When I was 20, I bought my first sex toy from the dingy strip mall storefront that had served my hometown’s pervy needs for at least 15 years. To be fair, its dinginess wasn’t entirely its own fault. Because the street-facing glass had to be made opaque, it was effectively windowless. The inventory consisted of what I would later recognize as sex store staples: Astroglide, generic porn, anything made by Doc Johnson or Leg Avenue. A no-frills dong (sorry, that’s what they were called!) encased in garish, hard plastic packaging didn’t cost much more than ten dollars. None of those details equated to unkempt or unclean—just because the products were affordable doesn’t mean the place was in disrepair. But in the hindsight of a time when you don’t have to look too hard to spend thousands of dollars on a sex toy, this now-retro, then-routine shabbiness feels worthy of comment.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent endorsement of the $15,000 gold Lelo didn’t just herald a new height of luxury sex toy visibility, it illustrated how far mainstream culture has come in its project of gentrifying sex, a mission that’s been at full tilt for at least a decade. My first run-ins with the deployment of sex accessories as class signifiers took place several years after my first sex shop foray and just before the recession, on escort blogs and work websites where women who charged thousands of dollars per appointment promoted Wolford body stockings, Bettony Vernon jewelry, and designer heels as the necessary components of a worthwhile sexual encounter. Because they sold sex at extravagant price points, these workers used how they had sex to prove they belonged among the American upper class, a member of the 1% before anyone knew to call them the 1%. The only problem is that a closet full of La Perla lingerie and a drawer full of njoy toys doesn’t actually say anything about how you have sex; it only says something about how you spend money.
I didn’t know it when I was 20 and trying out my first bad dildo, but I was watching the dying days of tacky, tasteless 90s mainstream sexiness, which had bled into the sensibility of the early aughts with its embrace of tramp stamps, midriff tops, Girls Gone Wild, and Paris Hilton-style pouty vapidity. The hallmarks of sex appeal that a very young me took to be timeless—blonde, tan, “tits on a stick” bodies, happily and even proudly trashy a la Jessica Simpson in The Dukes of Hazzard—were ceding ground to a new ethos of arousal, one that involved urban 20-somethings and other classy sex-havers rejecting the look of the fading cultural moment in favor of a purported opposite. Brunette, pale, small-breasted porn performers like Stoya and Sasha Grey became newsworthy because their appearance supposedly spoke to their fans’ more refined tastes, far classier than yesteryear’s web-surfing perverts. Grey read Nietzsche! Everyone knows you’re smarter if you like brunettes.
It was these same sex hipsters and haughty sex worker personas who helped form an eager market for the gradual proliferation of “female-friendly” boutiques, stocked with vibrators that cost close to or well over a hundred dollars and came complete with highly specific cleaning and maintenance needs. At first, I only saw these cutesy, inviting sex stores advertised in the back of Bitch and Bust, but suddenly they were in my face, on the main drag of Philly’s South Street and offering delivery in NYC. With them came sexpert-led blowjob classes, upscale pole dancing studios, and article after article advocating cunninglingus and masturbation as a way for women to display and evoke their own sexual pleasure, but primarily to satisfy (male) partners. (While a feminist rhetoric is adopted to advance all of these cottage industries, they still suffer from racism and whorephobia.)
I understood why this breed of shop suited some people—and a less toxic vibrator is great news for everyone—but as I became more experienced with this self-consciously personalized, artisanal approach to dildo-hocking, I hated it. “They offer all the least-sexy parts of sex,” writes Meaghan O’Connell: “medicalized, cheerleader-led, sanitized, ‘sleek.’” Even “Sex and The City”’s famed rabbit vibrator looks hopelessly inelegant and cheap in comparison to today’s tools.
The evolving goal of sex in the mid-to-late 2000s, judging from the cultural conversation, wasn’t to foster intimacy or to explore your own pleasure but rather to prove yourself desirable and yet impervious to experiencing desire: a perfect WASP. A luxury product. Not only did a stylistically discerning sex sensibility set one apart as an individual, it set one apart as an iconoclast who resisted the easy pleasures of the lower class. (Nevermind that going whole-hog into conspicuous consumption was the hallmark of this alleged transgressivism.) Sex became an arena to peacock with carefully acquired preferences that indicated theoretical arousal instead of real lust.
