What Makes A Sex Toy Company Feminist?

My feminist wall art, and my ultimate aesthetic.

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.

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.
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I’m a Survivor, and I Will Never Support LELO Again

Content warning: abuse.

On June 14, LELO announced the launch of their new condom, HEX. They also revealed that Charlie Sheen would be their condom campaign spokesperson, saying that Sheen is the best possible person to “engage on STI prevention, condom usage and change”.

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.

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.

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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.

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Mourning a Loss of Community… and How That Relates to Sex Toys

My mind has a tendency to wander when I masturbate. If I’m not taking notes for a toy I’m reviewing, I try to solely concentrate on my pleasure and on the sensations I’m feeling, but let’s be honest: sometimes the urge to review tomorrow’s work schedule, overanalyze a random event from the day that I felt could have been handled better, or come up with a list of reasons why the person I’m currently attracted to hasn’t texted me back yet is just too strong.

I recently experienced an intensely sad, but revelatory, mind-wandering episode. After a couple of orgasms with my favorite wand, I grabbed my go-to dildo, the VixSkin Mustang, when the following thought process ensued:

“YES, this feels so good, as usual. I know I can always count on you, Mustang!”
“Wow, I wish someone was here to use this on me. Where’s a cutie with a strap-on when you need them?”
“Hmm… no cute humans here. That sucks, and I’m feeling a little sad and lonely.”
“Yikes. I really do feel lonely. I wish there was a cutie, yeah, but what I’m really craving is community. Where are my people?”

Odd train of thought? Maybe. But connecting with my body and my pleasure has always brought my deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings to the surface, whether good or bad.

To provide some context: I graduated from college last May, and the past year has been the most difficult time of my life. In the past twelve months, I’ve lived in three apartments, moved twice, and worked three jobs, which is a drastic change from the stability I was used to after living in my hometown for seventeen years and in my college town for four. My big plan to move to Washington D.C. and start my career fell flat on its face. While I did move to the city for my dream job right after graduation, I was miserable. My mental health was the worst it had been in years. I was working 80 hours a week and couldn’t take any time off to see friends or family. Both my social life and my precious and necessary alone time evaporated. I didn’t blog for months and felt like a failure. I knew something had to change, so in September I took a new job and moved to a new state by myself, not knowing anyone in the city I was about to call home.

The hardest thing about graduating, especially moving to a new state, has been a loss of community. In college, I was on the executive board of my schools’ student-led LGBTQ+ group for three years, sang in choir and opera for four years, and helped lead feminist activism on my campus. My college roommates were (and are) my best friends, and we had a caring, generous, and wonderful circle of queer friends we spent most of our time with. Within the walls of my university, there was no shortage of community to be found.

Post-grad life is different. There are no institutional structures designed to help you make you friends when you graduate, unlike the always-together-all-the-time college set-up of dorms, classes, off-campus apartments, and extracurricular activities. I’ve had to work hard to create my own community from scratch in my new state, and while I do have a handful of marvelous new friends here, I’m missing a true feeling of community, of solidarity, a shared understanding of queerness and feminism and being Southern and working together to fight against oppression… which is where sex toys come in.

Sex blogging came to me right when I needed it. I started my blog after discovering the sex toy reviewing community while doing research for my undergraduate senior thesis on how to craft a revolutionary model of sex education, just a couple of weeks before I graduated. So today, as I reflect on the last day of my one year blogiversary month, I am thankful for the companies I work with, the toys I’ve tested, and the ability to have a space to share my voice on everything from sex toys, to gender, to dating, to mental illness, to being an abuse survivor, but most of all I am thankful for the community I have found. When I started my blog, I never could have imagined that one year later I would be friends with the people I most admired when I was just beginning to research the world of sex blogging.

This blog and the community I’ve found through it have been the only constants in my life in the past twelve months. While I wish all my blogging pals lived near me (Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit can’t come soon enough!), I know I can jump on Twitter anytime and talk about any topic – from moving states, to dating, to outrage over misogynist assholes, to Tinder weirdos – and receive instant support from my fellow bloggers and Twitter friends. This community lifts me up in the good times, comforts me in the bad times, and encourages me to be my authentic self all the time. Whether I’m playing Scrabble with Girly Juice on Facebook, live-tweeting Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder with Lilith, talking about the political climate in our state with Sugarcunt, gushing about femme feels with Artemisia, over Snapchat, or chatting with the plethora of other thoughtful, brilliant bloggers I’m lucky to be acquainted with, I know this community has my back. And it’s a beautiful feeling.

