In Target aisles, consumers can now find vibrators and lubricants sitting alongside moisturiser and mascara.
That’s thanks to a new crop of brands, which give sexual wellness products the DTC treatment. Predominantly targeted at women, these brands often feature vibrant branding and sleek marketing that promotes the products under the stamp of empowerment. They include pubic hair care brand Fur, vibrator labels Dame and Maude and post-sex clean-up brand Awkward Essentials and pleasure serum makers like Vella and Wildkat.
These brands have cracked the door to push sex toys and products into the mainstream, and legacy retailers are pushing it further open, revitalising a once-stagnant space long characterised by legacy brands like Trojan, Durex and K-Y or taboo toys relegated to back corners of seedy shops. In the past two years, big box names like Walmart and Target have inked partnerships with Cake and Bloomi, while fashion or beauty-focussed stores like Sephora, Revolve and Bloomingdale’s carry labels like Maude and Dame.
This sort of mainstream acceptance has fundamentally altered the category.
“Retail is critical. It’s that temperature gauge. That barometer of longevity and demand,” said Maude founder Éva Goicochea.
So, how did vibrators and lube end up next to vitamins or jars of La Mer?
Product and consumer sentiment aligned. A new crop of start-ups made the case for pleasure as wellness at the same time beauty was widening its purview, while the pandemic changed consumption patterns. The brands embedded direct-to-consumer cues onto their brands, and piqued the curiosity of consumers — especially younger ones. Plus, Goop and Amazon helped shift attitudes among consumers, retailers and investors.
Despite the rapid evolution, there are still headwinds. Retailers often keep products off physical shelves or on hard-to-find corners of their sites. And stigmas still remain.
“It takes a while. It takes education and discourse and being able to get questions answered,” said Beauty Independent editor Claire McCormack.
The idea of sexual wellness space started gaining real traction in 2018, when Clio, a Boston-based device company that made products like hair trimmers, launched its PlusOne vibrator brand in Walmart, said Jennifer Roach Pacini, a principal at Yellow Wood Partners. Activity in the space continued from there: in 2019 Ulta rolled out wellness shops in stores, stocked with products like body care line Nécessaire’s lubricant and pubic hair care brand Fur’s full assortment.
In 2020, the pandemic proved to be an accelerant for the category, changing consumption patterns as people found themselves unable to date or separated from long-distance partners. All the while, Gen-Z came into its newfound spending power. In 2021, Bloomingdales and Nordstrom added lubes and vibrators, and this year, Sephora began stocking Maude and Dame vibrators, sex-forward products from vitamin brands Hum and Moon Juice and skin-barrier protecting vulva drops from Dr. Barbara Sturm. Target has brought in emerging brands like Latinx-owned vibrator, lube and intimate cleanser brand Bloomi, and LGBTQ-centric vibrator brand Cake, which also debuted in Walmart in 2021. Selfridges introduced its “Feel Good Bar” stuffed with sex-enhancing products, including Maude, in July.
“The consumer has pushed this conversation about sexual wellness and how sexual wellness is health, it’s not a dirty secret,” said Rachel ten Brink, general partner and founder of venture capital firm Red Bike Capital and an Estée Lauder and L’Oréal veteran.
Generational attitudes have played a big role in driving change, said David Schneidman, director at Alvarez and Marsal and principal at Unorthodox Ventures as well as a former brand manager at K-Y and Durex parent Reckitt. DTC period care brands like Cora and Lola, which sell tampons, pads and period cups as well as lube and condoms, made strides in opening up the conversation around menstrual care while outlets like Goop (which also sells its own vibrators) churned out pleasure-related content.
“The fact that you can go on the internet and not be embarrassed to learn how to use the products has really changed the perception pattern …” said ten Brink. “The narrative is so different and the consumer target is different … You can be a much bigger brand.”
Brands reflected that altered narrative. Maude and Dame, which both launched in Sephora earlier this year, centred their brands around empowerment. That framing made it an easier sell to investors, who are historically timid about “vice” categories like gambling and porn, said ten Brink. B Condoms founder Jason Panda said before the pandemic, retailers and buyers were “ice cold.” The brand joined Target’s roster this year, and told BoF it will be in CVS stores next month.
Panda also says that the category’s success on Amazon helped showcase its financial potential.
“The revenues that [Amazon has] had with vibrators and the sexual health and wellness space is tremendous,” said Panda. “A lot of these other retailers have looked and said, ‘Maybe we’re overlooking something.’”
The acceptance was critical, as wholesale is a particularly important sales and marketing channel for sexual wellness brands.
In 2021, vibrator-maker Dame made headlines for winning a lawsuit against New York’s transit authority over discriminatory practices when it rejected its subway ads despite approving similar ones for male-focused products. Dame co-founder and chief executive Alexandra Fine said the brand has also struggled on Facebook, which bans the promotion of sex toys. It was even flagged when using press coverage as advertisements, rather than product images.
“That has been really disheartening and sad … we tend to view erectile dysfunction as a health concern, but enjoying sex as frivolous for women,” said Fine.
For investors, seeing these brands in stores like Walmart or Target helps normalise the category. It also changes the potential exits they can imagine.
“To them, it means it’s more likely that a big makeup conglomerate or a big pharmacy conglomerate would take us on,” said Fine.
Despite the apparent acceptance of some of the US’s largest retailers, there are still stigmas to be shed. While retailers are stocking the category, founders say their brands are often kept off shelves or not promoted online.
Retailers are still building their strategies and determining their level of commitment to the category, deciding whether they’ll go all-in on devices, or instead focus more on hygiene and health products like oils, washes or vitamins. But the category will only become more important, said McCormack.
“Every retailer worth their salt is going to have some skin in the [sexual wellness] game,” she said.
Money has been flowing to space. Last year, Maude closed a $5.8 million round led by True Beauty Ventures, while Dame raised $4 million. Unorthodox Ventures invested $2.3 million in Awkward Essentials, a post-sex clean up sponge now sold in CVS. Cake announced a $2.5 million funding bridge round in April.
Sexual wellness-centric funds and platforms have emerged, creating more paths to cash. After acquiring Clio and its brand portfolio, Boston-based investment firm Yellow Wood partners formed a new company for sexual wellness brands in March and is looking to acquire and build new brands.
“I have rarely seen a category that is nascent and growing as quickly as the sexual wellness category,” said Roach Pacini.