I was making my way home from a long weekend in Philadelphia last Sunday when I heard the news about Elena Ferrante, a brilliant and engaging Italian author best known for her novels about women’s lives and friendships. My mother, a fellow devoted Ferrante fan, texted me that she had horrible news: Ferrante had been doxxed. My heart sank as I read the article exposing her legal name, written by a man who claims that Ferrante has “relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown” simply because Ferrante admitted to sometimes lying to protect her identity.
As I continued reading, I grew angrier and angrier. This was a deeply misogynist act: a man believed he deserved access to Elena Ferrante, so he outed her because she would not willingly grant him access herself. As my rage swelled within me, I also began to feel viscerally connected to Ferrante. Her books mean a great deal to me, but this tie to her was on a completely different level: as an anonymous (or semi-anonymous) woman writer.
I do not share my legal name, where I live, or information about my career here. Most of my friends and family do not know I am a blogger. I do share pictures of myself, attend conferences, and book speaking engagements. I travel to spend time with friends I have met here and enjoy the rich depths of my relationships with them. It is not that I am half-in and half-out of the sex blogging closet: I simply choose to share some things and not others with the internet at large.
When I chose to show my face on Twitter for the first time, it was a deliberate, autonomous decision. When I submitted a proposal to speak at next year’s Eroticon, it was a deliberate, autonomous decision. When I trust other bloggers, my friends, with details about myself, but do not share that information with the public at large, it is a deliberate, autonomous decision. When Elena Ferrante decided to write anonymously, it was a deliberate, autonomous decision.
These are my choices. That was Elena Ferrante’s choice. Anonymous women and nonbinary writers have control over our own choices. We set our own boundaries, and we deserve for others to respect those boundaries. When Claudio Gatti doxxed Ferrante, he violently invaded her life, broke all of the boundaries she set, and declared his desire to consume her identity more important than her autonomy.
What happened to Elena Ferrante is a real threat for bloggers. Some people do believe we owe them information, like our legal names, where we live, or what we look like. Some men believe they’re entitled to access any part of any woman, and if they don’t know the woman’s “true identity,” they may begin to closely surveil us, as Claudio Gatti surveilled Ferrante. (Note: notions of “true identity” are bullshit. If Elena Ferrante tells you her name is Elena Ferrante, her name is Elena Ferrante. If I tell you my name is Sarah Brynn Holliday, my name is Sarah Brynn Holliday.)
Anonymous writers have a right to privacy, period. We have a right to privacy even if parts of our lives are public. More specifically, sex bloggers have a right to privacy, even if parts of our lives are public. Some of us share pictures of ourselves, talk about whether we have jobs outside of sex blogging and education work, and mention where we live, and some of us don’t. Some of us attend conferences, present workshops, and host podcasts, and some us don’t. No matter what we decide to share or what we do, no one is entitled to any extra information about who we are.
Today is the first day of fall, my favorite season. Name one thing about it, and I’ll almost certainly light up with joy – apple and pumpkin picking, watching leaves change and flutter to my feet, Scorpio season, the feeling of being held when I put on my favorite sweater, anticipation of the winter holidays right around the corner – it’s all magic to me.
However, for the past four years, my fall seasons have been fraught with distressing memories and emotional pain. In fall 2012, my abuser died.
The weeks and months following his death were excruciating. I can remember that time only in flashes and bursts, like a broken movie reel in front of my face: The funeral. The procession to the cemetery. Placing my hand on the casket before it lowered into the ground. His friends and family, telling me he still asked about me even just one week before he died, that I was the first person they thought to call, even though our relationship had ended over a year ago. Pictures, letters, gifts from our four-year relationship, returned to me and left to sit in my home. Suffering.
Throughout those weeks and months, I could feel something massive bubbling to the surface. I knew our relationship was very unhealthy, but I never had the tools to actually call it abuse until he died, after learning more about consent, feminism, and autonomy in my first year of college. I didn’t know what to say to these people, his family and friends who loved him, who told me repeatedly he still cared about me. I wanted to shout something, anything: “You don’t know the truth,” “don’t believe what he told you,” and even “he was a bad man” all sat at the bottom of my throat, desperately needing to jump out. But we’re not allowed to speak ill of the dead, so I was silent, and stayed silent until I could no longer handle the pain anymore.
