Thanks to lockdown, sex toys are turning up the heat in bedrooms across the globe
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by Carole GUIRADO / Alexandra DEL PERAL
Paris - Sex toy sales have exploded as millions around the world seek to spice up lockdown with new bedroom accessories and Western societies shake off the last taboos around female pleasure.
Sofia (not her real name), a 29-year-old singleton in Paris, overcame her "psychological barrier" to sex toys when the first lockdown kicked in last March.
"Something clicked," she told AFP. "I knew it was the right time, that we were entering a crazy period during which I was going to be cut off from all social contact and my love life."
Berlin manufacturers WOW say their global sales have trebled over the past year.
They have shifted more than four million of their most popular model, the "Womanizer".
Sweden's LELO says sex toy sales were up 10 percent in 2020, despite stores being closed.
A report last year by Statista said the global market was set to almost double from $28.6-billion to $52.7-billion between 2019 and 2026.
This is about more than lockdown boredom, says Christophe Manceau of market researchers Kantar, pointing to the wider "porno-isation of society".
"Western societies have reached an era in which sexual well-being is totally normal. Buying a sex toy is no longer taboo at all, quite the contrary," he told AFP.
Sex toys have been "completely democratised," adds sex historian Virginie Girod. "They are seen as playful and banal."
Part of this lies in the changing public discourse around sex - not just franker, but also more focused on the female experience.
Celebrities are helping to set the tone: British songwriter Lily Allen signed a sponsorship deal with Womanizer last year, while in 2016 actor Emma Watson endorsed an educational site about female masturbation.
The products are changing along with attitudes. Traditional phalluses are in decline, in favour of increasingly ingenious forms of stimulation and high-end design.
Dutch brand Biird offers a sex toy that doubles as a bedside lamp, while technological advances have already seen a boom in remote, app-controlled devices for long-distance relationships.
In most Western countries - and increasingly around the world - lingering media taboos around sex are being wiped out in the digital age.
Podcasts in particular, with their endless airtime and near-total lack of censorship, have allowed "sexperts" to explore niches that had rarely - or never - been touched before.
Hit shows run the gamut from "Inner Hoe Uprising", hosted by four black queer feminists, to "Celestial Sex" by Chris Duce, who grew up in a devout Mormon family and tackles questions around sex and religion.
Others have discussed everything from sex for cancer patients ("Dying for Sex"), to the dating experiences of someone with a stoma (an opening in the abdomen to allow waste out of her body) on "Doing It! With Hannah Witton".
Ironically, despite its reputation, France has lagged behind much of the Western world in its public discourse - often preferring a less crude, more intellectual approach to the subject.
There is little in France to compare with the outrageously candid "Guys We Fu*ked" podcast by two New York comedians, for instance, while frank discussions of gay sex are even harder to come by.
If things are slowly loosening up in France, it may have the #MeToo phenomenon to thank.
Despite the focus on sexual abuse, the female empowerment that accompanied #MeToo opened up a broader conversation around sex - "that of pleasure and joy, rather than sexuality that is constrained and suffering," said Nathalie Giraud-Desforges, a Paris sex therapist.
"#MeToo gave people the words to talk about female pleasure which were taboo for a long time, especially in France," she said.