Can a Better Vibrator Inspire an Age of Great American Sex?

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Sex toys have transformed into sophisticated and well-designed gadgets that take their inspiration from Apple not Hustler. But one company has a bigger hope: that a better machine could mean better sex for a repressed nation.

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The sex toy as design object: the innards of Jimmyjane's Form 6 vibrator.

The offices of Jimmyjane are above a boarded-up dive bar in San Francisco's Mission district. There used to be a sign on a now-unmarked side door, until employees grew weary of men showing up in a panic on Valentine's Day thinking they could buy last-minute gifts there. (They can't.) The only legacy that remains of the space's original occupant, an underground lesbian club, is a large fireplace set into the back wall. Porcelain massage candles and ceramic stones, neatly displayed on sleek white shelves alongside the brightly colored vibrators that the company designs, give the space the serene air of a day spa.

Ethan Imboden, the company's founder, is 40 and holds an electrical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins and a master's in industrial design from Pratt Institute. He has a thin face and blue eyes, and wears a pair of small hoop earrings beneath brown hair that is often tousled in some fashion. The first time I visited, one April morning, Imboden had on a V-neck sweater, designer jeans and Converse sneakers with the tongues splayed out -- an aesthetic leaning that masks a highly programmatic interior. "I think if you asked my mother she'd probably say I lined up my teddy bears at right angles," he told me.

Imboden was seated next to a white conference table, reviewing a marketing graphic that Jimmyjane was preparing to email customers before the summer season. Projected onto a wall was an image that promoted three of Jimmyjane's vibrators, superimposed over postcards of iconic destinations -- Paris, the Taj Mahal, a Mexican surf beach -- with the title: "Meet Jimmyjane's Mile High Club: The perfect traveling companions for your summer adventures." The postcard for the Form 2, a vibrator Imboden created with the industrial designer Yves Behar, was pictured alongside the Eiffel Tower with the note: " Bonjour! Thanks to my handy button lock I breezed through my flight without making noise or causing an international incident. See you soon, FORM 2."

Jimmyjane's conceit is to presuppose a world in which there is no hesitation around sex toys. Placing its products on familiar cultural ground has a normalizing effect, Imboden believes, and comparing a vibrator to a lifestyle accessory someone might pack into their carry-on luggage next to an iPad shifts people's perceptions about where these objects fit into their lives. Jimmyjane products have been sold in places like C.O. Bigelow, the New York apothecary, Sephora, W Hotels, and even Drugstore.com. Insinuating beautifully designed and thoughtfully engineered sex toys into the mainstream consumer landscape could push Americans into more comfortable territory around sex in general. Jimmyjane hopes to achieve this without treading too firmly on mainstream sensibilities. "Not everyone sits in a conference room and talks about vibrators, dildos, anal sex, clitorises -- and we do," Imboden explained. "It's important for us to remain a part of the mainstream culture and sensitive to how normal people discuss or don't discuss these subjects."

Ten years ago, walking into the annual sex toy industry show for the first time, Imboden was startled by the objects he encountered. He had developed DNA sequencers for government scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and more recently he had left a job designing consumer products -- cell phones and electric toothbrushes -- for companies like Motorola and Colgate, work he found dispiriting. "It was imminently clear to me that I was creating a huge amount of landfill," Imboden told me. "I wanted no part of it." He struck out on his own, and found himself approached by a potential client about designing a sex product.

The floor of the Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo, held that year on the windowless ground level of the Sheraton in Universal City, California, flaunted fated landfill of a different sort: a gaudy display of "severed anatomy, goofy animals, and penis-pump flashing-lights kind of stuff," Imboden recalled. These tawdry novelties dominate the $1.3 billion-a-year American sex toy market. They are the output of a small but cliquish old boys' network of companies you've probably never heard of, even if you have given business to them. One of these, Doc Johnson, was named as a mocking tribute to President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose justice department in the 1960s tried in vain to prosecute the late pornographer Reuben Sturman, the industry's notorious founding father. Sturman invented the peep show booth, and built a formidable empire of adult bookstores that for decades constituted the shadowy domain where such products were sold, usually to men.

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The traditional Sturmanite sex shop (Reuters).

Imboden was inspired. "As soon as I saw past the fact that in front of me happened to be two penises fused together at the base, I realized that I was looking at the only category of consumer product that had yet to be touched by design," Imboden said. "It's as if the only food that had been available was in the candy aisle, like Dum Dums and Twizzlers, where it's really just about a marketing concept and a quick rush and very little emphasis on nourishment and real enjoyment. The category had been isolated by the taboo that surrounded it. I figured, I can transcend that."

At dinner parties in San Francisco, where he lives, Imboden found that mentioning sex toys unleashed conversations that appeared to have been only awaiting permission. "Suddenly I was at the nexus of everybody's thoughts and aspirations of sexuality," he said. "Suddenly it was OK for anyone to talk to me about it." It occurred to Imboden that the people who buy sex toys are not some other group of people. They are among the half of all Americans who, according to a recent Indiana University study, report having used a vibrator. They are people, like those waiting outside Apple stores for the newest iPhone model, who typically surround themselves with brands that reinforce a self-concept. They spend money on quality products, and care about the safety of those products. Yet, for the very products they use most intimately--arguably the ones whose quality and safety people should care most about--they were buying gimmicky items of questionable integrity. It's just that people had never come to expect or demand anything different--silenced by society's "shame tax on sexuality," as one sex toy retailer put it to me. And few alternatives existed.

Jean-Michel Valette, the chairman of Peet's Coffee, who would later join Jimmyjane's Board of Directors, told me: "I had thought the opportunities for really transforming significant consumer categories had all been done. Starbucks had done it in coffee. Select Comfort had done it in beds. Boston Beers" -- the makers of Samuel Adams -- "had done it in beer. And here was one that was right under everyone's nose."

Jimmyjane's success has inspired a growing class of design-conscious companies--including Minna, Nomi Tang and Je Joue--that are beginning to clean up an unscrupulous industry long cloaked by American discomfort around sex. LELO, a Swedish brand founded by industrial designers, creates up-market products with names--Gigi, Ina, Nea-- that sound like feminized IKEA furniture. (Try Gigi on the SVELVIK bed!) OhMiBod, a line of vibrators created by a woman who once worked in Apple's product marketing department, synchronize rhythmically with iPods, iPads, iPhones and other smartphones.

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An OhMiBod vibrator styled with an iPhone.

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Andy Isaacson is a Berkeley-based writer and photographer. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, and The New Yorker.

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