Is that a whip in your Celine bag? How what once was seedy is now oh-so stylishly sexy.

Cosmopolitan, November 2012.

THE pretty brunette slides on her designer glasses and carefully studies the platinum cylinder in her hand, caressing it like a precious jewel. The most expensive item in her collection, maybe one day she'll hand it down to her grandchildren, she thinks.

Then she slips off her underpants, lies back on her bed and switches it on.

At $495 the Jimmy Jane “Little Platinum” vibrator – one of the most expensive sex toys in the world - is far from a cheap thrill but for Maud, 30, it's the only way to get off.

“I'm a designer so I love beautiful designs, functionality and quality,” the Sydney photographer and graphic designer says.

“High end sex products fulfill those requirements for me, so if I have to pay more for that I'm happy to.”

While other professional women her age buy designer clothes and shoes to show off their social status, Maud prefers to spend up on luxury sex toys.

As well as the platinum, which she loves for being “pocket sized and perfect for travelling”, she has three other vibrators by high end adult toy makers Jimmy Jane and LeLo totalling more than $1000.

“I have fallen in love with the Jimmy Jane products so much,” she sighs.

“One day I'll complete this collection with all their designs.”

Not so long ago, vibrators were tacky, plastic toys you gave your girlfriends as a joke and pretended not to own yourself. Whips, handcuffs and blindfolds were reserved for creepy suburban swingers or drunken hens' nights.

Now, it seems, kink is not only normal, but downright fashionable.

Pop star Rihanna got the whole world singing “sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me” with her hit S&M, while Lady Gaga's day-to-day wardrobe is bulging with fetish wear, from leather masks to studded stilettoes.

Bondage equipment has cropped up on television (pun intended) in everything from House to True Blood, and even actress Maggie Gyllenhaal shocked reporters during promotion of her 2011 film Hysteria – appropriately enough about the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s - by admitting to owning an “incredible vibrator collection” and lending them out to friends.

How did we cross this threshold? Put simply: Retailers started injecting “class” into what used to be just... well, “ass”.

For decades the only places that sold sex toys were seedy joints plastered with yellowing photos of 1980s porn stars frequented by shifty looking blokes in trench coats. Now you can buy them in top department stores, and adult shops look like fashion boutiques.

Suddenly sex toys aren't so taboo.  A pair of fluffy handcuffs for $10? A little tacky. But a pair of Kiki de Montparnasse lambskin leather cuffs for $375? Chic and naughty.

And when a sex toy is featured in Vogue, as JimmyJane's “Little Gold” vibrator was, you know the entire industry has changed. The 24k gold plated dildo - which also comes encrusted with diamonds as an optional extra - became famous after Kate Moss was spotted buying one in 2007. Now it's one of the American company's biggest sellers.

It's hard to view a 24k gold plated, diamond encrusted vibrator as anything but a status symbol. But as company founder Ethan Imboden points out, it goes deeper than that.

“A woman will easily pay hundreds of dollars for a pair of shoes or boots that will last several seasons, and I don't know that they think of those boots as a status symbol. They think of them as a fashion accessory that represents who they are,” he says.

“A 24k gold vibrator will last a lot longer, and has an impact on a much more important aspect of their life – their sexuality. It is a status symbol perhaps, but more importantly it give them access to new provocative possibilities.”

But if the world of kinky sex has undergone a makeover in recent times, many agree it's due to one thing: THAT book.

You know the one. If you've caught a train or bus at rush hour in any major city in the last six months you've likely seen at least one pink-cheeked woman peering out from behind its distinctive black and blue cover.

Titled Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel series about an awkward young student finding sexual liberation with a bondage-loving businessman became an instant best seller when it launched earlier this year and has since become a cultural and sexual phenomenon.

Enthralled by the graphic descriptions of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey's kinky escapades, women all over the world have been inspired to delve into the formerly shady world of bondage, domination and sex dungeons – and they're spending up big doing so.

Leigh Messer of online retailer says sales have shot up by 80 orders a week since the book's release, with many items featured in it regularly selling out.

