Why e-commerce sales of sex toys is growing in the pandemic

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While sex toys cannot replicate the intimacy of a partner, the sudden breadth of time available and deprivation of human touch rallied a new wave of consumers to invest in them. Photo by JL JAVIER/FILE

“Dalawang tao na pala ang nabudol kong bumili ng toy!” R* says over a call, as we talk about how her experience has converted her into a believer of the electric joys of a rabbit vibrator. “It feels good in general, it’s super relaxing.” she answers, when I ask her what’s her usual pitch to her female friends who are originally averse to the idea. “When my friend finishes, she just stares at the ceiling and sobrang totoo daw ang post-nut clarity.”

After over a year of lockdowns, community quarantines and all its equivalent acrononyms in the Philippines, isolation has shaped consumer behavior and views on sexual health, with safe sex taking on another definition in the middle of a pandemic. In 2020, the global sex toy market was valued at $33.64 billion (approximately ₱1.6 trillion), marking a 26% growth from 2019. This growth is attributed to a lack of manufacturing regulations, lenient sex toy distribution policies (or lack of policies to begin with) and e-commerce accessibility worldwide. In Southeast Asia, where homegrown e-commerce giants like Shopee and Lazada dominate, e-commerce witnessed a 63% growth in 2020 from 2019. Statistics aside, the more obvious drivers to the surge in sex toy sales during the pandemic seem to be forced isolation and changing intimacies.

This is the Lelo silicon vibrator at Ilya in Maginhawa. It is called the iPhone of vibrators and costs around ₱13,000. Photo by JL JAVIER

While sex toys cannot replicate the intimacy of a partner, the sudden breadth of time available and deprivation of human touch rallied a new wave of consumers to invest in them. For S*, using sex toys was a healthy and safe response to satiating quarantine loneliness. “For sure I masturbated more in lockdown. I mean, everyone is bored and horny. Honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it to hook up randomly during the pandemic,” they say. I nod solemnly, almost forgetting that we once lived in a world wherein holding hands with a stranger wasn’t a health hazard. “I mean, it’s healthy! It makes things more exciting without risking your life,” they add.

More than just birds and the bees

By design, the sex toy industry operates on a premise of pleasure. Like with any other product, manufacturing, promotion and distribution of sex toys commodifies technology borne out of an existing need for a specific market.

To begin with, vibrators for women are shrouded in myth due to mixed historical accounts surrounding them. Thus, glamorizing the idea that they were invented by Western doctors in the Victorian Era treating “female hysteria” (an umbrella term used to discredit women who experienced anything ranging from but not limited to: fainting, anxiety, sexual desire and aggression) with “massaging of the genitals” to reach the elusive female orgasm. Although this can serve as an obvious metaphor about the repression of female sexuality, the narrative curdles an underlying presumption that sex toys, in all their silicone and colored variants, are a utilitarian gambit to ease labor. That is to say, sex toys satisfy the need for safe sexual exploration in its most accessible, compact form but it would be reductive to present that the sole purpose of using a sex toy and the act of masturbation is done simply to reach an orgasm.

Reese Galupe, 23-year-old self-love, mental health, body and sex positivity advocate bought her first toy when she was with a partner in 2016. “It’s helped me further explore my sexuality and my own body. I've been able to kind of know the things I want and don’t want,” she says, recalling her own experiences with her toys. “I know people who masturbate only because their partners aren’t around but I think masturbation shouldn’t be a substitute for sex with another human being. I think it’s a whole other book of its own. I think it’s something you should do too, regardless of being with someone or not.”

Users have attested that sex toys helped exploring their sexualities and their own bodies. "I've been able to kind of know the things I want and don’t want." Photo by JL JAVIER/FILE

For Galupe, exploring one’s sexuality through sex toys either with a partner on your own, is a healthy way of listening to one’s body and a natural part of a much broader conversation about what it means to be sexually heathy.

Masturbation remains a taboo in the Philippines, where sexual and reproductive health are often tied to the Christian interpretation of sex being the act of procreation reserved for marriage. Thus, masturbation as a sexual act for the individual is disruptive. It resists the position of sex as a means to an end, that as an act — it must only be committed as fulfillment of a divine will and a solely biological response between a married couple.

D* says that when his partner purchased a sex toy for herself late last year, he fully supported her decision and only considered buying a toy for himself due to quarantine restrictions.

He says, “I never really felt the need to buy one before, even before I started dating my partner, maybe because it just felt like a weird thing to do at the time, or the concept of owning a fleshlight for a guy was just weird. Although as time has passed and I’ve learned different things about sex and pleasure, owning some kind of sex toy has become normal to me.” D* outlines the irony of sex toy consumption being more popular with and largely marketed towards women than men, despite other sex-related trades like the pornography industry profiteering off the male gaze and subjugation of female bodies as capital for male desire. While this dichotomy hinges on heteronormativity, such conventions obstruct holistic and nuanced discourse that involves female sexual pleasure without situating women as participants in sex rather than as fully realized agents of their own sexuality.

