Last week Channel 4 aired the show Sex Toy Stories, a 45 minute documentary following a project by Ann Summers to develop a range of new sex toys with eight ordinary woman. I watched the show in the daytime via the online catch-up channel so missed much of the Twitter comments and discussions that went on via the #sextoystories hashtag. My overwhelming impression from the show was that it was rather disingenuous and that the company were in fact playing it safe rather than going for real innovation.
Sex toys designed for women by women
Ann Summers’ website describes the project as;
A variety of 8 real women chosen to help us design and develop an innovative range of orgasmic toys
Now leaving aside what constitutes a “real” woman, much was made in the show that the sex toys should be designed by women as many sex toys designed for use by women are in fact designed by men. I understand the premise but are Ann Summers really telling us that they don’t have access to any professional, women product designers in the industry?
While I don’t doubt that product design in the sex toy industry is weighted towards men I find it hard to believe that there are no female product designers. If there are so few, why not recruit some? By asking these women to volunteer their ideas and time in exchange for the experience of being involved in a TV show, as oppose to serious work experience in product development, what is the message? That although there are no women designers women’s ideas are cheaper, less valuable and more easily exploitable than mens?
I do not doubt that the experience of being involved in the show was something that these women may not have otherwise had and that experience was valuable to them, my question is with the initial premise of “by women for women”.
What didn’t we see
Given that the documentary was filmed over a year and was cut down to 45 minutes there was undoubtedly much that wasn’t included. What was included gave the impression that the women submitted their product pitches and these were then taken away and worked into 3D computer designs and in some cases prototypes. Nothing of the development was shown, which is a shame because it suggests that the company took the eight ideas and then developed them with no input from the women participants, the result was that for those whose designs were completely changed it looked as if their concepts were thrown out.
What would have been more interesting would have to been to understand why those particular concepts were changed in a particular way.
For example, the suggestion of the leather bondage harness became a ride on vibrator. Why?
Was it too risque for Ann Summers? I doubt it, after all they’ve got a bondage section on the site.
Perhaps it was as simple as the idea didn’t fit the brief, the brief being to develop a vibrator – but without the development process being shown we’ve no idea.
Innovation vs saleability
Ann Summers are a commercial retail organisation. They are successful because they know their market and which products people will buy. When it comes to new product development their main goal is to create and stock products that sell.
I understand this and up to a point I don’t have a problem with it, it is a commercial decision, while I expect the company has a research and development budget I don’t expect they have a budget called “crazy innovations which we are happy to lose money on if they don’t work” but maybe they should?
If you only create products that are a tweak away from your existing best sellers then you are playing it safe. There are new ideas in the range and sometimes innovation takes the form of applying a new idea to a familiar design, such as the expanding rabbit vibrator, but when I looked at the page of products I was disappointed, most of them were working on familiar ideas and familiar perceptions of how women should orgasm – clitoral and g-spot stimulation – two points out of an expanse of nerve endings and sensation points on a woman’s body.
Perhaps we need to re-invent our notion of the orgasm not just of the vibrator?
Getting off risk free
Ann Summers clearly knows what they sell and sells what they know. It is a good enough business strategy but rather risk averse, my reading was that the show was a PR strategy. The real test of the products will be in continued sales after the show has been forgotten about. Overall I felt the show lacked any real risk or innovation, they weren’t solving a problem or creating anything new – they were slotting in “real” women and their ideas into a corporate product development plan with the risk free bonus of a guaranteed sales boost on launch.
Women don’t all look the same inside and out, we don’t have the same desires and we don’t all come to orgasm in the same way and with the same stimulation, if you are a sex toy company and you tell us that you are selling us “innovative” sex toys please don’t just give us longer, wider, buzzier.
Perhaps the real innovation will be a company that instead of doing more of the same with quieter motors, longer shafts and scarier rabbit ears, will take their time, listen to women, explore their bodies and understand what gets us off. It is what women expect from our sexual partners so perhaps it is time we expect it from our sex toy producers too?
For another post on the show visit Behind The Chintz Curtain.
Thanks for reading,
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