Lets talk about sex. Or, more precisely, let’s talk about Sex Toys.
Long gone are the days of turning a little crimson about ‘bedroom accessories’. The marketplace has shifted hugely in the last decade, and a record number of men, women, singletons, and marrieds are all reaping the rewards of pleasure products.
Eloquently Her chats to Samantha Evans, co-founder of sex toy brand, Jo Divine.
Who gets to decide how, where, when and with what, you get to have the best darned sex of your life?
We’ve come a heck of a way since the Sex And The City Girls were seen comedically discussing the now somewhat legendary ‘rabbit’ vibrator toy back in the 1990s, and these days, you can pick up a sex toy as easy as you can a pint of milk (and why not?).
It’s a shift which Samantha Evans is only too pleased about, although still forever seeking to get people ‘normalising’ the dialogue around sex toys.
“Why wouldn’t you want to have the best sex you possibly could?” she asks.
“Having good sex is a great thing – whether you’re a man, a woman, in a relationship, able-bodied, bereaved, suffering ill-health. We all deserve a good level of sexual pleasure.”
A 50-year-old former nurse, Sam (as she prefers) is hugely proud of having set up, and grown with exceptional speed, a sex-toy business which has a role-call of clients spanning the ages of 18 to 80 plus (and some!).
“It’s probably no wonder my husband and I don’t get invited to many dinner parties,” jokes Sam, as we start our discussion about the creation of Jo Divine.
“I think most people are concerned that we’ll ask them about their own sex lives – which we’d never do, but it’s a perception of two people who decided to launch an online company which retails sex toys and associated products.”
It was 10 years ago that, Sam and Paul first began their exploration of the sex toy business world – with commercial intention.
Yes, they’d used products and had their own views on those, but it was only whilst on a mind-clearing run in their neighbouring streets of Kent, that the idea as a husband-wife retail enterprise came about.
“I don’t know to this day whether it was just that my husband thought I needed to be getting back into work in some way, after having the children, but he went out for a run, and came back with this suggestion,” laughs Sam.
“We had previously used a few items, and on reflection, a lot of those had caused me thrush or issues.
“What started as an idea around how we could find skin-safe products to offer people, took us into a whole world around exploring just how much the sex toy space needed to be seen as more ‘normalised’.”
Even at this stage, some years after the SATC episodes, but somewhat ahead of stories like Shades of Grey, there was still a culture of some ‘shame’ around the use of sex toys in the UK.
Sam had never viewed the products and their benefits in this way, and was determined that she would be part of a changing landscape around how sex toys could and should be perceived.
With three small children in tow, and her nursing and occupational health background, Sam began to immerse herself into research.
She quickly recognised the wide-open opportunity to find higher quality suppliers, and to be able to better educate consumers as to which marketed products would be of benefit for particular issues or relationships.
“The more I discovered, the more I realised what an opportunity we had unearthed,” Sam admits.
“We decided to call ourselves Jo Divine, and launch online with a few products which initially felt more ‘luxury’.
“We staged some market research events with women in their 40s, and let them give us honest feedback around the kind of things we would be selling, and how we would be using our brand to share information and education.”
It was a recipe which quickly showed all the hallmarks for success.
“We knew very quickly that we were hitting the right note and that people wanted to engage,” explains Sam.
“Within a year of the site going live, we were so inundated with customers that it was clear this was going to take both of us full time, so my husband left his job in finance, and home became a place where we were also packaging and sending orders every day of the week.
“Every day felt like an education, because we were really getting to know who it was who wanted to access these toys.
“The demographic was much much older than we’d anticipated, and extremely varied.”
An area which began to emerge, and which coincidentally touched on some of Sam’s own health sector background, was the huge amount of people coming forward specifically following health issues, or with disabilities.
“Sex lives and the ability to find intimate pleasure gets affected by all sorts of things,” says Sam.
“We were seeing – and still do – many who had been affected by cancer, or menopause, or had long term disabilities.
“In fact, the disabled community, in my personal opinion are far more proactive with sex toys because they are more likely to look into what their options are.
“They often know they need to be more adventurous and creative about how they can enjoy a good sex life.
“In fact they’re probably having better sex lives than some able bodied people.”
Sam cites many individual examples of customers – up to 95 in the case of the eldest – who have shared openly their stories.
There are those who have lost a partner and want to use products rather than being ready to develop new relationships in the early stages of grief; those who have a heavily disabled partner and are now unable to share full intimacy; and those who have been through cancer treatment and whose bodies make it less easy to enjoy sexual pleasure.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding and naivety about how things like chemotherapy and radiation can impact sexual function,” Sam explains.
“For a woman, chemotherapy can cause a woman to go through the menopause and thus cause a lot of vaginal dryness.
“Meanwhile, radiotherapy can cause complete vaginal atrophy – which makes sex very painful.
“Men often find that after having prostate cancer treatment, they have erectile dysfunction, so it may be that they find the need to explore products which will enable them to get an erection again and to be able to give pleasure to their spouse or partner.”
Sam is such authority on the area that she has lectured extensively at medical practitioner conferences, and developed numerous relationships with health service and charity teams around sex products and their benefits.
“I’m very fortunate to have built a fabulous network around me, which includes lots of specialists, particularly in the world of gynaecology and cancer recovery,” she says.
“I happened to sing in a choir and tell one of the other women what it was I did as my business.
“Rather than shying away from the conversation, she immediately got excited about putting me in touch with a specialist NHS team in gynaecology.
“That led on to further health service connections, and I really started to gain a professional audience for the kind of insight I had.
“It’s meant that as well as producing videos on our website specifically about the products, we also use video and content to share our medical and emotional health understanding widely with our customers too.
“It’s important they understand that we are selecting the products that we do extremely carefully – and for all the right reasons.”
Today, Sam and Paul continue to run their business from their office in Kent, and are in continual communication with their audience of customers via the most modern marketing tools, and equally, by more ‘discreet’ catalogues which still fly out the door for those wishing to order in a more ‘old fashioned’ manner.
“I understand that there will always be people who just don’t get why sex toys exist, and therefore don’t want to hear about my business,” Sam accepts.
“But, in my view, the more we normalise talk about sex, the better.
“What’s so strange to me is that we hear the word ‘sex’ mentioned in the media every single day – and yet we still can’t get our heads around mentioning the word ‘vulva’ or ‘vagina’ in public without embarrassment.
“I’m so proud that my daughter, who is now 18, feels able to talk with such maturity about the area of sex and sexual health.
“I felt really comfortable having a discussion with her on the train the other day about our work, and about the number of women who still don’t find they are able to get an orgasm.
“She’s not the slightest bit worried about having a conversation like that – but you can bet it raised a few eyebrows among people who overheard us.”
While Sam may not be able to singlehandedly change how society feels about discussing sexual health and intimacy openly, there’s no denying she’s taking the intelligent dialogue a long way forward.
It’s women like her, who, footstep after footstep, and conversation by conversation, just might be the ones to change social perception and educate huge swathes of the population in the years ahead.
**For more information about Jo Divine’s work with healthcare professionals, you may wish to access their specially created guide. You can do so here: https://www.jodivine.com/articles/womens-sexual-health/jo-divine-health-brochure
**Stay connected to our newsletters and social media for an update on an event in which we’ll be featuring a conversation with Sam, and with a number of specialists in this arena.