BY: KATE SLOAN
Featured image by: Cara Sutra
My dad started to get suspicious when I got three boxes of dildos in the mail in one week.
He didn’t know they were dildos. But it didn’t matter. It seemed strange. “I hope you’re not running up your credit card ordering stuff online,” he said sternly over the top of his newspaper as I took Dildo Box #3 from the mailman.
I closed the door and paused in the front hall, biting my lip, clutching the package. Should I tell the truth? Should I lie? Should I ignore him entirely, run upstairs to my room, and empty the box’s glorious contents onto my bed for immediate testing?
Nah. I decided it was time to tell him. “I actually started a blog last month and companies have been sending me products to review,” I explained.
“What kind of products?” my dad asked, and that’s where the conversation got a lot weirder.
“Sex toy reviewer” is a job title, which, like “chocolate tester” and “puppy cuddler,” sounds too good to be true. It invites mental images of long, lazy masturbation sessions, perhaps in an ornate four-poster bed while a soft breeze blows through a nearby bay window. Sex toy reviewing sounds like work that barely meets the criteria for “work.” Maybe you use text-to-speech to dictate quick emails to toy companies between hours-long orgasm-fests. But mostly, your work would be to come and come hard—with expensive, top-of-the-line pleasure products. It’s a job that, at first blush, just about anyone would lust over.
The reality, however, is less exciting.
The title of “sex toy reviewer” invites mental images of long, lazy masturbation sessions, however the reality is less exciting.
Sex toy blogger Epiphora once documented a day in her life to combat exactly this type of misconception. “My job is sweet, I’ll give you that,” she wrote, “but unless your definition of ‘glamorous’ includes Photoshopping hairs off dildos, it’s not usually thrilling.”
Her morning went the way many of her mornings go: over coffee and cat-cuddles, she corresponded with advertisers, updated the sales and deals page on her blog, and scheduled some social media posts. As the day wore on, she caught up on other bloggers’ toy reviews, gave blogging advice to a friend, and deposited a sales commission cheque from a sex toy company. Research and photography took up her early afternoon, and it wasn’t until 2:48 p.m. that she managed to fit masturbation into her busy schedule.
It wasn’t even good masturbation, either. She had to test a toy she hates. Such is the life of the sex toy reviewer.
Terrible toys are, unfortunately, part of the job—just as I’m sure chocolate testers sometimes grimace over bitter batches and puppy cuddlers sometimes get bitten. Since starting my blog in 2012, I have wailed in pain over too-big dildos, pinched my clit under ill-designed rabbit vibes, and had a glass egg stuck in my vagina for a terrifying few minutes. I have scraped and scratched my vaginal walls with sharply ribbed metal. I have fretted that an overheating vibrator might ignite my duvet. I have felt the tell-tale burning of toxic chemicals in my orifices. An alarm-clock vibrator has jabbed my pubis in my sleep, I’ve pulled arm muscles from thrusting too hard, and dropped steel butt plugs on my toes. And that’s before you even factor in having a bad orgasm or no orgasm at all.
Terrible toys are, unfortunately, part of the job.
Reviewing sex toys is not a constant barrage of carnal bliss. A journalist covering the Super Bowl can’t get completely lost in the event’s excitement, no matter how big a sports fan he may be—and likewise, a sex toy reviewer can’t completely surrender to the pleasure a toy gives her (assuming it does give her pleasure), because her work requires analysis.
Lilly, of DangerousLilly.com, recently reviewed a clitoral stimulator called the Womanizer, and as much as she wanted to just lay back and enjoy it, her inquiring reviewer brain wouldn’t let her. “It took 20 minutes of actual use for me to know that I loved it,” she told me, “but an hour, off and on, of applying the thing to my nose, lower lip and finger to try and understand how the damn thing actually works!”
The Womanizer uses a combination of suction, air pressure and vibration to provide what it calls the “ultimate super-orgasm.” Like many sex toy companies, the creators of the Womanizer make bold claims about the efficacy of their product, which can’t be proven or disproven except by actually trying the toy. At $189, it’s a pricey investment, and its unique new technology makes it a dicey buy, too—but reviewers like Lilly can help consumers make informed decisions before bringing a new sex toy into their bedrooms.
