Female-led brands are taking the shame out of self-pleasure

From sex education to sex toys, women are at the forefront of the latest sexual revolution

14 April 2021 - 06:00 By Zanele Kumalo
Some online stores now sell vibrators alongside clothes and make-up. File photo.
Some online stores now sell vibrators alongside clothes and make-up. File photo.
Image: 123RF/Mikhail Reshetnikov

Attitudes towards intimacy, self-pleasure and sex have shifted in the past few years. Sure, some women had access to magazines that wrote bold (often problematic) features on sex - but for most, the stigma attached to buying a magazine detailing the “10 great ways to reach orgasm” prevented many women from actually doing so — both reading about it (and doing it).

Female sexuality, intimacy, and self-pleasure is often met with shame, and women seeking any real sex-related information — health or otherwise — have been relegated to doing so in secrecy, searching the interweb incognito, and very rarely speaking about personal experiences with their friends.

In SA, one of the most prominent women leading the sexual revolution is Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng — or Dr T as she is popularly known.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, author of 'Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health & Pleasure'. File photo.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, author of 'Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health & Pleasure'. File photo.
Image: Supplied

Not just a medical doctor, Dr T is an activist, author of the best-selling book Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health & Pleasure, columnist, and UN special rapporteur on the right to health. She has long helped champion sex positivity and wellness through her promotion of comprehensive sexuality education, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In an opinion piece she wrote for Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, on the pathologies of pleasure, Dr T shared that, even in medical school, little attention is given to female genitalia; and when she studied obstetrics and gynaecology, information on sexual diseases generally trumped anything available on pleasure.

She continues to learn — and educate — from hosting sex-toy parties, talking to her patients and conversing on radio and TV.

Now, for a growing number of people, talking about sex is becoming less taboo — something that’s begun to be reflected in stores beyond pharmacies and traditional tinted-window sex shops. And popping a tube of Chanel lip gloss, a pair of Saint Laurent boyfriend jeans and a vibrator into the same online shopping cart has never been easier — Anthropologie has the right idea.

Brave and honest conversations on shows such as Being Mary Jane, Sex Education, Grace and Frankie and The Ranakas help destigmatise topics about self-pleasure. And even if your views on Gwyneth Paltrow are otherwise, her episode The Pleasure is Ours from Goop Lab on Netflix introduced the tentative few to the late, self-pleasure sex guru and pro-sex feminist legend Betty Dodson; while Cult Beauty’s Sexual Pleasure and Wellness section wraps up vibrators, orgasms and erotica in a prettier, more accessible bow. 

As the sexual wellness trend grows, retail intelligence platform Edited reports that the industry is earmarked to reach $37bn in value by 2022 — and women-led brands are redefining the space. Many beautifully packaged, well-designed and informative intimacy products, workshops, and info hubs have been launched — or grown — during lockdowns, as isolation has meant we’ve taken a more intimate look at ourselves for pleasure and healing.

Locally, we have weed-positive online boutique KushKush — founded by Jo Hope — selling CBD-based intimacy oils, vapes, and books on the subject.

Carey Townsend, founder of evie.
Carey Townsend, founder of evie.
Image: Supplied

And Cape Town’s Carey Townsend, who runs a digital content platform called evie, is trying to create a safe space to hold these candid (and sometimes uncomfortable) conversations with workshops. She says that since launching in August last year, she has wanted the resource to act “as a conduit between the wellness, mental health and sexuality community and doctors, healers, guides and coaches that resonate with me from across the world”.

Internationally, US brand Dame co-founders Alexandra Fine (sexologist) and Janet Lieberman (engineer) crowdfunded the first sex toy on Kickstarter in 2016. The silicone vibrator called Fin, is worn on your fingers to feel like an extension of your body — and is part of a growing brand of innovative sex tools and accessories with a digital resource on sexual wellness and intimacy called, Swell.

Well+Good, a lifestyle publication that focuses on the health and wellness industry (and created by two female journalists), reminds us that self-pleasure is self-care. They walk the talk by selling products such as lubricants from Maude on their online shop.

Maude's products such as their Shine lubricant and Vibe massager are modern and luxe.
Maude's products such as their Shine lubricant and Vibe massager are modern and luxe.
Image: Maude

Maude, in particular, is the new health and beauty brand that is undeniably modern and luxe. Founder Éva Goicochea brought on Fifty Shades of Grey actress Dakota Johnson as creative director — and their products are so stylish you might be tempted to display their vibrators, lubricants and condoms openly on your bedside table.

If it takes something flashier to move it out of a hidden drawer, award-winning Swedish brand Lelo has a 24-karat gold silent massager, Yva — while Crave’s industrial designer Ti Chang has created sleek, wearable options to help take the shame out of sexual objects. Her neckpiece, Vesper, is made from stainless steel available in silver, rose gold, and 24-karat gold.

Lelo's silent massager, Yva
Lelo's silent massager, Yva 
Image: Lelo

No matter the trajectory of the industry, it is imperative for all brands to make sure they are inclusive — by age, race, identity, body size and shape, and sexual orientation — to help dismantle stereotypes, and create better products.

Audio erotica apps such as Dipsea have quickly realised this, offering titillating stories for a range of scenarios including them and them, his and her, and her and her.

Black female entrepreneurs such as Kandi Burruss (singer, songwriter and TV personality) who created Bedroom Kandi — which, according to Marie Claire, is “a line of sex toys that grew into a home-party plan company” — are helping make sure that sex-toys are racially diverse, and that black women are included in sexual wellness conversations, because while there are no official stats, it is evident that most major sex-toy companies are founded by white entrepreneurs.

Simultaneously, sex education needs to be a fundamental component of sexual wellness as the industry nears its climax.

This article was originally published on Wanted Online. Visit wantedonline.co.za for the latest in luxury lifestyle news.