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The Race to Build the Perfect Couples’ Sex Toy

Vanity Fair / October 2015

We-Vibe has been working on a couples’ vibrator for years, hoping to introduce a product that will change the game

“Jessie” and her boyfriend, “James,” despite being computer-simulated software, are otherwise average in every way. She’s the amalgamation of more than 400 female body types; James represents the average man in height, weight, and, perhaps most important, in this particular situation, penis size. Together they’ll be e-trying the newest model of the We-Vibe, said to be the world’s first couple’s vibrator.

Should Jessie’s and James’s 3-D forms fit, the product will move to prototype, then to a team of 50 women experts—including gynecologists, pelvic-floor physiotherapists, and sexologists—for testing and feedback before We-Vibe designers make final tweaks and move into production. Since 2008, when the original We-Vibe was invented by a Canadian engineer and his wife, We-Vibe has sold nearly 4 million units globally, according to We-Vibe ambassador Tristan Weedmark. “That is a lot,” says Weedmark, “especially for this industry that doesn’t often sell in volume.”

Except when it does. Experts estimate global sex-toy sales to be $15 billion dollars annually, the most recent billion-dollar boost attributed to Fifty Shades of Grey. Studies show a full half of American women have used a vibrator (compare that to Shere Hite’s findings in the 1970s, when it was reported that just 1 percent of women had tried a toy). But since the category is as broad as its customers are subtle, hard numbers are notoriously elusive. Even the Hitachi Magic Wand, a.k.a. “The Cadillac” and possibly the country’s best-selling sex toy of all time, is technically a back massager.

Busting into the mainstream takes a perfect storm. In 1998, Sex and the City featured “The Rabbit” from Japan (where vibrator manufacturing is prohibited; hence the smiling rabbit and pastel hue Charlotte York calls “pink, for girls!”). In one moment, the conception of the lady-toy lover shifted from single spinster to modern, empowered women. By fluke, the pop-cultural push coincided with the advent of online shopping. When Ann Summers went online the next year, the retailer reported 1 million Rabbits sold within a year.

In the 16 years since, the S.A.T.C. generation grew up. Many moved into committed relationships with similarly open-minded men, and they brought their toys with them. The result is an unforeseen market shift in base demographics. According to the Swedish “intimate lifestyle company” Lelo, 70 percent of their customers are in committed relationships. Married women are actually more likely to own vibrators than their single counterparts. At the same time, products are increasingly sleek, chic, and safe; they’re made now of medical-grade silicone, they charge wirelessly and sync to your iPhone. Timing and technology has made the market for a couples’ vibrator ripe to explode, and, for the right product in the right time and place, sales will be lucrative.

If they’re lucky, the We-Vibe could be that product. “We haven’t had our Rabbit moment, yet, but we do have a cult-like following growing,” says Weedmark. Ample feedback from consumers makes some grand, “saved my marriage!” claims, including one heartwarming story from an elderly couple: “He said it was the first time, after 65 years of marriage, that he watched his wife orgasm,” she writes.

Moreover, unlike some newer competitive toys popping up in the market, We-Vibe believes they’ve earned it. “We created the couples’-vibrator category,” says Weedmark. “We faced a lot of challenges when introducing a product that no one had seen before and wasn’t entirely intuitive. The early reaction was, ‘You want me to put what where when I’m doing what?’

The short answer is they want women to insert the toy and wear it during intercourse, making penetration and vibrational clitoral stimulation simultaneous. Here’s how it works: the silicone We-Vibe is a C-shaped, hands-free, double-motor toy worn by the woman during intercourse. The innovative design features one internal arm inserted into the woman that fits up against the G-spot; another external arm curves along her body to the clitoris. Each arm has its own vibrating motor, and the whole thing’s operated via cordless remote.

The toy is therefore marketed to heterosexual couples, for obvious reasons, as a “couples’ vibrator” rather than just a vibrator used by couples. The official distinction, explains Steve Thomson, global marketing manager of Lelo, is that it’s “expressly designed to be worn during lovemaking.”

