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Viagra rising: How the little blue pill revolutionized sex

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Twenty years ago, a little blue pill called Viagra unleashed a cultural shift in America, making sex possible again for millions of older men and bringing the once-taboo topic of impotence into daily conversation.

While the sexual improvement revolution it sparked brightened up the sex lives of many couples, it largely left out women still struggling with dysfunction and loss of libido over time. They have yet to benefit from a magic bullet to bring it all back, experts say.

About 65 million prescriptions have been filled worldwide for the blockbuster Pfizer drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration on March 27, 1998.

It was the first pill aimed at helping men get erections.

Suddenly, talk of an amazing drug that could make an older man’s penis hard again was all over television and magazines.

The Viagra boom also coincided with the rise of the internet, and the explosion of online pornography.

Ads for Viagra were designed to reframe what had been known as “male impotence” as “erectile dysfunction” or ED, a medical condition that could finally be fixed.

Republican senator, military veteran and one-time presidential candidate Bob Dole became the first television spokesman for Viagra, admitting his own fears about erectile dysfunction to the masses.

“It’s a little embarrassing to talk about ED, but it is so important for millions of men and their partners,” he said.

The strategy worked.

Before Viagra, men wanted to talk about their erectile problems, and did, but the conversations were awkward and difficult, recalled Elizabeth Kavaler, a urology specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

“Now, sexuality in general is very out there,” she added.

“Sex has become an expected part of our lives as we age. And I am sure Viagra has been a big part of that.”

MISUNDERSTOOD DRUG

Viagra has had a “major impact” — on a par with the way antibiotics changed the way infections are treated, and how statins became ubiquitous in the fight against heart disease, said Louis Kavoussi, chairman of urology at Northwell Health, a New York-area hospital network.

Viagra’s release also came amid a “sort of a clampdown on physicians interacting with companies,” he said.

“So this was a perfect medicine to advertise to consumers. It was a lifestyle type of medicine.”

Viagra, or sildenafil citrate, was first developed as a drug meant to treat high blood pressure and angina.

But by 1990, men who took part in early clinical trials discovered its main effect was improving their erections, by boosting blood flow to the penis.

For all its popularity, Viagra is still often misunderstood.

“It isn’t an aphrodisiac,” said Kavoussi.

“A lot of men who ask about it say, ‘My wife isn’t very interested in relations,” he added.

“And I say, ‘Viagra is not going to change that.'”

SEXUAL REVOLUTION

In 2000, the comedy show “Saturday Night Live” featured a spoof on ads that showed sexually satisfied men saying, “Thanks, Viagra.”

In it, one eye-rolling actress after another was featured groaning “Thanks, Viagra,” as a horny male partner groped her from behind or gripped her in a slow-dance.

The skit was funny because it reflected a reality few people were talking about.

“We are a very puritanical society, and I think Viagra has loosened us up,” said Nachum Katlowitz, director of urology and fertility at Staten Island University Hospital.

“But for the most part, the women have been left out of the sexual improvement revolution.”

Pfizer finally did include women in its marketing for Viagra, in 2014. The commercials featured sultry women, including at least one with a foreign accent, speaking directly to the camera, telling men to get themselves a prescription.

‘FEMALE VIAGRA’

In 2015, the FDA approved a pill called Addyi (flibanserin), which was cast in the media as the “female Viagra,” and was touted as the first libido-enhancing pill for women who experienced a loss of interest in sex.

The pill was controversial from the start.

A kind of anti-depressant, women were warned not to drink alcohol with it. It also cost hundreds of dollars and came with the risk of major side effects like nausea, vomiting and thoughts of suicide.

“It didn’t go over too big,” said Katlowitz.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals bought Addyi for $1 billion in 2015, but sold it back to the developer, Sprout Pharmaceuticals, at a steep discount last year.

Older women’s main problem when it comes to sex is vaginal dryness that accompanies menopause, and can make sex painful.

Solutions tend to include hormones, or laser treatments that revitalize the vagina. They are just beginning to grow in popularity, but still cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, said Kavaler.