“For sure I masturbated more in lockdown. I mean, everyone is bored and horny. Honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it to hook up randomly during the pandemic. I mean, it’s healthy! It makes things more exciting without risking your life.”

The global female sex toy market size is projected to grow by 13% from 2020 to 2024, postulating changing tides in attitudes towards female sexuality. Altogether, the exponential growth of the sex toy industry and the democratization of its discourse through social media may point to changing views on sex positivity and sexual health, this shift cannot be removed from the stigma surrounding conversations about sex in the Philippines.

“Sex positivity is more than just about being vocal about your sexuality and being able to flaunt yourself,” says Galupe. “I think it’s necessary to also have this comprehensive sexual health and reproductive health education that comes along with it. It’s not just about the birds and the bees and the parts, you know? It’s the whole experience. It’s a mind thing, it’s a soul thing, it’s a physical thing. I think it’s also important to keep aware with the health aspect of sex and to be as knowledgeable as possible to fight the fucking stigma.”

What it means to be sexually healthy

To T*, her relationship with her body changed during the pandemic after recovering from a sexually abusive relationship late last year. “I couldn’t touch myself for months, even taking a shower felt excruciating. However, through psychotherapy I’ve been slowly improving my mental health,” she says. “Before the incident, I was very sexually open and willing to use toys, but my ex-partner then didn’t want me to use them because he wanted to be the only person who could touch my body. I could only be sexually open through his terms.”

Related: Good vibes only: The best-selling sex toys in Manila

Purchasing a sex toy for T* was an act of agency, reclaiming her bodily autonomy as she recovers from the trauma. “I figured that with the help of a sex toy, I could gain my sexual confidence back and on my own terms this time,” she adds. “I’ve only been using it for a few weeks, but I am starting to feel positive changes in terms of my confidence.”

Renz Rollorata, founder of Lauvette, one of the fastest growing sex toy shops on social media in the country — boasting over a hundred thousand followers across platforms like Instagram and Facebook with the number rising by day — also asserts that sexual health is a vital avenue to overall health that must be explored safely.

“Being sexually healthy is the physical, mental and emotional wellness in relation to your sexuality,” says Rollorata. “It’s not just the absence of disease that means you’re sexually healthy because you don’t have STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections), or you don’t have HIV. It’s not only because you’re having sex that you think you’re sexually healthy, it’s also not that. A person who doesn’t want to have sex yet is still sexually healthy. Sexual wellness and being sexually healthy is understanding what sex means and also pursuing that respect towards other sexualities and genders.”

Lauvette was launched in 2019 and is primarily an e-commerce shop that promises discreet packaging, an arsenal of sex toys for all genders, sexualities and sexes and also serving as a platform for promoting awareness on sexual health and wellness in the Philippines. On their website, Lauvette also creates content for LauvBlog, their educational platform where hundreds of articles exploring a range of topics from tips on having safe sex for the first time to syntribation (the pleasure from squeezing your thighs together — Yes! There’s a name for it!) to think pieces on virginity being a social construct and debunking misconceptions about the transgender community.

When asked if the pandemic significantly impacted Lauvette’s performance, Rollorata says. “During the pandemic, there is, of course, an increase in sales because people are isolated and away from their loved ones. Also, people have more time to learn about self love and explore these things while they’re quarantined in their homes. Aside from the growing sales, we are just happy to know that during the pandemic as well, there are more and more people who are growing more open to sex toys and their sexuality and these kinds of discussions.”

While the limited movement of goods posed a challenge in 2020, they’ve remained committed to sustaining their online presence and have even expanded on platforms like TikTok, where they’ve amassed over 44,000 followers as of writing. Their TikTok videos approach topics relating to sexual health with the same candidness they offer on LauvBlog, where their team produces content along the likes of packing their Love Toy Packages of the Day and promoting their packaging: a plain brown kraft box, encased in an opaque black pouch with no name, brand or logo printed on the outside.

Integrated with their social media presence is Lauvette’s commitment to advocate for HIV awareness as a partner to LoveYourself, the leading non-governmental organization that provides free HIV screening all over the country. LoveYourself strives for community building and self-empowerment through education about sexual health, trans health and mental health especially among the youth and males who have sex with males (MSMs). More recently, Lauvette has worked with We Bleed Red, an organization composed of menstruators who promote menstrual justice to fight the stigma against periods and champion being inclusive for all people who menstruate, including trans men and those who identify as nonbinary.

Sexual health and wellness and sex positivity are used interchangeably and are often presented as an all encompassing call for sexual liberation. Although this is true, sexuality is as multifaceted and fluid as the people who constitute what it means to engage in it healthily.

When asked about how we can foster more inclusive discourse on sexual health in the country, Rollorata says: “Knowledge on safe sex practices is also an important part of being sexually healthy and you’re also aware of the different STIs and how to avoid them or to cure them. Understanding what sexual consent is also an important part of sexual wellness. It’s not just talking about sex and sexuality, it impacts your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and how you are with other people."

*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees