In the sex toy industry, Valentine’s Day is basically Christmas: Products start flying off the shelves weeks before, with couples’ toys like cock rings and wearable vibrators doubling or even quintupling their sales numbers. It’s not hard to figure out why that is. For consumers trying to make their February 14th as special, as perfect, as possible, a little technical upgrade can seem like a guaranteed way to ensure a magical night of passion. And whether you’re looking for explosive orgasms, greater staying power, more effortless anal sex, or a raging libido, there’s a sex tech company out there that promises to deliver.
For many folks, technology really can offer a solution to all manner of sexual woes. Does your clitoris need vibration to reach a state of physical arousal? Sex toys can solve that, as many enthusiastic vibrator owners are happy to attest. Is your penis struggling to achieve and maintain erection, even when you’re extremely aroused? Viagra, Cialis, and their numerous generic counterparts are all readily available. Suction devices can improve clitoral sensitivity, especially for people who find vibration more irritating than arousing. Anal toys make it easier to relax the sphincter and enjoy truly pleasurable anal penetration. And some wonderfully innovative couple’s vibrators have made it possible to experience hands-free vibration during penetrative sex—a game changer for people who require intense clitoral stimulation to achieve sexual pleasure.
As disparate as these struggles might seem, there’s one clear element that unites them: They’re all functionally engineering problems, ones that can be remedied with a carefully designed pill or product that’s calibrated to meet the body’s needs. But there’s more to sex than just our physical engineering. Yes, our nerve endings and genital structures play a major part in our experiences of pleasure. But so does our brain, and the complex cocktail of chemicals known as our emotional state. And it’s this less tangible side of sex where sex tech, including medications, often falls flat on its face.
Sex predates human existence. But even after millennia of engaging in the activity, there’s never really been a consensus about what “normal” sexuality is. Depending on when, and where, you are in history, you’re likely to encounter a wide range of ideas about what sex and desire are “supposed” to look like. Within cultures that celebrate chastity, like Catholicism and Buddhism, a lack of libido could be seen as a sign of enlightenment and holiness; in modern America, that same level of sexual desire is more likely to be pathologized, as evidenced by the supposed “sex recession” that took over the headlines a few years ago.
With the rise of modern psychology and sexology, various experts—including Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson—have attempted to authoritatively document the details of human sexual response through a dispassionate, unbiased lens. Yet that task has proven far more challenging, and far more susceptible to cultural preconceptions, than anticipated. Even questions as seemingly simple as why some people feel pleasure when the “g-spot” is stimulated, or the biological mechanisms behind “female ejaculation,” have led to heated debate. Toss in a bunch of tech entrepreneurs eager to make a quick buck, and you quickly wind up with an industry that causes as many problems as it solves.
Take, for instance, the modern marketplace for erectile dysfunction drugs. Erectile dysfunction—sometimes referred to as impotence—is an age-old issue, even appearing in medieval texts, where men blamed witches for robbing them of their ability to get an erection. For most of human history, there wasn’t really a cure for an unresponsive member; the best bet was to be patient, or potentially seek help from a therapist. But in the 1990s, the advent of Viagra upended everything. In its early days, the medication was primarily marketed to older men, whose declining health made it harder to keep and maintain an erection even when the spirit was willing. But in the ensuing decades, Viagra has strayed from a straightforward solution to impotence caused by declining health, as profit-driven distributors began to advertise the medication as cure-all for men who are dissatisfied with their erectile performance—a category that is dangerously vague and heavily dependent on men’s personal, and often unrealistic, expectations for their penis’s responsiveness.