The Ethics of Sex Toys – Part 1

In the first part of her two-part guide, Ms Razorblade considers the philosphical and ethical issues of women's sex toys. Is it possible to buy sex toys without supporting the mainstream sexist porn industry? Are they sexist? And much more!

, 11 August 2004

First of all let me apologise, dear readers, for the poor quality of my research: researching sex toys on the net is well-nigh impossible. Typing in “sex toys” in a search engine will get you maybe 4 million shopping sites, 4 million porn sites and there, somewhere at the end, a few measly news pages about phthalates (more of which in part 2). Plus, there isn’t much there for you to find. The sex shop Womynsware sum up the problem very bluntly: “there isn’t much research about ANY ‘sex product’ nobody’s funding the studies, so nobody’s conducting the studies.

Still, I did my best, so let battle commence. We will start with…


To say that sex toys have a PR problem is like calling George W Bush “a bit dim”. I can see little point in going back to ancient Egypt or Greece on this, but would point out that according to Colin Spencer’s “Homosexuality: A History”, at least two female transvestites were discovered using dildos in 16th-century France; one was hanged and the other burned alive. It’s interesting to note that at the time of writing the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has just upheld the State of Alabama’s ban on sex toys, stating that “the Constitution doesn’t include the right to sexual privacy”.

A brief gallop through the ages: the vibrator was invented in the mid-19th century and was used to treat “hysterical disorders”, which gave it temporary medical respectability; in the 1920s it made its debut in Parisian porn films, became abruptly risqué, and vanished underground where it has pretty much remained to this day. Condoms, for example, are now considered personal health products: the Vegan Society carries in its catalogue, with no visible embarrassment, a half-page of vegan (milk-free) condoms. They are not relegated to a separate catalogue marked “Adults Only”. Society appears to have finally reached the conclusion that making condoms an embarrassing taboo will result in fewer people using them and therefore a greater incidence of STIs and unwanted pregnancy. No such courtesy has been extended to sex toys: they remain even less available than porn. Condoms can after all be bought practically anywhere nowadays, in pub toilets, supermarkets and gift shops; porn can be bought from any seedy newsagent. Getting hold of a sex toy, assuming one lives in any part of Britain other than London, requires the most extraordinary contortions. There is, of course, the little detail that condoms and porn are intended mostly for use by men, and sex toys mostly for women. Hmmm.

its a common view that women only buy sex toys as a joke

Let’s face it: masturbation is a taboo subject to begin with; female masturbation much more so; female masturbation with accessories, even more more so. The attitude of your average gutter sex shop appears to be that women only buy sex toys as a joke, that they intend to wave them around at hen nights for a light-hearted bit of fun, not actually wank with them.

Well, some of us do want to wank with them; we want a good-quality, soundly built vibrator, and one that will not ooze toxic chemicals, use mountains of batteries, exploit the workforce or pollute the environment. Is that too much to ask? Er… yes, apparently it is (I’ll come back to these issues in Part 2).

Philosphical issues

The question of whether sex toys are by nature sexist is a tough one and, I think, mostly a matter of personal opinion. The first charge against them is that women should not have to pay any more for masturbation than men do. It’s generally considered that the only equipment a bloke needs is, well, his hand. The implication is that women (unless they are using the trusty old “carrot” technique) have to fork out for vibrators, batteries and possibly lube. Men don’t have to grope about in the dark for batteries or curse when the vibrator falls down between the bed and the wall. They don’t need a dildo and a harness for sex, either; trying to don a harness quickly, in the dark, is not necessarily enjoyable.