Right now, I feel like my body is filled with heavy rocks. Instead of flesh, blood, and guts, I am made up of stones and boulders, rendering me unmovable with their collective weight, each rock a reminder of the sexual trauma and emotional scars I carry with me wherever I go. Each fall brings a different sharp edge, a heavier feeling of fullness, but the rocks never go away. As a survivor and a depressed person, they live with me.
Those rocks are why I write about sex.
I write about sex because talking about pleasure is revolutionary. I also write about sex because my own sexual autonomy was taken away from me, and I am working to boldly and unapologetically reclaim it every day.
Each fall since my abuser’s death brings up something new for me. One fall, it was that the relationship was abusive. Another, I discovered it was very difficult for me to have sex at all, or even masturbate, in the weeks surrounding the anniversary of my abuser’s death. This fall, I’ve been thinking about how my blog has been absolutely crucial in my continual healing process, especially healing from my sexual trauma.
Until I started using sex toys, all of the sex I had and the way I viewed myself and my pleasure were through the lens of what my abuser did to my body and what he told me about my body. Even though I had sex with other people in the time between his death and when I started using toys, I never masturbated, I didn’t feel connected to my body, and I certainly did not have a grasp on what pleasure meant for me as an individual.
When I bought my first sex toys, that started to change. I felt in control of my pleasure for the first time; finally able to begin my journey towards reclaiming my own sexual narrative and my own autonomy. I had my first orgasm and felt more powerful than ever before. I felt good about my body for the first time in years. I felt desirable because I desired myself. It was revolutionary.
I don’t know what this fall will bring, but I do know this: sex toys help me heal, and writing about sex and having a supportive community of bloggers by my side help soothe the weight of those rocks tumbling around inside me. The stones never disappear, and they may grow heavier still, but I am still here. I am here, and I am healing.
If you are a survivor, you are not alone. Please know that you are loved and supported. You matter because you are here in this world, and you matter to me.
I can’t believe it’s been over a month since I returned home from Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit. It seems like just yesterday I was anxiously trying to bide my time at the airport because, as usual, I had arrived way too early. I had been bubbling over with excitement and anticipation for months, and finally the day had come – I was about to fly to Washington, D.C. to meet my blogger friends, the people I had known for over a year but had yet to meet in person.
It is overwhelming to try to put my experience with the Blogsquad into words. It feels almost impossible to describe what it was like to spend time with this brilliant and talented group of people, and I will inevitably leave things out, but here goes!
I arrived in Alexandria on Wednesday evening after a quick flight from North Carolina. I lived in Virginia for 21 years before moving to my current city last year, and seeing familiar landmarks on my way in felt a bit like coming home. After wandering around the airport for a bit waiting for Polly and Lilith to pick me up, I heard a tiny chorus of voices behind me shouting my name: they were here! My friends! Actually in front of me, where I can hug them, and not in my computer screen! (I had this reaction countless times throughout the conference. It’s a cool feeling.)
On our way back up to our rooms, we ran into Epiphora in the lobby. When I introduced myself, she said, “Oh, I know who you are – I recognize you from your lipstick!” (Which is the ultimate #FemmeGoal, let’s be real.) A bit later, we made our way to Mary and Harry‘s room for my first big group blogger hang, complete with wine, tons of laughs, and hilarious stories. I thrive best in one-on-one or small group interactions, so I was a bit nervous about how the night would go in a larger group, but I had no need to worry: I quickly felt at ease with my blogger friends. I think this tweet from Piph sums up the evening excellently:
Favorite moment of last night: @FemmeReviews' story of a very upset tattooed man at the airport who yelled "I JUST WANT MY SKIN BACK" #SFS16
I woke up early on Thursday for a very exciting reason: to welcome my dear friend Kate to our Room-o-Femmes! We instantly bonded as we showed other our potential outfits for the weekend ahead. I knew I was in for a fantastic roommate situation with this femme by my side. As Kate settled in for a nap, I made my way downstairs to pick up my name badge and check out Tantus’s Blogger Lounge.
The next few hours were filled with exciting introductions, a plethora of hugs, and an abundance of good feels all around. As bloggers arrived, they slowly started to trickle into the Blogger Lounge to greet those of us who had flown or drove in on Wednesday. I was thrilled to meet everyone in person: Lilly with her Jar of Horrors in tow, Lunabelle with her suitcase full of fantastic dildos, Sarah with a bag full of candy curated specially for the Blogger Lounge… it was surreal to be in the same room as my blogger pals for the first time ever. And, of course, I almost exploded with anticipation waiting to greet my best friend Sugarcunt.
Later in the day, a group of us visited Lunabelle’s room to check out her magnificent dildo garden. The rumors are true: it was a glorious sight to behold. In the evening, we hung out with Tina Horn (!) in the Room-o-Femmes (and our third rooomate, Artemisia, arrived), went to Bedpost Confessions, and had our first anxiety group parking lot rendezvous, where I felt like a Very Cool Grrrl Gang member.
After a day and a half spent talking, laughing, and hanging out with my blogger friends, it was time for the educational sessions to begin! In addition to spending time with the Blogsquad, I was also delighted to spend a weekend learning from some of the greatest minds in the sexuality field. Woodhull was filled with brilliant educators, activists, and writers, and I couldn’t wait to soak up as much information as possible like the little sex geek sponge I am. Before I jumped into a full day of sessions, I snagged a selfie with Sugarcunt, my sweet and smart blogger bestie.
Then, during our lunch break, we convened in the Blogger Lounge and did what bloggers do best. Yep, I was definitely with my people.
What happens when bloggers get a 2 hour lunch break at #SFS16: heated discussion about gendered sex toy marketing in the Blogger Lounge.
After Friday’s sessions, Lunabelle told us she had brought a large box of misfit dildos for the Blogsquad to pick through and select what they’d like to take home. These toys were free to good homes, but Luna did accept donations to support Woodull if people were able to give, which was a fantastic idea. While we ooh-ed and ahh-ed over Luna’s collection, she broke out her rolling bar and offered us all drinks. Luna was kind enough to add Midori and pineapple juice to the rolling bar this year so I could make my signature Melon Balls! This small gesture meant so much to me – the Blogsquad is caring, accommodating, and generous at every turn. A large group of us spent the next couple of hours chatting, drinking, and selecting new dildos to welcome into our homes.
On Friday night, we all made our way to SheVibe’s Blogger Pajama Party. Clad in our PJ finery, bloggers were greeted with snacks, drinks, and extravagant swag bags courtesy of SheVibe, an ethical, feminist company that believes in bloggers and does all they can to support us. Part of the PJ Party was a poetry slam, where we were blessed with the poetic stylings of a number of talented bloggers, and where Girl On The Net performed this unbelievably hilarious and brilliant piece. I’m pretty sure that even if hotel guests were on the top floor, they could hear our uproarious laughter.
Saturday promised even more educational sessions and blogger hangouts, but it also brought an overwhelming feeling of sadness. The next morning, I would be on my way back home. While some of us were making plans to see each other again soon, I also knew I wouldn’t see the majority of these folks again until next August’s conference. I knew I wanted to make the most of my last day with the Blogsquad.
Saturday evening was the perfect end to an amazing Woodhull experience. After the day’s sessions finished, Kate, Artemisia, Caitlin, Suz, Sarah, and I convened in the Room-o-Femmes to order room service and prepare for the evening’s gala, where we were later joined by Luna (and happily gifted her crème brûlée). Thrilled with the roll selection we were given with dinner, I professed my deep love for bread and asked the room what would happen if I changed the name of my blog to “Bread” and started reviewing bread instead of sex toys. Then, this happened:
A blog that reviews both dildos and bread: DILDOUGH
Now, if you ever see bloggers respond to each other on Twitter with a bread emoji, you’ll know why. It’s kind of a thing. Thanks, Room-o-Femmes.