“We are at least 20 years behind men,” she said.

For Katlowitz, Viagra was a prime example of “the greed of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Viagra cost about $15 per pill when it first came out, and rose to more than $50. It finally went generic last year, lowering the price per pill to less than $1.

“There was absolutely no reason to charge $50 a pill,” said Katlowitz.

“It was just that they could, so they did.”

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Masturbation hacks and consent advice: how YouTubers took over sex education

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With UK schools increasingly falling short, vloggers such as Hannah Witton and Laci Green have stepped up to offer guidance on everything from body confidence to sexual pleasure

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When Lily was at school, she remembers the boys and girls being separated for a sex education class. The boys were given one booklet; the girls another. “In the boys’ booklet, there was a section on masturbation and there wasn’t in the girls’ booklet,” she says. “A girl put her hand up and said: ‘Why don’t we have that?’ and one of the teachers said: ‘Girls don’t do that, that’s disgusting.’ It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to talk about. It can be a bit awkward and embarrassing, but we should be talking about it.”

Afterwards, Lily, who is now 19 and identifies as bisexual, went online and discovered sex education videos on YouTube, particularly those made by a young woman, Hannah Witton. “Within my friendship group it has really opened up a conversation about things you don’t normally discuss,” she says. “In schools, LGBT sex ed is just not talked about. Sex was never discussed as a pleasurable thing, especially for women.” Magazines such as Cosmopolitan filled some of her knowledge gaps, she says, but most of her sex education has come from Witton.

YouTube sex educators are increasingly popular, and for the young people I speak to, such videos are where almost all their information about sex now comes from. Witton, who is 26 and British, is incredibly popular, with 430,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel and videos racking up millions of views. Why Having Big Boobs Sucks! has received 3.5m views; 10 Masturbation Hacks has had 1.2m. In the US, Laci Green has 1.5 million subscribers and her videos on, among many topics, nudity, vaginas, foreskins and pubic hair reach millions. There are several other hugely successful sex-ed vloggers, such as Shan Boody and Dr Lindsey Doe. In Poland, where sex education was recently removed from schools, young people are turning to vloggers such as Natalia Trybus, while the model Anja Rubik and a women’s rights organisation, Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, have also launched a series of sex education videos on YouTube.

Hannah Witton talks about masturbation on YouTube.

Amy, 16, says these videos are where almost all of her sex education has come from. “I only really started being given proper sex education in year 10 or 11, when I was about to leave school.” It would have been helpful to have had it earlier, she says. She started watching Witton’s videos when she was about 12. “Everyone around me seemed to understand sex stuff and I was completely clueless,” she says. What did she find most helpful? “Quite a lot of it was her masturbation videos. She presents it in a very positive way – female masturbation is a controversial subject when it shouldn’t be. It helped me understand that side of things. If I had questions, I could probably go on her channel and scroll back and see if she’d posted on it. I’m not that sexually active but I feel like I’m more understanding of what [happens]. I feel a bit more confident because I’ve learned about it in a way that isn’t porn. It’s helped me become more sex positive. It helps me feel like I can talk about it with my friends, whereas before it was like: ‘I can’t talk about that even though everyone’s going through it.’” Has it made it easier to talk to her parents, too? “A little bit,” she says.

It is not surprising that young people are turning to the internet for information, says Lisa Hallgarten, policy manager at Brook, the sexual health and education charity. “Partly because they get everything from the internet. But there is also the fact that in schools they’re just not getting what they need. Even in schools where they’re trying to do a good job, young people aren’t getting the information they need, when they need it. Young people are saying: don’t talk to us about contraception when we’re 17, because some of our friends are already pregnant.”

At the moment, personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) – in which sex education is often included – is not a statutory part of the curriculum in the UK, although schools are expected to provide it. Last year, the Department for Education announced that relationships and sex education (RSE) would be compulsory in all secondary schools, and an eight-week consultation on what should be included recently ended; the guidance has not been updated since 2000, during which time children have had to face then-unheard of things such as sexting, cyberbullying and access to online pornography. “What we would like is for RSE to be a mandatory part of PSHE and for PSHE to be a statutory subject and taught as a timetabled lesson,” says Hallgarten.