While I agree that there is an unfair discrepancy here, it is worth considering that many straight men do use sex toys such as inflatable dolls and masturbators (a plastic tunnel or sleeve designed to be penetrated by a dick), although women are the prime buyers; and gay (and some straight) men of course purchase a lot of anal sex toys. Women are not therefore the only ones with light pockets. It might also be suggested that men who do not use sex toys are basically losing out on a lot of fun due to their lack of adventurousness, and that the reason they use so much porn is to alleviate the general monotony of their masturbation technique. Also, if dildos have some design faults compared with dicks, dicks definitely have some design faults compared with dildos: they’re not always stiff, they may impregnate, and you’ll get to argue about who sleeps in the wet patch.

the only reason for possessing one was considered to the absence of a man

The second and more familiar argument against sex toys is that they are penis substitutes. It was of course a common belief for at least several centuries that the only reason for possessing a sex toy was to compensate for the absence of a man, hence the Victorian euphemism for a dildo: “widow’s comforter”. An enormous number of vibrators and dildos are still basically rubber dicks, and infuriatingly, even the most advanced and enlightened toy sites still euphemistically refer to dick-shaped vibrators as “realistic vibrators”. (What d’you mean, realistic? You sell a cucumber-shaped vibrator as well. Isn’t that realistic? It looks just like a real cucumber.) It is offensive to imply that a straight woman can’t masturbate without a penis being involved; still more offensive to imply that two lesbians can’t have sex without one.

The good news is that toys now come in an incredible range of styles and shapes: in different materials, different colours, different sizes, and serving different functions. Anyone who has watched Sex and the City will probably know that there is at present a vogue for brightly-coloured sex toys that are shaped like animals. These bear little or no resemblance to dicks and I would tentatively suggest that abuse survivors, in particular, might find them helpful since they have little or no connection to the human body and their design states very clearly that sex is supposed to be fun. Indeed it was said of the Fun Factory range, which features smiling green dinosaurs and blue dolphins, “you could put it in a toy box and pretend it belongs to the kids”. Furthermore, many vibrators are not designed for vaginal insertion: there are clitoral stimulators (irregularly abbreviated to clit stims), dual vaginal/clitoral toys, anal toys, etc. etc. etc. If you believe that sex toys are limited to ugly flesh-coloured cocks or white grooved cylinders, it is definitely time to think again.

The slightly-more-controversial news is that many dykes actually are buying penis substitutes: not just plain dildos, but phalluses specifically designed to resemble cocks. Almost every lesbian site will sell at least one penis-shaped dildo; some go further and produce cocks with balls attached to flesh-coloured harnesses, which you are apparently supposed to wear to look as much as possible as if you do have a dick. On the one hand this is of course clearly a matter or personal taste. Some lesbians (me, specifically) find that the sight of something that looks exactly like a cock makes them want to projectile vomit; others evidently don’t. But there is a considerable discrepancy here: gay men’s sites do not sell little plastic vaginas for men to strap over their arseholes just before anal sex. While there is a considerable market for selling phalluses to lesbians, there is no corresponding drive to sell vaginas to gay men.

toys now come in an incredible range of styles and shapes

One explanation for this is that men may like to play with gender by cross-dressing for sex, and that this is more difficult for lesbians due to the lack of specifically “male” clothing (NB: there are numerous cross-dressers’ sites on the web, but I haven’t got time to list them. I recommend you try the Tranny Guide). Another is that most lesbian sites do not exclusively sell their own brand of toy; they have to buy what’s available from other manufacturers, and other manufacturers mostly produce dicks (which may or may not be because they are mostly oriented towards straight women). It is notable that at Babes-N-Horny and and Sh!, two sites that do exclusively sell their own brand, dick-shaped dildos are distinctly in the minority.

I admit that even when a dildo is shaped nothing like a dick – Fun Factory make dolphin-shaped ones, for example – it still looks pretty phallic when it’s sticking out of your pelvis. If you want to shag with a dildo but are turned off by the front-of-crotch location, you might want to look at thigh and chest harnesses available from shops such as Sh!. If you look hard enough you can even find a chin harness – you might look rather weird when the dildo’s in position, but the intended use is obvious.

