Feb 082013

This piece was published in Best Sex Writing of the Year, Vol. 1Watch me read it here!

While the rest of the world was chomping on chips and gluing their unblinking eyes to a TV on Superbowl Sunday, I was busy debating the relevance of the term “sex toys” on Twitter. Like you do, right?

It started with an interview question I received via email last week. It went like this:

I’ve noticed, after speaking to quite a few people in the industry, that no one seems to love the term ‘sex toy’ (or dildo, for that matter…). How do you feel about the word? Why do you think folks have an aversion to ‘sex toys’? What words do you like to use?

For as much time as I’ve spent thinking and writing about sex toys, I had never really considered that the  term “sex toys” — which to me is pretty innocuous — might be unacceptable. Somewhat flabbergasted, I took to Twitter to commiserate with like-minded friends. But what ensued was much more thought-provoking than I anticipated. What really got the wheels turning was this tweet about the panels at XBIZ:


Manufacturers want to distance themselves from the term “novelty.” This I completely understand. It’s an old-fashioned industry word that no longer applies. It sounds trivial and frivolous. Novelties are sold at Spencer’s. Novelties are silly, laughable trinkets that end up in the garbage. When I hear the word “novelty,” I picture something like this:


And while I definitely do need a wind-up vulva for my future office, that thing is not in the same league as a $150 rechargeable vibrator that comes with a sleek gift box, satin storage bag, warranty, and unnecessary but classy brooch.

Same with the outdated term “marital aid,” which is not only heteronormative and pious but also sex-shaming.

As I was trying to articulate why I favor the term “sex toys,”1 Metis Black (president of Tantus) chimed in with links to this article she wrote in 2008 and the ensuing butthurt response from AVN.

Ah, the classic cry of “semantics!”. See, I’m of the camp that the words we use to describe things have an impact on how they are perceived. In the case of the sex toy industry, where we have to claw and fight to even be seen as legitimate at all, this is immensely important. I do not believe that, as Shakespeare wrote, a sex toy by any other name would feel as good. Call something a “dong” and nobody wants to fucking put that inside themselves.

If you read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll notice that I prefer to call things what they are. I correct and call out coy idiots who use words like “C-spot” instead of clitoris, “big O” instead of orgasm, “battery-operated boyfriend” instead of vibrator, “dil” instead of dildo, and so on. Therefore, I like “sex toys” because it is straightforward. It is not a euphemism. It is specific and unwavering. Sex toys are simply toys meant for play, for use during sexual activity.

At least that’s what I thought. When I engaged my boyfriend in this debate, he asked whether “sex” is too narrow, whether it implies a partner. I’ve always considered the word to be all-encompassing, but I can see his point. Still, every other option for that slot kind-of sucks.

These days it is hip and trendy for companies come up with their own cutesy little terms — “pleasure objects,” “erotic toys,” “love toys” — which are obviously marketing ploys more than anything else. But this clogs the industry with superfluous terms. Seriously, we could play mix-and-match all day with this stuff…

Yep. I definitely made sex toy magnetic poetry.

…but the bottom line is that something will always be the dominant term, and I don’t particularly want that dominant term to become “pleasure products.”

I’m not opposed to the idea of pleasure, obviously. And I do like the way “pleasure” refers to what a toy does, rather than when it is used. But I feel that when we replace “sex” with “pleasure,” we are sugarcoating, somehow rejecting “sex” as not representative of what we want to say. It feels like an aversion to the word “sex,” which distresses me greatly. We are also making the term less specific. “Pleasure” is so much more broad, and then you tack “products” onto it and suddenly you could be referring to music, food, really comfortable couches, etc.


I also feel that manufacturers invent terms like “pleasure products” as a way to artificially rise above their competition, and that’s kind-of shitty. Yes, LELO’s products are luxurious and high-end, but are they any more sophisticated than Je Joue’s? No. It is all marketing. I just can’t imagine myself saying “I have a massive pleasure product collection.” It sounds snooty. And although I am picky about what I’ll review, there’s no need for euphemisms when describing it.

Just a few sex toy euphemisms I put together.I collect sex toys. I have a shit ton of dildos, vibrators, and anal toys, which I routinely stick in my vagina, against my clitoris, and up my butt. I masturbate with them until I have an orgasm or three. Then I write about it in a matter-of-fact way. Because sex is normal, sex is healthy, and sex is important.

