Suki Dunham never imagined she’d spend her career thinking about orgasms. But ever since Christmas 2004, sexual pleasure occupies a big part of her brain.
That’s when Dunham’s husband, Brian, gave her two gifts: a new vibrator and an iPod. She thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could pair these two and create one truly amazing dual-sensory experience?” And with that, OhMiBod was born, with Dunham, a former Apple product manager, at the helm.
Launched in 2006, OhMiBod offers a wide range of products—from books and sexy wearables to lubricants and vibrators. Their vibrators boast features such as wireless remote control, RF connectivity, and triple stimulation.
Dunham is especially passionate about the power of her company’s products to help women as they get older. “I have found that many [older] women are empowered to reclaim their sexuality,” says 51-year-old Dunham, who didn’t purchase her first vibrator until she was 35,
The New Sexual Revolution
Female-founded companies—OhMiBod, Unbound and Dame Products—have fueled a revolution in the sex-toy industry. Their wares include products like the Fin, the Bender, and the Mini Marvels Marvelous Flicker.
Sexual health is big business, topping $20 billion globally in revenues in 2015, with the vibrator market growing 13 percent annually. Women customers account for much of the industry’s growth, stimulated by the wider acceptance of sex toys and a desire for higher-quality, more-innovative products designed by and for them.
“The sex industry is on a swing from a male-centric vice industry to a female-centric wellness industry, and that’s a pretty big change,” Janet Lieberman, CTO and co-founder of five-year-old Dame Products. “We’re seeing it more openly discussed in pop culture, which helps validate and sanction products that were once shamed.”
Dame has found that its highest sales conversion rate comes from customers 60 years old and older, says Lieberman
They are people like Rebecca (who asked that her last name not be used), who bought her first vibrator at the age of 63 to spice things up with her husband. A year later, she owns five, including a model with WIFI capabilities so “I can play with my husband while he’s away on business.”
“I definitely encourage exploration,” says Rebecca.
In a Season 3 Grace & Frankie episode, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) showed off their senior-friendly Ménage à Moi vibrator for the first time, with its “soft-grip gel sleeve,” easy-angle tip, and glow-in-the-dark-control buttons.
“Oh my God, it’s beautiful,” Grace fawned.
“It’s like I’m holding a cloud,” coos Frankie.
Closing the Pleasure Gap
Many founders of these sexual-health companies are driven by a desire to close the “pleasure gap”—the gulf that exists between men’s and women’s sexual satisfaction.
“I remember when I went to trade shows, and I’d see these big phallic dildos everywhere, and it made me uncomfortable,” says Polly Rodriguez, founder of the sexual wellness company Unbound. “That’s because the people designing these products are men, and they create what they think women like.”
After Rodriguez was diagnosed with Stage 3 colorectal cancer at the age of 21, radiation treatments sent her into early-onset menopause, which caused her sex drive to plummet. She struggled to find a sex toy store where she felt comfortable in her Midwestern town. In 2013, Rodriguez and co-founder Sarah Hayne decided to launch Unbound.
“I didn’t even know what menopause was,” says Rodriguez. “I didn’t know I needed to use lubricant for the rest of my life. I didn’t want it to be a death sentence for my sex life.”
The Arrival of Pink and Purple Vibrators
Sex toys rose in popularity in the ‘70s. Dell Williams is considered one of the industry’s female pioneers, opening New York’s Eve’s Garden sex shop in 1974 after being humiliated by a department-store clerk when she tried to purchase a vibrator.
CalExotics, founded in 1994, is the first sex-toy company owned and operated by a woman.
“Twenty five years ago, the first pink and purple vibrators came to market, and this was a direct result of the CalExotics brand,” says CalExotics’ Susan Colvin, whose company is best known for its Jack Rabbit vibrators. “It seems so simple, but in the early ’90s, this was revolutionary.”
“[The Cuddle] has a strong, rumbly motor, which can also be an important feature for those women 45 and older as more stimulation might be necessary as their estrogen levels wane and they need to improve the circulation to their genital area,” says Dunham.
The makers of these products hope that women will get past the blushing when thinking about sex toys and embrace sexual health as an important part of their over-all well-being. “First and foremost, an orgasm for all people is a healthy part of life,” says Dunham. “Taking steps to achieve an orgasm is well worth it since the psychological and physical benefits of doing so are numerous.”
Sidebar: How Orgasms Keep You Healthy
Dunham believes achieving an orgasm has important health benefits in addition to the physical enjoyment. These benefits include:
- INCREASED BRAIN ACTIVITY: Doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku is good for your brain—but not as good as having orgasms. According to Rutgers researchers Barry Komisaruk and Nan Wise, mental exercises increase brain activity but only in relatively localized regions, but an orgasm activates the whole thing.
- TENSION RELIEF: The racing heartbeat, increased blood flow, and muscular tautness associated with sexual pleasure all come to a relaxing conclusion with an orgasm.
- BETTER SLEEP: The release of pleasure-inducing endorphins is very calming and acts as a natural tranquilizer.
- A BOOST TO YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM: With an orgasm, the body releases dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)—a steroid hormone that helps balance the immune system, improves cognition, promotes bone growth, and maintains and repairs tissues. It can mean less frequent colds and flu. In fact, a study by Wilkes University says those who have sex once or twice a week show 30 percent higher levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A, which is known to boost the immune system.
- REDUCED FOOD CRAVINGS: Tempted to pig out? Grab your partner or pleasure yourself instead. Sexual stimulation activates the production of phenethylamine, a natural amphetamine that regulates your appetite.
- BURNING CALORIES: You can lose between 100-150 calories for each act of masturbation, according to the Young People’s Reproductive and Sexual Health & Rights Organization. However, Japanese scientist Dr. Shukan Tokuho claims that you can raise that amount to around 300 calories through a five-minute vigorous masturbation session. So much more fun than slogging along on a treadmill, don’t you think?