‘Holy’ Sex Toys?
Religious entrepreneurs launch ‘pious’ sex-toy shops—to strengthen the marital bond. By Allison Yarrow.
Joyce’s sex life can be divided into two acts: before and after the Turbo 8 Accelerator.
The evangelical Christian from California’s central valley had never had an orgasm alone nor with her husband of 25 years. “I didn’t know I wasn’t having one,” the 59-year-old mother of two told The Daily Beast. Yet after chatting with some church girlfriends, she learned what she was missing. “’All that happens to you?’” she asked. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”
Joyce, who requested that we use only her first name, and her equally devout spouse never would have found the bullet-shaped vibrator or the array of “marital aids” they’ve ordered since, if it wasn’t for the Christian sex toy website Book 22—introduced to her by a friend after their chat. “I’m a Christian, but this is awesome,” she said. “It was like being newlyweds again.”
Sex and religion have long been perceived to be at odds, with carnal pleasures representing sin more than saintliness. Yet in recent years, a handful of savvy Christian, Jewish and Muslim entrepreneurs have embraced the notion that the two can coexist in a way that jibes with doctrine—and even glorifies traditional values by strengthening marriages.
Enter the religious sex-toy industry, which carefully markets and sells a range of sexual-pleasure products to the faithful. Joy Wilson, a 41-year-old counseling student in central Oregon, founded Book 22 a decade ago, when she had trouble “getting her body to respond” to her husband after their second child, and her online search for remedies yielded scandalous imagery that offended more than it helped. The pioneering site, named after the Biblical book also known as the Song of Solomon, now faces growing competition from rival vendors including Hooking Up Holy, Intimacy of Eden, and Covenant Spice.
And the industry grew exponentially this fall with the launch of the Orthodox Jewish shop Kosher Sex Toys, and last year with the Muslim vendor El Asira. The sites even enjoy the support of many community leaders. “Religious people do it like everybody else,” said David Ribner, a rabbi and sex therapist based in Israel, who works as a consultant for Kosher Sex Toys. “Why shouldn’t they have access to toys that make their lives more satisfying?”
To be clear, the “religious people” targeted are married, heterosexual religious people; pious sex-toy vendors market their products exclusively to these couples. Unlucky in love and looking for some solitary fun after morning prayers? Look elsewhere.
What happens in the heterosexual marital bed, however, should be nothing short of transcendent, say the site owners, who happily report that their holy books not only permit sexual fulfillment between partners, but require it. “If a man is unable to please a woman in bed, she can divorce him,” said Abdelaziz Aouragh, a 30-year-old Dutch Muslim businessman who founded El Asira—stressing the Islamic belief that “man and woman must reach their peak” during intercourse, and that only then is the “deed complete.”
The burgeoning niche, part of the roughly $15 billion sex-toy industry, reports that business has been steadily growing, with most sites shipping a few hundred orders per month. Clients usually find them through Google, say the owners, or a thoughtful religious leader or astute sex therapist. The vendors use many of the same distributors as secular shops, with most products made in China. Gavriel, a 25-year-old furniture salesman who owns Kosher Sex Toys (and asked that we use only his middle name) stressed in an interview, “There’s nothing wrong with having all the sex you want.”
To an outsider, visiting the religious sites feels a bit like listening to the bleeped-out version of an explicit hip-hop song: the substance is the same, it’s just missing the X-rated details. None of the sites feature any nudity, instead relying on mannequins to display lingerie. Nor do they feature any sexy language. Kosher Sex Toys, for example, rewrites product descriptions that risk shocking its audience. (The “Butterfly Clitoris Stimulator” becomes, simply, the “Vibrating Stimulator.”) And while they don’t flaunt their holiness, they’ll occasionally rely on religious messaging to sell themselves, or perhaps put potential customers at ease. Book 22, for example, promises to “enhance the intimate life of all God’s children.”
The “piousness” of the products themselves comes down to packaging and presentation. Book 22’s Wilson repackages plastics in plain boxes and includes additional care instructions. Kosher Sex Toys’s Gavriel also removes items from offensive packaging before shipping. Meanwhile, El Asira’s Aouragh only stocks brands that arrive in tasteful and inoffensive wrappings.
Despite consistencies across the religious sites, the vendors do vary based on doctrine, audience, and each owner’s preferences. Wilson refuses to sell anal devices and condoms, not because she objects, but because her customers do. “The Catholics protested the condoms, and the evangelical Christian community is sensitive about anal sex and play,” she said. “But I’ll special order anything if people ask.”
Aouragh, who rejects the term “sex shop,” preferring to say that he’s in the business of “sexual well-being,” sells only Sharia-compliant items. Meaning: no vibrators, dildos, or drugs that claim to enhance size or use, because these items misinterpret the male form. The homepage for El Asira, which means “The Society” in Arabic, is partitioned by gender, with two ornate mosque doors—and while it carries women's lingerie and a range of massage products, oils and lubricants sell best.
Meanwhile, Kosher Sex Toys’ Gavriel won’t stock male masturbatory aids because, he says, God frowns on wasted potential, according to the Torah. However, since Judaism doesn't prohibit female self-pleasure, he carries myriad trinkets that buzz. He also proudly sells whips and drip candles; performance-enhancing pills and sprays; clear-heeled shoes and thigh-high boots; and a variety of handcuffs, restraints, and tools for cutting them off.
And at least one customer is grateful for this inventory. Yaakov, a 25-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish salesman from New Jersey who preferred not to use his last name, views the site as a godsend. Shortly into his marriage, he discovered that he suffered from premature ejaculation, and his therapist, who works with many Orthodox couples, prescribed him “marital aids,” and directed him to Kosher Sex Toys. Without getting into detail, Yaakov told The Daily Beast simply, “It should be considered a mitzvah to use these things.” Of course, many religious leaders and worshipers disagree. Rabbi Avi Shafran, who works in communications at an Orthodox communal organization in New York City, said in an email that Kosher Sex Toys is “about as immodest—in the definition of the Jewish religious tradition—as one can get.” He describes Judaism's stance on sexual intimacy as “sublime” and “holy,” but believes toys taint this intention.
Indeed, navigating ingrained religious beliefs, and misconceptions, about sex and pleasure poses a continuous challenge for site owners, who have either taken it upon themselves to advise clients or enlisted the help of experts. Wilson pursued a master's degree in counseling to better help her customers. And Kosher Sex Toys keeps the rabbi and sex therapist Ribner on call as a licensed authority on both sex and scripture. Because of a lack of proper sex education, Ribner said, religious couples often suffer from misguided advice. “One couple was told that if the woman does not like sex, she should take two Tylenol and finish as quickly as possible,” he said. In his work with Kosher Sex Toys, he has advised on topics ranging from the science of erectile dysfunction to the morality of spanking a partner.
Ultimately, across religions, owners share the same lofty goal: to help fellow (married) worshipers find happiness and peace behind closed doors. “You can’t buy love and respect between a man and a woman,” said Aouragh. “But we’re trying to be creative and clever in selling it.”