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These fun, shame-free vibrators are for anyone with a vulva

Smile Makers is the sex toy and pleasure brand working to remove the stigma around purchasing vibrators, making their products more inclusive and fun so you can have better sex

Long gone are the days that sex toys languished in shop back rooms and Incognito mode on late-night laptop sessions. Sex tech has been brought out into the day – celebrities like Lily Allen and Cara Delevingne are attaching their names to sex toys, and even Goop launched a vibrator this month. Once something to whisper about among friends or awkwardly murmur to the Ann Summers sales assistant, the taboos around pleasure are breaking down. Masturbation has become something of which to be loud and proud, and sex tech has become an area of impressive innovation. 

This shift comes amid wider conversations around normalising pleasure for people it’s been withheld from – women, non-binary people, trans people. The rise of sexual wellness has seen it permeate pop culture, alongside a slew of new brands that are prioritising sleeker designs, elegant packaging, and accessible marketing. One name that has been there since the beginning is Smile Makers. Launched in 2013, the women-focused brand aims to create products that remove the stigma around the act of buying a vibrator and has become known for its pastel-coloured aesthetic and playful, anthropomorphic designs based on traditionally lusted-after characters such as firemen, tennis coaches and Frenchmen. 

“We wanted to create something joyful, colourful, that you feel proud to own and that validates pleasure as part of your overall well being,” says brand director Cecile Gasnault. “We purposefully chose pastel colours to look friendly, safe, and welcoming and used humour to break the ice and make the products approachable.” 

Alongside the products themselves, the brand aims to encourage education and open communication among their audience through its online pleasure-positive sex education program Vulva Talks and recently launched podcast Clitastic Chronicles. Headed up by Gasnault, Vulva Talks grew out of IRL workshops the brand was running and taps into its extensive network of sexual health experts to help answer the questions that were coming up repeatedly from its audience. 

Already stocked in online retailers like Cult Beauty and high street stores including Boots, last month Smile Makers launched in Holland and Barrett, a pertinent sign of the significant progress made in the normalisation of women’s sexual pleasure, and the shift in the perception of sexual wellness.

As the brand launches a new redesign with more inclusive language and more powerful vibration technology, we speak to Gasnault to find out more. 

The brand is launching a redesign this month. What did you want to address with the new designs? How will the products be different?

Cecile Gasnault: Our customers’ feedback has been the main catalyst in many ways. We’ve received feedback on the shapes that we acted upon, for example by making the shape of our tongue vibrator more intuitive or making the tip of the Firefighter rounder than the Fireman’s. We have also included sex education content and pleasure tips as a result from getting questions about how to use our products.

Besides the changes made to the shapes to optimise the stimulation, the touch, we’ve also changed the vibration technology inside our vibrators. We’re using a stronger motor and a heavier spinning weight, which delivers a more powerful yet smoother type of vibration. We are also changing the naming convention to a fully gender neutral one while keeping the fantasy characters that our customers love so much. Finally, the packaging has been updated to be more openly sensual.

Can you tell us a bit about Smile Makers’s new podcast Clitastic Chronicles?

Cecile Gasnault: We often chat with sexual health experts and it is always a blast, so the idea was to bring these conversations to a wider audience. With Clitastic Chronicles, we also wanted to give a holistic approach to sexual wellness, and make it a place where you can find educational content and entertaining content to explore your sexuality. This is why we also turned some of our erotic stories in audio erotica. It has been a great success!

Why do you think audio erotica has become so popular recently, particularly for women?

Cecile Gasnault: I think there is something more intimate and sensorial with that format. You can listen to it privately, close your eyes and let it tickle your imagination.

“Our anatomy graphs are quite abstract because we don’t want to show a normative representation of the vulva. We also try to show a variety of bodies.” 

Are women more inclined to prefer audio rather than visual erotica?

Cecile Gasnault: We don’t really have data to validate that but I think what women like with audio erotica is the fact that it’s not visually normative. We know that body image is the biggest shame trigger for women and female bodies on screen tend to reinforce unattainable standards. With audio erotica, you can choose how you picture the scene in your head. The way you picture it is your own sensual expression and you can make these stories yours. It’s empowering.  

How do you ensure the brand and platform is inclusive to a wide range of women?

Cecile Gasnault: That’s an excellent question. First, language is important and an ongoing learning process. That’s why we have updated our naming convention for example. Our products and our content are developed for people who have a vulva, and that’s really how we are trying to deploy it.

Second, it is important to acknowledge and embrace the variety of experiences. Things like your age, where you are in your life, your race, your past history and potential trauma, conditions like vaginismus or many other things can impact your experience of sex. Therefore, as we develop content, we want to research and bring awareness to these experiences. This also impacts how we develop our library of visuals. Our anatomy graphs are quite abstract because we don’t want to show a normative representation of the vulva. We also try to show a variety of bodies.

Over lockdown, the brand saw an 84 per cent increase in revenue from the UK and a 123 per cent increase from the US. Why do you think that is?

Cecile Gasnault: Our sexual well being is closely correlated with our overall well being. In a context that was extremely stressful, people turned to vibrators to take care of their sexual wellbeing, and by doing so, their sexual autonomy. Solo sex is the safest sex, especially in a pandemic. But it’s not only solo users. The profile of vibrator users is more often people who are in relationships. Individuals had to recreate a new kind of intimacy where the outside world and its options to go out were gone. We today have had to find new forms of entertainment at home.

Additionally, connecting to one’s body through pleasure is a way to release stress, and I think people were looking for ways to cope with high levels of uncertainty. It was another form of escapism. 

What is the connection between stress and good sexual health?

Cecile Gasnault: Stress and anxiety have a negative impact on our sexual drive. It is common to have less libido in stressful times, and nothing to be embarrassed about. Reciprocally, sexual pleasure can help us cope with stress and anxiety via the cocktail of hormones our body releases when we experience pleasure. We’re all looking for ways to manage stress, and they can all have positive impacts on our sexual health. Talking with a sexologist can be very helpful. We also like to suggest looking for ways to connect with sexual self that are not physical nor performative. Audio erotica for example!

In your research what have you found to be some of the biggest misconceptions around female pleasure?

Cecile Gasnault: I would say two things. The first one is the misconception that most women can climax from internal stimulation alone, while it’s statistically the contrary: only 16 percent of women in the UK say that they can orgasm from penetrative sex alone. That stems from the way sex is being represented in media and the fact that female sexuality is still socially constructed around reproduction, and therefore penetrative sex, which is very heteronormative.

The second misconception is that female pleasure is a passive thing that women should expect to receive from their partners. Knowing one’s body, asking for what one knows they like, using mental framing while with a partner, all these are actions that positively impact our sexual encounters and that fall on no one else but ourselves.    

How can we as a society be more sex-positive for women?

Cecile Gasnault: By bringing the topic of female sexuality and female pleasure out in the open and do it in a way that is educated, inclusive and respectful.

More pragmatically, that means having more medical research done on the topic so that we as a society understand female sexuality better. That means changing how female sexuality is represented in the media to better acknowledge the reality of it. That means promoting comprehensive and pleasure positive sex education that goes beyond STDs and unwanted pregnancies, but that also dives into the topics of consent and communication, pleasure anatomy, gender and sexual expressions. It starts by being taught at an early age the right name for our body parts and how there is nothing shameful about them.