Going to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription or restock on toiletries didn't used to conjure up erotic fantasies or top lists of titillating experiences. Until recently, that is.
Warning: Readers should consider sitting down with a cold glass of water before continuing.
Trips to chains like CVS, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart and Walgreens have become anything but sterile, thanks to the expansion of mainstream sexual products like sensual sprays, lubricants, massage oils and condoms — all geared toward enhancing sex for women.
Turning the heat up at the drugstore has apparently turned mainstream America on. Customers have gotten busy buying goodies like Trojan's new condom with a vibrating ring (part of its female-targeted Elexa line, which also includes an intimacy gel) and lubricant maker K-Y Brand's "luxurious massage oils" that promise to "enhance romance and intimacy."
"We have started actively targeting women with our products," said Jim Daniels, Trojan's vice president for sexual health marketing. "Given the sales result — our sales rate is very high on this — consumers' response has been exceptionally favorable."
The once strictly medicinal K-Y has also seen interest peak in response to its naughty-and-nice image makeover. Wal-Mart reported that K-Y Touch Massage oils — one of which doubles as a personal lubricating cream — glided onto its list of Top 10 new beauty and health products in 2005.
"It's nice that major companies are creating stuff like that that you can buy in the drugstore rather than having to go into a sex shop," said Los Angeles newlywed Lori Skope, 30.
But other consumers, including parents, are concerned about the trend, believing it to be more evidence of what they see as the erosion of morality and good taste in America.
"All of this falls in the category of the coarsening of the culture that does concern us tremendously," said Charmaine Yoest, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative group whose causes include the push to adopt more stringent indecency standards for television. "A lot of this stuff is just plain vulgar. As a mother myself, I find it very troubling."
Yoest, who has five children, worries that because there are no age regulations on sales of condoms and lubricants, kids and teens could easily get their hands on them.
"Your children are exposed to things younger and younger that they wouldn't have been in another day in age," she said. "As a parent, it's getting harder and harder to control it."
In fact, while K-Y's products aren't under any legal restrictions, Trojan's are.
The vibrating ring, for instance, is prohibited from being sold in Texas, Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, all of which have laws that limit or forbid the sale of products designed to stimulate genitalia.
Some of the brouhaha over sex toys for the masses stems from the TV ads for them.
One K-Y spot shows a prim, pretty 30-something wife with a playful twinkle in her eye luring her husband away from his reading and into the bedroom with warming massage oil.
In another commercial, sparks fly between an attractive couple who are flirting and spraying K-Y's newest addition, the aerosol lubricant they call Sensual Mist.
Trojan and other condom manufacturers — including LifeStyles, which has come out with "4Play" items for women, including one product with a vibrating ring and another with edible body paint — cannot advertise on network television, though they are able to run suggestive cable TV spots and print spreads.
But that's still too much for some moms and dads.
"What's a parent to do?" wondered Yoest, who admitted she hadn't seen the K-Y or Trojan ads. "Commercials are one of the biggest problems because the regulations are so loose."
Another controversy surrounding the tantalizing under-covers offerings involves whether or not their marketers are misleading sexually frustrated couples.
While some of the items can be helpful, the danger lies in thinking of physical intimacy as a simple matter and the treatments — whether they're Viagra or vibrating rings — as magic cure-alls, according to one sex expert.
"With the people I see, the problem is almost never that they don't have the correct sex toy or product — which is not to say those can't be useful for some women," said Alexandra Myles, a Massachusetts couples and sex therapist. "The notion of a quick fix to correct low sexual desire or give you better orgasms gives people a false focus."
There's also still the embarrassment factor that comes along with buying what are essentially toned-down sex toys in the neighborhood pharmacy.
"Some people might be too shy to buy them," said Skope, who doesn't think she'd consider the new Trojan line because she's married and no longer uses condoms, but might be inclined to try the K-Y oils.
Trojan and K-Y, for their part, have taken different tacks to explain why they're expanding into the couples-intimacy and female-sexuality arenas.
Daniels said Trojan was marketing all its new condom packs as responsible sexual health products, after the company conducted research that yielded some "alarming" statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.
Among the findings: 65 million Americans have some sort of incurable sexually transmitted disease; 3 million of the 6 million annual pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended (a finding released earlier this year by the Guttmacher Institute, though the last year the data are available is 1994); and just one-third of condom purchases are made by American women.
"We know women bear the burden of pregnancy and women are about twice as likely to get an STD," he said, referring to the fact that the number of reported female cases of some sexually transmitted diseases is double that of male cases. "To get people to use condoms more often, we made it more pleasurable by putting it with a vibrating ring."
When used consistently (during every act of sexual intercourse) and correctly (exactly as they should be), condoms have been proven to be, in the words of the CDC, "highly effective" in protecting against most sexually transmitted diseases and have a 3 percent failure rate (over a 12-month period) in preventing pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization.
K-Y says it is targeting committed adult couples who want to spice up their relationships with greater physical and emotional intimacy.
"Over the last few years, there's really been a greater trend toward nesting — spending more time with the people important to you," said Danny Weiss, marketing director for the company's women's health division.
"Popular culture has made people feel that they're entitled to a healthy intimate relationship. We've really tried to develop a marketing campaign that addresses that interest that consumers want to keep relationships alive and make that time together special."
Myles is glad American society has become more open about sex, rather than hiding it away from view as was the case in bygone eras.
"We can talk about anything now in our culture. In the '50s, when I grew up, you couldn't talk about anything. Thank God we've gotten to this point."
But she knows the new sizzle in drugstores won't excite all Americans.
"It wouldn't surprise me," she said, "if there were a contingent of people who think Satan is responsible for all this."