Some aspects of sex education are compulsory and taught in science classes. However, parents have the right to remove their children from RSE. “Most parents want RSE for their children but we are worried that those who get withdrawn are possibly the most vulnerable and the least likely to be in households where they get that information from their parents,” says Hallgarten. “They may well resort to looking on the internet of their own accord, and in that case more power to the vloggers. I think there are good vloggers and mediocre vloggers. Some of what people see will be misinformation. I think vlogs should be a supplement, not a replacement to classroom teaching.”

As it is, many teachers are not supported well enough to deliver great sex education lessons, she says. “I think there are a lot of teachers who feel awkward about talking about any aspect of RSE and that’s why we are lobbying hard to make it a real subject and provide real training. There are teachers who really love doing it and are really excellent, but lots of teachers don’t want to do it. If they feel awkward talking about it then it’s not really helpful for young people.” As Amy puts it: “Sex education isn’t seen as a positive thing. It’s seen as cringey. [Watching YouTubers] where it’s people who are only a little bit older than us and not like 40-year-old teachers, it might help people understand it better.”

Hallgarten identified particular areas in which conventional RSE is lacking. “Things like talking about sexual pleasure is something that lots of teachers would really shy away from. They are told about unhealthy relationships but they often don’t have a good model for what a healthy sexual relationship would look like. The vast majority of people will have sex at some point in their life and we hope that it will be a nice experience, but we don’t talk about that. That’s one of the things young people go online to try to understand.”

Some teachers have started even using YouTube sex-ed clips in a classroom setting. “We use a lot of the vloggers in our work,” says Eleanor Draeger, senior RSE trainer at the Sex Education Forum. “We go out and train teachers and show them a wide range of different resources they can use in their classrooms, and one of the resources is vlogs. The idea is that the teacher chooses the things they think will work with the students in their class.” Many of the topics might not be appropriate for secondary school age children; some of the most popular sex education videos are on topics such as encouraging stripping, and the use of sex toys and porn.

“One of the ways we might recommend using a vlogger is we show the video on whichever subject you’re teaching and then the teacher can explain anything the students didn’t understand or expand on the topic. If you were only getting your sex education from [videos] you might not get a rounded sex education. Having said that, I think they’re fantastic as an adjunct and I wish that kind of thing had been around when I was younger.”

Witton launched her first sex education video in January 2012 (she had been posting videos on YouTube for some time before that). It was a video on contraception, presented with a friend. “Sex education is pretty crap, at least in the UK,” she said in it, “so I wanted to make a mini series of sex education videos that hopefully you guys will enjoy and learn some stuff.” That “mini series”, as she endearingly described it, presented and filmed without her more recent polish, has turned into dozens of videos, millions of viewers, a book, and a full-time job as a YouTube star. Witton is smiley and chatty and presents her videos from her flat. She has covered sex toys, hormones, masturbation, porn, consent and open relationships (she doesn’t only talk about sex and relationships – in recent weeks she has been talking about undergoing surgery for ulcerative colitis and what it is like to live with a stoma).

“I was very much inspired by Laci Green in the US,” she says, “and I decided I wanted to start making content about that because I noticed that most of my audience were young women. I felt like I wanted to do something. In terms of my personal experience, [sex education] was very much lacking in school. I had more of an open household so I could talk to my parents, in theory. I remember meeting people once I got to sixth form, who had maybe been to a different school from me or had a different upbringing, who didn’t know some stuff I thought was really basic. I met someone who thought it was totally fine to not use a condom and just pull out. I was like, ‘nooo’.”

She is direct and funny. “I genuinely feel no awkwardness at all. It was one of the reasons I felt like it would be a good idea to start making videos like this, because I know some people don’t feel comfortable talking about these things. If I have a platform and I’m OK talking about them, I can use that platform for good.”

The videos that have done particularly well, she says, include those on masturbation, “especially female masturbation, which for some reason is still taboo. A lot of people either don’t want to admit it’s happening or feel too ashamed to talk about it. There is a general shame and stigma around that topic, in terms of actually doing it but also talking about it.”

Her main audience is women aged between 18 and 24, with 25- to 34-year-olds the next biggest group. People have to be 13 to have a YouTube account (or say they’re 13, and there will be many people who watch without an account) but the 13-17 age bracket makes up just 6% of her audience. Witton, who is an ambassador for Brook, is careful about accuracy. Are there sex education vloggers who are spreading misinformation? “I couldn’t [think of any] off the top of my head, but it’s the internet, so yeah.”

Does she feel that for many young people, she’s their main provider of sex education? “That feels like a lot of pressure, but I’m always really clear that I’m not a doctor. I like to think of my videos as a conversation-starter and from there people’s curiosity can lead them to other bits of information if they want to look into it further. I don’t want to ever take a didactic approach of ‘I’m the teacher’. It’s more of a peer-to-peer education thing.”

In the US, Green started making videos at university. Growing up as a Mormon, her only sex education at school was around abstinence. “A lot of the teenagers in my community just didn’t have the information and resources they needed, so I was a bit miffed about that. I didn’t really ever get sex ed in school. It was only in college, which for me was much later – I’d started having relationships, dating, having sexual experiences. I felt it was too late.” Her videos, she says, felt like “a good platform to have a conversation with other people who thought the same way I did and to share information. As I was trying to figure this stuff out, I was getting the information I needed and sharing it online.”

Around 60% of Green’s subscribers are young women. “I think a lot of the problems we struggle with in society fall around misogynistic ideas around women’s bodies and about relationships, and this is what women are supposed to be and this is what men are supposed to be, which feeds into homophobia and transphobia as well.”

She says around two-thirds of the people who contact her have had no sex education at school, or abstinence-based lessons. “Then the other third did have sex ed but didn’t have all their questions answered. I think a lot of people are awkward about sex. A lot of teachers in the US don’t know how to answer these questions, they’re very restricted in what they can say or do and that makes it really hard for them to have an honest relationship with their students.”

Thea, 19, started watching sex education videos by Green and then found Witton’s. “I definitely got most of my sex ed from YouTube videos,” she says. “Which is sad, because some of this stuff should be taught in school to educate young teenagers properly about sex, but also about the gender and sexuality spectrums. My parents weren’t a lot of help either. It’s really awkward to talk to them about that stuff and they’re another generation so they don’t even know most of it.” She says YouTube videos have changed the way she thinks about sex, sexuality (she identifies as “queer”) and herself. “I feel a lot more confident about my body and I feel a lot more comfortable talking about sex. I probably wouldn’t have been able to actually come to terms with my sexuality if it wasn’t for YouTubers talking about theirs so openly. Online, people aren’t as reluctant to talk about sex, their sexuality and their gender any more, and that’s beginning to be the case in the real world as well, which is awesome.”

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Sex education at the push of a button: the apps changing lives worldwide

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From dealing with harassment to frank advice about STIs, these female app developers are providing vital, candid knowledge

The Ask Without Shame app provides information about sex to young people and has 60,000 users across Africa.

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Accurate information about sex and healthy relationships leads to greater gender equality worldwide, a report by the UN’s world heritage body Unesco found. It also leads to better sexual health, as well as less sexually transmitted infections, HIV and unintended pregnancies.

Yet many young people still don’t get the accurate information they need. Technology is one way to bring it to them. The revised international technical guidance on sexuality education, released by Unesco in January, said new technology offers “rich opportunities” to reach young people – if it’s used intelligently.

These women, from around the world, are working hard to found apps and use new technology to educate communities on sexual health.

Ruth Nabembezi, 22, founder of Ask Without Shame

Ruth Nabembezi, founder of Ask Without Shame.

