Whether you call it the “sex toy industry” or the “sexual wellness market,” the business of pleasure is getting more press than ever. Sex toy sales have boomed during the pandemic, but even before that, it was clear that people had been snapping up sex toys and other sexual health goodies at an increasing rate for years.
If you want the stats, market analysis shows the sex toy market is expected to expand by 8 percent per year through 2028; as of 2020, the global market was estimated at a whopping $33.6 billion. It’s an eye-popping number. But, perhaps what’s more interesting than the clear fact that people are investing more in sexual pleasure is why they are doing so.
Many people would agree that sex - in all its potential permutations - has always been fun. But for most people, it has also been considered personal, private and even unspeakably taboo. Fortunately, the latest statistics around the sex toy ownership, masturbation and sexual health suggest this is changing.
When I recently heard from Barbara Cook, CEO of Lovers, a sexual health and wellness shop, I immediately thought about the sexual health industry’s trajectory. Lovers is a major player in the industry, with 42 stores in five states and a strong online presence. But it’s also a relative old-timer that was founded back in 1981 by a single mother named Phyllis Heppenstall, an entrepreneur looking to seize on a strong business idea.After reading an article in Playboy Magazine about a New York woman who was running a successful pleasure party business, Heppenstall contacted the woman and asked to join forces. After being rebuffed, Heppenstall decided to start her own party business. The business exploded. Not long after, Heppenstall opened her first store in Burien, Washington.
At that time, women’s sexual health and pleasure was in the midst of being wrested from a historically male-dominated industry; it would emerge as a means of personal empowerment and female sexual liberation.
Interested in Femtech? Check out Kinly’s Femtech feature, with interviews from dozens of leaders in the space.As a female-founded company, Lovers rode this wave. And, over its 40 years, the company rose from a startup to a major sex toy retailer. In March, it completed that arc when it was acquired by PLBY Group for $25 million.
Multimillion dollar acquisitions in the sexual health and wellness space - in fact, acquisitions at all - are few and far between. This issue is keenly felt in the most innovative spaces of the industry, such as femtech and sextech, where many companies have traditionally struggled to attract funding and are only now beginning to catch the attention of investors.
According to Ryan Reiffert, an M&A attorney based in Texas, venture capitalists will “do just about anything” if they think it’ll pay off.
“So, if they could invest in a sex product and make money on the investment, they'll do it - unless doing that investment would have a nontrivial chance that it would cost them future deals, in which case they might think twice,” Reiffert said.
Reiffert couldn’t say whether the sexual health industry presented a “non-trivial chance” of costing future deals, but he did suggest that a lack of investment in any space could be a result of such concerns, or simply reflect pessimism in the profit potential of the industry.
Of course, sex-positive sexual health retailers have been making an impact for years - and still are. But Lovers may represent a new era for businesses in the space, one where they continue to slough off the old stigma and hold their own just like companies that sell, well, just about anything else.
“The stigma that was attached to this industry is really going away now,” Cook told me. “People understand the value and importance of the sector.”
For Cook, who has held a number of senior executive positions in the retail sector, including at some of the world’s largest brands, such as Gap, T-Mobile and Starbucks, consumer retail is really all the same.
“It’s all about making people feel good,” Cook said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a pair of jeans or jewelry, only here we are doing it on a deeper level because it’s about health and relationships. We really dive into people’s worlds.”
One of Cook’s major moves at Lovers since taking the helm in 2019 was a full rebranding that ensured the brand’s voice was hitting the right notes, including its values of inclusivity, well-being, positivity and respect.
They’re values, interestingly, that many of the earliest female-led sexual health businesses, like Babeland and Good Vibrations, also espoused; they now represent the ethos around which many of the newest companies in the industry are formed as well.
Cook says that while the adult industry has made a lot of progress, there is still a ways to go when it comes to de-stigmatization, relevancy and inclusivity.
“I would like to see talk shows that can talk about orgasms and dildos and anything that may be pertinent to people without any shame or embarrassment,” Cook said.
OK, so maybe we aren’t quite there yet. But the world, as far as our sexual health is concerned, is changing. In fact, it has changed. Once upon a time, a woman read about the promise of sex toy retail in Playboy Magazine and decided to start her own sexual health and wellness brand. Forty years later, Playboy purchased that very same company.
It’s a bit of a fairy tale ending, but not just for the company itself. After all, a win for sex to retailers is a win for everyone’s personal pleasure.