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The Semiotics of “Toy” in the Sex Toy Industry

The term “sex toy” has become a standard phrase in the modern lexicon, but does it accurately describe the products we use in our bedrooms? Let’s examine the semiotics of the word “toy” and its impact on the way we conceptualize intimacy and sex-positivity as a culture.

The Semiotics of "Toy" in the Sex Toy Industry - close up sex toys

The History of Sex Toys and Their Terminology

Shockingly, a Merriam-Webster search for the word “toy” does not yield an illustrated dildo. Instead, you’ll find the noun referenced as “an object for a child to play with” or “something diminutive”—neither of which seem apt when it comes to describing the products we employ in our bedrooms. Nonetheless, “sex toy” is a fairly standard phrasing in our lexicon—it’s our blanket term for everything from vibrators and butt plugs to anal beads and handcuffs.

It’s tough to pinpoint when, exactly, we adopted sex toy terminology into our lexicon, but we do know that the word “dildo” has been around since 1400 AD (the Italian root “diletto” translates to “a woman’s delight”). By the 1900s, standard vibrators were advertised as full-service “massagers,” which hinted at sensual pleasure and release for both men and women. However, in the 20th century, these very same devices were marketed to doctors as medical tools designed to heal “female hysteria.” Despite their history, these devices were (and are) medically effective balms for a variety of maladies.

Rethinking the Nomenclature of Sex Toys

Right now, 69% of millennials keep at least one “sex toy” in their stash. And while your doctor will likely not prescribe you a vibrator for your sore throat, the benefits, biologically speaking, are still notable: they can help increase intimacy with a partner, improve libido after menopause, soothe anxiety, and even support both your immune system and your skin.

But in the year 2021, do the semiotics of the word “toy” actually suit something as notably advanced and biologically essential as a vibrator? Sure, you could argue that it’s “just semantics”—and it is. But language gives shape to perception. It skews, and alters, and gives form to the ways we conceptualize the world. And in turn, the syntax we use around intimacy has a legitimate impact on the way we broach sex-positivity as a culture.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider the nomenclature of sex toys. As society moves towards a more sexually positive modus operandi, it might be time to refer to them as what they are: vibrators, butt plugs, anal beads, handcuffs, and so on. Or maybe, we could underscore their central role in the project of self-care by referring to them as “wellness products,” just like our skincare regimens or our sleep schedules.

“Toy” Connotes Pleasure

Yes, “toy” connotes pleasure—and there’s truth in that. But in an era that so fervently celebrates its leaps and bounds towards a more sexually positive modus operandi, it seems we ought to consider a new nomenclature. Think about the nature of the progress we’ve made: we’ve gone from advertising vibrators as glorified neck massagers, to utilizing them as cures for “female hysteria” to brandishing them as ways of making pleasure more demographic—whether or not there’s a partner involved. That kind of forward motion deserves to be celebrated.

Language shapes our perception of the world, and the syntax we use around intimacy has a legitimate impact on the way we broach sex-positivity as a culture. As the sex toy industry continues to evolve, let’s celebrate the progress we’ve made and continue to question the language we use to describe it.

What do you think? Should we update our language around sex toys to better reflect their importance and impact on our lives? Let’s continue to question and evolve the language we use to describe our intimate experiences and products.