Case Study

Social and Contextual Influence on the Willingness to Pay for Sex Toys


Tupperware-style parties for sex toys have recently proliferated into a multi-million dollar business where women gather to discuss and purchase products for their personal and private use. This research focuses on the context effects (both physical and social) that influence women’s attitudes about themselves and their peers. Participants attended real sex toy parties with their peers and purchased products with their own money. Using a Becker, DeGroot, Marschak pricing game, we were able to determine that women’s WTP for certain products was greatly influenced by a disapproving (approving) confederate and by whether the overall product theme was kinky (tame).


The contrast effect is the finding that we sometimes evaluate objects and choices by comparing them with other salient objects and choices. We predicted that when a fixed set of sex toys was presented along with other unconventional, or “kinky,” sex toys, participants would be willing to pay more for the same fixed set of sex toys than when they were presented alongside other “tame” sex toys (because the fixed set would appear more approachable beside the “kinky” toys than the “tame” toys.) We also predicted that a person voicing support for sex toys would create a social norm, which would increase how much participants were willing to pay for the toys.

We recruited several groups of female undergraduates to attend one of four types of sex toy parties, varied on two dimensions. Parties were either classified as “kinky” or “tame,” and either “social approval” or “social disapproval.” We presented the participants with eight sex toys: four “fixed” sex toys that everyone saw in addition to four that varied by kinky or tame condition. Those in the kinky condition were given four relatively unconventional sex toys, while those in the tame condition were given four relatively neutral sex toys. In addition, those in the social approval condition heard a fellow “participant” express her approval of the sex toys, while those in the social disapproval condition heard the same person express her disapproval of the toys. Next, participants wrote down the price they would be willing to pay for each of the eight toys in a lottery-based pricing game. We measured the amount each participant was willing to pay for each of the eight toys.


Those in the kinky condition were willing to pay more on average for the “fixed” toys than those in the tame condition, and those in the approval condition were willing to pay more on average than those in the disapproval condition.

Why it matters

In situations where norms may not be well established, social and contextual cues can have a strong influence on willingness to pay for a product. This study demonstrates that even a simple statement of approval or disapproval can be enough to create a powerful social norm in situations where preexisting norms may be ambiguous or unknown.