Seriously, we’re not helping shy people become okay with sex toys by coddling them with euphemisms. Euphemisms breed euphemisms. We all still censor ourselves when we talk about sex — a bad habit we need to break. Even in conversation with people, I have to bring myself to use the phrase “sex toys” rather than “adult” something-or-rathers. And I work with this stuff every day.

The word “toy” has its own baggage, of course. To some, it implies something childish and unimportant. You could argue that it is itself a euphemism. Even with these less than stellar connotations, though, I think it works better than “product” or “object.” Those words sound sterile, unimaginative, like jugs of all-purpose cleaner sitting on a shelf. They are not associated with anything in particular.

“Toy,” on the other hand, is associated with a feeling. And that feeling is what we are trying, time and again, to convey to people. That sex toys are not just mechanical objects that will get in the way of your sex life. They are not ominous gadgets that will turn your girlfriend into a vibrator-wielding recluse. They are toys, meant for adding playfulness and fun to your sex life. In our sex-negative culture, where to even enjoy sex (especially as a woman) is somehow blasphemous, this is important.

Ultimately, “sex toys” may not be an absolutely perfect way of describing these things that I put on my genitals and in my orifices day in and day out, but I gotta work with what I have. “Sex toys,” by virtue of its directness, is most beneficial to my personal cause of normalizing these things. Which perhaps explains why I’ve been using it all along — without ever thinking about it.

What about you? Do you prefer a different configuration of those magnetic poetry words?

  1. And just to be clear, I am referring to things like vibrators, dildos, and butt plugs — not BDSM items, lube, or other miscellaneous products. []
  • Fuckthings! That or wank-enhancers.

    But seriously, though, I’m with you on calling them “sex toys”.

  • When you say “sex toy” most people know what you’re talking about.
    Also, you sound like an adult. Calling a dildo your “toyfriend” makes you sound like you’re about 16…

  • I like Sex Toy. It keeps the idea of these things being FUN and they are for SEX. I get the need to soften things sometimes (I’ll use Erotic Device sometimes), but overall the name is accurate and keeps it from sounding to clinical or confusing. Also THEY DO NOT PROVIDE LOVE, so please don’t call them love toys.

  • Erica

    Good discussion. I’m with ya. Toilet paper manufacturers can try to call it “bath tissue” as much as they want, but it’s not used in the bath. Same thing here.

  • Britni

    I tend to use “adult toys.”

  • fire

    Like you, I had never thought that “sex toy” might be objectionable. I think of it as neutral and straightforward. But I would totally play with a Nutella-coated sex toy/pleasure product.

  • Pandwhora

    I like sex toys, I use sex toys, & I call them sex toys.

  • Yeah, “love” is super problematic.

  • I usually just call them awesome!

    Seriously, though I tend to stick to Sex Toys- accurate, not confusing and not scary or intimidating for folks who are new to them. “Marital aids” cracks me up. When you get divorced folks tend to make a sad face and ask if you tried counseling. Now I’m picturing them making the face and going “Oh… did you try a strap-on?” instead.

  • Jenna

    Interesting conversation! I use “sex toy” most often. That said – I did get admonished once when I had someone using a Silk as a dilator who didn’t like my use of the term “toy”. For her, this was a health device. I apologized, and explained that I personally find the term “toy” friendlier than anything else.

    I tend to forget, at often inopportune moments, that sometimes saying “dildo” to civilians can be problematic. While I say it all the time at work, if I slip at Thanksgiving dinner or something it tends to make people flinch.

    The only drawback to “toy” is that it tends to perk up the ears of kids. Especially mine. We have radio ads running here in town, and the mention of “adult toys” got me grilled by my offspring as to why, if I worked in a toy factory, they didn’t know about it. (Disappointing conversation for them, really. No Legos or anything here, just Mom and a bunch of grown up stuff.)

  • Oh, kids. Must’ve been nice, though, to for once have your job be a disappointment rather than a point of fascination!

  • Cherie

    Intimate Accessory!

  • Adriana

    How about “orgasm rocket?” Yea? Yea!

  • Jenna

    They’re still at “grown ups are weird and kissing is gross” so once they found out that my job had to do with all that they were like “meh.”

    At least they’re still speaking to me, which is more than I can say for several adult members of the family who think my job is scandalous.

  • I completely agree with your reasoning for calling them “sex toys”. I’m really not into the way that other companies name them. Like you, the word “novelties” makes me frown and think of cheap shit that is likely to break with very little use. As for “pleasure products”, I agree with SilverDreams; there are too many products that give pleasure in some form for it to be succinct. I mean, I get pleasure out of playing games; does that make them a “pleasure product”?

