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Nordstrom, Sephora And the Embrace of Sexual Wellness

A recent email from Sephora promoted the usual: mascaras, face masks and blush compacts. But tucked among those products was a promotion for “intimate care,” encouraging shoppers to try two brands that were new to the retailer — Dame Products and Maude. A click on a link revealed dozens of artistically styled vibrators, lubricants, oils and candles that burn down into massage oil.

Sephora is the latest major retailer to embrace a category known as “sexual wellness,” following Bloomingdale’s and Seattle-based Nordstrom, which started carrying such products last year. With careful rebranding, word choice and packaging, products like vibrators and lubricants have become newly palatable to higher-end retailers that cater to women. It’s a significant evolution in the public acceptance of such products, helped in part by celebrity endorsements, and it comes amid a broader focus on wellness and self-care spurred by the pandemic.

“People are spending more time, energy and disposable income on their own wellness, so it was natural that this expanded to sexual wellness,” said Elizabeth Miller, a vice president who oversees cosmetics at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s evolved so much from what it used to be maybe 10 or 15 years ago to be much more approachable.”

Bloomingdale’s — which recently promoted “the ultimate sexual wellness picks” alongside bathrobes and David Yurman jewelry in a Valentine’s Day marketing email — introduced sexual wellness products in May 2021, after an employee in its executive development program pitched the idea. Miller said that some of the retailer’s comfort with the strategy could be traced to actor Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Goop brand introduced a vibrator last year.

“Seeing Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop take the lead in this category made it feel brand right for us, so I give her a lot of credit,” Miller said, noting that the products are seen as a draw for Generation Z and millennial shoppers. “Obviously, we reviewed it internally with management to make sure everyone felt comfortable, but the performance has been very strong.”

For the startups selling adult-oriented products, which often have difficulty navigating advertising guidelines, being promoted and bought alongside other beauty and luxury wares lends credibility.

“Sephora and these other big beauty retailers are saying, it’s just like everything else, you can buy it together,” said Éva Goicochea, founder and CEO of Maude, which is carried at Bloomingdale’s and Sephora. “It’s impactful in this subtle way.”

Or as Alexandra Fine, co-founder and CEO of Dame, put it: “Each time somebody puts us in their store, especially a major player like Sephora, it makes it easier for other people to put in their store, easier for investors to invest in us and easier for customers to buy us.”

Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

Maude and Dame have several things in common. Both startups have their headquarters in New York and both are founded and led by women; Maude, which began selling products in 2018, has raised more than $10 million in funding, while Dame, founded in 2014, has raised more than $5 million.

For many years, products like vibrators have been associated with adult stores, often portrayed as seedy or male-oriented, or otherwise found in the fluorescent aisles of drugstores or chains like Walmart. Maude and Dame have sought to elevate the retail experience, incorporating more approachable language and design. Celebrities have also gotten involved: Actor Dakota Johnson works with Maude as an investor and co-creative director, while singers Demi Lovato and Lily Allen have released sex toys with other big brands.

Lisa Finn, a brand manager and sex educator for Babeland, a decades-old feminist adult products emporium with stores in Seattle and New York, said that conversations about sex toys became more “normalized” during the pandemic as people were suddenly isolated either alone or with their partners. She has increasingly seen them referred to as “pleasure products” or “sexual wellness tools.”

“This takes some of this idea that sex toys are dirty or kinky,” she said. “And though they absolutely can be, for a lot of folks, these are tools.” That shift “does allow for them to exist in the mainstream,” she said.

Cristina Nuñez, co-founder of True Beauty Ventures, a venture firm that invested in Maude, said that the products were crafted with an eye to the “shelfie,” meaning that people can feel proud and comfortable displaying the items in a photograph on social media.

“We would joke around that the vibe was something that you could leave out on your nightstand and not be embarrassed that you had a vibrator on your nightstand,” she said. “There wouldn’t be that stigma around it because it wasn’t crass.”

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

It’s difficult to estimate the size of the sexual wellness industry, particularly because increasingly it can cross over into beauty products. Many of the key players are private companies, and Maude and Dame were unwilling to share their sales figures. But Nuñez, who studied seven or eight similar brands before investing in Maude, said that many of the companies her firm looked at made in the “low single-digit millions” of dollars in revenue. She said that she was optimistic about the path to tens of millions of dollars in revenue and beyond.

“The opening of retail to these brands will help them get there,” Nuñez said, “because historically, they really were only able to get to that point through direct-to-consumer, and now they’ve got multiple outlets, from mass, to prestige to luxury department store channels.”

Showing up in a major retailer’s emails also helps the brands with their advertising issues, which do still come up. Dame, for instance, recently settled a lawsuit with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, which had rejected an ad campaign because it was a “sexually oriented business.” The MTA’s move had raised an outcry, given other subway ads for things like erectile dysfunction medications and the Museum of Sex.

On social media, Facebook and Instagram prohibit ads that promote the sale or use of adult products or services, particularly those focused on sexual pleasure. That means brands have to get creative — and the notion of “sexual wellness” helps. While Maude may not be able to advertise its devices on these platforms, it can promote its “massage candle,” which melts into massage oil, and its condoms.

“The reality is we’ll still see flags, we’ll still get our warnings,” Finn of Babeland said, but Babeland’s products are less likely “to be targeted as such if we’re not talking about them as vibrators but rather as ‘tools’ or ‘massagers.’”

Photo by Malvestida on Unsplash

Fine of Dame said that it was an uphill battle. When she tried posting about Dame’s launch with Sephora on LinkedIn this month (“Somebody pinch me — after 5 years of pitching, we are in SEPHORA!”) her post was automatically removed multiple times for violating the professional site’s guidelines against “sexually explicit material or language.” That persisted even when she included a link to an article about the deal. Fine said that she had a similar experience last year when she posted about Dame’s being at Bloomingdale’s.

“It does feel personal in some way — it’s my voice and me as an entrepreneur, making me feel like I’m inherently unprofessional because of what I do,” she said. But she said that she hoped the partnership with Sephora and Bloomingdale’s would dull that perception.

Retailers are largely offering sexual wellness products online — Miller of Bloomingdale’s pointed out that many customers probably prefer the privacy — although Goicochea and her team are hoping that Maude will make it to Sephora stores in 2023.

Nordstrom sold the products in some stores last year, putting vibrators and other items in 10 self-love-themed pop-up shops. While a company spokesperson said that “the customer response was very strong,” the products have not become permanent fixtures.

“Not all our customers are comfortable approaching the category openly, and we want to be thoughtful and sensitive in our approach,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Still, Fine said even the online presence is a major change from the reception she received when she was starting out. She had applied for an accelerator program that promised to help startups grow, where two judges offered feedback on each pitch.

“One judge wrote, ‘Is this a joke?’ and that was his whole piece of feedback,” she said. “That is telling of what 2014 was like versus now.”

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