When Nabembezi was just 16 years old, her older sister Pamela, who was 23, became very thin, started losing her hair and developed a skin rash. She was HIV positive, but a lack of awareness of the virus and Aids meant she didn’t get medical treatment straight away. “She was taken to a witch doctor to be cleansed of demons,” Nabembezi says. When she eventually did get taken to hospital, it was too late and she died there.

Since then, Nabembezi has wanted to help people access accurate information about sexual health. “In Uganda, anything related to sexuality is a taboo,” she says. Last year the government even branded better sex education an “erosion of morals”. Young people have to find their own information from peers, Nabembezi says. As a result, many end up believing harmful myths, such as if you sleep with a virgin, you can’t catch HIV.

Nabembezi created Ask Without Shame after joining a Social Innovation Academy when she finished school, because she wanted to change things. The mobile app, free phone line and text message service provide information about sex to young people through their phones. Questions are answered by doctors, nurses and counsellors.

The app has more than 60,000 users, mostly from Uganda and other African countries. But Nabembezi wants more. “I’d like to see it in every country in the world,” she says.

Beverly Chogo, 23, founder of Sophie Bot

Chogo created Sophie Bot in 2016 after watching her friend go through a traumatic abortion in Kenya. “It led to a lot of bleeding and abdominal pain,” Chogo says. At the time, Chogo didn’t understand what was happening to her friend. “It was a lot of trauma that she wasn’t prepared for,” Chogo says. “From that moment on I wanted to do something.”

And so the Sophie Bot was born. Chogo created the artificial intelligence (AI) Sophie Bot along with a team of three others whom she met at university in Kenya. Unsafe abortion is a major public health crisis in the country and a leading cause of preventable death and illness among women and girls. Young people can ask the Sophie Bot questions about anything, from STIs to family planning and it gives automated responses. Chogo says some people have even asked how to make sex more kinky or pleasurable, although she points out that’s not what it was originally set up for. The bot then gives automated responses.

Sex is still taboo in many African communities and so technology has been “very instrumental,” Chogo says. “Almost everyone has a smartphone.” The Sophie Bot is on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram messenger. It’s had over 1,500 downloads so far, but “now we want to reach more people,” Chogo says. “The sky’s the limit.”

Heather Corinna, 47, founder of Scarleteen

US-born Corinna first set up the Scarleteen website, a platform which provides information about sex and relationships for young people, in 1998. Corinna – who identifies as non-binary and uses the “they” pronoun – had no idea it would become their second job. For the next year, Corinna taught a class of kindergarten children during the day – and then taught a “global online classroom” about sex during the evenings.

It all started when Corinna uploaded fiction about women’s sexuality online. Unexpectedly, they started to get letters from young women asking basic questions about sex. There wasn’t a resource for Corinna to direct them to, so they set up their own: Scarleteen. The website was one of the first of its kind and published questions, along with Corinna’s empathetic responses. “People wrote me long letters, so I wrote them back,” Corinna says.

It wasn’t easy and Corinna was stalked and harassed online, just for talking to young people about the topic of sexuality – but they didn’t give up. “I’m rebellious,” Corinna says. “When people give me grief I go in hard.” Twenty years later, Corinna now runs Scarleteen with a team of global volunteers.

Mia Davis, 25, founder of Tabu

Davis grew up in the American midwest and had an abstinence-based religious education that was “pretty limited” when it came to sexuality. As a result, she was ashamed of her body. “I was always learning from a boyfriend,” the Stanford University graduate says, “but now I realise they didn’t know what they were talking about either.”

So in 2016, the user-experience designer set-up Tabu. One thing that stands out is its colourful design. “A lot of sexual health content can either be too in your face, or is just images that you wouldn’t want anyone to see,” Davis says. “So instead we wanted it to be really fresh and to make it pop.”

Movements like #MeToo, where people have come forward about harassment, have highlighted the need for better sex and relationship education, Davies says. And advances in mobile technology mean that it’s more possible than ever to provide it. “There’s a lot of unlearning to do,” she says. “And it’s coming to a head now.”