I struggle with this responsibility myself. It imbues the seemingly frivolous work of sex toy reviewing with a sense of gravity, importance and accountability. One of my favourite toys in my collection is a massive, $300 stainless steel dildo, and while I wax rhapsodic about it all over my blog, I’m painfully aware that I could be leading my readers astray. $300 is a lot of money, and steel insertables aren’t for everyone, especially ones so big that they could cause actual harm if used without proper warm-up or lubrication. I wanted to strike a balance between “This toy is the best thing that’s ever happened to my vagina!” and, “You might hate it if you tried it.” While reviews are, by their nature, subjective and personal, there is always a fear that angry readers will show up at my door with pitchforks if I endorse a product they end up buying and loathing.
This fear is particularly potent because I do, indeed, get products for free—and readers can assume that means I’ve been “bought off,” or am otherwise motivated to write good reviews of bad toys. Lilly’s written so many scathing reviews of products by luxury toy company Jimmyjane that she says one of their reps badmouthed her to a sex shop employee, saying she’d been paid off by Jimmyjane’s main competitor to trash-talk them on her blog. “From moment one of my reviewing, I made it clear that I’m here to be brutally honest, because at the end of the day, I’m a consumer,” she told me. “I see my reviews on my blog as no different from if I were reviewing a product I purchased on Amazon.” There are companies who look at reviews as free advertising—they send a toy, they get a favourable write-up from a blogger—but most of the companies my blogger posse and I work with are well aware of the nature of reviews. It’s honest, and it covers the good and the bad, regardless of whether the toy was free.
Sex bloggers need to strike a balance between “This toy is the best thing that’s ever happened to my vagina!” and, “You might hate it if you tried it.”
And, let’s be real: the toys aren’t free. Sure, we don’t pay for them with money, but we do pay for them with our work, our time and whatever clout we’ve amassed. Lilly estimates each review takes her between six and 18 hours of work, including testing toys, comparing them to other toys, drafting the post and taking the photos. Epiphora works on reviews for weeks or months; it’s important to her that she not only describes each toy accurately, but that her posts are entertaining to read. “I’m a perfectionist and I will spend hours rearranging sentences to achieve some semblance of flow,” she told me. “I will labour over articulating something in precisely the right fashion.” Her reviews have been lauded as witty, thorough, and ruthlessly honest— a reputation she’s cultivated through thousands of hours of diligent work.
When I tell people I review sex toys and that I make money that way, their response is usually: “So you get paid to masturbate?” But the truth is that I get paid to run an active, useful, interesting blog, and to do all the work that goes into that. “People think sex blogging is easy money. It most certainly is not,” Epiphora said. “Every day is a hustle.” I’m not a full-time, self-sustaining blogger like she is, but I still spend at least two hours a day working on my blog: writing, editing, taking pictures, doing social media promotion, corresponding with advertisers and readers, updating various pages on my site, and brainstorming future posts.
So, do we “get paid to masturbate”? Mostly not. Lilly guesses about 5 percent of her work hours are spent actually testing toys; Epiphora says 12 percent. And either way, the masturbation isn’t what brings home the bacon—it’s the rest of the work that does. “I don’t get paid per orgasm and I don’t get compensated for shitty orgasms,” Epiphora told me. “I wish.”
But if we don’t get paid per orgasm, how do we get paid? That’s a question I hear a lot. And if a company is paying me to review their stuff, how can I be truly unbiased? Some sex bloggers offer sponsored posts, or have space in their website’s sidebar for text and banner ads or get paid to write for other websites. But by and large, sex toy reviewers—including me—make most of our money in affiliate sales. When we write about a toy, we use specially coded links, which earns us commission on any sales made through the link, usually between 15 and 30 percent of the sale price.
If I convince someone to buy that $300 steel dildo I love so much, I can earn between $45 and $90 on that sale alone. You may think that incentivizes me to write glowing reviews of every toy I receive, even the ones I hate, and especially the more expensive ones—but the racket would collapse on me pretty fast. Readers have a sharp bullshit meter and can tell when a blogger is evangelizing a product that actually disappointed her.
