Minimal sex toys by Unbound

Sextech startups abandon the "intimidating" penis-shaped vibrator

Vibrators used to look like penises, but now brands are having more success with minimal sex toys shaped like eggs and flying saucers.

New York's Unbound is one of many sextech startups shifting away from phallic shapes, towards products that consumers can be proud to own.

"To try to replicate genitals is to dumb down the design," explained Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez. "We see our sex vibrators as complementary to genitalia, as opposed to being a substitute."

Increasingly designers are asking if women want penis-like vibrators at all. Many are developing genderless devices for users across the board.

Bonny Hall, product director for online sex toy store Lovehoney, told Dezeen that vibrators now make up 42 per cent of all its sex toy sales, up from 35 per cent in 2015. But she said the surge has been boosted by purchases of clitoral vibrators, while sales of "realistic dildos" have dropped off.

Sex toys to "not feel ashamed of"

Unbound's Rodriguez, founder of the entrepreneurial Women of Sex Tech community, launched her startup in 2014 and uses minimalist design to reimagine sex toys for female pleasure.

"Female pleasure falls into this black abyss where it's considered a vice, this hedonistic thing that people are afraid of," said Rodriguez. You only have to look to the shameful denouncement of sextech pioneer Lora Di Carlo at this year's CES to get her point.

Squish minimal sex toy by Unbound
Unbound's debut device Squish is a soft waterproof egg

Instead of objectifying genitalia, something Rodriguez said many people find "intimidating", Unbound focuses on developing objects specifically for clitoral stimulation. Studies show that more than 70 per cent of women enjoy better orgasms with clitoral stimulation, and fewer than 20 per cent of women can orgasm from penetration alone.

"We wanted to build something someone could leave out on their nightside table and not feel ashamed of," said Rodriguez of Unbound's debut device Squish, a soft waterproof egg which delivers stronger vibrations the harder you squeeze it.

Space sexploration

Unbound sells six devices, ranging from its microphone-like bestseller the Ollie to the discus-shaped Bean. Products come in a range of pink, teal and blue hues, colours which are "more akin to a health or beauty brand," notes Rodriguez. The startup made $4 million in revenue last year.

Unbound's latest device, Saucy, is a spaceship-shaped vibrator developed in honour of the brand's newly-launched community rewards forum Area69. This forum was created to counter the fact "adult product" brands like Unbound are blocked from marketing on social media or public billboards.

Saucy minimal sex toy by Unbound
Unbound's latest device, Saucy, is a spaceship-shaped vibrator

"We thought that space was a really lovely analogy for sex, as sexuality is something each individual needs to explore," said Rodriguez.

"It's about telling a narrative: something as seemingly silly a UFO has a bigger story that hopefully makes our products more approachable and digestible."

Sexologist Alexandra Fine and MIT-trained engineer Janet Lieberman are the founders behind Dame Products, another New York sextech business initially launched to put female pleasure first. Their flagship device, Eva, is a pebble-sized hands-free vibrator with two arms to hold it in place over the wearer's clitoris.

Closing "the orgasm gap"

Eva was designed to close "the orgasm gap", where women in heterosexual relationships have fewer orgasms than their male partners, said Fine. "If you look at a penis, clitoral stimulation is not one of its three basic functions," she said.

Fine said that being able to self-test the vibrator throughout its development was crucial to the success of Eva, which is now in its second generation.

"What really made a difference was our ability to design and build products in-house and literally go to the bathroom and test them out," she said.

Eva minimal sex toy by Dame Products
Eva, a pebble-sized hands-free vibrator by Dame Products, was designed to close "the orgasm gap"

Dame Products has since developed a wider range of non-phallic sex toys, and has racked up over 100,000 product sales since 2014. Newer devices include Pom, a bendable vibrator shaped like an avocado half, and Fin, a bitesize device worn on the finger. Both have been developed with the help of 8,000 Dame Labs testers, including users who are transgender and LGBT+ as well as heterosexual.

"Sex toys are for sex, and are not for your gender," said Fine, who is keen to make sure Dame Products remain as inclusive as possible. The website currently features a transgender model holding the Pom.