So, while I may still crave a community in my new home, I know I have one among my fellow sex bloggers, too. When I feel lonely while masturbating again (which will inevitably happen, I’m sure), I know I can tweet my feelings out or private message my wonderful sex geek friends and receive instant support and feedback. What a wonderful world.

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My Masturbation Playlist

A few months ago, I packed up everything I own, moved on my own to a new city in a new state for a new job, and started the next big chapter of my life. The entire move was done hastily and quickly turned into a complete disaster: the moving company took a full month to deliver my furniture, so I ended up sleeping on the floor for a few weeks, alone in my bare apartment surrounded only by the few still-packed boxes I was able to fit in my car.

When the rest of my belongings finally arrived, I knew I would have to spend a weekend unpacking and truly getting my apartment in order. Even though I had lived in my new home for a month, it was completely empty. So I did what anyone else would do: put on a great playlist and got to work.

Almost absentmindedly, I searched for London Grammar’s album If You Wait, one of my favorites. When the first song, “Hey Now,” came on, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was immediately flooded with feelings and emotions I hadn’t felt for a long time. It was one of the strongest visceral reactions I’ve ever experienced. I felt vulnerable. I was also confused. What was going on?

And then it hit me: That song was a regular in my playlist when I started masturbating for the first time. And I hadn’t heard it for months.

Music has always played a huge role in my life. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember; as a hobby at first, and now professionally in choirs and operas. When I was a teenager in serious emotional pain, my favorite bands were always there for me and showed me that music is a way to, sometimes, make the darkness a little brighter. As an adult, music continues to ground me and consistently provides me with a safe haven and an outlet to create beauty and energy and something all my own.

My masturbation playlist started off as a way to cover up the noise from my first vibrator. Since I had never “done this” before, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted any background noise. Maybe just lying there in silence would be better, I thought. However, I quickly discovered that wasn’t going to work – wands are noisy! At first, I tried putting on a poppy remix of one of my favorite artist’s most recent albums, then tried a TV show to just play in the background, neither of which provided me with the atmosphere I was looking for.

I learned that just covering up the noise wasn’t going to cut it. I needed more – I really wanted to connect with my body. My search for the proper playlist evolved into more of a desire to connect rather than a necessity to drown out vibrations. After trying pump-up music and general background noise, I finally put on an album by an artist I had only recently started listening to, London Grammar. It was perfect. I mixed in some songs by Daughter, some by Broods, and my playlist was born. The deep, atmospheric, haunting songs by these three groups opened the door to the headspace I was looking for; a place where I felt truly connected to my body and my pleasure and ready for exploration.

Everything in my life had a playlist. It only made sense that my masturbation sessions would too.

However, sometime in-between when I started masturbating and when I moved to my new state for my new job, I lost that playlist. I didn’t lose it in a physical sense – I could still open Spotify and start playing it whenever I wanted – but I lost that connection to my body; lost my incredible fascination with sex toys and exploration and discovery and pleasure. About nine months passed in that in-between phase, and a lot happened. I graduated from college, moved away from the place I called home for four years, started my very first job as a college graduate, quit that job four months later, and moved to an entirely new state alone after finding a new job. My mental health plummeted and I found myself back in a deep depression from the turbulence of graduating, cycling quickly through jobs, and essentially starting my life over all on my own.

It’s understandable why masturbation, and especially working on my blog, took a backseat for a while. I also quickly realized why listening to even just the opening chords of “Hey Now” gave me such an intense emotional and physical reaction. I was disconnected from my body for months. Hearing that song reminded me of the vulnerable, intimate place where I first discovered pleasure.

Now, four months after I heard “Hey Now” again while unpacking my moving boxes, I have a revamped, longer masturbation playlist. It still includes all of the favorites I mentioned above, but a lot of new discoveries, too. I’m thankful that my lifelong connection to music helped me discover my body – and that it brought me back to my body when I felt detached from pleasure and exploration for so long.

Do you have your own masturbation playlist? What do you listen to while masturbating, if you listen to anything at all? Let me know in the comments!

