Is design scared of sex?
From sex toys to contraceptive products, we investigate if we’re trading transparency in sex design for visual stereotypes – and if it’s harmful to the consumer. In conversation with a sex educator, design studio, retailer and animator, we ask: is design taking us backwards in sex positivity and education?
So you want to buy a sex toy. You have a lot of options – you’re perusing the market at a booming time. In recent years, the graphic design industry has entered the chat in earnest when it comes to sex toys, placing a new premium on visuals. But why does so much of the packaging look minimal and delicate? Perhaps there is a hint of a phallic form, depicted in an abstracted illustration. Or maybe there is a subtle fire gradient to emphasise sensuality; the type feels sculptural and the price point is high. This is not just a butt plug, it’s tasteful. It’s the department store answer to dildos – but cooler, sleeker. It’s worlds away from the red-cheeked, imperfect realm of actual sex.
Widen your sex toy search and you might find some other repeat design choices, such as pastel illustrated outlines of thin, cis women on packaging. Colourful but overwhelmingly gentle, these brands pair the gracefulness of smooth thighs, bums and botanical motifs with all the soft suggestiveness of the peach emoji. Clearly marketed ‘for women’, the design behind these products actually represents a slim portion of the population. It is, however, one of a few popular trends that the design industry has ushered into the sex product space.
Of course, you can find all kinds of aesthetics in products designed to facilitate, or be used, during safe sex. But as graphic design and the industry collides more and more, a leading visual language around sex is forming – but is it the right one for all of us? With a recent study finding that 60 per cent of 18-25-year-olds in the US want sexual wellness brands to ensure warnings are clearly displayed, and over 50 per cent want them to provide more educational materials, something seems lacking. Calls for inclusivity and education might be swelling in sex, but it seems branding is struggling to keep up.
“It’s a very prescribed presentation of what sex should be. There’s no room for imagination, there’s no room for interpretation.”Yasemin Emory
Traditionally, condoms have been designed for men. When design studio Whitman Emorson started looking at its leading players – hoping to buck toxic trends with its inclusive condom brand Jems – co-founders Whitney Geller and Yasemin Emory noticed the toxic masculinity immediately. “Our experience was walking in the condom aisle and just being shocked at what we found,” Whitney says. “It was names like Magnum and Trojan, Fire & Ice, BareSkin, XXL, male torsos.” Whitney adds: “Gold, black and purple were the only colours. And it's funny because they’re always right next to feminine hygiene, which is a whole other section of pink.” Co-founder Yasemin Emory asserts: “It’s a very prescribed presentation of what sex should be. There’s no room for imagination, there’s no room for interpretation.”
Now, “the pendulum [has] swung the other way”, Yasemin notes. As a range of alternative condom brands hit the market, a lot have “skewed feminine”. The co-founder describes some of the visuals cropping up as “minimalist, delicate” and communicating “a level of premiumness”. The history of gendered packaging – both visually coded and explicitly stated – in condoms is still alive and well. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with targeting specific customers, as Whitney points out. “This is a big space and I think that everybody deserves to be spoken to directly.” However, if the options speaking directly to underrepresented communities seem slim to consumers venturing down a condom aisle or onto a sex toy website, how is it impacting our relationship with sex and our bodies?
“This is a big space and I think that everybody deserves to be spoken to directly.”Whitney Geller
Sex educator and trauma specialist Jimanekia Eborn says, right now, “we’re putting people in a hole” with branding. “It is predominantly very heterosexual focus, very white, very thin, very blonde, or it looks like Ken and Barbie. And 99.9 per cent of us in this world do not look like that. [...] That is a loud message that, if you don't look like this, this is not for you.” Jimanekia says this can introduce a sense in the consumer that they are not worthy of sex: “I think there’s a lot of shame that is pushed into it. Like, if you’re not having this type of sex, then are you actually having sex?” For consumers not being represented – or even, as Jimanekia points out, 18-year-olds buying their first sex product – branding can make sex feel like a shameful act. Next thing you know: “We’re in a shit show when we were just out looking for a vibrator.”
Though, in small pockets, we’re talking about sex more than ever – take shows like Sex Education, the rise of sex educators sharing content on social media and mainstream apps like Feeld. But, we’re not there yet when it comes to sex positivity. In Hong Kong, a 2022 study by pleasure brand Lelo shows 47 per cent of 25-34-year-olds are afraid of sharing private sexual thoughts with partners, and 38 per cent believe sex toys are perverted. In Lelo’s 2022 Sex Census in the UK, 45 per cent of respondents found low self-esteem or body image was impacting their sex life, while 55 per cent feel uncomfortable talking about masturbation. In the 2020 Sex Census, 9.4 per cent said worries about performance anxiety were leading to problems sexually.
What if design could actually help us with our fears? Young people particularly are being sold sex as a “perfect experience”, says Whitney. “The actual experience of young people is more awkward, it’s vulnerable. It’s funny at times, it’s scary, it’s embarrassing.” Branding rarely sheds its silky veneer to mirror this reality – but it could. Take Jems, for example, leveraging playful character illustration and an ‘alien green’ palette. Whitman Emorson talks about design “discomfort” a lot in relation to the project. By creating tension between the colours and typefaces, Jems manages to show the duality of sex as fun and awkward, as well as sexy.