It’s no coincidence Sasha Grey banked on a flat affect to read as synonymous with impressive intellect, nor that she was cast in the lead of 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, a film about an expensive, blank escort that relied on an expensive, severe wardrobe to justify her rates instead of using charm, wit, or physical warmth to earn them. The movie, critics agreed, “was less interested in sex than money.” (And at least one reviewer made sure to praise Grey’s “refreshingly unaugmented” body.) We deserved a departure from the juvenile, frat boy-esque sex buffoonery evidenced in American Pie, Howard Stern’s show, and non-singing girl group The Pussycat Dolls. But we also deserved better than this dour pendulum swing, wherein any sense of sexual fun and lightheartedness was wiped out.
Dourness, however, was all we got. In 2005, ballerina Toni Bentley wrote about ass-fucking as a route to non-denominational spirituality and before her, in 2003, Catherine Millet created a cold, book-length record of her prolific sexual history for reasons no reader or reviewer could discern. Self-satisfied British lingerie label Agent Provocateur gained traction in the States in the 2000s by flaunting a price point as insulting as its products’ dismal quality. Similarly, Kiki De Montparnasse, a New York City store that recently closed due to total brokeness, came straight out of the Eyes Wide Shut school of eroticism, one in which personality (and facial expressions) are antithetical to the titillation provided by excess and wealth.
This period also ushered in a flare of art porn periodicals like S Magazine, expensive glossies sold by American Apparel to reassure consumers that their predilection for nudity wrapped in unattainable “price upon request” fashion was subversive and cool instead a barely-tweaked rehashing of Vogue for people who wanted to feel special while feeling horny. No wonder 50 Shades of Grey took off, and no wonder it required a literal billionaire character to acquire all the necessary trappings to pursue a (purportedly) BDSM relationship. What better way to showcase your wealth than an entire sex-dedicated “playroom” full of expensive equipment?
Now more than ever, it seems being sexy require copious amounts of disposable income and free time, especially from women. We’re told we should be easily orgasmic in a variety of situations, groomed to reflect a relaxed but exacting taste, flawlessly toned, and up for anything in bed. Pleasure is back in the equation, but only as a tool for setting yourself apart as a superior sexual being. Can you have a g-spot orgasm? What about a cervical one? The focus is on a type of rigorously managed, workmanlike sexuality: “hack your orgasm,” figure out “exactly how to do it,” make it “part of your wellness routine,” “do it every day.” Paltrow’s sex toy—and sex dust—recommendations imply something made explicit by fancy sex toy marketing copy: By purchasing the right items, you’ll be having better sex than the people who can’t afford the same. Self-discipline coupled with discerning purchases testifies to your commitment, which it turn testifies to your class.
I’m not someone who believes sex needs to stay shameful, mysterious, “dirty,” or difficult in order to retain its power. I’m happy for all the women who had their first orgasms—or their 300th, or their 3000th, or no orgasm at all but just a great time—with expensive sex toys that can’t be used with most lubes. But I’m ready for us to move past the depiction of a consumer-based, performative sexuality as ideal, especially when it seems uniquely positioned to result in disproportionate amounts of disappointment, disconnect, and self-recrimination. Bodies are the one thing we don’t need capitalism to obtain; toys are fun, but most of us can masturbate and fuck—and dominate—each other without them. (The best spreader bar I’ve ever seen is still the one my boyfriend and I made ourselves with about $20 of hardware store material.)
So here’s to sex that isn’t expected to take us a notch higher on the social ladder, to impress our friends or look good on Tumblr. Here’s to sex that doesn’t make us poorer. Here’s to sex that’s affordable, or even free.
Charlotte Shane has written for Matter, Pacific Standard, The Verge, and is the author of Prostitute Laundry.