    Surely “sex toys” works because it’s implied they’re for use during sexual activity? Masturbation is a sexual activity as much as penetrative sex or oral is, so it just seems to fit. Of course, like a lot of things it’s hard to get a term everyone is going to agree to because people define things in different ways. (For example, those that believe PIV is the only way to have sex or lose virginity).

    So yeah, overall I guess I just agree with you.

  • I am so glad we got away from the term “novelties” and instead started using sex toys. I go to the sex store to get sex toys. Saying anything else makes it seem like I am ashamed of what I am doing. Going to a love boutique to get a pleasurable marital enhancer. I hate aid and enhancer and device because they seem like we need them, like we need our sex lives enhanced. No, but sex toys make sex more fun. That’s why we call them toys. Who in the world is complaining about calling sex toys what they are?

  • AnonyMiss

    I’m with you: sex toys is direct and fun.
    I’m also with you about normalizing them and normalzing sexual pleausure for women and *girls* – I’m sick to death of the slut-shaming. Let’s go for slut EMPOWERING and HAPPIFYING! Teach our girls about how to have fun, delicious, important, gratifying sex!

  • Here’s my take as a bricks-and-mortar retailer:

    There is a world of difference still between bottom barrel novelties, toys, pleasure objects, sex aides, marital tools and so on.

    An awful lot of people equate toys with “cheap”. This is a real issue for us folk trying to steer people away from the mass produced and poorly made products towards more body safe items. Kids toys are cheap and safe! The logic runs that so should adult toys. But as you probably know, the cheaper jellies can be unhealthy, cheaper lubes contain parabens and glycerin, cheaper body oils and whatnot are full of only god knows what.

    And I’m sad to say an awful lot of the general public are *terrified* of the word “masturbation”. I get people trying to communicate their needs to me with grunts, shrugs and blushing, as if they were some sort of sexually frustrated cuttlefish. Clitoris is a nice word, but I don’t hear it till I say it – otherwise it’s “down there”, “you know”, “thingy” and a whole host of cutesy poo pet names for a dignified bit of anatomy with more nerves per square inch than any other part of the body. Men’s toys in general tend to cop it the most, but I see plenty of freaked out people of a wide variety of orientations and genders. We wind up having to play games dancing around people’s shame. If I do my job right, a good chuck of that shame should be gone by the time any money’s exchanged, and my staff and I do get a great deal of pleasure from dealing with regulars who start off buying something “as a joke for a mate” and graduate to “do you have high heels in a men’s ten, also, that butt plug from last time was too small, what have you got that’s bigger?”

    Bricks and mortar deal a lot with folk who I think are worried about the postie leaving a vibrator in their mailbox for a spouse/housemate/parent/neighbour to find. Or who don’t want an adult retailer popping up on a bank statement for their bank manager to see. So I guess we see a lot of the shamed out.

    That said, I do also find “pleasure object” is overly coy, It tells you very little about what they do. Too much explaining. Especially the lovely ones in super discreet boxes. Great for web retailers posting things out, not so great for physical retailers.

    Frankly, I tend to refer to them as “this one here – *point*” because quality toys with coy names (“ooh, a Meridian? Er, very nice?”) don’t help at all, and toys with agressive names (“I don’t think a Clit Banger is quite right for me”) are terrible too and then there’s the Barbie Pink Sparkle and Giggle and JIggle and that sort of rubbish. Thankfully the really cringeworthy ones are on the decline, but I’ve been doing this long enough that shit like “Muffin Mucker” and “Crust Peircer” are still toy names at the front of my mind when thinking about the way we use language around sex toys.

    I do like “tool”, though. It’s a damn tool! For a damn job! You wouldn’t use a router to drill a hole, so for fuck’s sake, don’t use a bullet for g-spotting. It’s not frivolous or too shy about it. You got a job to get done, we’ve got a tool to do it.

    Finally, I don’t work at a sex shop. We have legal brothels in my area, so you can actually wander into a shop and buy some good sex from a hard working professional. I’m an adult retailer – I sell things to grownups. Sometimes it’s love tools, sometimes it’s terrifying hen’s night novelties, sometimes it’s stockings and heels for the aforementioned sex workers. We make the distinction because I do on occasion get the odd confused gent looking for a prostitute at our store who is very disappointed to find the only girls we sell need to be inflated first.

  • “sex toys” is a perfectly good term.

