There was an interesting story on CNBC’s website this past summer. The headline ran “Sex Toy Sales Surge,” and the article went on to describe how, in spite of difficult economic times (or perhaps because of them), the sales of sex toys is at an all-time high. The author of the article, Nicole Lapin, reports:

At a time when unemployment is high and bank account balances are low, people are passing the time by getting busy,” Stefan Dallakian, the owner of ******* – an online sex toy distributor—told me. It’s estimated that the sex-toy business is a $15 billion industry. As the U.S. economy has worsened, Dallakian said that he has seen sales for sex toys skyrocket.

Given the size of this sector of the sex industry, it may be worth reflecting on what’s behind this rapid growth. Lapin comments that one reason may be the relative ease and anonymity of shopping for personal sexual devices in an online environment. But she goes on to report that many of those now purchasing sex toys are doing so to relieve the stress and tension they feel from living in such uncertain times.

When I was asked to write about this topic, I have to admit I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, my first reaction was rather neutral (and naïve). I assumed the people purchasing these toys were couples who felt they needed some help in the bedroom area—kind of like someone with a disability using assistive technology. So I thought, “hey, in the context of a committed (hopefully married) relationship, what’s the big deal?” If I thought that was all that was behind this surge, I’d probably still have that reaction.

I have to wonder, however, if part of the attraction to sex toys isn’t the same drive behind breast implants and other forms of plastic surgery, as well as the photographic airbrushing of models and the general hypersexualization of our whole culture. The cause and result of these forms of fetishization is dissatisfaction with real live people (the way they look, smell, and act) and with real, live (and ordinary) sex. How are grumpy, overworked, and under-employed husbands and wives supposed to compete with the Orgasmatron VI (guaranteed to stimulate every chakra point and tantric nerve in your body, as well as doubling as a Smoothie Blender)?

Let’s face it: sex in a real relationship takes some work, most of it in the head and heart. Sometimes the physical aspects work out great, sometimes they don’t. But the emphasis is on the relationship, not on a meter reading. And for the single men and women who have “trained” their sexual responses to mechanical stimulation, how well will they transition to a live partner who may not live up to the hype?

As I’ve already said, I’m not an expert in this field, and I wouldn’t want to uncategorically say that there’s never a legitimate need or use for these devices. But for someone who’s “in the market” for one, I would challenge them to question their motivation for shopping. Who and what are you really shopping for?