Thursday, February 9, 2023

What Drives Sex Toy Popularity? A Morphological Examination of Vaginally-Insertable Products Sold by the World’s Largest Sexual Wellness Company

What Drives Sex Toy Popularity? A Morphological Examination of Vaginally-Insertable Products Sold by the World’s Largest Sexual Wellness Company. Sarah E. Johns & Nerys Bushnell. The Journal of Sex Research, Feb 7 2023.

Abstract: There is limited research into the morphology of sex toys, and specifically into (the often phallic-shaped) vibrators and dildos and what they may represent in terms of user preferences for male genital morphology. This study provides insight into consumer preference around vaginally insertable sex toys, their features, and what contributes to their popularity. Using a data set compiling information from the world’s largest online sexual wellness retailer Lovehoney, we examined the dimensions, price, and morphological features of 265 sex toys designed for vaginal insertion to determine what contributes to item popularity. Using regression models, we found that realistic features did not predict item popularity, whereas price (p < .001) and circumference (p = .01) significantly predicted the overall popularity of a toy. It appears that consumers show a preference for insertable sex toys that are not direct replicas of the male penis, which suggests they are not seeking a realistic partner substitute. Further, we found that the length of the toy did not significantly predict popularity which is consistent with other work showing that women do not place considerable emphasis on large phallus size. Our results can contribute to future product design and marketing, as well as reveal preferences toward particular characteristics of the phallus (whether real or toy).


Contrary to what we expected (and contrary to Döring et al., Citation2022), we found no preference for products with realistic morphological features, other than the presence of veiny texture, when not controlling for price. This may be a consequence of levels of stigma and taboo still associated with specifically insertive (thus penis substitute) sex toy use by women (Fahs & Swank, Citation2013; Minge & Zimmerman, Citation2009; Waskul & Anklan, Citation2020), and recent research has concluded that “perceived stigma” among users is higher when erotic technology being engaged with was more human-like (Dubé et al., Citation2022). Highly realistic products may make women (and potentially their partners (Ronen, Citation2021)) feel less comfortable given they are truly “penis substitutes” rather than being a fun, vaginally insertable toy; women have reported that they most often chose sex toys which were specifically intended to not resemble a penis (Fahs & Swank, Citation2013). There has been a move away from the marketing of such toys since the ensuing popularity of the (more abstract and less “obscene”) “Rabbit” during the 1990s (Devlin, Citation2018). A nonrealistic phallus might also be more acceptable and less threatening for men wanting to integrate a toy into their sex lives (Ronen, Citation2021), possibly related to the prevalent media narrative that only sad, lonely men would have sex with an “artificial partner” (Dubé et al., Citation2022), and also the concept of “dildo-envy” (Reich, Citation1992), whereby the dildo is viewed as superior to the “flawed organic penis” (Hamming, Citation2001, p. 331). However, the variable stigma between types of erotic technology and the relation of this to gender has yet to be empirically quantified (Dubé et al., Citation2022).

Product popularity was also significantly predicted by price. More expensive items were found to be less popular when accounting for a range of other morphological features. Realistic features of a product (a natural skin color) were related to its price, with this feature increasing cost. The sex toy industry is part of capitalist consumer culture (Döring, Citation2021), so it perhaps comes as little surprise that price is influential in consumer choice. It appears that customer choice is not based on morphological attributes alone and that item cost is a considerable factor. If realistic features on models predict a higher price, this may further deter customer purchase of anatomically realistic toys.

As described in a study by Gallup et al. (Citation2003), sex toys have been previously used in research into the evolution of human sexual anatomy, where they were employed as a proxy for human male genitals in an experimental condition to test whether the presence of a coronal ridge contributes to efficient removal of (a purported rival) semen from the vagina (Gallup et al., Citation2003). Interestingly, in our study, the presence of the penile glans or a coronal ridge was not a feature which significantly predicted sex toy popularity, suggesting that users are not concerned in matching their sex toy to certain aspects of the penis which could play a role in sperm competition. Our results may suggest that penile glans/coronal ridge does not appear to have an influential role in sexual satisfaction or preference as it was not a favorable morphological feature. Such a feature also increases product realism, which again, might be less desirable for women wanting an insertable fun toy rather than a realistic partner substitute.

