One of my favorite pieces of feedback I have ever gotten after teaching came from a student in a class I taught during the University of Tennessee’s Sex Week in 2017. The class was called Playtime: Using Toys in Your Sex Life (I didn’t name it, I would have gone more fun) and the student mentioned how trans-inclusive my language was. What made me proud of this was, well, obviously the fact that my class succeeded in being inclusive but also, that I had created a class that felt inclusive without doing any of the awkward language things that frequently happen when we strive for inclusivity. I never said anything awkward like “for vulva havers” or “if your partner is someone without a prostate” or any of what I’ve come to think of clunky inclusive language. In fact, I basically made my class welcoming to everybody not by adding language but by stripping away the superfluous descriptors that make things exclusionary.
The fact of the matter is there is absolutely no reason that it is necessary to use gendered language when discussing sex toys (for example saying “buy male sex toys!” or “check out our sex toys for ladies!” ) and, in fact, there are several huge downsides to the practice. First off, it is alienating to your customers. a lot of folks insist that the gendered language is there to guide the consumer (more on that in a minute) but really, all it’s doing is propagating the (hugely flawed) idea that gender = genitals.
What does inclusive toy language look like?
Earlier I mentioned an intro to toys class I taught that got kudos for its inclusive language. In that class I broke toys into categories based on things that they unquestionably are (it’s questionable to say a vibrating toy is a “woman’s” toy but totally legit to say it’s a vibrator and group it with others that fit that category). You can see some examples of how I did this below.
Within those categories I talked about toys for clitoral and g-spot stimulation, what a wand does and how it’s different than what a bullet vibe does, the difference between prostate toys, anal plugs, and slim dildos- I simply explained what each toy does. I won’t lie to you, I had some moments of confusion when setting up the class. For example, do vibrating butt plugs go with vibrators or butt stuff? What about pulsators? Should I be more specific re: different kinds of dildos. But even with those moments, describing toys without gendered language was pretty darn easy.
But JoEllen, without gender-based language people will get confused!
In my years of touring sex shops and advising adult retail businesses, I’ve heard more than my fair share of arguments about how customers would be “confused” if they didn’t see labels like “women’s sex toys” and “men’s sex toys” in a shop or on a site and I’ve never, for one second, bought it. First off, I think it sells customers short: if people could figure out how to order a grande half-caf skinny vanilla soy latte, they can figure out your shop without you having to alienate everyone who is not cisgender. Secondly, it misses out on a huge opportunity to educate and create sex toy savvy consumers. How?
Well first off, it keeps minds closed by encouraging folks to grab for the nearest toy that “fits” their gender rather than digging deeper to learn what things do. Instead of offering options based on what a toy accomplishes. Shunting someone over to the “women’s” toy section sends the message “these are the toys that work for you based on your gender” while offering them sections for internal stimulation and external stimulation or g-spot, clitoral, or prostate stimulation allows them to focus in based on what they know they like or what they are curious about. Further, the practice of gendering toys closes the mind, making it harder to see what products might give you pleasure. If a toy is in the “women’s” section, your clients who identify in any other way get the message that that toys isn’t for them and, in turn, miss out on the pleasure they could get from that product. All because it seemed “easy” to divide up products by gender. There’s seriously no good reason to do this.
Teach the people!
A lot of the arguments I’ve heard over the years involve a fair amount of assuming no one knows anything about their bodies (which, given the state of sex ed in the US, may not be an absurd assumption) as well as a dash of refusing to offer consumers any product education. The result of that equation is the conclusion that labeling toys by gender simplifies things and prevents the much-feared “confusion”. Honestly, I think that this is a self-perpetuating cycle. We think people don’t know, so we don’t talk about it, so people keep not knowing. You can end this cycle. How? Teach them!
For example, (be forewarned, we’re returning to the anal category) If you genuinely don’t trust your customers to know whether or not they have a prostate, consider incorporating some education into your site! Rather than defaulting to “male” and “female” categories because you are worried your customers don’t know what body parts they have or if the product in question will work with their body, give them some tools to figure it out. Whether you do this via your own content or by linking to the work of others, creating a more informed audience is in everyone’s best interest. Shoppers come away more knowledgeable and better able to find the products that please them and you ultimately end up with more satisfied customers. Doesn’t that sound better than leaving folks to grope aimlessly around your site, hoping for the best and having only gendered categories (that may not apply to them at all) to guide them?
The upshot here is that doing away with gendered language needn’t be an awkward and confusing attempt to avoid certain words. Indeed it should, ultimately, be an exercise in streamlining and using clearer language. Inclusive language can strip away some of the confusion, make things clearer, and have happier customers who know what you are selling and why it could work for them.
So, now we know using gendered language to talk about toys is unnecessary and that doing away with it is actually MORE confusing and awkward. So, the only question left is, why on earth would you keep doing it?
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This post was sponsored by Sohimi. All opinions are my own.