The question of whether men’s sex toys are inherently sexist is one I find a lot simpler. Gay men’s sex toys, while they objectify men to some extent, are on a level playing field. One might query with irritation why so many of the willies are white, why the black ones are so much bigger, and why they are all circumcised (presumably simpler shape and therefore easier to make), but these products’ main problem in my humble opinion is body fascism, not sexism.

Straight men’s “toys” are a different kettle of (pun intended) fish. The “cutesy” toys such as smiling dragons are very seldom aimed at men: presumably they are not considered macho enough, since if you enter the “men’s” section of a mixed sex shop you will generally be presented with a vast range of severed parts of the female anatomy. As far as I am concerned the disembodied cunts, arseholes, mouths and tits are an all too accurate reflection of a society that values a woman’s vagina considerably higher than the rest of her.

Porn and gratuitous nudity

Many mainstream sex shop/sites also sell mainstream sexist porn. You can boycott these if you want. They may not be at all honest about the fact that they do so, e.g. some innocent-looking toy sites will be owned by a company that also sells porn; do your research first. Feminist sites, such as Toys in Babeland, sell “feminist” or “positive” porn DVDs. If you are against all porn these will obviously be unacceptable; even if you do believe in feminist porn, there is some doubt as to whether these fit the brief: Womynsware, after some consideration, decided not to stock them.

Opinions as to the appropriateness, or otherwise, of nudity differ; so too do manufacturers’ intentions in employing it. Cheap sex toys tend to have photographs of porn models on the box, in a pathetic attempt to convince the consumer that if they buy the product, THEY TOO can have (or, in the case of straight men, shag someone who has) huge breasts and sticky-out lips. Alternatively, in a standard XXX toy/porn site it is quite clear why there is a naked blonde porn model sprawled across the top of the page: she is there to turn the shopper on, as are the product descriptions like “the Rotating Rat vibrator will make you throb, gasp and cry out for more!”. I presume most readers are aware that modern supermarkets deliberately pump appealing smells (fresh bread being the most common) through the air vents in order to make their shoppers hungry and therefore persuade them to buy more food. This is much the same ploy: a horny shopper, the sex toy magnates reason, will buy more sex toys. I have no real reservations in slamming this practice as cynical exploitation.

some innocent-looking toy sites will be owned by a company that also sells porn

Slightly more subtle is the use, on lesbian and feminist sites, of naked women for modelling harnesses. Policies on this issue differ, as no doubt will opinions. Sh! and Womynsware use no nudity whatsoever for harnesses, preferring mannequins and line drawings respectively. Babes-n-horny use slim naked women; Tickleberry have indescribable modern-art photos of their toys being used (nipple clamps on nipples, butt plugs in use, etc) which may alarm you, or make you laugh. The point of divergence here is that some people prefer to see how the harness looks on an actual human being; I can imagine many people feeling dissatisfied with womynsware’s line drawing policy. On the other hand, there is no explanation as to why babes-n-horny’s harness models are topless, and I would assume they are trying to make the harness seem more glamorous by modelling it on an attractive naked woman.


If you are against S&M and want to boycott all sites that produce S&M goods, you will have to boycott practically every site on the web (including all the quality/feminist sites I know of, apart from wobblyjobbly [site no longer active] and who sell nothing but silicone dildos). S&M equipment makes up a startlingly large proportion of goods sold especially in gay and lesbian sites. The lesbian half of the site, for example, has eight categories: Dildos, Other Toys, Hoods and Masks, Gags and Muzzles, Restraints, S&M Accessories, Clothing and Other. Eight categories, four of which are specifically S&M in content: it’s big business.

A slight consolation is that it’s a lot easier to avoid S&M stuff on the web. A real-life shop will generally display its whips and chains prominently over one wall to give that “torture chamber” effect; a website is much more likely to have them tucked away in a separate link, so you don’t have to look at them.

In Part 2, Ms Razorblade will look at issues of health, environment, fair trade, shopping, cost, quality and design. We’ll also provide you with a list of some of the best and most interesting feminist websites for women’s sex toys.

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