Vibrator of the future: Jimmyjane founder fights sex industry stigma with high-end toys.

You've Heard of iPod Touch? Well Here Comes Hello Touch, Your New Favorite Vibrator.

You've Heard of iPod Touch? Well Here Comes Hello Touch, Your New Favorite Vibrator.

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Jan. 16 2013 3:53 PM

The Vibrator of the Future Is Already Here

Ethan Imboden
Jimmyjane founder Ethan Imboden

Photograph courtesy Jimmyjane.

What will the sex toy of the future look like? In Beverly Hills last week, a panel of "adult products" manufacturers—including representatives from California dildo giant Doc Johnson and Swedish vibrator company LELO—convened at the XBIZ Pleasure Products Conference to discuss their predictions.

First, it will not look like a penis. It will be cast in a unique, nonphallic shape. It will be packaged sleekly, with an aesthetic that borrows from fashion, not porn. It will be made of safer, eco-friendly materials. Its motor will be silent. Its clientele will be mainstream. One day, maybe, it won’t be stamped with that winking disclaimer omnipresent on sex toy packages across the United States: “For novelty use only.”


A few hours after the panel convened, Ethan Imboden took the stage to deliver the conference’s keynote address. Imboden, the founder and creative director of vibrator manufacturer Jimmyjane, has spent the last decade selling versions of this “futuristic” sex toy. His vibrators are already sleek, silent, safe, and shaped like sci-fi models of sea creatures, teeth, and tongues. In a one-hour slideshow presentation, Imboden unveiled a different view on how the sex industry will change in the next few years: It will be flooded with entrepreneurs with “no prior experience in the category,” who “see their outsider’s perspective as an asset,” and are lush with venture capital. Imboden clicked through to a headshot of himself. He clicked again, and the headshot replicated, filling the screen with more and more photos of his face. “It’s the invasion of the Ethans,” he told the crowd. The future of the sex industry looks like him.

Before Imboden invaded the sex toy industry, he designed toothbrushes, computers, cellphones, and eyewear for major companies. When he walked into his first sex toy convention in 2002, he was “wholly unprepared” for what he found: Porn star-branded products; imagery that was either “very explicit or goofy”; materials that were cheap and sometimes toxic; and large price tags that “seemed decoupled from value.” The industry skated by on low expectations and the insularity of stigma. New, innovative sex toys were truly “novelties”—different every year, but not necessarily better.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

So Imboden proposed a high-quality, design-focused, costly vibrator (most Jimmyjane vibrators run over $100) that ditched associations with porn stars, veiny anatomical reconstructions, and bunny rabbits in favor of an almost asexual aesthetic. The industry balked. “At first they told me that it was stupid,” Imboden told me when we talked after the keynote. “They said that the attributes I was saying would be important to the consumer were not actually priorities for them.” Those who did believe in him connected him their with higher-ups, who did not. So Imboden took his products outside the sex industry. He placed them in mainstream retailers like Fred Segal, Nordstrom, Whole Foods, Sephora, and W Hotels. His high-end vibrators fell into the hands of celebrities like Kate Moss and Snoop Dogg.

Now, when Imboden unveils new products, the industry listens. This week, Jimmyjane debuted the Hello Touch, a vibrator that a user (or her partner) can connect directly to the pads of her fingers. At $65, it's also the most accessible Jimmyjane vibrator. Yes, this is just a cool new way to get off. But it’s also a testament to the power of outside influence in destigmatizing the sex industry. When we talk about “crossover” successes in the adult industry, we tend to focus on people like Sasha Grey and James Deen, industry professionals who are so personally successful that they break out of the X-rated world to gain acceptance in the mainstream. But when a mainstream pro like Imboden turns his eye to sex, the entire industry gains a level of respect. Imboden could be designing computers, but instead he’s designing sex toys. That recommends using sex toys as a legitimate pursuit.

This “invasion of the Ethans” is only the first step in a mainstream takeover of sex toys. As more and more outside designers look to move into the sex industry, Imboden thinks big companies will be enticed to get in on the action. Durex and Trojan are already marketing cheap vibrating products in drugstores. It’s only a matter of time before Victoria’s Secret and Johnson & Johnson move in. The sex industry is “too big and fragmented and delicious for them not to,” Imboden says. Soon, their excitement at conquering this corner of the economy will outweigh their fear of being associated with adult products. 

“They’re going to say, 'Fuck it, let’s do it,' ” Imboden says. When they do, independent producers like Doc Johnson, LELO, and Jimmyjane better be making a very good product. A company like Johnson & Johnson "could buy the entire industry,” Imboden says. “The only way we’re going to survive is by making the customer the one who wins.”