Nearly 25 years ago, women nationwide sat down on the couch, turned on the TV, and discovered the Rabbit vibrator.
Pink, pulsing, and phallic, the sex toy became an instant best-seller when Miranda gushed about it to her friends on Sex and the City. But the vibrator didn’t just become a pop culture sensation—it also ushered in a new age of sexual freedom and exploration.
“[That show] had a big impact on normalizing stores like this,” says Matt Ferber, owner of the Frisky Business Boutique. The adult toy store, which opened in 2004, is the largest of its kind in Durham.
Sex and the City took sex toys out of the shoebox beneath your bed and into the public, according to Ferber. Seeing Miranda discuss dildos, masturbation, and female pleasure so openly made it okay for other women to talk about those things with friends, partners, and adult store owners.
“[When people come in] for the first time, they often need that little bit of comfort,” Ferber told the INDY. “Information is far more accessible now than ever before, and I think that’s a positive.”
Discussion of sex in the media created a big boost in business. In 1992, only 2 percent of people reported buying vibrators or dildos, according to the National Health and Social Life Survey. Fewer people, 1.5 percent, reported buying other sex toys.
Today, the purchase and use of “marital aids” is much more prevalent. In 2015, about half of women and 33 percent of men reported using a vibrator or dildo during their lifetime, according to a survey led by researchers from Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion. About 17 percent of people had used anal sex toys.
“I think toys have become a more regular part of a lot of people’s sex lives,” says Gaby Soto-Lemus, who will assume ownership of Frisky Business in March. “There are sexfluencers on Instagram and people who are posting reviews [of sex toys]. There’s a lot more access to information about it than there was before social media.”
Phone calls from customers today aren’t about the Rabbit vibrator but about the newest toy trend on TikTok, she says. The internet has made word-of-mouth recommendations easier than ever, according to Ferber. Before social media, people who came into Frisky Business were mostly acting on the word of a gregarious friend who didn’t mind volunteering information about their sex life, Ferber says.
“Now, social media means everyone has a gregarious friend who’s gonna tell you, ‘You really should try this,’” he says.
Shades of sexuality
In 2011, another shock wave hit the sex toy industry with the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Sex and the City, the racy romance shed light on stigmatized sexual practices. In the late 1990s, it was sex toys and masturbation. A decade later, it was BDSM, which includes bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
The book was a “door opener” for many who were interested in BDSM but not knowledgeable about it, says Soto-Lemus. Fifty Shades helped people find their local community, learn safe practices, and discover what they were actually interested in, she says.
Activities like spanking, bondage, and role-playing are pretty common in the bedroom, according to Indiana University’s 2015 study. Among men and women, about 30 percent have engaged in spanking during their lifetime, 22 percent have tried role-playing, and about 20 percent have tried tying up their partner or being tied up.
Other common sexual behavior included wearing sexy lingerie or underwear (75 percent of women), having public sex (about 43 percent of men and women), and watching sexually explicit videos (60 percent of women, 82 percent of men).
After Fifty Shades of Grey came out, a lot of people came into Frisky Business because they were encouraged by reading the book, according to Ferber and Soto-Lemus.
“We had lots of people come in who had never been into a store like this before,” Ferber says. “It was a great doorway for us to be able to say, ‘Well, let me give you some accurate information.’ It allowed us to start conversations.”
Ferber says he tried to make sure that when they walked out, they felt more comfortable figuring out what they liked, talking about sex with their partner, and exploring kink. One of his goals is to educate everyone who comes through the door, he says.
The Frisky Business website doesn’t just advertise toys but also addresses topics like sexual health, acceptance, safety, and consent. The store’s blog answers frequently asked questions about BDSM, anal play, and lube. There’s discussion about stereotypes, misinformation, and why there’s no need for shame.
“Our goal is to help people walk out better informed and making good choices for themselves,” Ferber says We’ll take any opportunity we can to tell people about [what they’re buying].”
Adult toy stores today don’t have grimy floors or blackout curtains. At Frisky Business, the latest products are proudly on display. There are boutique-style tables with brightly packaged dildos, mannequins adorned in lacy lingerie, and racks of high-end cuffs and collars.
“Attitudes have changed a lot as more stores like ours have emerged,” Soto-Lemus says. “We do get a lot of older adults who are coming into a store like this for the first time because it’s more comfortable for them, and their idea of what an adult store is like is shifting.”
When Ferber opened the business, he wanted it to be a store that served everyone, he says.
“I wanted to have something that was as inclusive as possible, for men, women, couples together, LGBTQ people,” Ferber says. “I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were left out.”
The store is at its busiest, of course, in the weeks before Valentine’s Day, Ferber says. Customers come in all shapes and sizes—men coming in to buy lingerie for girlfriends, couples stopping for some new goodies on their way out of town, and people buying massage oil for an intimate night with their partner.
“What’s the most fun about this [business] is the sheer diversity of reasons people come to see us,” Ferber says. “It really runs the gamut from people who have just started to date and this is kind of a fun little adventure for them to people who have been together for a long time and want to spice things up.”
The benefits of visiting an adult store may not be immediately obvious, but several studies have shown that use of vibrators and other sex toys is linked to positive sexual function and relationship satisfaction.
A pair of 2009 studies by Indiana University showed vibrator use among men and women was linked to positive sexual experiences. Among women, it was linked with desire, arousal, and orgasm. Men who used vibrators, either alone, with a female partner, or with a male partner, often said they had greater desire and satisfaction with sex and found it easier to get an erection and orgasm.
More recently, a 2016 study found that women and men who were satisfied with their relationship were more likely to have tried using sex toys together, showering together, trying new positions in bed, and scheduling a night to have sex.
“I think it can be very empowering [and] healing to have a place where you can come in and think about what you want,” Soto-Lemus says. “People feeling independent and taking control of their own pleasure is really valuable. As well as couples coming in and learning how to communicate about their desires.
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