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Not Your Mother's Sex Toy

In the last fifteen years, an influx of new producers has revolutionized the design, technology, and quality of sex toys.

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Lee Miltier has been hand-blowing glass for more than twenty years. His Berkeley-based company, Photosynthesis, specializes in light fixtures and has created work for restaurants like Pizzaiolo in Temescal. But last year, Miltier decided to focus his efforts on something else — dildos.

In December, Miltier and his partner Maria Yates launched Fucking Sculptures, a line of five original dildo designs. The focus is on artistry. Working bare-chested in his Berkeley studio, clothed in a skirt and flip-flops, Miltier deftly manipulates molten soda-lime glass into phallic pleasure pieces. Some of his creations are the color of dry bones; the Corkscrew's twisted handle resembles a scorpion's tail; the Hooded Nun has vulva-inspired grooves running along the top. "It's where art meets sex then fucks itself!" Miltier said, gleefully reciting his company's motto.

For Miltier, 44, the decision to craft and sell dildos wasn't necessarily a strategic one: "It became totally clear that now it was absolutely the right thing to do," he said. "Being an artist, you follow a direction, and when it occurs to you that it's the thing to do, you do it."

A Sex Toy Design Revolution

It turns out that Miltier's newfound urge to make glass dildos isn't so random. Sex toys, while not yet fully mainstream, currently enjoy unprecedented social acceptance. In an industry once dominated by the Hitachi Magic Wand and Doc Johnson's rubber and silicone dildos (featuring basic anatomical design and approximated "flesh-tone" colors), the last fifteen years have seen an influx of new producers who have revolutionized the design, technology, and quality of sex toys.

According to Dr. Carol Queen, who has been the resident sexologist at Good Vibrations since 1990, the first major change in sex toy style began with a simple move away from "Caucasian-equals-butterscotch"-type coloring. "The best thing you could hope for in the Eighties was pink and blue, and that was so Eighties anyway," she said. The early 1990s featured jewel tones that Queen said were "harbingers," and some new, less-phallic shapes made the products more acceptable for media coverage.

"I think it was in the late Nineties when a design magazine got in touch with us [at Good Vibrations] and said, 'We're looking to showcase your most interesting designs,' and that was the first moment I can recall that anyone had said design," said Queen. "If they had waited ten years to do that issue, they would have had too many toys to choose from, but at the time there were only a small handful of interesting shapes."

Around the same time, a 1998 episode of Sex in the City called "The Turtle and the Hare" became a milestone in the sex toy industry's changing public image. In the episode, Charlotte, the most traditional of the show's female characters, becomes obsessed with the Rabbit Pearl, a remote-controlled, light-pink vibrator with vibrating rabbit ears that tickle the clitoris. When Charlotte opens the box for the first time, she gushes, "Oh, I thought it would be all scary and weird, but it isn't! It's pink! For girls!"

Eight years after the Rabbit's cuteness charmed women across the country, Suki Vatter, a former Apple employee, released OhMiBod, a music-powered vibrator that translated the beats and rhythms of songs on one's iPod into vibrations. She marketed the OhMiBod as the first "socially acceptable vibrator" and retailed it for $69. The target demographic? The young, hip, and technologically cutting-edge.

In 2011 Canadian business Standard Innovation Corporation launched the WeVibe3, which is designed to be worn during vaginal intercourse. It has a thin arm to stimulate the G-spot and another wand for the clitoris. The WeVibe3 is marketed as both "body-safe" and "eco-friendly": It's made with medical-grade phthalate-free silicone and has a carbon-neutral production process. It retails for $149.99 and is marketed toward seemingly everyone, including men who can enjoy the vibrations and intercourse at the same time. Neither the OhMiGod nor the WeVibe3 look anything like a traditional sex toy.

At an estimated value of $15 billion worldwide (including porn), the adult industry is becoming increasingly profitable for a wide range of businesses, including smaller, innovative sex-toy producers. Even big box stores, like Walmart and Walgreens, are starting to sell sex toys — something unthinkable just ten or fifteen years ago.

Said Queen: "Something changed to let people know — who otherwise were going to grow up and do something else with their lives — 'Oh, why don't I try to manufacture this sex toy that I designed? And that was not how we got our sex toys in the old days."

Back to the Future: Sex Toys, Art, and Community

For Nenna Joiner, opening a sex-positive shop in Oakland was about building community. After getting laid off from her job at Clorox, she started selling sex toys out of the back of her car, and made a name for herself as the "sex lady." "It was for me to get through a lot of ridicule and to see what stigmas really look like in our community," she said. "It was self-growth for me, getting out in the community."

In 2011, she opened Feelmore510. The shop sells a wide range of sex toys, and tries to cater to all sexual identities and needs, including BDSM. Feelmore's walls feature local art, and a central table features part of Joiner's extensive vintage Playboy collection. Based on the diversity of her clientele, Joiner believes that people are beginning to feel more open about sex. In particular, she's noticed that adults are coming to the shop with their parents, many of whom are happy to see the long-beloved Hitachi Magic Wand still for sale.

Yates and Miltier of Fucking Sculptures also hope to connect with their East Bay community. Yates was scheduled to give a talk on dildos at Feelmore510 earlier this week, and hoped to educate people on the safety of her product and its "hand-to-bed" qualities, which she thinks will appeal to folks in the Bay Area.

"I tend to perceive a trend right now towards honing in — going to the hand-made and the intentional," said Yates, "I've seen it through food trends around here, and clothes, and it's definitely moving in the sex-toy industry."

Although using a 3,000-year-old glass manipulation process to make dildos may seem quite different from an iPod-connected vibrator, the products share more than an initial inspection might reveal. Ultimately, the sex toys of the 21st century are focusing more on pleasure, openness, innovation, and even art.

"Sex totems should be beautiful because you're not just fucking them; you're making love to them," said Miltier. "They should have spirit; they should be made by artists. They shouldn't be made by a factory in China for as cheap as possible."

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