Picture this: a potential customer walks into your store, approaches your booth at a convention, or calls your order hotline. They’re intimidated, a little embarrassed, maybe even apologetic — you can see it in the slump of their shoulders, hear it in the way they lower their voice and stumble over their words.
“I’ve never been to a place like this before. I don’t even know where to start. I’m hoping you can help.”
(Sure you can. That’s why you exist, right? And although you can tell they’re convinced that their issue is uniquely humiliating, you know from experience it’s actually very common.)
Now imagine these next words. “Every time I try to have sex, my leg goes into painful spasms. I don’t know exactly why it happens, but I thought maybe you could recommend a sex toy to help me relax and forget about the pain.”
Most likely, you’d urge them to see a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment immediately. As a retailer, you’re more than happy to help them maximize their pleasure after the pain is gone; but sex toys don’t cure injured leg muscles.
Believe it or not, a very similar scenario plays out in my business on a daily basis. As a physical therapist specializing in women’s sexual health issues, I’ve treated hundreds of patients; and our first in-office conversation, or the messages that fill my voicemail inbox, often begin exactly that way. The only difference is that their pain is in their pelvic floor muscles; but because that condition is shrouded in misunderstanding and social stigma, they’ve spent a long time looking for ways to minimize or normalize their pain instead of treating it.
Just how common is this? Scientific studies indicate that 43 percent of women — almost half — will experience painful sex on an ongoing basis at some point in life. Among other things, that means your customers and my patients are the same people. And although I’m not in the retail and marketing side of the sex industry, you and I share a common goal — to help people understand that sex is normal, but pain (unless you’ve requested it from your partner) is not.
In almost two decades of successful practice in my field, I’ve learned tackling a problem that affects nearly half of all women (not to mention, their partners) means I can’t just treat women’s bodies. In addition to helping my patients, education and advocacy have helped me grow my business. I believe they can do the same for you.
Don’t worry — there’s no pop quiz at the end of this article. Knowing the difference between vaginismus and vulvodynia (two common diagnoses) is my job; and non-professional medical advice typically does my patients more harm than good. Instead, take some time to educate yourself and your team about the people affected by it from a marketing perspective.
Who are these women? They’re college students, new moms, and menopausal women from all walks of life — your mother, your sister, your co-worker. They suffer from muscle pain that can make penetration, and sometimes other forms of sexual expression, excruciating or impossible. And whether it’s chronic or sudden, and regardless of how it began (and there are many medical causes, from injury to hormone changes), it is keeping them from a pleasurable and fulfilling sex life.
Remember the leg spasm example? Think about how the emergence of the “weekend warrior” as a marketing demographic revolutionized the sporting goods industry. I can treat the pain; but if you understand how it affects their sexual lifestyle, you can tailor and promote products that help them associate sex with pleasure.
Of course, most of these women aren’t talking openly about it; and even the bravest among them tend to avoid your retail locations (although you can bet they’ve checked out your website). They do talk to each other online, though; a quick internet search of terms like “painful sex,” “pelvic pain” and “pelvic PT” will deliver an instant focus group.
But you’re missing another crucial demographic if you haven’t considered marketing directly to women’s health physical therapists. It’s a fairly new specialty; but we’re growing exponentially, our network is massive, and we’ve built a trusted social media platform with impressive reach. When my colleagues and I find a quality product we know will help our patients, the news travels fast. And — best kept secret — we’re already using some of them in treatment.
Pain-free intercourse is the goal of most of my patients from day one; but pelvic floor physical therapy can’t be rushed and requires home therapy between sessions. From my perspective, any aid that helps them discover other forms of sexual expression during that process, or reconnects them to their bodies and partners in pleasurable ways, is well worth the investment.
Additionally, successful home therapy requires the right equipment; and it’s rarely covered by insurance. Especially during the final transition to intercourse with a partner, I suggest certain toys based on their realistic look and feel, as well as their more reasonable price points. Opportunities exist at every level of your market. I purchase lubricant by the gallon for my practice; and many of my patients joke that they do the same. You know your products better than anyone; can you think of ways to connect them to this need? If so, I want to hear about it.
Speaking of communication — advocacy is another important area in which we can partner. In addition to the well-documented physical pain my patients deal with, the emotional toll it takes on them and their partners is a second major barrier to diagnosis, treatment and recovery. And overwhelmingly, they tend to suffer in silence.
Why? Let’s revisit that leg spasm example one more time. Although the set-up may have sounded familiar, you’ve probably never had a customer embarrassed to talk to you about muscle pain in their leg (or back, or neck), let alone ask you to help them forget about it or pretend it’s normal. They know the pain isn’t all in their mind because they can point to where they feel it; so they don’t wonder whether the right mindset can cure it.
But traditional medicine has really dropped the ball on women’s sexual health in general, and on pelvic floor injury in particular. Combine the social taboos and conflicting messages surrounding sex and women’s bodies with decades of misinformation and misdiagnosis, dangerous myths, and ineffective treatment. Add personal frustration and disappointment; and pile on well-meaning but unhelpful advice (and sometimes pressure) from intimate partners, trusted family members and friends, and even doctors to “just relax,” “have a glass of wine” or “push through the pain.” It’s easy to understand why so many of my patients doubt their instincts, hide their painful secret, and avoid treatment — and sex — for months or years.
No matter where they are in the body, muscles are muscles. I treat injured legs and pelvic floors using the same principles; and with proper physical therapy, pain disappears and function returns. But, while every patient requires an individualized treatment plan, early diagnosis and treatment generally speeds recovery time and lowers the risk of complications like injury to surrounding muscles. This is especially true for pelvic patients; and it also prevents further damage to their self-esteem, relationships and harmful thinking patterns about pleasure. The most therapeutic thing I can do for my patients — your customers — as a group is to break the silence about painful sex.
Retailers in the sex industry have always been fearless about shattering taboos and empowering women to take charge of their sexual health and pleasure. Now that you know how widespread this taboo is within your customer base, how can you use the power of your own platform to change the status quo? Sensitivity to language in product packaging and descriptions, advertising on social media sites dedicated to the discussion (or featuring it on your own sites), promotional partnerships with medical professionals, and corporate sponsorship of non-profit groups and events like Pelvic Pain Awareness Month are all things to consider through the lens of social responsibility and good business.
Painful sex isn’t “normal”; but it is common, and it is treatable. Like you, I envision a future where every adult is empowered and supported in their journey toward sexual health and pleasure, without shame or fear. For me, that’s a world in which they can approach both of us confidently to discuss their needs and desires, knowing what each of us can do to help them find and enjoy the sex life we know they deserve.