After spending a bit of time at the gala, most of us made our way to the Retreat area of the conference hotel, where the rest of the bloggers were hanging out. We spent hours talking, drinking, and just simply enjoying each other’s company – we knew we were all going our separate ways very soon, and wanted to spend as much time together as possible before starting our long journeys home the next day. We also took a big Blogsquad group picture (minus a couple of people who were still at the gala) thanks to my selfie stick, which is a photo I’ll always treasure. Whenever I’m feeling down or lonely, I look at that picture and am reminded of Woodhull and the incredible people I have in my life.
Sunday morning was filled with emotional goodbyes and a few inside jokes. It was excruciatingly hard to walk away from my friends and get on the shuttle to the airport, but I did it knowing that I could already start counting down to next year’s Sexual Freedom Summit, as well as plan other meet-ups throughout the coming year.
As I was winding down for bed on Sunday evening, I scrolled through my Twitter feed and put an episode of Frasier on for some background noise. Nothing really out of the ordinary here – this is my typical nighttime routine. But something was out of the ordinary: I had just returned from a conference where I felt really, truly seen for the first time in a long, long time. I have never felt so comfortable with a group of people as I do with the Blogsquad. Bloggers support each other unconditionally when we’re together in person and when we’re apart and only able to communicate virtually. It’s a beautiful community that I am thankful to be a part of.
Woodhull provides attendees with a revolutionary space for us affirm sexual freedom as a human right. The Blogsquad provides me with a revolutionary space for me to truly be myself. Thank you for four days of joy.
If you want to support my future travels to conferences like Woodull’s Sexual Freedom Summit, email me! I am currently raising money to get to Eroticon in London in March, where I’ll be speaking about Sex Blogging as Feminism and Social Justice.
Lately, I’ve been ruminating on the concept of sex blogging and writing as feminism and social justice in practice. Bloggers advocate for ethical business standards, educate consumers about body-safe sex toys and lubricants, promote pleasure-and-consent-based sex education for all, and write without shame or stigma about our own bodies, pleasure, and desires, among so many other things. We write to make a difference, and the writing we do is feminist. The work we are doing is revolutionary justice work, and part of that work is health justice.
According to Health Justice Connecticut and the Office of Minority Health, “health justice is a term used to describe health equity: an attainment of the highest level of health for all people.” Part of achieving justice in any arena includes making sure that is is comprehensive and includes stigmatized things or topics – like sex toys, masturbation, or just talking openly about sex in general.
For me, health justice as it relates to sex toys means that comprehensive, non-biased sex education exists, that people are able to access that education no matter who they are or where they live, and that they can use that education to make informed decisions about their bodies. Without knowledge of the materials that are going on or inside of our bodies, we are unable to make informed, educated decisions about the toys and lubricants we use. We are unable to live healthy lives if we fear infections from toxic toys that contain phthalates and other unsafe materials, or worse, if we don’t know that those sex toy materials are toxic in the first place.
This is why writing about body-safe toys and lubricants and exposing unsafe, unethical companies is so important. The sex toy industry is unregulated, and outside of the blogosphere, a handful of ethical companies and retailers, and education-centric feminist sex shops, very little consumer education exists on sex toy materials and how unsafe materials could affect our bodies.
While individual bloggers’ writing about sex toy safety is vital, a main component of health justice for all is access. This means comprehensive education needs to be accessible to everyone: easy to find and available in a number of mediums. While the internet can be incredibly educational if you find the right blogs and websites, there’s also a huge amount of misinformation on the web. (Case in point: the “sexual health coach” who argues that women who need to use lube are unable to self-lubricate because they aren’t emotionally connected to their partner.) Furthermore, not everyone has access to a computer or other devices with internet connection.
