Listen up, gentlemen: after 18 years in business, Womyns’ Ware—the well-known Commercial Drive sex-toy shop—finally has a section dedicated to men’s toys. It’s not that products for male sexual stimulation didn’t exist until now, but most of those items were, according to the store’s team, poorly made and tacky to the extreme.
“We never had a men’s product location [in the store] before because there were no quality products for men,” says Womyns’ Ware CEO Janna Sylvest, interviewed at the shop along with director Otter Louis and display and design manager Andrea Dobbs. “With a lot of [masturbation] sleeves, you were looking at a lot of infections—urinary-tract infections, infections that you would pass on to your partner—and they were leaching toxins out of them, so the materials were not safe. And the sleeve was in a hard shell, so they were not easy to clean very well.”
Louis adds: “The other problem with the male products in the past was that they were visually so offensive we couldn’t actually put them on the shelves and have this safe, comfortable space for women and couples to be in.”
Enter a new line of sleeves called Tenga 3D, which, on display in their drying stands, almost look like funky, sculptural candles. Made in Japan out of soft, stretchy white elastomer, they’re said to give users a snug embrace. They’re easy to clean, and they meet Womyns’ Ware’s strict buying policies, which include stipulations that a product be made of safe materials (no phthalate-leaching vinyl) and manufactured in an appropriate labour environment (nothing from countries whose political regimes violate women’s rights).
Besides the arrival of high-quality sex toys for men, the Womyns’ Ware team has seen other trends emerge in the industry recently. More products are lightweight, and bigger is not necessarily better. (Take the Leaf line’s Vitality Vibe, an elegant, two-pronged silicone vibrator that’s quiet, rechargeable, waterproof, and designed in Canada.)
Just as with other consumer goods, women are driving the purchasing of sex toys. Baby boomers still dominate the market. At Womyns’ Ware, many customers are women who have found themselves on their own after the end of a relationship, whose kids are grown, and who are facing the dating scene again after years away. Conversations in the store cover subjects like menopause, erectile dysfunction, and empty-nest syndrome more now than they have in the past. But younger customers are discovering Womyns’ Ware and the industry too: “We get teenagers coming in with their moms,” Dobbs says.
Several customers, especially those in their 20s, have come in inquiring about toys described in Fifty Shades of Grey. In particular, they’re intrigued by ben wa balls, which are weighted balls worn inside the vagina that stimulate the G-spot. Or not.
“They’re stupid,” Sylvest says. “You might as well go get a marble set.…They just sit there.” Dobbs adds: “They’re good as a Kegel exercise.”
Womyns’ Ware doesn’t carry cheap but popular ben wa balls made of plastic or metal from which the paint chips off; to satisfy people’s curiosity, though, it offers similar balls made of hypoallergenic silicone.
The Fifty Shades craze has had some positive effects, however.
“The big thing Fifty Shades of Grey has done has made it okay for people to explore the implements and products you can bring into the bedroom,” Louis says. “It gives people an opening sentence.”
But talking about sex and sexuality is, for the most part, still something that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. Finding ways to put them at ease is a big part of staff training at Womyns’ Ware.
“I don’t want to go into a car lot, because I don’t know anything about cars, so I feel vulnerable,” Louis notes. “That’s general human nature, except it’s magnified [here] because it’s about sex.
“We talk a lot about, ‘How do you start a conversation with someone who’s really nervous?’ And we recognize that nervous doesn’t look the same on everyone. Maybe it’s laughing too loud or running away, getting as far away as possible [from a staff member]; sometimes it’s being really rude.”
Regardless of how anxiety manifests, Louis says it’s important for people to understand that if a sex toy doesn’t satisfy or thrill, it’s the item in question that’s the problem, not them. “My greatest fear is if someone buys something and they go home and they use it and go, ‘That didn’t really do much for me. I guess I’m not very sexual,’ as opposed to, ‘That product didn’t work for what it was supposed to do.’ The worst thing is to have them say, ‘It’s me. Something’s wrong with me.’ ”
When the Womyns’ Ware team looks back at the nearly two decades the store has been in business, some customers stand out. Take the woman in her 70s whose husband had died two years earlier who came into the store saying she figured it was about time she found out what an orgasm was. Or the woman who was far too uncomfortable to come into the store who phoned up wanting help discovering her sexual side.
“She made this huge step toward honouring her own personal intimacy and feelings,” Sylvest says. “That’s who we’re here for.”