Tell someone you’re buying a sex toy, and chances are good they’ll assume you mean one thing, and one thing only: a vibrator. Though vibrators are hardly the only pleasure product on offer — dildos, butt plugs, cock rings, masturbation sleeves, and kink toys routinely line the aisles of sex toy shops around the country — they’ve managed to take a dominant position in the erotic imagination of Americans. And yet, for all their prominence in the pleasure product industry, there’s nothing inherently superior about vibration when it comes to orgasm production. There’s no peer-reviewed scientific study that suggests that vibration is the stimulation best suited to sexual pleasure (not the least because, well, no one really funds studies of that sort). To the extent that vibration has been able to exert dominance in the sex toy arena, it’s mostly because it was one of the first mechanized modes of sexual stimulation to gain a foothold in our culture — and once it established itself, it seems no one felt the need to come up with anything different. “There hasn’t been a lot of creativity [in the sex toy space],” Coyote Amrich, purchasing manager for San Francisco-based sex toy shop Good Vibrations, tells Refinery29. And why would there be? Vibration has brought pleasure to millions of people over the years; as long as sex toy manufacturers have been able to cash in on that, there’s been little motivation to innovate or explore other options. But as more manufacturers have moved into the sex toy market (thanks, in part, to a reduction in stigma around sexual pleasure), stores have become glutted with any array of nearly identical variations on the vibrator. Try as people might, there are only so many ways to innovate on so simple a concept — and that means anyone looking to make a splash in the sex toy space needs at least a little bit (and sometimes a lot) of creativity and innovation. Which is why the past few years have seen an uptick in vibration alternatives. The classic marital aid has been joined by pressure-based products, toys that attempt to mimic the thrusting of penis-in-vagina sex, electro-stim items, and, perhaps most notably of all, a selection of products devoted to suction. It’s this latter category that seems to be getting the most attention and traction in the market — and, with any luck, suction toys might stand a chance at upending the dominance of the vibrator. Granted, suction itself isn’t exactly a newcomer to the world of erotic stimulation. Snake bite kits and clit pumps have long been available to anyone looking to explore the thrill of a vacuum sensation on their tender bits. But, for the most part, those products have been marketed as fringe items, more for fetishists aroused by the fantasy of clit enlargement than the average Jane intrigued by the idea of getting a little extra blood flowing to the clitoral region (which — fun fact! — is how people with vaginas reach orgasm). Until now, that is. Two different products — the Fiera and the Womanizer — have taken the suction mechanism and repackaged it, offering up fashionable devices with mainstream-friendly branding. Though they have their differences (more on that in a sec), both items present an intriguing alternative to vibration, and an opportunity to expand our understanding of female sexual pleasure. How does it all work? It depends on the device. In the case of the Fiera — which is focused more on arousal than orgasm — a silicone cap forms an airtight seal around the clitoris, with suction drawing blood into the genitals and acting as a kind of mechanical foreplay (if you want to get sciencey about it, it increases vasoengorgement). The Womanizer — which prides itself on offering up rapid-fire orgasm — provides a different take. In a move designed to mimic the mechanics of oral sex, the toy sucks and releases, stimulating the nerve endings and creating a sensation the company refers to as “pleasure air.” Ryan Poirier, vice president of Epi24 USA LLC (Womanizer’s U.S. distributor), tells Refinery29 that the Womanizer is “the only product on the market that actually accesses that pleasure center in legs of the clitoris” (turns out, the clitoris isn’t just the little nub you can see — it has nerve-filled “legs” that extend into the body and wrap around the vagina).
More than the specifics of either of these products, it’s that expanded understanding of female sexuality, with its support and appreciation for a diverse range of experiences, that’s truly exciting.
And the two wildly different experiences provided by these products may be the most novel aspect of all. Vibrators may come in a variety of flavors — rumbly vs. buzzy, battery-powered vs. rechargeable, one speed vs. multi-speed — but they tend to offer a fairly uniform vision of sexual pleasure. To wit: The proper sequence of vibration, applied to the proper area of the body, will ultimately elicit orgasm; the harder and faster that orgasm arrives, the “better” said vibrator has presumably done. But the divergent paths of the Fiera and the Womanizer offer a chance to rewrite that script. If you’re interested in a slow, sensual build-up more focused on an embodied journey than an explosive destination, the Fiera’s got you covered. If an explosive, near immediate orgasm is more your inclination, the Womanizer is happy to provide. Both of these paths are equally valid (and offer exciting new options for anyone who wasn’t all that into vibration in the first place). More than the specifics of either of these products, it’s that expanded understanding of female sexuality, with its support and appreciation for a diverse range of experiences, that’s truly exciting. And it’s not really accidental. As Amrich explains, the Womanizer and the Fiera “are the culmination of work by feminists...and women wanting to embrace their own sexuality.” Decades ago, the sex toy space was largely controlled by men. Men designed products they assumed would work on women, products they then sold to other men, who purchased them in porn shops and gifted them to their wives (which, in case you’ve wondered, is a large part of why more old-school companies tend to package their products in boxes adorned with images of porn performers and other scantily clad women). Sex-positive feminists made it their mission to claim the sex toy space for women, setting up female-friendly boutiques, establishing their own toy lines, and remaking the entire industry into one that directly caters to the needs of women. Revamping the idea of what sexual pleasure looks like — moving beyond penetration and vibration into entirely new worlds of erotic excitement — is the logical next step. “People are getting really creative with different ways to feel stimulation and to add to the sexual experience,” Amrich says. Suction toys offer an exciting idea of what that creativity can look like — but, as with vibrators before them, they’re a beginning, not an end. There’s so much we don’t know about the body’s capacity for sexual pleasure: But fortunately, the search for ever more ways to enjoy our bodies is a pretty enjoyable one.