Updated: August 17, 2022
“Dual stim” vibrators, which tout their ability to simultaneously stimulate the clitoris and g-spot, are among the most popular sex toys for people who have that anatomy. They are also far too often a big letdown.
The problem with many of these toys, writer and sex toy industry expert Lux Alptraum explains, is that they “are designed with the assumption of a clitoris and a vagina being in very specific positions” relative to each other. But that doesn’t hold true for all bodies — including hers.
Every person’s anatomy is unique to some degree, adds sex toy designerVéronique Verreault. “When I have sex,” she notes by way of one example, “I have more feeling when a penis goes slightly to the left.” That variability can make finding a fixed-form sex toy with the right shape to hit your erogenous zones (wherever they may be) in the right way, much less with the right type or level of stimulation for you — a tricky proposition for many people.
However in recent years a new breed of toy has started to hit shelves that could help to cut down on this common experience and frustration: the malleable toy. These devices can change their shapes (to varied degrees) to accommodate diverse bodies or desires, functions to offer a range of sensations, or both.
It’s not as if makers of traditional, fixed-form sex toys are unaware of these issues — they do try to address them through thoughtful design. Denny Alexander of We-Vibe recently told me about how they found that the first iteration of their flagship hands-free dual stim vibrator, released in 2008, was only a good (literal) fit for about 70 percent of users. For the rest, “it was so loose that it would move back and forth,” or just didn’t hit the right spots. So “for the We-Vibe 4,” released in 2013, “we drastically, ergonomically redesigned the shape” to try to snugly fit more bodies. But while “some people said it did fit them better, we ended up with the same percentage of people that it fit, even though we had radically changed the way it worked.” There are just limitations, he acknowledges, to the number of bodies one static form can work for.
Some in the industry and beyondbrush this off as a minor problem, negated by the vast diversity of sex toys on the market today. There should, they argue, be something out there for everyone if they look hard enough.The new waves of sleek toysreleased over the last decade, which eschew old trends of mimicking genitals in favor of more abstract shapes that invite people to find varied and unique ways of using them, have been especially useful in this respect.
As do a host of guides on how to hack toys to tweaktheir formsorfunctionsto meetyour particular needs. Yet even with all the options for consumption and modification out there,manypeoplestill feel under-servedby sex toys, whether because there is nothing fixed-form on the market that works well for them — this is especially true for disabled and gender diverse individuals — or can be easily hacked to do so. Or because it is deeply difficult to shop around for the few products that can roughly fit their needs.
“It sucks if you have, for whatever reason, a body that is unique,” or just not compatible with most existing toys, “and nobody’s going to design a sex toy that works for you,” says Alptraum. “But it’s also, from a marketing or design perspective, a lot to ask for a toy to work for every person.” It also sucks, she adds, to go in with only a vague idea of what might work for you, do your best to shop around and get advice, and “end up buying a product that just doesn’t work for you.” You can’t just bring a dud toy back to the store for an exchange, adds sex tech expertJenna Owsianik, and many high-end modern sex toys can easily run well into at least the hundreds of dollars each.
That’s where malleable tech shows the greatest promise. The technology behind these toys is still very much evolving; good products are few and far between today. But the number of such products is growing — and they are more exciting than internet-connected or A.I. toys that often get hyped in the press, but come with their ownproblemsandletdowns.
Not only do malleable products promise more inclusivity for a range of bodies, points outAriana Rodriguez, a sex products expert at the adult industry trade publicationxBiz, but their flexibility may be less intimidating to newcomers to the toy world in general. They can encourage open-ended personal exploration to find what works for you, rather than how to get an orgasm out of a fixed-form toy — and feelingoffif an acclaimed toy doesn’t work foryou.
They can even be just plain fun, “like an art project,” as Rodriguez puts it, in which you get to play with shapes and sensations.
Perhaps most importantly, if abstractly, as cyber artist and roboticist Sarah Petkus, who is workinga sex tech project, these malleable toys bring sex tech in line with the highly personal nature of good sexual experiences, which “begs for that which embraces individuality.”
Malleability is hardly a novel idea in sex toys and tech, as Alptraum notes. A number of products have long tried to buildsomeflexibility into vibrators’ tips, for instance, to allow them to better hit a wider diversity of g-spots. And back in the mid-aughts, the toy brand Je Joue notably released a vibrator that you could connect to your computer to design or download unique vibration patterns and intensities for “this endlessly programmable pleasure pattern,” as Alptraum puts it.
But, Verreault explains, simple research and development barriers have put hard limits on how much physical malleability designers could work into their toys. It takes countless trials to find a material that won’t break under certain amounts of pressure, that can maintain its integrity despite numerous reshapings, and that is still cost-effective. (A couple of firms that have launched malleable products in recent years quoted me research and development windows of 2 to 3 years.) Many brands that have explored extensive malleability, Verreault and others I spoke to in the industry claim, quickly gave up on the idea; the sex tech industry has long lacked for serious investment and backing, so most companies don’t have the capital for this type of long-lasting experimentation.
And while companies have had the ability to produce toys that allow consumers to adjust their functions to their personal needs for well over a decade, most of those products have failed because they were too complex or expensive. The Je Joue, for example, was about $400 and used its own programming language. That’s appealing to a small subset of hardcore tech aficionados, says sex tech expertKyle “qDot” Machulis; he admits that he geeked out hard over it as a young engineer at the time of its release. But most people want sex toys to be simple and intuitive — something they can pull out and use without a thought during masturbation or sex.
