opinion

What Pleasure Brands Can Learn From Gen Z's Approach to Sex

What Pleasure Brands Can Learn From Gen Z's Approach to Sex

The most shocking thing I’ve read about sex recently was in the autobiography of the late Matthew Perry, where the “Friends” star cheerfully admitted there was a time in his life when his penis didn’t work for many years.

Obviously, I’m not shocked by the concept of erectile dysfunction. Anyone working in the sex toy business knows just how common it is, and how many factors can contribute to a man’s inability to get or maintain an erection. It’s one of the reasons we founded our company: to help those who had difficulty helping themselves, as it were. No, the shock came from the admission itself. It can’t get more public than a book with your name on it. It was honest, heartfelt and utterly without shame — as it should be. I felt similarly shocked and elated when Hollywood actress Rachel Bilson recently admitted she’d experienced her first orgasm from sex at the age of 38.

Even TV has caught up with what people are actually doing — or at least showing them a real-world way to do it that isn’t glossy or performative.

These kinds of plain-speaking sexual admissions from those with platforms are a gift to the next generation of sexual explorers. But it wasn’t always so. Honesty — or to put it in Gen Z speak, sexual authenticity — is currently in vogue when it comes to sex. As a member of the industry, I’m excited that finally, something truly worthwhile is trending.

I was a young person when internet pornography was in its infancy, and my sexual journey paralleled its growth. I have seen firsthand the way sex, dating and sextech have evolved alongside the growing accessibility of online porn’s kinkiest offerings. I have seen how our sexuality has been shaped by media depictions of sex. I’ve had countless conversations about who’s a Samantha, a Carrie or — God forbid — a Charlotte, all with a vague unease that maybe women should work out what we actually like instead of which role we want to fill.

As accessible pornography became more and more hardcore, the requests in bed became more and more outrageous. Many a young person found themselves fulfilling partners’ kinks they weren’t turned on by, because that’s what the porn girls did, or that’s what Samantha would have done. What was great was the frank, dirty narrative around sex, and the feeling that we could empower ourselves by having as much of it as possible. What was lacking was an authentic conversation around it.

After all, if the girls online were happy to have a face full of semen, we should be too. And if a young Justin Theroux suffered from ED in one memorable episode of “Sex and the City” but refused to talk about it, as so many men did, well, on to the next man for our heroine.

In 2009, Cindy Gallop gave a TED talk to launch Make Love Not Porn, a real-world porn site featuring real people instead of passive women viewed through the male gaze. Couples submit videos of themselves having, in Gallop’s words, “real-world sex in all its glorious, silly, beautiful, messy, reassuring humanness.”

“We are not porn — porn is performance (often an exceedingly delicious performance, but a performance nonetheless),” the website reads. “We are not ‘amateur’ — a label that implies that the only people doing it right are the professionals, when as we now know, nothing could be further from the truth.”

As Gallop’s original TED Talk made perfectly clear, just because porn actresses seem to come instantly from a face full of sperm doesn’t mean you or I have to, though far be it from me to shame you if that’s your thing.

Now, almost 15 years later, we’re finally seeing the fruits of her considerable labor, as more and more people opt into a new kind of sexual experience with reality, honesty and wellness very much at the forefront.

Even TV has caught up with what people are actually doing — or at least showing them a real-world way to do it that isn’t glossy or performative. Take “Sex Education,” the Netflix behemoth that has reshaped an entire generation’s approach to sex for the better. Unlike the hedonistic “Skins” or the beautiful, shiny young things having hot and heavy shower sex after school in “Riverdale,” these British teens show us how things actually are, and it’s all the better for it. From breaking down gender norms and sexual stereotypes, to teaching teens how to engage in safe consent conversations, to frankness toward kink, inclusivity and even asexuality, this show is perhaps the blueprint of the new authenticity that characterizes Gen Z’s sex lives. Where we would brag, lie and exaggerate simply to be seen as “normal,” this show demonstrates how admitting fear, insecurity and inexperience can genuinely make sex better. And isn’t that the point?

I keep reading columns lamenting how poor, deprived Gen Zers aren’t having enough sex. But a recent Bumble dating study of 14,000 users showed that while there may be fewer actual encounters — racking up your numbers is no longer such a frantic race, perhaps thanks in part to geeky “Sex Education” character Otis’ example — the quality of what they’re looking for has changed, again for the better.

For example, 52% say they’re actively challenging stereotypes that suggest men shouldn’t show emotions for fear of appearing weak. One in three men now speak more openly about their emotions with their male friends. That means that for those who do suffer from ED, there’s a place to talk about it and perhaps recommend products to one another, instead of stoically suffering in shame and silence. A similar study showed that the dating site Seeking.com saw a rise in user profiles with the tag: “looking for emotional connection.” It’s not just women either; 30% of men are now looking for that deeper-level encounter.

So, what is “authentic sex” and what does it mean for the sextech industry?

Don’t panic, it’s not bad for us. On the contrary, with more emphasis now on open, honest conversations, sexual wellness, compatibility, consent, boundaries, working out exactly what actually brings you the most pleasure and sticking with it, there’s a higher likelihood of brand loyalty to a favorite toy that makes you and your partner happy and fulfilled — and as we all know, what’s well-loved eventually needs replacing and often gets recommended to a friend. With shows like “Sex Education” helping people realize that sex doesn’t have to mean P in V, toys are very much still on the table.

So-called vanilla sex is also back in vogue. Witness a pernicious little TikTok trend mocking “vanilla girlfriends” that got turned on its head by the authenticity trend, because what’s really so vanilla about being less performative and more real with a partner? Lovehoney’s most recent annual assessment of sex and dating trends also affirmed that we’re talking to each other more now, and are more likely to seek out intimacy and mindfulness — which in turn lead to more intimate sex. According to the company’s recent research, “less casual dating and performance-centered sex, and more self-focused interactions” are all the rage.

What does all that mean? Essentially, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. And fortunately for the sextech industry, journeys of self-discovery are where we shine the most.

Julia Margo is the co-founder and COO of sex toy company Hot Octopuss, which in 2013 created the world’s first “Guybrator.”

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