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To Men Who Think They’re Experts on Queer Women’s Pleasure

A few nights ago, I was out having drinks with a man I’d slept with once a couple of months ago. We started talking about queerness, and he asked me when I first knew I was interested in women. I told him I knew when I was in high school, but couldn’t be out for fear of retaliation from my then-boyfriend, and that I was finally able to come out to myself fully in my first year of college. I also told him that the first time I seriously dated a woman, in my third year of college, it changed my entire life.

And this is when our conversation began to go downhill.

As soon as I told him how my first queer relationship opened up my world, he started asking me details about what it was like to have sex with another woman. Alright, I thought, I can handle this. I’ve been a queer educator for years, and I’m used to people asking me all kinds of questions about queer sex and relationships. Usually they’re something along the lines of: “How does that work?” and “So, scissoring, am I right?” and “But… if there’s no penis… how is it really sex?” (Hello, cissexism! Get out of here with that shit.)

This man asked me no such questions. Instead, he looked me directly in the eye and said, “How could sleeping with women possibly be as intimate as sleeping with men?”

Oh, Christ. Here we go. He followed up this question by informing me (poor, ignorant me!) that face-to-face sex “means more” than other kinds of sex, so that when a woman goes down on another woman, it cannot be as meaningful or intimate as when a man and a woman have PIV sex. Furthermore, he so graciously explained that even if women engage in penetrative sex, a strap-on “isn’t really you” (as in your physical anatomy), so your connection with your woman partner still can’t be as intimate as it would be with a man.

First of all, holy shit, cissexism. I want to be clear that I do not support any of these claims, and that they represent an incredibly exclusionary view of bodies, identities, gender, sexuality, and relationships.

I could write for days just refuting his points: That there are many, many ways to have sex, regardless of your gender; that PIV sex is not the ultimate, “final” sex act; that queer people have amazing, mind-blowing, deeply intimate sex every damn day despite what straight cis men have to say about it.

I’m not going to do that, though. At least not now. This isn’t about one conversation I had with one man who happens to believe that when we had sex, it was more intimate than any of the sex I’ve ever had or will have with women (or, really, anyone who doesn’t identify as a cis man, even though he didn’t say that explicitly.)

This is about men thinking they can dictate, and are experts on, queer women’s sexual lives and pleasure.

Remarks ranging from belligerent questions about how queer women actually have sex to deeply personal comments getting at the core of queer women’s intimate lives all have one thing in common: Straight men who think they know what’s best for women, and that what’s best for women is men.

I am well aware that people of all genders and sexualities may have questionable things to say about queer women’s pleasure. I’ve encountered this with straight women who say they just can’t imagine being with another woman, and most often with queer men who openly and freely express their disgust over vulvas and vaginas. (Misogyny from queer men is very, very real. More on that some other time.) However, I have only ever experienced aggressive interrogation and a toxic “I know more about your pleasure than you do” attitude about my sex life from straight men.

This mindset among straight men is incredibly prevalent. I deal with it all the time, and I’d venture to say that most other queer women I know do as well. I experience it on Tinder and OkCupid, where men tell me daily that I just “need some dick in my life” to “turn me straight.” I experience it walking down the street, hand-in-hand with a partner, when I’m met with gross misogyny, harassment, and queerphobia. I experience it when a man I’ve slept with tells me women can never pleasure me the same way he once did; when he becomes threatened and reactive as soon as I tell him he’s wrong.

This attitude towards queer women is dangerous and harmful. While the comments and events discussed here may seem like outliers to those who haven’t experienced them, they are part of a toxic pattern of queerphobia, sexism, and misogyny that seeks to control the way queer women live their lives and express their sexuality.

Stopping this pattern is not queer women’s responsibility, but rather lies on the men who perpetuate it, and even men who don’t. Thanks to patriarchal ideas and standards of sex, toxic hypermasculinity, and heteronormativity and cisnormativity, many straight men claim to have a supreme knowledge about sex and have opinions about how everyone regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation should be having sex.

It is up to straight men themselves to break down these detrimental ways of thinking and start to truly listen to the experiences of queer folks as well as the needs, desires, and experiences of their women partners. For straight men who already understand that queer women’s sexuality is not owned and controlled by men, it’s essential to actively work on breaking down and calling out this toxic pattern when they see it.

I think by now it goes without saying that the only experts on queer women’s sexual lives and pleasure are, surprise, queer women themselves.

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