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 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 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 .
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 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 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.
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 , 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.”
Price has been 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 in mind for years. There’s also the Fiera pre-intimacy vibrator for generating arousal, whose creators 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.
To reflect the fact that the products can address issues somewhat more common in older adults, the company consciously includes than you’d typically see on other sites and photos of people in wheelchairs.
But for the most part, this isn’t an area too many companies seem comfortable approaching just yet. For example, one sex toy designer did chuckle when I made the hypothetical suggestion of sex toys specifically made and marketed for older users.
This mentality can be seen clearly when perusing online shops for products known to assist aging people and those with mobility issues, like sex furniture. You still only see young, able-bodied models.
Lawless also thinks there are other products that may have been designed with older adults specifically in mind, but that don’t necessarily market to them specifically. These include electrostimulation vibrators, clitoral pumps and suctions (like the Womanizer), and hollow dildos — though she notes the latter product can be exceedingly large and not necessarily compatible with older vagina owners’ limitations.
“Even though the marketing doesn’t show people with wrinkles — and yes I absolutely, earnestly, think it should — many retailers and manufacturers are very interested in the demographic,” Price tells Mashable. “Which, of course makes sense, business-wise. But it also makes sense because all of their young [customers], if they’re lucky, will get old.”
For all the “ick factor” she says she still sees when the topic of older adult sexuality comes up, Price notes that she’s begun to see a slow shift.
“We’re not done achieving what I want to achieve here, but at least I’m not seen as an oddity as an advocate for ageless sexuality,” she says. “I still get the ‘Come on, stop it,’ from some people. But I don’t stop.”
“We have the right to sexual pleasure lifelong,” she adds.
While it’ll certainly be interesting to see where the next season of Grace and Frankie takes the fictional sextech duo, many people are even more eager to see if the Ménage à Moi can become something more than “just seen on TV.”