It’s a hot selling sex toy with PG-rated roots.

In 2003, Bruce Murison, was laid off from his high-tech job at the now-bankrupt telecommunications company Nortel.

Instead of looking for a new job, he focused his energy on something he had been quietly tinkering with in his basement in suburban Ottawa.

Melody and Bruce Murison

Melody and Bruce Murison kept it secret for years that they had come up with a sex toy for couples. The We-Vibe was developed in the basement of their Ottawa home. (Standard Innovation)

He was working on a vibrator couples can use together. The concept was born one day when he and wife Melody, also a formerNortel employee, were brainstorming possible inventions.

They joked about creating a sex toy and the idea somehow stuck. Melody says they then asked themselves the question, “Is there anything that [a couple] can share?”

Believing they found an untapped market, the Murisons did their research. That included visiting adult novelty stores.

“I remember the first sex toy store I dragged Melody into. We had never been to one before we started this endeavour, so there was definitely a learning curve,” explained Bruce.

He also handed out surveys in downtown Ottawa to find out what women — besides Melody — wanted.

“I did whatever it took,” says Bruce. That included “getting nicely dressed government ladies’ opinions.”

Bruce adds that “Melody at the time was afraid that one of the neighbours would see me and recognize me.”

What will the neighbours think?

Not knowing how their neighbours would react, the Murisons kept quiet about what Bruce was doing in the basement. Only their two daughters knew; their six-year-old son was too young to understand.

It took years for Bruce to get it right: scrapping numerous prototypes, miniaturizing motors, fine-tuning the electronics and “finding a shape that would conform to people and not interfere with normal lovemaking.”

His final product: a small, C-shaped vibrator that couples can enjoy simultaneously. The Murisons named it the We-Vibe.

With no money coming in, the couple had mortgaged their home and took out three lines of credit. Bruce said when they were finally ready to take the device to market, “there was one grandiose moment where we said, ‘OK, after this point, we either have to sell 10,000 We-Vibes between now and March or we’re going to go bankrupt.'”

The couple actually doubled their goal, selling 20,000 units in just three months in 2008.

It’s a hit

Endorsements by celebrity sex experts — from Canada’s Sue Johanson to Dr. Laura Berman on The Dr. Oz Show — were huge boosts for business. So was a mention on Oprah.com in a segment titled Beginner’s Guide to Erotica.

The toy was even added to Oscars gift bags in 2009.

The Murisons’ neighbours eventually discovered their secret, but the couple had no reason to worry. Some asked for free samples and one sent flowers. “There was definitely a lot of hometown pride,” Melody says.

The couple began their business at home with just one paid employee. Now their company, Standard Innovation, has 43 full-time staff. Millions of We-Vibes have sold across the globe and there’s now more than eight variations of the product.

The gadget has also garnered more than 20 international awards. The most recent: best couples sex toy for the We-Vibe 4 Plus at the Sexual Health Expo in Los Angeles last month.

The 4 Plus – the latest We-Vibe model – can be controlled using a phone app that allows one partner to operate the toy from miles away.

Customer satisfaction

Bruce attributes the toy’s success to the fact that it’s a small, non-intimidating device that “doesn’t alienate or replace the man. It makes sex better for both. So I don’t think men are threatened the way they are by a phallic device.”

Tina McKeown, who first tried the We-Vibe with a boyfriend, agrees.

“It was his first toy ever. Men are a little shy when it comes to that,” she says, adding her boyfriend was enthusiastic about the We-Vibe 3 that includes a remote control.

“You know men love remotes,” she says. “It definitely enhances the sexual experience.”

Although they can’t divulge details yet, the Murisons’ company is working on more We-Vibe variations. “It’s sort of a never-ending process of improvement,” Bruce says.

The couple has no shame, just pride in what they’ve been able to achieve.

“A lot of women want to shake his hand [to] thank him,” Melody says.

In 1989, sexologist Li Yinhe conducted a famous survey that showed 15% of Chinese respondents said they had premarital sex. Today, that figure is about 71%, according to local figures. “China is becoming more adventurous in the bedroom,” said Zhang Lijia, author of the forthcoming novel “Lotus,” which looks at prostitution in modern China.

Ms. Zhang was speaking to a mostly younger crowd at Beijing’s Bookworm Literary Festival on Sunday. She was joined by Jemimah Steinfeld, author of “Little Emperors and Material Girls,” which focuses on China’s sex and youth culture, and Faramerz Dabhoiwala, who has been called the Stephen Hawking of sex for writing “The Origins of Sex,” which looks at the western sexual revolution of the 18th century.

Only several decades ago, “Chinese women gingerly began to unbutton Chairman Mao’s jacket,” Ms. Zhang said, referring to the 1980s, when women started to wear makeup and shorter skirts. “For a long time kissing on a bus was something we only saw in foreign films.”

Today, sex is everywhere in China, from adult stores on nearly every corner in Beijing to young entrepreneurs, such as one interviewed by Ms. Steinfeld, who wants to import quality sex toys because he thinks Chinese sex toys are faulty. (This could be a tough road, as the majority of sex toys are made in China and exported around the world, Ms. Zhang said).

Judging from the panel discussion, progress is mixed. As Beijing looks to pass its first domestic violence law, cleavage is being banned on television. One of the most popular items sold at roadside sex shops is hymen repair kits. And while mistresses have played a significant role in most culture’s sexual histories, they continue to play a pronounced part in China. “It’s the biggest open secret,” Ms. Steinfeld said.

Er nai, as modern-day Chinese mistresses are called, are deeply entwined in business practices, Ms. Zhang said, because having multiple mistresses is a sign that a man has the pull to seal a deal. While the anticorruption campaign has affected er nai practices to some extent, moderator David Moser — a long time China watcher — joked that businessmen dumped five of their er nai and kept the rest.

One of the most striking differences between China’s sexual revolution and that of other countries is the rapidness with which women are demanding equality – from rising divorce rates to a growing desire for high-end lingerie. Mr. Dabhoiwala credited communism for that difference. “Compared to women in India and the Middle East, Chinese women have status and power.”

Speaking to this idea, a young local Chinese woman in the audience stood up and said, “There are women who have lovers just for fun too. Male prostitutes are far more expensive here because they have more work to do.”