Epiphora’s solidified her reputation as a sex toy expert, in part, by writing reviews that are not only negative but sometimes downright mean. Her blog’s tagline is “Where sex toys go to be judged.” On her “About” page, she describes herself saying, “I’m brutally honest, snarky, a bit jaded, and don’t believe in sugarcoating anything except my coffee.” Readers flock to her signature snark—because they know by now that when she loves a toy, she really loves it, and when she hates a toy, the resulting blog post will be laced with so many sick burns that you might laugh coffee out your nose.
Lilly of dangerouslilly.com says only 5% of her work time is actually used to test toys, the rest is writing reviewing, corresponding, etc.
Photo by: Cara Sutra
A close relationship with readers decides whether a blogger sinks or swims. Sex toy reviews help consumers make decisions, but bloggers can also assist and advocate for readers in other ways. Epiphora writes guides to help her readers choose sex toys to give as gifts, increase their sexual media literacy and even start their own sex blogs. Lilly debunks sex toy myths, spreads awareness about toxic toys, and runs a reviewer directory so readers can find sex toy bloggers whose bodies and preferences match their own.
Sometimes, bloggers even go head-to-head with sex toy companies for their readers. Not all toymakers are as ethical and understanding as one would hope, so some of them balk at frank reviews. Early in my blogging career, I reviewed a wooden spanking paddle and said I wished it’d been treated with varnish and not just mineral oil, because the surface of the wood felt rough and susceptible to splintering. The craftsperson who’d made the paddle wrote me an angry email, saying I’d misled readers by warning them to be careful of splinters. “I apologize if you were offended by my review,” I wrote back, aiming for tact but barely keeping the disdain out of my tone. “My policy is to write what I honestly think of a product.”
In a more extreme case, Epiphora once gave an insulting nickname to a toy because its performance didn’t live up to the company’s pompous claims. Epiphora’s following is not small—about 30,000 people read her blog each month, and she has almost 13,000 Twitter followers—so when she nicknames a toy, it tends to stick. The company later threatened legal action, but she refused to take the review down. “I’ve [become] more careful about the companies I review for,” she told me. “They must understand that I ultimately work for my readers, and that I will not sugarcoat anything just to stay on someone’s good side.”
It’s also not uncommon for employees of toy companies to leave condescending comments on bad reviews, explaining how the reviewer must have misused or misunderstood the toy to have disliked it. That these quibblers are often male, and that sex toy reviewers are often female, causes bloggers like Epiphora to use the controversial term “mansplaining” when they call these people out. And indeed, it’s hard to imagine a world where a woman would see fit to tell a man he was masturbating wrong.
Talking about sex on the internet as a woman conjures criticism and controversy. I’ve been called slutty, loose, desensitized and pathetic. I’ve received nonconsensual dick pics, angry Twitter tirades, and even threats of sexual violence. For topics as innocuous as pleasure and masturbation, I’ve sure encountered a lot of vitriol for tackling them openly and proudly. But that’s the reality of being a sexual woman in a world that desperately seeks to suppress our desire and agency while also hypersexualizing us.
Sex bloggers get criticism for approaching pleasure and masturbation openly and proudly, being called names and subject to sexual harassment.
Agency is the key word, really. My sex toy reviewer friends all do this work because, for one reason or another, it feels personally important to them that they educate others about masturbation and sex toys. Some process past sexual traumas by taking pleasure into their own hands; some come from cultures or families that shamed sex, breeding in them an itch to squash stigma; some grew up never knowing the pleasures they were missing out on, until a vibrator magically entered their life somehow and changed their whole trajectory. Whatever the origin story that brought them to sex toy reviewing, the fact remains that their work helps people. It means something to people.
“I didn’t expect to end up feeling like I’m making a small difference in the overall picture,” Lilly told me. She regularly gets emails from readers raving that her toy guides helped them make healthier, smarter decisions about what they stick in their orifices. “I think it’s significant to be a voice that talks casually about sex and masturbation and pleasure, and gives others permission to see it as something that is no big deal and their right to experience.”
Despite all the hard work, vulnerability, misconceptions and conflicts that come with the territory of sex toy reviewing, there’s something positively thrilling about teaching people it’s okay to masturbate. Not only is it okay, but it’s something you should spend money on, if you’re able to. You deserve the best pleasure products you can get your hands on. If we’re doing our jobs right, sex toy reviewers can help you choose the right toys for you, and inspire you to go fuck yourself in the nicest way possible.