“Orgasm balls for example, which are used for kegel (pelvic floor) exercising and which Anastasia so eloquently describes in the book as 'silver ball things', have been flying off the shelves,” she says.

“Sex toy manufacturers the world over are selling out of stock.”

Thanks to “Grey mania”, as Messer calls it, formerly “specialist” items like blindfolds, handcuffs, feather ticklers, riding crops and paddles now account for a huge chunk of AdultShop's overall sales.

“The book has exposed a scintillating world that used to be shrouded in mystery,” she says.

And by lifting the covers on kink, it's made it exceptionally trendy.

Now it seems everyone is jumping on the Fifty Shades bandwagon. Fashion label Marc New York recently launched an ad campaign featuring a half undressed model and a Mr Grey clone posing in a dungeon-like room, and boutique hotels across the globe are offering deluxe Fifty Shades themed packages for fans wanting to live out their most exotic fantasies. There have even been reports of hotels replacing the ever-present bible in the nightstand with the saucy book.

In May, New York sex shop Babeland held a “Fifty Shades of Hot Sex” cocktail party where guests learned how to replicate Ana and Christian's sexy antics and took home “Mr Grey approved” goodie bags containing “spanking powder”, a paddle and of course, a necktie – one of the couple's favourite toys.

“Every other customer at Babeland mentions the book, it’s been very stimulating for New Yorkers,” store representative Pamela Doan said.

And, it seems, for Australians.

Sydney sex therapist Nikki Goldstein, who admits to owning “boxes and boxes of sex toys” herself, was so inundated with queries about the book she held a Fifty Shades party at her apartment for 20 of her friends.

So while her neighbours were sitting down to dinner and a spot of Sunday night television, Nikki and her girlfriends were sipping champagne and watching a kinky couple tie each other up.

“A lot of my friends wanted to know more about BDSM but were afraid to do it in a public place, so I invited some fetish performers around to give a bit of a demonstration,” the 26-year-old says.

“They did a Japanese Shibari rope performance which consisted of a female being tied up and suspended from the ceiling, and they demonstrated how to tie someone to a bed. But we didn't have a four poster bed so he tied her to the legs on my coffee table instead.”

But for Sydney research analyst Kate the novel's proliferation on her morning commute has become a source of amusement. That's because for her, “kink” is old news.

By day, the 22-year-old works a regular office job, hangs out with friends and enjoys hiking. By night, she gets tied up, spanked and whipped until she orgasms.

“I absolutely love the mental side of BDSM,” she says, explaining that she is what's known as a “submissive” - someone who surrenders control of their body to another for erotic play.

“To have someone completely capture your mind and be able to make you do anything is just amazing to me.”

The striking brunette, who is straight, lists spanking and “wax play” as her favourite kinky activities (“I like that initial sting of the hot wax hitting my skin before hardening and making lovely patterns on my body,” she says) and admits to having spent more than $1000 on sex toys and costumes.

“I have a vibrator and anal plug, nipple clamps, bondage tape and a crop, as well as a lot of corsets, garters and thigh-high designer stockings that I like to wear as part of every day life and during a scene,” she says.

Kate, who also runs an anonymous Tumblr site filled with photographs of her kinky sex antics, says BDSM is still viewed with caution by many, but has noticed more and more young women joining the scene after seeing it portrayed on screen and in books like Fifty Shades.

“A lot of TV shows have been showing scenes of BDSM; Weeds recently aired an episode where they had a girl strapped to a BDSM bench and was being flogged,” she says.

“I watched my Tumblr visits go crazy when that episode aired as many viewers had reacted like 'oh my god, I'm curious and a little turned on', and found me through a web search. Also after Fifty Shades we've had a lot of curious people peeping in and having a look at the lifestyle.”

It seems kink is finally out from under the covers. As for whether we'll be handing down sex toys to our grand daughters, Imboden thinks it's not so unrealistic.

“We pass down silver handled hairbrushes from grandmother to granddaughter, so why not a vibrator?”

First published in Cosmopolitan, November 2012.