The urge for convenience overrides the appeal of customization if there’s “this 50-page instruction manual” you have to read to get the latter, Alptraum explains. “That’s not necessarily worth the trade-off” to most people. Nor are most people willing to drop half a G on a sex toy when a much cheaper or simpler product might not work perfectly for them, but might do justenoughfor them.
These factors explain why that Je Joue device bombed, as did their subsequent product, the SaSi, which Alptraum notes was cheaper and simpler, but still brought too many buttons into the equation to allow for real-time functional malleability. Two companies,The Modand theMaster Beta Kit, which aimed to sell consumers kits to build their own toy functions using Arduino boards,both foldedin 2016as well — in part due to technical and legal issues and in part, it seems, due to similar concerns about the complexity of their products and realities of consumer behavior.
But things started to change about eight years ago when, for a number of reasons, consumers grew a bit more willing to spend real money on high-end sex toys. (And investors grew more willing to consider backing them.) In 2011, Alptraum notes, the sex toy company Minna releasedthe Ola, a toy that figured out how to make malleable function intuitive — by pioneering a squeeze tech that adjusted vibrations based on the way one put pressure on the device. They improved on that tech withthe Lemon in 2013. “The fact that the programming is a part of the experience — it’s in the moment and intuitive… not something where you’re putting it in a computer and seeing how it comes out,” she says, “is a more successful model of the kind of programmable vibrator” people have been working towards as “it asks for less in the moment.”
Physical malleability got a major boost as well about five years ago. In late 2014, luxury toy brandLELO released the PicoBong Transformer, a firm but flexible 24-inch silicon rod with bulbous heads at either end with motors in them, which was explicitly marketed as an inclusive device one could turn into whatever one’s body, or a partner’s body, needed or desired. Around the same time, We-Vibe released the Sync, a variation on its classic design with a malleable hinge between its two stimualtors, specifically to try to increase the range of bodies their products could work for. The next year, we gotMysteryVibe’s Crescendo, a thicker 8.5-inch rod studded with six motors that was also hooked up to an app that users could tap into to tweak the motors’ functionality.
Last year, MysteryVibe released another malleable product,the Tenuto, more specifically for use diverse uses for people with penises or partnered sex between people with penises or a person with a penis and person with a vagina. In 2018, Dame products also releasedthe Pom, a device that looks like a computer mouse, fits into the palm of one’s hand (… get it?), and can be squeezed or folded into many different shapes.
This year, we gotthe Enby from Wild Flower, a bicycle seat-shaped toy made with non-binary individuals and diverse erogenous zones in mind that can likewise be squeezed, folded, or wrapped into shape as needed. And We-Vibe is currently hyping its new toy,the Vector, a dual prostate-perineum stimulating vibrator with a malleable joint between them to account for diverse body types and pressure and vibration preferences. A number of other companies have introduced mildly malleable products, or are working on them, as well.
These new malleable toys still have some major limitations. The number of motors in a device limit how flexible it can be, Alptraum points out, and even the highly malleable materials firms have found through years of research and development wear out eventually. Making sure that devices keep their shape relatively well once a user finds what they like also means that it takes a little muscle to get many of these devices to move — a limitation for some people with disabilities. Owsianik notes that, although some physically malleable devices may make it easier for people with mobility issues to grab or position a toy, she’s not yet impressed with their potential for diverse disabled bodies. I also have yet to see toys or materials that allow for malleable length and thickness, or stretch-ability. Devices like MysteryVibe and We-Vibe’s that use apps to customize their functionality can still be a bit intimidating for casual users, adds Owsianik. And many of these devices retail for upwards of $150 a pop. That’s still more than the average person might want to spend on a sex toy, especially when they can get a $20 bullet or dual stim vibe that might not be totally comfortable or ideal, says Alptraum, but workswellenoughfor a few minutes of play.
“The perfect vibrator, for most people, is notsodifferent from the perfectly good vibrator they can get at a tenth of the cost,” she says, especially if they have limited disposable income or shame about spending a substantial amount of time or money on a product explicitly for sexual pleasure.
But even limited malleability is still miles ahead of no malleability. It may even make sense for toys to embrace, and double down on, limited ranges of malleability focused around certain types of anatomy or activities, because trying to do too much can degrade a toy’s potential for any one thing. (Ana Valens ofThe Daily Dotnotably criticized the Enby, for all its malleability, for being a “jane-of-all-trades and a master-of-none,” both promising and mildly dissatisfying in its broad adaptability.) No toy needs to be malleable enough to doeverythingor serveeveryone. They just need to be malleable enough to do more, for more people, than most fixed-form toy can do today. A critical mass of moderately malleable toys will still substantially improve the inclusivity and appeal of the toy market for those exploring it.
And developers say they’re still trying to push their engineering further, towards greater flexibility and durability. There are still plenty of low-hanging fruit to make these toys more accessible too, points out Machulis, like adding voice controls for people with a variety of physical limitations. “This trend will continue as the technology” advances, says Rodriguez. So we will continue to see more customizable and responsive products, and their prices will likely drop with time to boot.
“Technology that provides a deeper level of control and ownership over individuals’ experiences,” Petkus argues, “will become the new standard for humans who truly embrace their sexual nature.”