The Lookout

The ‘Fifty Shades’ effect: How a kinky novel boosted the sex industry

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
The Lookout

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A "Fifty Shades of Grey" gift pack sold in stores (Andrew Walker/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS—It takes a lot to stop traffic on the floor of the Adult Entertainment Expo, the porn industry’s premier convention. But shortly after noon on Thursday, near dozens of scantily clad adult-film stars and tables of sex toys that would probably make even the most enterprising of lovers blush, a crowd gathered, riveted.

A woman, dressed in a hot pink corset and matching lace underpants, had decided to try out one of the more buzzed-about products that debuted at the expo: the Orbit Bed. Featuring a frame in the shape of a cradle, it allows its occupants to rock back and forth. Priced at $3,600 for the queen size, the bed also features red satin ties that allow partners to tie each other up.

As the woman rocked and forth, dozens of people stopped dead in their tracks to stare—including a man and a woman who quickly moved to inquire about the bed.

“Soft bondage is really hot right now,” explained Rick Lockett, a vice president of Liberator, an Atlanta-based company that created the bed and markets what it calls “bedroom adventure gear.”

Despite the still-shaky economy, Lockett said business has been booming—a rise he credited, in part, to the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the New York Times' kinky best-seller about a young woman’s submissive relationship with a sexually adventurous businessman. The erotic novel and its sequels have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, thanks to its popularity among female readers—many of whom have been inspired to be more daring in their own bedrooms as a result.

Virtually everyone at the expo this week spoke fondly of the “Fifty Shades" effect on the adult entertainment industry. Amid concerns about declining profits—partly because of the overabundance of free porn on the Internet and a market flooded by cheap sex toys—the book prompted a new surge of interest in adult products by people suddenly eager to embrace different sides of their sexuality.

“People, as we evolve, are becoming more sexually open and more socially acceptable of sex,” said James Deen, one of the industry’s most popular male performers.

Deen, who's starring in his first mainstream film role opposite Lindsay Lohan in the movie “The Canyons" (release date undetermined), is famous beyond the adult industry. The 26-year-old, who has been making adult movies since he was 18, has gained a strong following among women for frequently portraying a dreamy-eyed dominant to his female co-star’s submissive—a plot reminiscent of the story depicted in the “Fifty Shades” series.

“What used to be shocking isn’t really shocking anymore,” Deen said, as he hung out at his own booth at the expo where he was selling colorful T-shirts, and dildos modeled in the shape of his own penis. “It’s awesome that human sexuality is evolving, and I hope we continue to evolve. … Sex should be about having a good time and being who you are and want to be.”

The Pleasure Chest, a high-end sex shop with stores in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, saw a 20 percent increase in sales in the aftermath of “Fifty Shades," according to Kristen Tribby, the store’s director of marketing and education. And sales of items specifically mentioned in the book have continued to be steady, she added.

She likened the book’s impact to what the TV show “Sex and the City” did for female masturbation when the character Charlotte (Kristin Davis) purchased a vibrator called ‘The Rabbit”—an item that continues to be a best-seller more than a decade later.

“It’s not the quality of the book, but rather the conversations surrounding the book that continue to make it something of a phenomenon,” Tribby said. “It’s really changed the way people look at sex. ... And for us, it’s really made the mainstream start to take us as an industry more seriously.”

Tribby said her store had seen a wide array of new customers—ranging from older women to husbands eager to please their wives. “We have a lot of guys coming in and saying, ‘Hey, my wife and I haven’t had sex in years and now I need all of these products because we’re having sex twice a week,’” Tribby said.

While a majority of attendees at the expo this week were men, it was hard not to notice that many of the products being marketed were aimed squarely at women, with some sex toys once considered too scary or too industrial-looking redesigned for a female audience.

In a booth just steps from where dozens of men had lined up for autographs from their favorite porn stars, Mara Epstein was showing off her line of sex toys called Maia, which included dildos constructed of soft rubber in tones of pink and purple—or, as she put it, “subliminal color therapy.”

Epstein said, “My goal was to make these things more playful and fun and accessible. Toys should not be intimidating.”

While her current line, she added, was marketed toward a “younger, more hipper” audience, Epstein said she would soon unveil a similar line for baby boomers, featuring large buttons for people whose eyesight is fading.“When you’re over 40, sometimes you can be like, ‘What?!’ when trying to operate these things, and that’s not good,” Epstein said.

Nearby, Larry Garland, CEO of Eldorado Trading Company, a Colorado-based sex toy wholesaler, was showing off his wares to a group of female expo attendees. They were closely examining a wall of sex toys made famous by “Fifty Shades,” including several different models of vibrators.

“The industry has changed into the way I always thought it should be, which is female-focused,” said Garland, who has been in the sex toy business for 30 years. “When I got in, it was the old style bookstores that really just catered to men. But the future in my mind has always been women and couples, couples of any gender.”

Many vendors on site were looking forward to the “Fifty Shades” film adaptation, convinced it would mean another burst of sales for the industry. But many were also looking to future crazes, eager to attend a seminar looking at what might be the next “big thing.”

Tribby said the book had already been pioneering for an industry that struggled to be taken seriously by those in the mainstream.

“Everybody is talking about riding the wave, and I just think it’s going to maintain,” she said. “When people are introduced to a new way of looking at sex, you can’t really remove that from society. It’s there.”

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