I had no idea that some sex toys are made out of toxic materials until my senior year of college, when a feminist sex educator gave a presentation about toy materials and safe lubricants to my university’s queer student group. Her presentation changed the way I view sex toys, but it was also an optional, extracurricular event for a student organization: very different from a classroom setting, textbook, or required lecture. In order to truly attain health justice, sex toy safety needs to be an integral component of any sexual education curriculum in high schools and universities. Talking about pleasure and masturbation in sex ed classes is a radical idea for some, but it shouldn’t be: young people are having sex, masturbating, and exploring their bodies, and will continue to do so whether they’re given safety information or not.
For more opinions on where to shop for safe sex toys and which shops to avoid, check out the blogs I recommend in my blogroll. You are welcome to ask bloggers for clarification and advice if you have questions about a certain material, retailer, or company: I am always willing to advise my readers about toy safety and ethical companies, and the bloggers I trust are happy to do the same.
Blogger disclosure: sponsors on Formidable Femme are simply paid advertisers and do not necessarily represent companies I would personally endorse, recommend, or work with past the terms of an advertising contract.
I need to tell you something. It’s not a secret, so there’s no need to gather round closely, or whisper this one in hushed tones behind closed doors. Please, for the love of goddess, shout this from the rooftops: despite what some retailers promote on their websites or in their stores, there is no such thing as “gay and lesbian sex toys”.
I am a queer woman. I use sex toys. But my sex toys are not queer sex toys. They are simply sex toys, for use by people of any sexual orientation.
I’ve written before about the importance of companies and retailers relieving toys from any gendered categories on their website or in their stores in a post about ethical, feminist sex toy companies, which was inspired by one notoriously awful company claiming to embody feminist values who then hired an abuser to promote their condoms. Now, I’ve been inspired to write about mythical “gay and lesbian sex toys” thanks to the reactions to this tweet, which then prompted this tweet, which then prompted my investigation into a number of online retailers.
There are a huge amount of online sex shops and brick-and-mortar stores that categorize sex toys by sexual orientation. I will not link to any of those shops here, but they are easily found. It doesn’t take much searching. Most often, these categories are named “gay and lesbian toys” or are are separated into “gay toys” and “lesbian toys”. During the aforementioned investigating, I even found a retailer with a “gay masturbation” category. (What is that? Please, someone, enlighten me.) The toys in these “gay and lesbian” categories are often strap-on kits, including dildos and harnesses, anal toys, like plugs or beads, and strokers, but this is definitely not an exhaustive list. Retailers put all kinds of toys under their “gay and lesbian” section.
I want to make one thing clear: this isn’t about queering sex toys. I deeply believe that movements, frameworks, and things in our lives can be queered – for example, examining how we can queer sex education to center queer and trans people in curricula, how we can queer the sexual freedom movement so that people of marginalized genders and sexual orientations are represented, or how we can queer perceptions of sex toy usage by highlighting their revolutionary importance for lots of queer folks who are exploring their bodies or re-discovering pleasure after trauma (like me!).
I could write a book on each of those topics. But this is not about queering: this is about presenting factual information on retailer websites and in stores, removing stigma from sex toy use, and understanding that sex toys are not sexual orientation or gender specific.
Categorizing certain sex toys as “gay and lesbian” is not just inaccurate and frustrating: it shows a real, radical misunderstanding of both sex toys and queerness. This misunderstanding starts with language. Where are the sex toys specifically branded for bisexual, pansexual, and queer people? Are queer people who do not identify as gay or lesbian allowed to use sex toys? What about straight folks who enjoy strap-on sex or anal play? Are gay and lesbian people only allowed to use the certain toys listed in their specific category? Of course not. Any toy can be used by queer folks, not just anal beads, plugs, strokers, or strap-ons – people of all sexual orientations can use any toy they like, but these questions expose the ridiculousness of such separatist branding.
The most common arguments I hear in favor of categorizing sex toys by sexual orientation (and gender) relate to targeting, marketing, and SEO. To me, this boils down to one thing: does your company prioritize marginalized people, or does your company only care about making money at the expense of queer people’s identities? By simply classifying toys according to what they are (what a novel concept!) instead of who you think they will appeal to, your company will move towards inclusivity and attract folks who do not feel alienated by your branding. It’s a win-win all around.