  • I worked at an adult store for two years and having no parents or siblings, I didn’t have to deal with what anyone thought! Honestly, I wouldn’t have cared, anyway……

  • though I kind of have to “gloss it over” on resumes and job apps- that plus the job I had after which was administrative support for a phone-sex service……damn, I really need another adult-industry-related job so i can be proud of my work during interviews instead of having to be somewhat evasive and use euphemisms……

  • If I lived where you do (UK? Netherlands?) i’d apply for a job……..

  • Buzz on Vibes

    Great post! I have no problem with using terms like sex toy, dildo, vibrator, etc. Call things what they are. Back when Carlin Ross used to podcast with Susan Crain Bakos they called them “sex life accessories” which removes the connotations associated with the word toy and sounds a bit more euphemistic.

  • I’ve found myself at the “cock shop” as I’ve lovingly come to call it– using words/analogies to get a point/idea across. After, I bring people back to using “proper” terminology when it comes to body parts…and what is safe to use when trying to elicit an orgasm or specific reaction. I don’t belittle or correct, but I do (as do my coworkers) create a safe space for them to speak freely. WE are perfectly fine in calling a Vagina/Penis whatever it is they feel comfortable – I want to make sure we’re talking about the correct “thingie” before the conversation continues. My coworker is fond of using “If you were in a diner, you would easily say how you’d like your burger”, as an icebreaker. As Ellenora stated, by the end of the “transaction” people are much more relaxed and open. Which to us at the shop, is just as important as making a sale, if not more so.

    Found myself lately using “tool” more often- especially when it comes to Anal, Strap Ons, BDSM or GSpot toys… you really do need the safe/correct tool(s) for “the job”. You wouldn’t use a melon baller to open a bottle of wine… therefore you wouldn’t use something without a flanged base for a safe anal experience/play/sex.

    With 50 Shades opening up SO MANY, I’ve had to remind a whole influx of new people (of all ages) that the paddles on our walls aren’t to smack your friend with and laugh- they’re tools, not toys. (Usually around halloween we’ll get people in asking why our sex toys aren’t cheaper bc they want them to add to their Flasher costume, and if its ‘just a joke’ why are they so expensive. I gently remind them that sex toys is a serious business and that they want one to joke around with.) They aren’t in a kid’s shop, some people take these “games” very seriously and it is a lifestyle to be respected like the LGBT. They seem to nod and understand after that. We as a shop own our kinks, fly our flags, and tell the clients to leave their judgement in the car. What they find weird today… they might not in a year.

    I often say some lubes are the “Walmart” of lubrications, and explain how not all lubes/toys are created equal… many companies are making the jump from “let’s lube up your sex” to “let’s lube up your sex in a healthy positive way because it isn’t only about making a buck for us at the end of the day.” My vag thanks these people – and in thanks – I “push” their products and speak of them as healthy sex tools, not just toys. This is when semantics helps distinguish quality of sex people want to have and justify prices. To take a line from Clueless that I use at my shop on a daily basis – “…you see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet.” But let’s also be real… not everyone has the money to only buy Tantus, Fun Factory, and Pjur etc… but they’ll be back for them after we educate. This is when knowledge about condoms and proper toy cleaning/storage tips become even more important.
    The more knowledge of what lubes are compatible with what toys and which toy is better for what sex acts is what is important honestly– not semantics on what sex toys should be called (although, I love this discussion). I think companies need to stop effing hiding behind semantics. “Pure and Safe” is popping up too much for my liking without an ingredients list of what the toy/lube is made of… CUT THAT OUT. They think they’re cute by changing the packaging on the same toys… NOT CUTE.

    We’re of a few species that have sex for pleasure/fun/etc and not just procreation — so I’m going to call the “object” for what the client needs. I sell sex toys to adults, novelties for adults who need a gag gift, and tools to adults who take their sex and the “job at hand” seriously.

    Think about it — people wouldn’t be coming to us to teach/help them with our “madd sex skillz, yo”… if sex wasn’t something people enjoy working at to be better at with their partner(s).

    I’m also a firm believer in sex isn’t a weapon, and “Masturbation NOT Mass Destruction”… but I’ve also come to use “Toy Arsenal” to help put some mens’ minds in a better place. We sex positive people are a minority trying to change the world. They aren’t being replaced, they aren’t less of a man, nor are they weirdos or pathetic etc… they get to pick (sometimes with their partner) what type of orgasm they’re going to give/have amongst the array of tools/toys that they’re about to collect (let’s be real here, sex toys are like pokemon or pringles lol)… some are for play, and others get serious work done.

