Throughout the decades, when looking at the innovation that has taken place in the mainstream consumer tech industry, it is clear that (relatively speaking) the sex toy industry is stunted. In more recent history, the release of several sexual wellness products has changed the landscape and shown that thoughtful engineering and intentional design can elevate a product and create positive change within the industry. Even still, there remains a lot of room for technological improvement and innovation. In contrast to mainstream consumer tech spaces, specific barriers exist for manufacturers fostering innovation within the sex toy industry.
The main obstacle in developing innovative pleasure products lies in understanding the specifics of the user. Specifically, understanding the data of someone with a vagina. This is due to multiple factors, but primarily, there are two essential reasons: lack of reliable dimensional data recorded by medical professionals, and inaccurate representations of female genitalia of media.
It may come as no surprise to those working in the adult industry that female genitalia is not always accurately represented in mainstream or pornographic media. According to a study in women requesting labiaplasty, a disproportionately high amount of pornographic representations depict the appearance of the vulva as a smooth curve with no protruding labia minora. What many may not realize is this lack of accurate or complete representation is also perpetuated in medical textbooks. Despite dimensional data regarding male genitalia being available as early as 1899, there are shockingly few medically published anatomical recordings regarding female genital data.
The external form, as well as internal size, position and relationships to surrounding structures of the clitoris are all genital measurements which impact the fit of a sex toy for a user. To date, those measurements can be difficult to access, and unreliable to trust. So how do we get that information? Really, there is only one solution: user testing. Investing in thorough user testing can supplement the lack of dimensional data available on the front end, as well as provide insights into other aspects of product fit, form and function.
Conducting the user testing in a useful and practical manner is essential to sufficiently supplementing the lack of dimensional data. Several things should be considered based on the demographic of users included in the survey. One consideration that poses a potential issue, is that many people do not know their own anatomical information. Gathering useful data may largely depend on the brand’s ability to educate the user involved in testing on their own anatomy, as well as communicate the intended product use and the outcomes of interest they hope to better understand.
Another unique obstacle exists here in the sex toy realm unlike the mainstream consumer tech space. Designers may lack an understanding of anatomical data due to improper representation and availability of medical records, but from a user standpoint, this lack of representation can trigger feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment if and when they feel that their genitals do not match an idealized version. This can lead to a hesitation to truthfully respond to surveys or questionnaires regarding their genital shape, size or form. One approach to mitigating this concern is by ensuring the users will remain anonymous, but it is also important to recognize realistically that this technique is not always effective due to the deeply rooted nature of sexual shame.
A product designer working in the sex toy industry must have the ability to understand the anonymous reports of product testers and translate them into solutions for product innovation. Recognizing the specific barriers present, and identifying methods of supplemental data collection and design solutions is essential to creating an innovative brand and product. Lack of dimensional data recorded through medical accounts, as well as biased representations in mainstream porn media, both contribute to the unique barriers present for designers innovating in the sex toy industry.
Through innovating in the field of sexual health and pleasure, we can actually help combat the barriers faced by designers in the field. High-level innovation in the field of sexual health and wellness has the power to destigmatize commonly inaccurate representations of human anatomy. By working alongside each other with this common goal, manufacturers have a huge opportunity to evolve existing representations of female genitalia — and ultimately — foster a new level of inclusivity for our consumers.