Sex toys are for everyone. It’s that simple.
If you own or work at a sex toy company and want to do a deeper dive on centering queer and trans people in your business model, you can contact me to discuss my consulting fee.
Blogger disclosure: sponsors on Formidable Femme are simply paid advertisers and do not necessarily represent companies I would personally endorse, recommend, or work with past the terms of an advertising contract.
Two days ago, I was enjoying a sleepy, lazy morning in bed after an invigorating (but exhausting) conference in Washington, D.C. As I slowly came to consciousness, I admired the daylight peeking through my blinds and listened to the bubbling fountain in my apartment courtyard. I felt truly rested for the first time in almost a week. Basking in the morning glow, I reached across my bed to check the time on my phone.
“u get my cock so rock hard thank u baby xoxoxoxo” popped up on the screen, a tweet from a man who calls himself “Bob in Daytona Beach” and whose entire timeline is comprised of an odd amalgam of happy birthday salutations and tweets about his rock hard cock. And the most bizarre part? The tweet Bob in Daytona Beach responded to was about bread. Yes, bread.
Is Bob in Daytona Beach a bot, or is he real? The world may never know, but that’s not really the point. The point is that someone, somewhere took time to either send us a message personally, or create a bot account that targets people who talk about sex on the internet. (Or bread, apparently.)
Rock-hard-bread-dick-guy is not an anomaly or an outlier: he represents the huge swath of men who take it upon themselves to attempt to disrupt women’s lives and intrude on our joy. Women and non-binary folks are constantly harassed for simply existing: this is particularly true if you are a woman or non-binary person who is visible on the internet, and painfully true for sex bloggers and educators.
And the common denominator in this sex blogger and educator harassment? Cis men talking about their dicks. (Which is also the common denominator in a staggering amount of all harassment, let’s be real.)
About a year and a half ago, I added “sex educator” to my online dating profiles when I accepted an educator position at a feminist sex shop. I had just begun this blog at that time as well, but was much less open about it than I am now, and I was worried about misogynistic men finding my website and outing me.
What a difference two words can make. The messages started flooding in:
“You’re a sex educator? I bet you could teach me something I don’t know about my cock ;)”
“plz suck my dick baby, I bet you give the best head”
“Can you give me a masturbation lesson?”
And on. And on. And on.
Now, I get emails about dicks. I get mentions and direct messages on Twitter about dicks. I get comments and direct messages on Instagram about dicks. Men send me pictures of their dicks on all of these channels. And I’m not the only one – ask almost any sex blogger out there and they’ll sing you the same sad song.
There is an instant switch in men’s demeanor when I mention I’m a sex blogger. Whether it’s on Tinder or OKCupid, on Twitter, or in a bar or at a party, the reaction is usually the same. The questions I get are rarely respectful: I’m fine with people asking more about my blog, or about how I came to this work. Unfortunately, most men I share this information with immediately want to know how I can benefit them and their dicks.
Let me make this crystal clear: I do not care about your dick. I do not want to see it. I do not want to hear about it. It means nothing to me. I do not exist as a receptacle for dick, physically or virtually.
Formidable Femme exists because I wanted to create a space to talk about sex, queerness, depression, trauma, and sex toys on the internet. Formidable Femme does not exist for men to interrupt the space I carved out for myself and the space I enjoy with my fellow sex bloggers and friends.
Your unsolicited dick is not welcome here. Respect this.
I demand respect both online and offline because I deserve it. I deserve respect because I exist. Part of respecting me is allowing me to live freely without harassment.
If you are considering sending a message about your dick to anyone, sex blogger or educator or not, just don’t. I don’t care about your dick. Other people don’t care about your dick. And we never will.
Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit is a pilgrimage of sorts for the sex blogging community. I so desperately wanted to attend last year (and I even lived just half an hour from the conference hotel), but I had a demanding and unhealthy work schedule, and was unable to make it. Now, my absence last year doesn’t even matter: I’m glad that 2016’s conference will be my very first Summit. I’ve been blogging for over a year now, and I feel comfortable in this community and elated to be a member of the Blogsquad.