Brianna Rader, 26, founder of Juicebox

Rader is about to launch a new version of Juicebox, an app that provides personalised coaching for sex and relationships through your phone. She has been passionate about sex education for years, even getting condemned by lawmakers in the state of Tennessee for running a series of sex education events called Sex Week at her university.

Attitudes towards sex education are changing. Even just a few years ago it was different, she says. But now people are more open to these conversations and are making the most of mobile and new technologies. “[Sex ed tech founders] are not just providing PDFs and booklets,” Rader says. “We are going much further than that.”

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7 Reasons Why Your Crotch Itches

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It may not be the most couth move men make, but there are occasions when guys grab at their balls for a quick scratch or adjustment. There are also times, however, when the urge to scratch is intense because you are experiencing a serious itching sensation, perhaps one that keeps recurring. Should you be concerned? Would you like to know why your crotch itches and what you can do about it?

Here are seven reasons why your crotch itches and, thankfully, ways you can stop itchy balls in their tracks. Some fixes are quick while others take a bit more time, but follow the suggestions and you should have your hand out of your pants in no time.

Chafing

Running and other athletic activities that can cause your thighs to rub together are typical causes of chafing. The rubbing can result in inflammation and minute cracks in the outer skin layer, resulting in a burning or itchy rash. You can protect your skin and eliminate the itching and burning by using a moisturizing cream that contains colloidal oatmeal along with one that provides zinc oxide. Natural remedies include aloe vera gel or olive oil rubbed into the affected area.

Contact dermatitis

This super itchy condition is caused when your skin makes contact with an allergen, which could be the material in your underwear, a new laundry detergent, fabric softener, or soap, or towels. Contact dermatitis usually looks like a bumpy red rash that may be accompanied by an oozing fluid. The effective treatment is to eliminate the cause, which may take a little detective work. If you recently started using a new soap, laundry detergent, or fabric softener, return to your old one. If you have new underwear, you may need to wash it several times (in your tried-and-true) detergent before wearing them. If you have contact dermatitis, you should notice results within 10 to 14 days or sooner.

Fungal infections

If a fungal infection is the cause of your itchiness, you likely will also have a rash or other noticeable skin condition. A yeast infection, for example, is usually accompanied by moist, shiny skin on the penis as well as white deposits in the skin folds and an itchy red rash. Other fungal infections may appear slightly differently. All fungal infections can be treated with antifungal cream (e.g., clotrimazole). A natural alternative is coconut oil, while other remedies (e.g., tea tree oil, oregano oil), when mixed with an appropriate amount of carrier oil, can be helpful as well. Discuss the best mixture of oils with a knowledgeable practitioner.

Genital warts

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is characterized by the presence of genital warts, which are usually soft, skin-colored growths that may even look like tiny florets of cauliflower. Fortunately, these itchy warts don’t cause any other symptoms, but they also are merely a visible representation of a systemic virus. You can successfully treat genital warts with topical medications available over the counter (e.g., imiquimod, podofilox, sinecatechins) or by prescription (e.g., podophyllin, trichloroacetic acid) or have the warts frozen or burned off by your doctor. However, the virus will remain in your system, and the warts may return at a later time.

Herpes

Sometimes itching is the first symptom of an infection with the herpes virus, a sexually transmitted disease. The itching quickly turns into burning, after which blisters can develop. If the blisters break, they can result in painful ulcers. The best treatment strategy is to see your physician, who can prescribe an antiviral medication such as acyclovir or valacyclovir hydrochloride. You also should inform any sexual partners of your infection so they can treated as well.

Intertrigo

Intertrigo is an inflammatory condition that forms in the folds of the skin. It is usually chronic, and along with itching you can experience burning, pain, and stinging. Intertrigo is caused and aggravated by exposure to friction, heat, moisture, and lack of air circulation. In some cases, intertrigo is complicated by a fungal, bacterial, or viral infection. Men who are obese and/or who have diabetes are frequently affected.

