This story begins in front a row of lubed-up teal dildos pumping in and out of fleshlights. At least, that’s where my education on sex toy testing began, so I figured it’s only fair yours does too.
I was recently invited on a trip to Berlin with Lovehoney Group during which I was taken on a tour of its Pleasure Campus. It was kind of like being brought through Willy (lol) Wonka’s chocolate factory. Only, instead of a chocolate river, there was a sea of sex toys and lube.
Now, while this visit to sex toy Disneyland left me with a long list of interesting learnings (like, pelvic floor exercises can improve orgasm for people with vulvas, or that some 38% of Australians are not aware that the prostate is an erogenous zone), easily the most fascinating part of my visit was the education session on sex toy testing.
Because how does a sex toy company ensure that a product does its job?
The answer, it turns out, is split into two parts: engineering and human experience. Oh yes, there are people whose job is to test and report back on sex toys before they hit stores, or the top drawer of your bedside table.
Dan Shor, a Research and Development Engineer at Lovehoney Group, explained to us that it can take up to five years of testing before a sex toy is given the green light to make its way into your pants.
There is a whole team of engineers that works to make sure the volume isn’t too intense (people want their privacy); that toys can withstand up to 10,000 bends (they need to be flexy); that they won’t fall apart if dropped on the floor (sometimes things fall out — do your kegels!), and that materials can withstand a whole lot of pumping (hello, teal dildos).
But even with all the engineering brains in the world, you can’t be sure a sex toy is going to get folks off unless people — lots of people — give it a go.
According to Shor, there are thousands of testers (17,000 in fact) who volunteer for the responsibility of trialling new toys — I assume pretty enthusiastically. That’s where Elisabeth Neumann comes in.
Neumann is Lovehoney Group’s User Testing Expert. She’s in charge of getting people to masturbate with a bunch of different toys and hearing their feedback which, she said, is tougher than you might assume.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the whole process might look something like: receive sex toy, use it a bunch, then fill in a form indicating where it fell on a scale of meh to I have been tranquilised by a tidal wave of orgasms.
But it’s actually a lot broader, and more serious, than that. Neumann explained that there isn’t all that much research available in the sexual pleasure space so the information shared by Lovehoney Group’s community of testers is invaluable, really.
Before passing a toy out for play, Lovehoney Group’s research team will, er, come together and look at what questions they need answered — beyond “does this toy help people achieve orgasm?”. It might be about a particular part of the body, or specific kind of sex, or just the way people use certain toys. This then informs who they may need to speak to (whether that’s people with vulvas, cis straight men, people who have had children and so on).
Sometimes, at the very early stages, testing may just be offered to staff who volunteer for the program. But as the toy progresses (because designs will change based on the feedback received) it will then become available to friends and family, then the wider testing community, until a solid chunk of people have had their way with it.
Usually, testers will get about two to three weeks with a new toy, then they need to take part in a series of interviews. This is where things get real interesting. Neumann explained that people are often nervous, or find that shame can seep in (yes even in a setting as sex-positive as this), but that at the end of most discussions, testers often feel pretty liberated by the challenge of talking about their bodies at length.
They’ll be asked to describe how the sensations feel, or to talk about their masturbation habits more generally, and that can sometimes require a little mental digging to find the language to properly communicate the detail needed.
Neumann said this can be tough because “as a society we don’t have very specific words for sexual experiences”.
Often, Neumann shared, they’ll get statements like, “I just put it down there and it felt nice” — which is hardly surprising.
I mean, how explicitly can you explain your experiences of pleasure? It’s a world that’s filled with euphemism. Peeling all that away likely takes some practise. And, Neumann added, while specificity is necessary, they also want to respect people’s boundaries – so it’s a space that must be handled with care.
All of this is significant because as much as this is a fun time getting to play with a new oral sex simulator or butt plug or whatever, there is very real insight taken from the experience. Reports are built from this data, which are then taken back to the engineering teams and applied to future design. And thus, the sexy cycle starts all over again.
If you’re wondering what testers get out of this pretty intimate job, other than permission to masturbate on the clock, there is a rewards system in place. Basically, folks who sign up get points every time they engage by filling out surveys, participating in discussions (etc.) and points can get you free vibes.
But that’s not all that motivates testers, apparently. Neumann shared a recent study Lovehoney Group ran highlighted that people were keen to join the community not only for freebies, but to learn about new products, participate in questionnaires (people love a survey), and to contribute to scientific research.
In any case, the next time you take a pleasure-filled ride with a sex toy, remember those who put their bodies forward to get that baby where it is today.
They’re true heroes, the bunch of them – bettering society one orgasm at a time.
Oh, and before you ask – the testing program isn’t yet available in Australia. I know, I’m sorry. But hey, at least you know what to expect if that ever changes.