in their sexual health products — most famously the Vesper, a stainless steel (available in silver, rose gold, and 24-carat gold finishes) vibrator designed to be worn as a necklace.
“I wanted to design something that made people feel validated and beautiful for their sexual needs,” Chang says. “Truly beautiful pleasure products that people did not feel ashamed about, and that are welcomed into their life as ecstatically as a new piece of jewelry did not exist. I wanted to create products that empower people to welcome pleasure into their life because I believe self-pleasure should be a beautiful experience of honoring yourself.” In addition to the famed Vesper, Crave offers a few other styles of vibrator, all with the same attention to a sleek, sexy design and serious functionality.
Maude, founded by Eva Goicochea in 2018, similarly looked to revolutionize the industry with a modern approach to sexual health. The CEO, who welcomed Dakota Johnson as an investor and Co-Creative Director in 2020, combined her experience as a former legislative aide in healthcare with her business and branding savvy (she led content strategies at Everlane and Josie Maran before founding her first company, Tinker Watches) when she launched maude with a handful of minimalist, gender fluid products.
While maude’s offerings — including personal massagers, natural latex condoms, lubricant, and most recently an anal cone and all-natural libido-boosting gummies — are not designed expressly for those who identify as women, Goicochea aims to create products that feel inclusive to women among other underserved consumer categories. “Time and time again we hear about the approachability of our product line, that on top of being body-safe and design-centric, everything from the ingredients to the color palette is confidence-boosting and accessible,” the founder tells TZR. “We believe sexual wellness should be approached like any part of wellness: The products should be safe, easy-to-use, and delivered in a friendly way making the customer feel comfortable and empowered.”
A mission for Goicochea has always been to break past barriers and taboos, carving out a place for intimacy products to live within the landscape of so many other well-made, artistically designed lifestyle products. Maude, which is currently sold at Sephora, Nordstrom, Detox Market, Standard Dose, Saks Fifth Avenue, and more major retailers, has already managed to do this in just a few years — and its founder says that’s just the beginning. “I'm excited for maude and sexual wellness to find even more shelf space — digitally and physically — where you shop for the rest of your personal care routine,” she says. “As a category that sits at the intersection of body care, scent, and wellness, it makes sense for it to be approached with the same visibility.”
Polly Rodriguez, CEO and co-Founder of Unbound, began her business as a retailer for sexual wellness brands in 2013. Four years in, she had begun to see what areas of improvement were needed and she and co-founder Sarah Jayne launched their own line to address them. One of the main areas of concern was pricing. “[We] realized there was a huge opportunity to create a product line that delivered on affordability without compromising on quality, design, and body-safe materials,” Rodriguez explains. By opting to sell their products direct to consumer, Unbound was able to create a line with the quality they required at an accessible price point. Toys and accessories including vibrators, plugs, cuffs, paddles, and more are now available under the $75 mark.
Another gap Unbound’s founders committed to fill was exceptional customer service. “We also felt [that] was really lacking in the industry and so we invested in best-in-class training and support for our community,” says Rodriguez. “Our customer service is consistently one of the things people love most about Unbound — we're friendly, approachable, and fast as hell.”
Since the launch of Unbound’s own line, Rodriguez has watched the industry evolve — in no small parts to the persistent efforts of brands like hers. “When we first attempted to get our products in mainstream retailers, we would be handed off to the lingerie department and then quickly deemed too risqué to stock in-store,” she explains. Like some of the aforementioned brands, Unbound has become more widely accessible via mainstream retailers including Urban Outfitters, FabFitFun, and Madewell. “I only see this trend continuing as more retailers are realizing that their customers are not intimidated or ashamed to shop in this category, in fact, they're excited to these products championed by the retailers they already know and love,” Rodriguez adds.
A quick glance at the social media messaging from Lioness and it becomes abundantly clear that this is a brand devoted to not only destigmatizing female sexuality, but championing it. “My co-founder Anna and I built Lioness for the millions of women and people with vulvas who have questions about sex and pleasure but have few ways to learn more about their own bodies,” expresses Liz Klinger, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “A question we often hear from people is ‘Am I normal?’ The answer is often yes but, before Lioness, there hasn’t been a way to see what your normal looks like.”
