Sex Aids on Retail Shelves

Hustler magazine and Wal-Mart haven't had much in common over the years. After all, the megaretailer won't even carry Hustler's explicit publications. But now they have at least one area of overlap. As of this month, Wal-Mart will be selling Wet, a sexual lubricant that has been a staple for more than a decade at Hustler's adult product boutiques.

If you haven't heard of Wet or its cousins, like Astroglide, you probably haven't been exploring the "sexual health" section of your local drugstore lately.

The migration of what used to be called "marital aids" from specialty sex shops to the mainstream stores began about four years ago for Trigg Laboratories Inc., the company that makes Wet. "Since then, even the more conservative retailers have come over," says John Winning, vice president of sales for the Valencia, Calif., firm.

"Every retailer has a different line on what will be acceptable—and that line can move," says Winning. "For us it was also about getting them past the name. But once they see our sales, that doesn't last long."

You might think that Wet and other personal lubricants with blush-worthy labels would be hidden away on a special shelf in the back of the store behind a curtain. Nope. They are usually right out in the open—near the female contraceptives and pregnancy tests.

Nor are they the most risqué items to appear on pharmacy shelves in the last six months. Indeed, certain aisles are starting to look like supply sites for Cosmopolitan magazine's sex tips section.

In addition to dozens of massage liquids, "warming gels," and lubricants in many flavors, you'll also find vibrators. Durex, an international condom maker with a U.S. base in Atlanta, began putting the Little Gem personal massager (a.k.a. vibrator) on drugstore shelves around the country in August of last year. Demurely packaged in a lavender frosted-plastic oval container, the purpose of the Little Gem is fairly ambiguous unless you read the fine print, or just guess that it's related to sex because it's right near all the lubricants. Out of context it could be some kind of exfoliating device—or maybe a fancy skin cream.

The discreet packaging was, of course, deliberate. "Now a soccer mom in her minivan can be comfortable buying these types of products right along with her toothpaste and shampoo," says Tim Cleary, Durex's vice president of sales. He says that Durex's "Play" line of lubricants, condoms, vibrating condom rings, and massagers geared to women was introduced online in 2004 but is now in 30,000 stores nationwide—though the massagers and condom rings are not available everywhere. (Wal-Mart, for example, says it does not offer any personal massagers, though it does sell a variety of lubricants.)

Drugstores have been selling many of these products online for a decade or more. And it's a healthy market. Over-the-counter sales of lubricants (excluding Wal-Mart) hit $113 million in 2007, a 30.3 percent hike from the previous four-year period, according to Nielsen Strategic Planner. The prices per container range from $5 to $15, depending on the brand and size. And while there isn't much market data yet on mainstream retail vibrator sales, Durex says its personal massagers are doing very well at about $36 per Little Gem.

Leading chains, like CVS, say they have more than quadrupled the shelf space they devote to the category in the last five years. But despite the apparent consumer demand, retailers aren't particularly eager to discuss the personal massagers or other sexual health products they offer. A Walgreens spokeswoman reported that the company was simply adapting to "reflect trends and changing customer interest" and chose to offer more "discreet products" online.

Why are women now welcoming items that might have caused an uproar if they'd shown up on a low shelf in the neighborhood pharmacy 10 years ago? Sexual mores are changing, says sex therapist Sandra Leiblum, of Bridgewater, N.J. Thanks to HBO's "Sex and the City" and the vast research field of the Internet, vibrators have come out of the closet and right into bedside drawers.

"We're much more open now to experimenting sexually," says Leiblum. And the lubricants in particular are marketed more attractively these days. Johnson & Johnson's K-Y Brand, the industry leader, used to offer medicinal-looking jellies, but in 2005 it launched a romantically packaged line called Touch Massage, which has been a top seller in the category.

There's also the important issue of basic body mechanics. Manufacturers say that their sales are driven in part by boomers and the advent of erectile dysfunction drugs. "Men started taking Viagra, and now women of a certain age group need our products," says Trigg's Winning.

Lubricants are also popular among women who are nursing, postpartum, or have had chemotherapy—all conditions that can make intercourse painful. According to Leiblum, about 15-18 percent of women in all age groups suffer from this problem, and most women will encounter this issue sometime in their lives.

Ann, a 40-year-old mother of two from Phoenix, Ariz. (who declined to give her full name), says drugstore-purchased lubricants rescued her sex life after her first child was born. "I'm not sure if my second child would exist if it were not for this stuff," she says, only half joking.

Not everyone is happy about this quiet sexual revolution. In 2005, when Church & Dwight Co. Inc., manufacturer of Trojan condoms, introduced Elexa, a condom marketed to women with a vibrating ring. They rolled it out across the country except in a handful of states (Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia) where obscenity laws prevented its sale in retail stores. The Family Research Council, a conservative policy group, denounced the products as "vulgar" and pointed out that there aren't age restrictions on the purchase of the products, so teens could buy them.

In Alabama the laws take the ban one step further. All stores, including specialty stores, are barred from selling vibrators because of a 1998 law prohibiting distribution of devices that provide genital stimulation. Breaking the law is an offense that can bring up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. It's a penalty that rivals that for illegal gun ownership in some states.

Though for the moment the ban is not being enforced, Alabama's sex-shop owners are not standing passively by. Adult store owner Sherri Williams has sued on the grounds that the ban is unconstitutional. Her motto: "They are going to have to pry this vibrator from my cold, dead hand." So far it's been a losing battle. Last year the Supreme Court declined to hear the case pending further information. The decision leaves like-minded women in Alabama to do their vibrator shopping online or out of state, for now.

Those who do go sex-product shopping online will find products that go way beyond the discreetly and romantically packaged offerings on retail store shelves without having to go to sleazy sites. Most of the big chains, except for Wal-Mart, have a sexual health section on their Web sites with an extensive and often eye-popping array of sex toys and "intimacy aids."

Click the "Sexual Wellness" tab on Walgreens's home page and you get a screenful of featured products that includes things like the "Liberator Wedge/Ramp," which comes in three colors and costs $210. (Sorting out what exactly it's for may take a little extra research.)  And we won't even describe the other prominently displayed item on the page; suffice it to say it's called "Shag Throe."

For now there's not much chance you'll be seeing the Throe at your local pharmacy. But Winning says he has his sights on expanding into supermarket chains.

Durex and other companies are already selling the lubricants at many mass-market stores like Target, though Cleary declines to say whether the vibrators are heading to supermarkets, where they'd be just a few aisles away from the chicken filets. But the way these products are migrating, we may soon be able to add a lot more spice to our grocery lists.

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