Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism in practice, especially in regard to sex toy companies, manufacturers, and retailers. Feminism is always on my mind, but I started reflecting heavily on this specific topic last month, when LELO, a self-proclaimed “feminist” company, announced Charlie Sheen, a man with a history of domestic violence, as their new condom spokesperson. As I continued to receive emails (as I always do) from a number of companies and retailers asking if I’d like to partner with them, review their products, or place a link on my website back to theirs for free (no), I realized that many of these companies appear misogynistic and exploit women and our bodies for their personal gain. Then, two weeks ago, my friend Kate published a brilliant essay on The Establishment called “The Dangers of Dating Faux-Feminist Men”. The wheels were turning: what about faux-feminist sex toy companies?
Before jumping in, I should also mention that all of the information below applies to all sex toy companies, whether they call themselves feminist or not. If a company is committed to sexual empowerment and equity, they should be committed to feminist values.
First and foremost, “feminist” is not a label you can slap on a sex toy company that will fix all of its problems. To be feminist, companies need to be active.
Just because a company says they’re feminist doesn’t make it true. Feminism is not a simple declaration; it requires action, critical thinking, and a constant commitment to challenge the interlocking oppressions so many of us face. Feminism also requires reflection: adopting feminist practices means allowing your company to try and fail, and when you do fail, to get back up while listening to marginalized voices, taking their expertise into account, and making changes accordingly.
LELO demonstrates this point excellently. They claim to be a feminist company, but when they unveiled Charlie Sheen as their new condom spokesperson, they refused to listen to survivors and sex workers when we told them this was a horrible, hurtful decision. (They responded by saying they are still feminist. Yeah, right.) LELO unflinchingly defended their decision, even though it meant losing the support of almost everyone in the sex blogging and sex education community.
Feminist companies must aggressively challenge heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy, among many other things.
Companies cannot be complicit in the perpetuation of cisnormativity, heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, fatphobia, ableism, and stigmatization of sex workers and be feminist at the same time.
Whenever feminists bring “isms” into the conversation, anti-feminist detractors come out of the woodwork, so let me just destroy that argument right now: Centering the most marginalized is not an issue of “political correctness.” It is about dignity, justice, and freedom. Making sure marginalized folks feel safe, heard, and empowered is the right thing to do.
Companies must be explicitly committed to justice in specific terms: by declaring themselves anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-queerphobic, etc., and having evidence of action to back those statements up. It is not enough for a company to simply “not take a stance” or assume that consumers will know they are taking steps to dismantle oppression. Silence is violence. Companies must speak up loudly, publicly, and unapologetically.
Companies can challenge these oppressions in a number of ways. I could write an entire book on this topic alone, so let’s just start with a few examples.
If a company aspires to be feminist, they should relieve sex toys of any gendered categories on their website or in their stores. For example, advertising masturbation sleeves as “penis toys” or “penetrable toys” instead of “toys for boys” goes a long way: that kind of gendered language is exclusionary and alienates trans and nonbinary folks.
Feminist companies respect people of all genders and fight for equity for people of marginalized genders. Unlike LELO, who printed “RESPECT” at the bottom of their new condom and declared it meant “Respect the man who wears it,” feminist companies take an active anti-sexist approach to their work and strive to empower women and nonbinary people at all times. (Seriously, folks, take a lesson from LELO here. Do not do what they did.)
Feminist companies also understand that representation matters. Often, the only photos companies use to advertise their products feature cis, white, slim, able-bodied people in seemingly heterosexual pairings. If I cannot see myself in your advertising, I will not purchase your products. Body diversity means including fat folks, people of color, disabled folks, and queer and trans people in advertising.
Social media is an important tool for feminist activism, but companies can also take their work to the streets. For example, does your company have an opinion on police brutality? Does your company believe that Black lives matter? (They do matter, and your company absolutely should care.) Say that on social media, and follow it up by action. Encourage employees to attend rallies, protests, and demonstrations, and if you have a brick and mortar establishment, make sure that Black folks know your store is a safe place by posting signs outside and making your commitment to fighting state-sanctioned racist violence explicit on your website and all social media channels.
Feminist companies must be ethical and equitable and resist exploiting workers, affiliates, and consumers.
This is all about capitalism. Companies must have ethical employment practices, pay workers a living wage, and offer an excellent benefits package that includes health insurance, ample amounts of paid vacation and sick leave, and at least 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Companies should encourage workers to have a work-life balance by modeling reasonable work hours: an excellent benefits package means nothing if company staff are required to work 12-hour days 6 days a week.
When working with affiliates (namely bloggers and educators), companies must either pay bloggers to review a toy or have an affiliate program (or both!). Receiving a toy “as payment” is not a thing. Let me repeat myself: receiving a toy “as payment” is not a thing. Dildos, vibrators, and paddles themselves cannot pay my bills, and they can’t pay yours either. A huge amount of work goes into reviewing toys. We bloggers communicate with company representatives, test the toy numerous times, take photos, take copious notes and write review drafts, and publicize our review through social media channels, among other things. This is labor, and we deserve to be compensated for our work.
Companies must also treat consumers with respect and dignity. Selling cheap, toxic toys to make as much of a profit as possible while making people sick in the process is not feminist. Not every person buying sex toys knows that some materials are toxic and can possibly make them sick, but some companies know this and still sell toxic toys. This is unethical, unconscionable, and unacceptable.
It’s worth mentioning that this applies to all companies across the board, not just sex toy companies or those who explicitly aim to adopt feminist practices. Every single person in the world deserves to be treated fairly and equitably.
Feminist companies take a stand.
Speaking out against injustice is part of the feminist framework, and that includes speaking out against injustice perpetuated by peers in the sex toy world.
I will never forget the companies that publicly denounced LELO when they announced their partnership with Charlie Sheen. While standing up to to other companies can be intimidating, it is also necessary. Companies may worry about losing customers or damaging their reputation if they go up against heavy hitters in this industry, and those are understandable fears, but they will also gain the respect and loyalty of many bloggers, educators, and consumers committed to social justice.
Bloggers, educators, and consumers are watching. Feminism is important to us, and for some of us, our survival as marginalized people depends on it. Feminism is not a catchy marketing phrase: it is a framework for life, justice, and freedom and something that companies should strive to make a central part of their business.