A quick scroll through the Urban Outfitters’ website initially yields nothing new: overpriced sparkly party frocks, BDG mom jeans and those ugly FILA sneakers for which I can’t bear to jump on the bandwagon. But suddenly I do a double take when I click on the ‘Wellness’ section and see a host of vibrators, dildos and other various sex toys placed innocuously underneath the ‘Self Love’ division. A look at the Free People website reveals the same, albeit more expensive, result. Owned by the same parent company, Anthropologie, this sudden movement of younger-skewed brands to start marketing sex toys to a strongly feminist, sexually liberated generation smells strongly of bullshit.
Sex-positive feminism is nothing new — it has been a movement embedded within the feminist community since the early 1980s. However, it seems that late Millennial and early Generation X women were swayed by the heavy presence of pornography-friendly sites like Tumblr in adolescence, leading to a positive outlook toward sex — notably masturbation and an emphasis on female pleasure. These early steps of social media sex positivity have led to a wide variety of successful multiplatform sex-themed websites and podcasts, including Killer and a Sweet Thang, Guys We F****d and WHOREible Decisions: all outlets where female-centric, queer-friendly and “taboo” sex practices take center stage. The demographic for brands like Urban Outfitters and Free People experienced a social media-induced sexual awakening in the mid-2010s that led to the radical conclusion that hey — maybe female pleasure isn’t such a big taboo after all.
At the onset, it seems great that mainstream companies like Urban Outfitters and Free People are jumping at the chance to support female sexuality. But after a closer examination, I am hesitant to buy into the free love narrative fed by a company in which only 22 percent of the executive board is comprised of women. Maybe I’m just jaded, but for some reason, I am reluctant to believe that a bunch of older men of the Urban Outfitters board are super on board with the narrative of women loudly and proudly owning their sexuality.
These companies care about your money, not your orgasm. They seek to capitalize off of the generational phenomenon of social media-engendered sex positivity and outward displays of female sexuality, and they’re succeeding by selling $29 eggplant emoji shaped vibrators and $35 “sex dust” (which, let’s be honest, is overpriced ground herbs).
Urban Outfitters and Free People are no strangers to controversy. In 2010, Urban Outfitters published a picture of an already tiny model in a slouchy v-neck emblazoned with the phrase “eat less” and have since been embroiled in several scandals involving accusations of racial insensitivity, cultural appropriation and downright theft. Free People has additionally been accused of appropriating Native American culture for festival lines. When major clothing companies don’t care about being socially, culturally or racially sensitive, why would they suddenly flip the script and support what has been a sexual taboo for generations? They’re simply just looking to turn a profit.
These companies care about your money, not your orgasm.
Urban’s long and arduous list of scandals in juxtaposition with its sudden jump to selling vibrators, lube, whips and other bedroom-related products reeks of performative wokeness. Why would a company so notoriously nonchalant about apologizing for wrongdoings care about anything beyond their brand’s profit? When searching for products concerning one of the most intimate facets of a woman’s life, it seems illogical and counterproductive to patronize a brand that values business over people.
There’s a whole host of feminist companies that have been in the business of supporting female sexuality long before big companies sought out to capitalize on the “trend” of female pleasure. Good Vibrations has been a trailblazer in the industry, operating since 1977. Babeland, which has been around since 1993, is wholeheartedly committed to sex education and community involvement. There is a world of options beyond the cute, emoji-themed vibrator you see when scrolling through the Urban Outfitters website, and knowing where you’re putting your money makes a monumental difference.
Hannah Jackson encourages pleasure-seekers to look beyond the likes of Urban Outfitters and Free People.
In the days before slut walks, pussy hats and #MeToo, the process of purchasing sex toys was anxiety-ridden and shameful. Those in search of DIY orgasms would have to drive to a sex shop situated in a strip mall on the opposite side of town and peruse the aisles with eyes averted from the other customers, paying cash at the register to avoid a paper trail.
Nowadays, all that shame and secrecy has flown out the window. Just this past year, millions of fed-up women weaponized a single hashtag to rewrite the rules of a convoluted sexual landscape. Buzz words like “empowerment” and “sex-positivity” represent the current iteration of feminism to which millennials subscribe. The feminists of 2019 sport “Pussy Power” buttons on their backpacks. They skip brunch to attend women’s marches. They open up about their sexuality not only to their closest friends but to their Twitter feeds as well.
And they shop for sex toys not in a dimly lit hole in the wall, but in the wide-open, colorful paradise of Urban Outfitters. Thanks to this mainstream retail outlet and its new collection of “self-love” products, female pleasure is just as accessible as a ’90s-inspired slip dress or a coffee table book of dad jokes. Featuring items such as bath bombs, “sex dust” (whatever that means) and emoji-shaped vibrators, the line advances an indulgent, pleasure-centered understanding of sexuality that “empowered” women are demanding in 2019.
Though these products may not be direct political statements, their arrival in the midst of a feminist revolution is no coincidence. Urban Outfitters is just one name in a long list of companies that have capitalized on hot-button social issues in recent years. Through ad campaigns like Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” and Nike’s Colin Kaepernick commercial, brands have attempted to align themselves with the political sensibilities of their consumers. Many of these campaigns have received backlash from news and social media critics who believe corporations should not be hailed as trailblazers of activism for nominally supporting social causes in order to sell razors or basketball shorts.
It is true that brands are profit-driven and don’t always follow their activist lip service with donations to causes or specific calls to action. These criticisms carry heavy weight at a time when Americans are becoming increasingly fed up with our country’s Machiavellian, profit-driven economic system. Among 18 to 29-year-olds — the demographic to which Urban Outfitters caters — approval ratings of capitalism have plummeted by 23 percent in the past eight years.
To the marketers at Urban Outfitters, a vibrator is not just a vibrator. It’s a symbol that their company endorses an open, shameless, modern vision of female sexuality.
However, as much as we hate the system, we must acknowledge that companies are meeting disillusioned shoppers in the middle by infusing a much-desired sense of meaning into the matrix of material consumption. According to a 2018 survey, two-thirds of Americans believe it’s “important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues.” Right now, consumers are demanding more than just products; they hope to spend their hard-earned money on symbolic representations of their deeply held beliefs. Gillette no longer sells razors; they sell a positive and healthy form of masculinity. Nike no longer sells sneakers and basketball shorts; they sell a bold commitment to racial equity.
To the marketers at Urban Outfitters, a vibrator is not just a vibrator. It’s a symbol that their company endorses an open, shameless, modern vision of female sexuality. Yes, this statement is undoubtedly motivated by profit. But it is a statement nonetheless, and a positive one at that. The benefits of masturbation are numerous; the activity is known to reduce stress, improve sleep quality and improve body image, just to name a few. Unlike other controversial Urban Outfitters products that have profited off the shock value of things, like eating disorders and the Kent State shooting, sex toys are not harming anyone except conservative parents who don’t want their daughters to know what an orgasm feels like.
For a trendy brand like Urban Outfitters in 2019, delivering sexual pleasure to their female consumer base can only be seen as a savvy business decision. I would advise curious female readers to put aside their anxieties about capitalism for a few minutes, pull up the Urban Outfitters website and treat themselves to some much-needed self-love.
Laurel Rinehart thinks there’s nothing wrong with corporations getting on board with the trend of sex positivity.