Treatment includes keeping the affected area as clean and dry as possible. Avoid wearing tight clothing that restricts air circulation. Use a barrier cream to help prevent irritation. Your doctor may suggest short-term use of a topical steroid to manage inflammation. If you have an infection, an antifungal or antibiotic ointment may be necessary.

Pubic lice

If you notice tiny yellowish or white specks near the roots of your pubic hair and the itching is intense, there’s a good chance you have eggs belonging to pubic lice (aka, crabs). Once the eggs hatch, the parasites are gray-white or tan and can cause quite a bit of itching and irritation as they crawl. You should see your healthcare provider as soon as possible for an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment of pubic lice typically includes use of a lotion or shampoo that contains either permethrin or pyrethrins with piperonyl butoxide, which kills lice. Natural remedies include holding a soft cloth soaked with equal amounts of apple cider vinegar and water on the affected area for about 30 minutes. Repeat daily as needed. Both peppermint and tea tree oils, mixed with an appropriate amount of carrier oil, can help eliminate pubic lice as well.

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‘Grace and Frankie’ raises an interesting question: Where are all the sex toys for seniors?

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The struggle is real.

It isn’t every day you see a sex toy on a billboard, and it’s even more rare you’ll see one in the hands of a person in their seventies.

But thanks to Grace and Frankie, the Netflix sitcom starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, that’s exactly what people saw when the show’s third season premiered last year. The series, which centers around two friends who face many challenges while trying to create a vibrator for seniors, has brought to light an interesting real-life question: Where are all the sex toys for older people?

Last season followed the unlikely roommates as they conceptualized, prototyped, and focus-grouped the “Ménage à Moi.” It’s a vibrator made for and — perhaps more importantly — marketed to older women, particularly those who have a hard time using traditional models because of their arthritis.

Their fictional creation has a soft grip gel sleeve, is lightweight, can be easily repositioned, and even features glow-in-the-dark control buttons. Sounds ideal — except no such thing exists in the real world.

There’s no question about it, Grace and Frankie (which returns to Netflix for a fourth season on Jan. 19) is in uncharted sex-positive territory. While sex toys have made a fleeting appearance in other popular TV shows, basing a major series storyline around them is on another level. And having the sex toy be the brainchild of postmenopausal women who talk openly about their experiences developing and using it? Well, that’s pretty subversive.

A missed opportunity

Senior sexuality is often used as an ageist punchline — even in some of the most “progressive” of shows. The most recent season of Broad City, for example, featured an older woman named Garol shopping for a comically large dildo.

But beyond jokes, there’s a persistent lack of representation of older adults in sexual scenarios. It’s almost enough to make you think that older people have lost their interest in sex, which is a generalization that’s simply not true.

​According to a 2017 survey conducted by the sex toy company TENGA, the​ average baby boomer reported masturbating an average of 3.3 times a week (compared to 6.3 for millennials and 4.6 times for Gen X-ers.) ​A​ 2010 study conducted by AARP found that 28 percent of older adults had sexual intercourse at least once a week, and 85 percent of these men and 61 percent of the women agreed sex is important to their overall quality of life.

“In our society and culture, we see sexuality displayed by a lot of very young people. But sexuality most certainly doesn’t turn off,”  said Lisa Lawless, a psychotherapist and owner of a boutique sex toy business and online resource center. “We have customers well into their eighties, and even their nineties.”

But often, she notes, they don’t know quite where to start.

This is why advocates of a less ageist, more sex-positive culture say they’re hopeful Grace and Frankie can serve as a pivotal moment for making senior sexuality a more mainstream topic.

Grace and Frankie inspect their creation.

Emily Ferry is the prop master on Grace and Frankie, and she scoured both the web and brick-and-mortar stores to find inspirations for the Ménage à Moi vibrator that would eventually appear on the show.

“There was nothing that I could find that was aimed at older women,” said Ferry, estimating that her team charged 40 vibrators to the production studio as part of their research. “There were some items that [would make] someone say, ‘This would be good for older women,’ but there was nothing that had been manufactured with the older woman in mind.”

