‘You are your safest sex partner.”

‘You are your safest sex partner."

That line comes from a New York City health-department memo on sex and COVID-19 that went viral during the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s health advice many people all over the world are happily following.

Amid the pandemic, the sex-toy business has been buzzing — which makes sense. Self-stimulation is a pleasurable activity you can do at home alone — or safely distanced.

It’s a trend that bears out all over the world. Sales of sex toys tripled in New Zealand during that country’s month-long lockdown in April 2020. By May 2020, PinkCherry, one of North America’s largest online retailers of adult products, was already reporting a 248 per cent increase in sales the U.S. and a 128 per cent increase in Canada since the pandemic began.

Top 10 Sexiest Cities

1. Calgary
2. Surrey
3. Edmonton
4. Ottawa
5. Winnipeg

1. Calgary
2. Surrey
3. Edmonton
4. Ottawa
5. Winnipeg
6. London
7. Hamilton
8. Brampton
9. Halifax
10. Victoria

PinkCherry

Speaking of PinkCherry, the retailer recently released its annual Canada’s Sexiest Cities list, which ranks Canadian cities with the highest sex-toy sales per person. Winnipeg placed fifth.

Linda Zuzanski is the grand dame of pleasure in Winnipeg. As president of Love Nest, Winnipeg’s pre-eminent sex shop, she’s been helping people of all ages find their bliss since she was doing home parties in the early ‘80s. Both Love Nest locations in the city have been navigating COVID-19 restrictions.

"Definitely," she says when asked if she’s seen an uptick in both interest and sales. In the months when the retail shops could be open to customers, sales were up 15 per cent every month, but many people were still shopping curbside, too.

"People are staying home more, and so they’re looking for things to do," she says, adding that she’s also seen an increase in couples of all ages shopping together. "Our products fill that little niche, that need, you know? People are getting bored, they can’t go out with their friends, all this kind of stuff. So they want something to spice up their love life.

"And the toy manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon — lots of the manufacturers have added new types of products to their lines since the pandemic started."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Linda Zuzanski, president of Love Nest, says sales have been up dramatically since the pandemic began.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Linda Zuzanski, president of Love Nest, says sales have been up dramatically since the pandemic began.

She points to the WOW Tech Group, which makes the popular We-Vibe and Womanizer products, by way of example.

"They actually brought out a new, less expensive line during the pandemic for people who wanted a fancy toy but didn’t want to pay the hefty price tag for a rechargeable toy, so some of them are battery operated," she says.

"Manufacturers are producing more options for people." (That said, she’s also sold a few $3,000 ultra-realistic sex dolls during the pandemic, too.)

Zuzanski also saw first-time buyers looking for something to help them de-stress. "I remember right near the beginning of the pandemic, a couple of my customers said, ‘Oh, I’ve never been in, but I need a toy. I’m working really long hours at my job, I’m an essential service, and I just need something for relief,’" she says.

Still, COVID-19 restrictions made it hard to deliver the kind of care and customer service she’s used to offering. Doing product education over the phone, for example, could be tricky.

“It was challenging, in that you couldn’t hand the product to them, or you couldn’t open the toy for them and show them how it would work.” – Linda Zuzanski on giving product education over the phone

"It was challenging, in that you couldn’t hand the product to them, or you couldn’t open the toy for them and show them how it would work," she says. To that end, Zuzanski is very happy to be open around Valentine’s Day, even at 25 per cent capacity.

Online, unboxing videos and influencer reviews on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have helped to de-stigmatize sex toys while promoting sex-positivity, self-care and pleasure for pleasure’s sake.

Rachel Lynne Jones, 26, is one such local content creator who has been working with sex-toy brands for her fun and approachable unboxing videos on YouTube. (YouTube was her side gig; she’s been a professional makeup artist for six years.)

CALVIN LEE JOSEPH PHOTO</p><p>Rachel Lynne Jones, 26, has been working with sex-toy brands for her fun and approachable unboxing videos on YouTube.</p>

CALVIN LEE JOSEPH PHOTO

Rachel Lynne Jones, 26, has been working with sex-toy brands for her fun and approachable unboxing videos on YouTube.

As Jones points out, sex toys can be incredibly visual. Many modern devices look like high-end tech or works of art — something to show off, not be hidden in a bedside table drawer. In fact, it was esthetics that made her want to reach out to an Arizona brand called LuzArte: a sculptural, polka-dot silicone toy.

Jones remembers being in high school and giggling over vibrators in sex shops. "I’ve seen the progression," she says.

CALVIN LEE JOSEPH PHOTO</p><p>A brand called LuzArte from Arizona is a polka-dot silicone toy that’s more than utilitarian.</p>

CALVIN LEE JOSEPH PHOTO

A brand called LuzArte from Arizona is a polka-dot silicone toy that’s more than utilitarian.

"I think it got to a place where we were like, ‘OK, we can discreetly buy things (from the internet),’ and now we’ve moved into the third category, which is openly talking about toys and putting our friends onto cool stuff, being like, ‘Hey, have you heard about this clitoral stimulator?’"

By frankly talking about sex toys as part of her other lifestyle content, she hopes to further normalize talking not just about toys, but pleasure in general.

"My hope in what I’m doing is that every conversation we have, we’re just one step closer to just making this a really safe conversation — and a fun one."

For her part, Jones is not at all surprised to see the rise, so to speak, of this particular pandemic pastime.

After all, as she says, "there’s only so many loaves of bread you can make."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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