    Some of us ARE more difficult to get to orgasm, others… kinkier. I firmly believe in the right tool for the job and sometimes, ya need a sex toy .

    At the end of the day WE work in the xxx industry and everyone else is a civilian, hopefully we’ve improved their sex life and they feel like they can be honest with their desires and needs with themselves (then us) at least and we have become part of their world.

    Sex will always sell movies, music, and soft drinks… it will likely always have some sort of ‘shhhh…’ ‘dirty’ stigma on it and we will never be taken seriously… until they need us of course. WE will all know everyone is fooling themselves and be in on the joke and have fun collecting all the pokemon as they come over to the “dark side”…even if it is just for a visit lol…

    Tomato-TomAto — the “object” is still safely goin’ in your butt if you step into my shop and ask me about how to go about it.

    I guess after doing this for 5+ years, you gain what they call “perspective,” hm :).

  • I do mention, in a footnote, that I am not referring to things like lube and BDSM items as “sex toys.” I don’t think that term fits them either.

    The more knowledge of what lubes are compatible with what toys and which toy is better for what sex acts is what is important honestly– not semantics on what sex toys should be called

    Of course I agree. But this is not a post about what’s most important. Terminology does matter, and is worth discussing, but I would never claim it to be more important than straight-up sex education.

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  • Keely

    I’m sorry, I lost it at sexually frustrated cuttlefish! I think that has to be the best descriptor for nervous people in sex shops I’ve ever heard!

    But seriously. There’s a couple local sex shops I frequent and at the beginning I was one of those cuttlefish, now I’ll tell somebody if a product is good if I see them looking at it 🙂

  • I have problems with the term “sex toys” and avoid it on my blog whenever possible. Heh.

    The latter half of the phrase is what grates on me. Because two different doctors can verify how drastically my health improved in the space of 1 month of using “sex toys”, in fact they were both absolutely shocked. Furthermore, without orgasm I become emotionally unstable and get severe insomnia. Thus without sufficient vibrators and dildos I become a danger to myself because out of desperation to get off I WILL use household items and I WILL risk injury. It’s how I spent 10 years of my life and those days are SO over.

    To me, “toys” indicates optional frivolity, and for what they are to me personally that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Yes, they are pleasurable and fun, but in my case they’re more like medical/therapeutic devices than anything else.

    Alternative terms… I use “paraphernalia” as a generalized “sex toy” category and it also works in some posts. The word is nice ’cause it covers lube too. I’ll refer to dildos, vibrators, and plugs. “Item” can work in some cases, e.g. “sexual items” or “insertable items”. As a last resort I’ll sometimes use “sex toys” in quotes to demonstrate my reluctant use of the term.

    In conversation, I don’t bother. 😛

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  • FieryRed

    Finally got around to searching out this post.

    “The word “toy” has its own baggage, of course. To some, it implies something childish and unimportant.” Yep, those were my thoughts on it. But:

    “They are toys, meant for adding playfulness and fun to your sex life.” This is an excellent point. And I certainly haven’t been able to think up any better term that covers the whole category.

    Hell, we call our sailboats, jet skis, and sports cars “toys,” so I guess it fits for vibrators and dildos and butt plugs, too.

  • FieryRed

    Technically, even the word “toilet” is a euphemism… 😉

  • FieryRed

    Doesn’t that imply that one must be over 18 to use them, though?

  • FieryRed

    That sounds like vajazzling.

  • FieryRed

    “Tool” was actually the only other word I could think of besides “toy” that is not euphemistic and actually fits. Only trouble is, “sex tools” sounds too aggressive, similarly to some of the toy names mentioned above.

  • Rin

    I generally either call them sex toys, or by what they are specifically – dildo, vibrator, etc. They’re the only options to me that feel good to say. If I’m speaking to somebody who I don’t feel needs to know about them, I might say “personal items” or “adult items” just to get them to drop it.

    Saying “novelties” makes me think of a joke shop, and I don’t want to
    equate things that go in my vagina with whoopie cushions and itching
    powder. “Pleasure objects” just sounds pretentious, while “marital aids” reminds me of old-fashioned (and in some cases still with us) euphemisms to make things sound “cleaner.” Yaknow, like how menstrual pads are sometimes referred to as *ahem* “feminine napkins.” Also, I’m not married, and they work just fine for me, so I’d call that false advertising.

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