Our results further highlight that women may not be simply seeking a large phallus size as could be assumed given the sociocultural influences around this being a desirable trait (Sharp & Oates, Citation2019). Certainly, men often feel anxiety around, and dissatisfaction with their penis, citing societal pressures around the idea that bigger is better (Francken et al., Citation2002). This has led some men to consider or use surgical processes to enhance penis size (Mondaini et al., Citation2002). However, we found that for toys at least, although circumference was influential in predicting product popularity, insertable toys of a larger girth in our sample were less popular, while length was non-significant. There appears to be an emphasis on offering slightly larger than average phallus products, and yet products with larger circumferences were not as popular as less girthy models. In our sample, the 5 most popular products had a mean circumference of 4.85 inches which is just above the average circumference for real penises. Our findings are very similar to results reported by Herbenick et al. (Citation2015) who noted that insertable sex toys replicated, on average, real penile dimensions. It may be the case that consumers prefer a slightly larger than average phallus circumference when purchasing an insertable sex toy online but there is a cutoff point where extremely large models are more niche than the average user desires. The findings of this study suggest that online sex shops could consider offering a greater selection of insertable sex toys in average, to slightly above average, sizes given that larger toy circumference predicted reduced item popularity. Research on female attitudes to penis dimensions support this: when asked whether penis length and girth was important, only 20.6% of women believed it to be, with the remainder considering it unimportant (Francken et al., Citation2002), while another study found that 85% of the women they asked were satisfied with the size of their partner’s penis (Lever et al., Citation2006). Generally, it appears that women do not place considerable emphasis on very large penis size, with women preferring penises to be only slightly larger than average (Prause et al., Citation2015).

We were also surprised that an additional vibrating functionality did not predict item popularity. Women who use vibrating toys are able to incorporate direct clitoral stimulation into their sexual activity to help them to achieve orgasm (Döring, Citation2021). Vibrator use is also positively linked with improving sexual function by increasing lubrication, arousal, orgasm and can help with pain reduction (Herbenick et al., Citation2009). Given vibrators (sensu latu) are the most commonly used sex toy, have a long history, and are frequently publicly endorsed given the known orgasm gap (Mahar et al., Citation2020) and the difficulty of many women to achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration alone (Lloyd, Citation2005), they are perhaps more socially acceptable than dildos solely designed for insertion. It is possible that purchasers of penetrative toys preferred items with straightforward insertable functionality rather than a combined insertable phallic-shaped vibrator, given that there are specific vibrating products designed only for clitoral stimulation but that can be used in conjunction, if desired, with insertable phallus-shaped models.

Overall, our results show that consumers prefer sex toys which, although suitable for vaginal insertion, are not a direct proxy of a penis. This supports previously reported feminist views of phallic-shaped sex toy use – women can simultaneously reclaim penetrative sex without having this suggested symbol of patriarchal power in their possession (e.g., Fahs & Swank, Citation2013). These results are also potentially supported by the emergence of the “personified” sex toy market (which incorporates sex dolls and sex robots) which may give users a more emotional and expansive masturbatory experience compared to a disembodied phallus, although most research in this area has focused on a narrow demographic of consumers (Hanson & Locatelli, Citation2022).

We also must acknowledge, in light of our framing and results, that sex toy manufacturers might not be truly interested in women’s anatomy or true preferences. Manufacturers could be using outdated and stereotyped aspects of the female body to inform the design and marketing of products. This may shape what is available to purchase, or indeed the purchases themselves, with women thinking they “ought” to like something (for example, a toy to stimulate the G Spot – which may not exist as a defined anatomical structure (Hines, Citation2001)). However, given our robust method of considering three different, consumer-led measures, we would argue that item popularity in this study is a measure of “true” enjoyment from use, albeit from items that are currently commercially available. That said, the range of insertable products (both realistic and not) available through the Lovehoney UK website is quite varied and unrestricted. We would, however, urge caution and consideration here for any similar research conducted outside of Europe, in more restricted markets, as location will likely impact the availability of some toys, and thus influence, or indeed mask, preference.

Limitations and Future Directions

There were a few limitations to this study. Firstly, our average penis size comparison measurement relied only on one source (Veale et al., Citation2015), and we recognize that this study itself might not be accurate given the many methodological difficulties in determining average penis size (e.g., no standardization across studies, possible inaccuracy in self-reports) so some caution is perhaps warranted when considering presented results comparing our sample to “reality.” Future studies in this area could be made more informative by collating data from multiple websites, so that the results could be applied globally; as the data were collected from a UK-based domain, we were likely only seeing the preferences of a British population (although, as mentioned above, the UK sex toy market is highly unrestricted). We also cannot be sure that all consumers contributing to the popularity rating were women (and indeed women with an attraction to penises), as men are also able to purchase and review dildos. However, women are the primary consumer focus and Ronen (Citation2021) reported that men are rarely users of sex toys. A scan of the first 3 pages of user comments below the 5 most popular items suggested that women were the primary reviewers. A textual analysis of such reviews on Lovehoney (similar to that carried out by Döring et al., Citation2022) could be an interesting follow-up study. The consumer demographic is also unknown so factors such as age, sexual orientation and background were not accounted for and may be influential to customer choice. Therefore, we have made some heteronormative assumptions about users that may not be entirely inclusive or accurate given lesbian women and men are also insertable sex toy users and consumers.