A baby boomer herself, Ferry says that many women she’s spoken with in her peer group have expressed an interest in buying a real-life version of the product. “I want one of those, how do I get one of those?” they ask her.

It’s easy to understand why Ferry’s peers are having a hard time: There really aren’t many sex toys specifically marketed to older users. Until now, this is something that demographic has been forced to navigate for themselves.

Senior sex ed

Watching Joan Price give a webinar on sex toys for seniors, it’s easy to imagine that she was equally adept in two of her earlier careers: a high school English teacher and physical fitness instructor. She speaks breezily about the sex toys she recommends for seniors, talking for over an hour straight. It’s clear she’s perfectly comfortable holding a rabbit vibrator up to her face to demonstrate size. Her curly grey hair bobs as she earnestly impersonates different styles of buzzing vibration pattern. In one taped presentation, she wears a silver clitoris ring and t-shirt emblazoned with a Magic Wand design under the words “Knowledge is power” that she shows off proudly.

“Sex toys are a gift to seniors,” the 74-year-old award-winning author tells Mashable.

“So many things change as we age, or our medical conditions can get in the way. There are so many things going on, but for every problem there is a solution.”

Joan Price teaching one of her webinars

Price has been blogging about sex from a senior’s perspective for the past 13 years. It’s a job she kind of fell into after meeting her “great love” Robert, an artist and teacher, at age 57. Their sexual relationship inspired her to publish her first book, “Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty.” Touring the country and checking her inbox, she found she was among the lucky ones.

While she was having great partnered sex, many of her peers were not. She decided she was going to help. She has since written two more books about sexual pleasure for older adults and has reviewed over 100 sex toys from the senior perspective. She also travels to sex-positive feminist stores like the Pleasure Chest, Tool Shed, and Smitten Kitten to hold workshops and help educate retail staff on this topic.

The criteria Price uses to determine whether or not a sex toy might be especially appealing to those in her age group are wide-ranging. She asks herself: Does it give off vibrations strong enough for those who are finding they now need extra sensation? Is it ergonomic? Lightweight? Can it go for long periods of time without overheating or running out of charge, seeing as arousal now takes longer? Can the controls be easily identified without having to reach for reading glasses? If it’s insertable, will it be an appropriate size for those who are now more likely to experience vaginal soreness and decreased elasticity?

Lawless also acknowledges that the seniors who call her customer service line with trepidation about buying these products — often for the first time — have distinct preferences and inquiries. Take USB chargers, for instance, which can be confusing to those who are less tech-savvy. And if a USB charger seems intimidating, forget the whole new world of WiFi-enabled teledildonic toys.

Designing with older people in mind

Despite the specific needs of older adults, both Lawless and Price are hesitant to say a hypothetical sex toy specifically built for and marketed to older adults (like the Ménage à Moi) is wholly necessary. After all, they tell Mashable, there are already ergonomically-designed vibrators on the market that do meet many of the physical needs of, say, an arthritic older person.

Are glow-in-the-dark control buttons really a make-or-break feature? What about instruction manuals printed in a larger font size? It’s hard to say for sure. But regardless, this Grace and Frankie plot point does reflect how older adults are notably underrepresented in the booming adult product market. Online, where most people shop for their pleasure products, it’s rare you’ll stumble across photos of older models or language in product descriptions that address their particular concerns.

Among the companies that are consciously working to address and court this demographic is Tantus, which has been actively creating sex toys with disabled users in mind for years. There’s also the Fiera pre-intimacy vibrator for generating arousal, whose creators told Mic it’s made with seniors in mind.

And then there’s Hot Octopuss’ “guybrator” products like the PULSE III, which does not require the penis to be erect for use. This can be of significant benefit to older people who may have issues with erectile function. In an email to Mashable, Hot Octopuss founder Adam Lewis said the technological basis for this product came from “a medical device that was used in hospitals to allow men with spinal cord injuries and severe erectile dysfunction to ejaculate.”

“As a company we feel strongly that the industry needs to change its approach to aging and sex (and disability and sex, which is a different but associated debate),” he adds.

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