A “worn” product must be hands-free and is probably activated via remote, so nobody need reach between bodies to switch modes. This may require Bluetooth connectivity, since said bodies can block or weaken a signal. The toy must also stay put during intercourse, which it must simultaneously accommodate, space-wise. It must fit two bodies instead of just one and, on top of all that, provide pleasure to both parties. This is no easy task, though many are trying just the same.

One of Lelo’s best-selling designs is the Tiani 2, $159, a euphemistic “couples’ massager” with a familiar C-shaped, duel-motor design that Lelo also hails as “the world’s first couples’ vibrator.” For We-Vibe, it is too familiar; claiming their patent had been infringed, We-Vibe complained to the International Trade Commission. U.S. deliveries ceased in June 2013, until May of this year, when the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision. Shipments have recommenced, at least for now. “The lawsuit is ongoing,” says Weedmark.

But as with any market gap, competition is inevitable. Last year, an Indiegogo campaign promised the Eva, the “next generation” couples’ vibrator and “the first truly wearable couples’ vibrator.” Like the We-Vibe and Tiani, the Eva is hands-free and worn by her; unlike the We-Vibe and Tiani, the Eva tries to skip an internal component and let the vulva hold the toy in place. It took 100 incarnations and 25 prototypes “just to prove the concept and that the labia can actually hold something,” says founder Janet Lieberman. The final product is a $105 bug-shaped vibrator with flexible “wings” that tucks between the labia to hold the Eva in place during sex. It’s “inherently more complicated,” admits Lieberman, and different sizes and shapes among women makes a “universal” anything impossible. “We’ve never claimed to be one-size-fits-all. We’re one-size-fits-most.”

Consumers were skeptical but very, very interested; the fund-raiser reached all its goals and eventually became the most highly funded adult product in the history of online crowdfunding. Since last year, according to a company spokesperson, Eva has sold 10,000 units of the cutting-edge design, a very promising start for the product. Still, old ideas linger, and for all the progress, there’s pushback. “We might be a generation behind on getting comfortable with couples’ vibrators,” says Lieberman. “Sometimes people are almost offended by a couples’ vibrator. This level of efficiency is still sometimes seen as shameful.”

Those most offended, it seems, are men. While almost 90 percent of them reported feeling very or somewhat comfortable with using a vibrator with their partners, according to a study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in 2010, only 39.4 percent of men said the same about using one by themselves. (It’s one thing to be cool with knowing that your wife uses a vibrator, but it’s an altogether different thing to use that toy yourself.) This, too, is old logic: “A vibrator’s been a liberating thing for a woman but a Fleshlight is still seen as sad for a man,” says Lieberman on sex-toy double standards. The couples’ vibrator blurs any clear divisions.

“Men just haven’t been socialized to be good sex-toy consumers,” says Dr. Kat Van Kirk, a Los Angeles-based sexologist. Gay men often use toys, creating a connotation that some straight guys don’t like, says Van Kirk, but a (non-phallic, equal-pleasure) couples’ version might let those men feel permission to feel the good vibrations. “Some men actually prefer the idea [of a couples’ vibrator] just because of the way it’s designed,” she says, and once they try it, “they learn that men can get pleasure from sex toys, too.” Her own line of couples’ toys is currently in development, with plans to launch this Christmas.

If there’s anything these players in the couples’-vibrator race can agree on, it’s that old taboos are dying and customers are ready for whatever comes next. “People know sexual health is as important as their physical and mental health,” says Weedmark. And, says Lieberman, they’re “ready to admit they want more and they want options.” Which, if any, of these products might win mainstream success and how—a well-timed TV spot, an endorsement from Brangelina—remains to be seen, but in the meantime, head to your local CVS. In May, with little fanfare but big potential, the We-Vibe secured its spot on pharmacy shelves.