“So even though there were these big, oversized bold letters saying XXL, Magnum, BareSkin, it wasn’t actually telling us what the product was doing for you.”Yasemin Emory
Of course, branding isn’t just the look, it’s also about essential communication. When Whitman Emorson held focus groups to create Jems, the founders discovered that “people were picking out [condom] boxes and didn’t realise that Fire & Ice meant that there was a numbing agent in the lube that [...] causes irritations in some people”, says Yasemin. “So even though there were these big, oversized bold letters saying XXL, Magnum, BareSkin, it wasn’t actually telling us what the product was doing for you.” A lack of prominent ingredient lists can also impact those with latex allergies – something Jimanekia highlights as a problem that still affects many consumers. Jimanekia concurs that more information to inform customers’ birth control decisions needs to be pushed to the forefront of the brand experience.
This can be harder than it sounds when you’re selling something to enable safe sex. Whitney describes the situation in the US: “When you open a pack of condoms, there’s a How To Use instruction kit that’s just FDA mandated, we can’t do anything about it, and it only describes male-female heterosexual sex that ends at ejaculation. That’s it.” While Jems creates their own inclusive educational guides, there are some things the brand just can’t show or say. Depicting genitalia for educational purposes on social media sites like Instagram can result in bans, despite the lack of clear platform guidelines around these areas. In fact, Jems can’t even write the word condoms on the platform, they have to spell it with zeros. In recent years, sex toy brands like Unbound and Dame have also been battling NYC’s transit agency over bans, rejections and removals of their ads.
“A lot of people aren’t just architects of buildings, but they’re architects of orgasms and pleasure.”Nenna Joiner
Feelmore, a sex-positive retailer in Oakland for folks of all genders to shop intimacy products, treats advertising restrictions in the US as an opportunity to be creative. “And also to have a different branding experience per sex shop, even though we all sell the same thing,” founder Nenna Joiner states. “It gives us an opportunity to create our own ideas around what advertising looks like in our industry.” In the past, this creativity has entailed selling products from an ice cream truck, complete with music. Today via Instagram, Nenna “take[s] a very small business, entrepreneurship approach to product, creating and using the community, and not just the sex toys, to narrate the story”. This has not only opened up space for connection within the Feelmore community, but also helped “transform” people’s ideas around sex.
When it comes to ingredient lists on the products Feelmore stocks, Nenna says: “I think that a high level notice from the government is very important”. Nenna lists Proposition 65 warnings in California as an example. Though, the founder specifies that surplus boxes and extraneous lists can also lead to more waste, drive up the price, and add layers of complication onto the experience of using, and disposing, of the product. “I think too much information on boxes is not a good thing. But they’re a good thing in spaces that don't have a trained staff to educate the consumer.” Nenna adds: “Boxes could be that form of customer service for that customer.”
When the box is also the customer’s guide, and a brand cares primarily about visual sleekness, does this leave space for How to Use diagrams? Well, there are brands that do both. Sexual wellness brand Dame’s product pages for vibrators like the Eva, for example, feature personality-filled animations showing the products at work on genitalia. Clear, informative design is needed to guide a user’s experience, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun,” Lydia Reid comments. The London-based animator recently worked on two anatomical explainer promos for sister contraceptive brands EllaOne and Hana, showing how the pills actually work inside bodies. “More people are going to want to learn about how it works if the information is easy to understand and playful,” the animator explains.
“I like [when] there is an option for people to express themselves in ways that feel good for them.”Jimanekia Eborn
Today, the sex toy industry is awash with innovation in terms of product design. As Nenna puts it: “Now a lot of people aren’t just architects of buildings, but they’re architects of orgasms and pleasure.” Gender inclusive brands like Cute Little Fuckers are shaking up the form we expect our toys to come in, with starfish shaped vibrators that function as tools of gender affirmation as well as ones of pleasure; similar innovation is happening in condoms. But, can we say the same inventive sex positivity is translating into branding across the board?
The question isn’t as simple as a yes or no. In fact, take discreet packaging as an example. Quietly plush boxes might seem like the last thing needed to encourage open conversation. But, Jimanekia points out that having the option of both a discreet and louder bag is important. “For those of us that are in more feminised or feminine bodies, we’re already harassed in the world. And so it might also be like a safety thing for some people.” The educator adds: “If you feel like: ‘I want to put this away, so I don’t have to hear anyone’s mouth.’ Cool. If you’re like: ‘I actually like dicks all over my bags.’ Cool. I like [when] there is an option for people to express themselves in ways that feel good for them.”
If utopian sex branding is about options, we need to be able to see them – and not just some of them. For Whitman Emorson, this might mean changes to legislation and social media guidelines, and simply bringing condoms outside of the condom aisle. For Jimanekia, increasing options also means bringing sex educators into backend branding conversations and onto product shoots, to help shape the narrative. The decision to build personable, lively, representative, eccentric, educational brands can only happen if it becomes just as viable a creative direction as the pared-back approach dominating the industry. Otherwise we’re just putting people in boxes that don’t always fit.
Copyright © Inari Sirola, 2022
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, she worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.