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Preaching to the Choir: Christian Sex Toy Retailing

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Updated May 18, 2011

Across North America sex toys continue to gain mainstream acceptance, reaching well beyond women’s magazines to make appearances everywhere from late night talk shows to drug store chains and high end fashion boutiques. As the competition among retailers intensifies and the relatively minor differences between most of the product lines becomes apparent, adult businesses are turning more and more to niche marketing in effort to capture an increasingly sophisticated and demanding customer base.

In sex toy retailing, niche marketing traditionally has meant marketing to gender (the “clean, well lit” stores for women versus the seedy adult bookstores for men) or marketing to sexual orientation (gay stores in the gay neighborhoods, straight stores in the downtown core or out near the airport).

More recently retailers have tried to distinguish themselves based on either the sexual politics of what they carry (choosing not to carry pornography, or to only carry products for people interested in BDSM, for example) or the ethics of their product lines (some retailers promote their products as ethically and environmentally superior to their competitors).

But niche marketing of adult toys has entered a new era with the launch of Book22.com . The site, owned and operated by Joy and Kevin Wilson, is courting what could potentially be the largest niche market in the U.S.; married Christians.

If you were to get to Book22 without seeing the home page, it would probably remind you of any number of home grown sex toy websites. The selection is small, the majority of products are mass manufactured and of basic (read: poor) quality, and the user interface is clunky, but passable. What distinguishes Book22 is not the inventory; it’s the intention of the owners, and the explicit linking of religious faith to business practice.

From the site:

It is our company's policy that the products we sell be purchased for married couples only. As explained in the book of Genesis, God created woman from man's flesh and bone to be his companion. In so doing, he illustrated that in marriage man and woman symbolically become one flesh. A common theme throughout the Bible is sexual purity. One example of this can be found in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4, "For God wants you to be holy and pure and to keep clear of sexual sin so that each of you will marry in holiness and honor." We want to encourage God's plan for people to remain sexually pure, that is why we offer our products to married couple’s only.

“I think the main reason someone would prefer to shop at Book22 would be that they know we share the same faith and values,” Joy wrote in an interview with About.com.

And while it may seem like a far cry from buying organic from your local small business, if more and more people really are engaging in what has been called “doctrine centered” purchasing the Book22 folks may just be on to something.

According to a customer survey conducted by a larger U.S. sex toy mail order company 63% of their purchasers were married and 59% were Christian. A statistic not lost on Joy who says that one of the biggest surprises in opening Book22 was discovering just how many Christians are already using sex toys.

This of course raises an immediate question; if so many Christians are already buying sex toys, will enough of them feel the need to buy from a company that is putting its religious beliefs front and center. Sex toy retailing is both similar and different from other retailing, and one of the ways its different is that buying sex toys is one form of consumerism few Americans show off to the neighbors (when was the last time you saw your neighbor out in their driveway on a hot day lovingly washing their Hitachi Magic Wand?) It’s quite possible that the last people a practicing Christian would want to buy sex toys from is another Christian (or at the very least, they may prefer to leave religious affiliation out of the equation altogether).

The Wilson’s are not the first to marry their sexual and spiritual beliefs in this way. In 2005 a British couple launched a similar site called WhollyLove. And Christian sex manuals have been around for years, preaching that sexuality can be a healthy part of life (providing that life is being lived by heterosexual, church going, married people).

At first these ideas may seem incongruous. Christianity isn’t exactly known as a bastion of sex positivity. But in practice, these sites are offering products and services in a way that makes them accessible to groups who might otherwise not explore their sexuality as openly or actively, and that seems like a good thing.

I have both optimism and concern for where this is heading.

On the one hand, I’m not sure that what Joy Wilson is doing is that different from early retailing pioneers like Joani Blank and Dell Williams who wanted to create a safe space for women to buy sex toys without the “sleaze” of the adult bookstores? Early on both companies put severe restrictions on what could be sold in their stores, and to whom, restrictions which were eventually loosened based in part on the response by customers who were pushing the boundaries of what a “women’s sex store” should carry. The same thing could very well happen with Book22.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how I would respond to a sex toy store just for white people, or just for Jewish people. There’s also the explicit exclusion of gays, lesbian’s bisexuals, and queer folks of all stripes. And there is arguably a sex phobic subtext to what these sites are doing. In a way they are telling their customers that their version of sex toys (one that is non-explicit, exclusively monogamous and heterosexual) is “okay” whereas the rest of the sites are not.

But most of those concerns disappear when you talk to Joy Wilson who comes across as a thoughtful, sex positive, individual. It may seem odd when Joy talks about selling vibrators and ministering to people through her sex toy retailing. But how different is this from the women owned sex toy stores that offer workshops from “g spot activists” and promote books, videos, and toys, while encouraging customers to make connections between their orgasms and larger political or spiritual realities. Is cheerleading only okay when you’re doing it for the “right” team?

My hope is that these sites will quickly develop into something much more than they are and that rather than serving as a reminder of our differences, that they serve as an example of our shared sexual experiences.

Given that Christians have likely been buying sex toys for as long as there have been sex toys to buy (and may have been making them by hand long before that) selling sex toys specifically to Christians may indeed be like preaching to the choir, I only wish the sermon could be a bit more inclusive. Discovering our similarities may simply come with time. After all, Book22’s most popular product is a variation on the ubiquitous vibrating egg, and the most common question they get isn’t one related to Christianity (or, as I had assumed, about burning in hell), but instead it’s the most common question asked in sex toy stores around the world: this is my first sex toy, what’s the best one?

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