"A lot of products we saw on the market showed women taking off lingerie and stiletto heels – that is not my masturbation experience," she said. "Honestly, when we sit down we just try to think about different peoples' experiences while trying not to make a big deal."

Genderless sex toys

The idea that sex toys should be gender-inclusive is one that Swedish brand Lelo has quietly been developing in Europe over the last decade. Founded in 2002, Lelo distinguished itself as a counter to the Anne Summers parties and phallic rampant rabbits synonymous with Sex In The City-era feminism.

"We wanted to show that pleasure didn't have to be pink and bunny-shaped," said Lelo brand manager Stu Nugent.

Lelo's first device, the Lily, looks like a stone washed smooth by a Nordic fjord. It is emblematic of the brand's minimal Scandinavian design heritage.

"Lily was an incredibly powerful and pleasurable product, but it was also quite innocuous," said Nugent. "That was always the goal: to produce something that was genderless or versatile and didn't dictate how it was used."

Eva minimal sex toy by Dame Products
Other Dame Products offerings include Fin, a bitesize device worn on the finger

It wasn't until 2014 however – a year when genderless movements sparked debate around everything from fashion to gingerbread biscuits – that Lelo released 'the world's first genderless sex toy' under its sister brand Picobong. Still sold today, the Transformer features two bullet vibrators connected by a lead and is intended "to fall between the gaps of various gender suppositions," according to Nugen.

Lelo remains proud of the Transformer despite sales of the device being "significantly lower" and less predictable than Lelo's other products.

"The hurdle is that the community that called out for this kind of product is really very small compared to the mainstream market who aren't so sexually literate," Nugent explains. "Releasing a sex toy as 'gender-neutral' actually tends to alienate a larger part of the audience."

Sexual inclusivity for all

Still newer brands like Maude, founded by product designer Dina Epstein and serial entrepreneur Éva Goicochea in New York in 2017, continue to attempt to meet and expand the genderless niche.

"It's not supposed to be human-like. It's supposed to be a tool," said Goicochea of Maude's sculpture-like Vibe vibrator. "The idea was really to make it as universal as possible and so far people have used it in lots of different ways."

Lelo's first device, the Lily, looks like a stone washed smooth

Goicochea hopes that Maude's minimalist approach goes beyond gender inclusivity to tackle another topical taboo too – age. As highlighted on the hit Netflix show Grace and Frankie, and multiple longstanding studies, elder people are very much still interested in sex. But few devices are designed specifically with elder users in mind, for instance, being lightweight or easy to hold.

"We felt that the design itself was ageless," said Goicochea. "You can be an adult of any age and use it and not feel uncomfortable, no matter your hand size. And it can be used in different ways, either laid over yourself or using the end."

Maude's conical Vibe is available in a warm grey tone and is intended to sit inconspicuously among other household objects.

"Sex is human, sex is everyday, and by treating these products like everyday things, it allows you to treat sex as everyday," said Goicochea. "That not only means you can incorporate sex into your everyday, but that you don't put pressure on it to be extraordinary every time."

Pleasure without limits

With limiting assumptions about shape starting to lift, innovators are now increasingly questioning what even makes a sex toy a sex toy.

German firm Satisfyer has developed lines of devices which use air pulses to arouse, while Lelo has just released Sona, a device which uses low frequency sounds to stimulate the body.

Vibe minimal sex toy by Maude
Maude's conical Vibe expands the genderless niche

Elsewhere, sextech jewellery brands like Close in Singapore lets partners send erotic "textured messages" to each other, while British brand Wisp uses its jewellery to release scents intended to promote intimacy. Unbound is soon to launch Palma, a steel ring which vibrates to differing degrees depending on the wearer's hand movements.

Stephanie Alys, co-founder of British sextech startup MysteryVibe, said the trend towards minimal and gender-neutral sex toys will continue, not only because of changing customer tastes, but because high street retailers like Selfridges and Urban Outfitters have already shown they're happy to stock them.

"There's a commercial element to it too," she explained.

MysteryVibe launched "the first bendable vibrator" back in 2016. She believes that genderless sex toys could start to take on all kinds of forms.

"Ultimately, there are so many amazing shapes that could work for different people," she added. "It's about imagination and creativity."