Lioness accomplishes its mission not only by sharing inclusive and affirming messages on its Instagram and TikTok platforms (co-founder Anna Lee has over 400,000 followers who tune in for frank, open, and often hilarious content about sexuality), but by offering its customers tech-savvy tools they can use to prioritize their pleasure in an intuitive and user-friendly way. “Lioness brings technology previously only seen in cutting-edge research labs to consumers in the form of a simple-to-use device and app that provides biofeedback over time,” Klinger explains. “It’s similar to other personal health tracking devices like Oura for sleep, Muse for stress, or Clue for period tracking.”
The Lioness 2.0 utilizes biofeedback technology to collect data, allowing the user to tailor their sexual experiences to their individual needs — with the goal of giving them their best orgasms ever. “The Lioness is built with a suite of advanced precision sensors that, when paired with the app, can let users visualize their arousal and orgasm,” the co-founder tells TZR. “Along with different notes people can add about their experiences, they can start seeing what their own baseline experience looks like and how it can change over time from a multitude of different factors — from coffee, sleep, medications, hormones, being with or without a partner, and more.” As Lioness’ motto goes, never measured, never improved.
With the growth of the brand, Klinger says that data and research from their female-led teams will continue to inform its offerings and user experience. “In 2020, Lioness started a research platform to connect researchers with Lioness users interested in participating in studies to contribute to a better understanding of sexual function and health,” she explains. “This year, I’m happy to say that several researchers are publishing papers and presenting their findings to the research and medical communities. I’m looking forward to more collaborations like this to bring more science about women’s sexual response to researchers, doctors, and ultimately the people.”
With nearly two decades experience in the sexual wellness industry, Le Wand founder Alicia Sinclair was able to build her own brand to address what she personally felt was most disappointing about sex toys geared towards women. But above all, she hoped for a more welcoming landscape than she was ushered into. “In the early years of my career, I don’t think that anyone took me seriously,” Sinclair explains. “I felt very dismissed, tokenized, and was paid significantly lower than my male counterparts. It’s laughable how little I was valued by my employers and how uncomfortable I often felt when interacting with co-workers and clients. It felt like there was no expectation for men to treat women with dignity.”
This experience left Sinclair with a case of imposter syndrome. While she acknowledges the fact that the industry has come a long way since she started out, it is still dominated by men, and as a businesswoman she notices the biggest obstacles in the marketing of her brand. “There is so much gatekeeping by large companies like Google, Meta, TikTok, etc.,” she says. “Every time we think we find a strategy that works, it feels like a new algorithm or a new set of rules sets us back.”
But Sinclair isn’t letting these obstacles get in the way, as she explains that Le Wand stays on its toes, thinking outside the box to continue moving forward in its mission. “We're pushing the envelope for our industry in new and exciting ways,” the sex educator and entrepreneur tells TZR. “Like the recent launch of a commercial that begs the questions: Why is pleasure something women and femme-id'ing people have been taught to feel so much shame around for so long? Why *shouldn't* we be able to advertise our products freely?”
As for what kinds of products Sinclair wanted to see on the market, it was all about bringing an old favorite into the present day. “I have always been a wand person,” she explains. “It was my first sex toy and is still my go-to. I found myself looking through my own eyes, as a consumer, and constantly feeling disappointed. The products felt stale and old, with many wands looking like copies of products that had been on the market for 50 years. My goal was to elevate the category, the product design, and complement the brand with comprehensive sex-positive education.”
First on her list of must-haves for a reimagined wand? Something her customer wanted to show off. “[Le Wand products] are powerful, stylish, well designed, made with a variety of unique materials, always certified body-safe, arrive in gift-worthy packaging, and they always feel luxurious.” The brand’s personal massagers are offered with glittery or graphic handles and customers can also shop elegant bondage accessories, crystal and stainless steel toys, and other stylish pleasure-enhancing products on Le Wand’s site.
Sinclair continues this sex positive messaging through Le Wand’s blog, Rumble & Buzz. Featuring dozens of articles by sex educators, she aims to provide women and femme-identifying persons with a shame-free resource for commonly asked questions. “It's high time outdated gatekeeping and pearl clutching around pleasure products comes to an end, and Le Wand is leading that charge,” the intimacy industry vet tells TZR. And with more and more female-led brands with this same mission in mind, it certainly looks like the tides are turning.