And the very best part about this whole trip? I get to meet the incredible sex bloggers who have now become my friends; those brilliant, talented people who first inspired me to create Formidable Femme a year and a half ago. I’ve written before about what this community means to me, and I’m bursting at the seams with excitement at the opportunity to actually meet all of these bloggers in person and spend four wonderful days with them.
I’d love for you to follow along with me while I’m at the Summit! Keep up with me on Twitter at @FemmeReviews and on Instagram at @FormidableFemme. Also be sure to follow the overall Summit hashtag, #SFS16, for four days of sexual freedom goodness on your timeline!
If you want to ensure the ongoing success of Formidable Femme and my ability to continue to attend wonderful events like Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit in the future, please consider making your next sex toy purchase through my affiliates in the right hand sidebar.
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 ispart 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.
If you own or work at a sex toy company and would like to do a deeper dive on feminism in practice and challenging oppression, you can contact me to discuss my consulting fee.
Do you know what else Charlie Sheen is? An abuser. I will not go into the details of his abuse convictions and allegations; Sarah from Marvy Darling has done so exceptionally well in her recent post, which I highly recommend. I will also not go into details about the number of LELO screw-ups in the past: Dangerous Lilly has a “Dear Lelo: I quit” masterpost and a new post about the Charlie Sheen disaster, both of which I also highly recommend.
I am here to say that I am a survivor, and I am angry.
It is absolutely deplorable and unacceptable for a sexual wellness company to partner with a known abuser. It is clear to me that this decision was purely motivated by shock value and publicity, without any concern for their customers or the educators, reviewers, or stores that work with them. What about someone with a history of domestic violence screams “Yeah! We really love our customers and we want them to be comfortable endorsing and buying our products! We are REALLY committed to sexual freedom!”? (Hint: nothing.)
Furthermore, as Kitty Stryker points out on Twitter, Sheen also has a history of whorephobia, and she hoped to hear more from folks in ethical porn denouncing LELO’s decision. This was LELO’s response: “Our commitment to feminist porn is absolutely unchanged. It means a lot to us.” What about putting an abuser as your campaign’s spokesperson is feminist AT ALL? (Hint: nothing.)
LELO thinks everything is fine because when directly asked why they were partnering with a known abuser, they said their HEX partnership with Charlie Sheen is not an endorsement of his past. I am here to say that is bullshit.
The narrative LELO is working to craft about their partnership with Charlie Sheen is so similar to the silencing and shame I experienced when I told people I was an abuse survivor. As many perpetrators of domestic violence are, my abuser was incredibly popular. In my hometown, everyone knew who he was, and everyone loved him. People didn’t believe me when I told them he abused me. Over and over again I heard awful things like, “He couldn’t have done that! He takes great care of his family. You must have imagined it.” and “Well, that wasn’t really abuse. You’re exaggerating. Do you honestly think he did that? There’s no way. He wouldn’t have so many friends if he was an abusive man.”
When LELO says that, essentially, they can ignore Sheen’s abusive past to make him the spokesperson of their new campaign, they are doing the exact same thing as the people who told me they didn’t believe that my ex-partner was abusive. When you don’t believe survivors or when you excuse a person’s history of domestic violence in favor of their other “redeeming qualities” (in this example, Charlie Sheen’s ability to speak to condom usage, in LELO’s opinion), you are complicit in a culture that blames survivors and shames us into silence.
I will not stand for LELO’s blatant refusal to acknowledge that survivors matter. Our experiences matter. Our hopes and dreams matter. We should be able to exist without “sexual wellness companies” reopening our pain and then implying that our pain isn’t valid because the company isn’t “endorsing” past abusive behavior.
I will never support LELO again. I will never purchase their toys again or accept them for review from an independent retailer. I have removed the LELO toys I do own from my Toybox page. I will very likely dispose of those toys immediately.
If you are a survivor also struggling with LELO’s partnership with Sheen (or anything else), please know that you are loved and supported. You matter because you are here in this world, and you matter to me.