Apr 272011

Now here’s something you might not expect me to feel ambivalent about: it’s the New York Times reporting about vibrators being sold in drugstores.

Ya’ll know I am, like, ALL ABOUT women’s sexual pleasure. Totally. And vibrators are outstanding because they provide an intensity of stimulation that organic contact just CAN’T. I advise women women who have trouble with orgasm to buy a vibrator.

And yet.

1. There’s the issue confronted in the article about “discrete” packaging. How far have we come if a woman can buy a vibrator but doesn’t want it to LOOK like it’s associated with sex? “We want pleasure,” women say with their wallets, “But we don’t want anyone to know about it and we don’t want it to be, you know, dirty.” It’s already not dirty, friends, and it’s nothing to hide.

2. I want women to touch their own genitals. I can’t help but wonder how much of women’s acceptance of vibrators is their relief at having a way to create orgasms for themselves without having to put their hands on their pussies. I want to live in a world where women get pleasure from touching their bodies. I’m not convinced that vibrators are helping to create that world – I mean maybe they are but I’m not seeing it.

3. As the article notes, there’s no profit in manual masturbation, and I know that profit is an important part of this process – indeed, I believe it’s the engine of change here. It’s a thing I’ve been wondering about for a year now, since I first saw Orgasm, Inc: where is the profit it helping women to feel healthy just as they are?

I’m all about women’s sexual pleasure. I’m all about helping women to enjoy living in their bodies and experiencing sensation through their bodies. I’m all about releasing women from cultural shackles of shame and self-hatred, which are themselves driven by profit motive. And all it takes is some information, just a splash of knowledge.

But I know that that message doesn’t sell products – can’t sell products, SHOULDN’T sell products. And therefore its place in the media will be minimal, and therefore it will always be an alternative to the mainstream, not the mainstream itself.

I want women to love their bodies and the glorious things their bodies do. Proctor & Gamble want women to feel broken, to motivate them to buy things to make them feel repaired. Who wins?

Urgh, I didn’t intend for this post to be so bleak, but I have been struggling lately to feel satisfied with the tiny pockets of change I can create, the handful of lives I can touch. I know I ought to feel good about what I *can* do, but oy, there is so much more to do, so much pain people are living in just because of plain old lack of knowledge.

In 10 minutes, I can change a woman’s understanding of her sexuality, but she has to give me to the 10 minutes.

Maybe I’ll get a stall at the farmer’s market and, like Lucy in Peanuts, for 10 cents give out advice. There’s a plan.

Emily Nagoski

  20 Responses to “the doctor is in”

Comments (20)
  1. Not gonna lie, I think the advice stand is a great idea.

  2. I am broken. I have carpal tunnel and so for me the vibrator is a wonderful friend especially on those days when my hands can barely hold a pencil!

    So for me its not relief that I don’t have to deal with my own body directly – its relief that I can have pleasure even when my hands can’t supply it. Plus my husband likes to buy me toys because he likes toys. Its a win-win!

    And I’m all for discreet packaging! I’m comfortable enough with my body amongst those whom I’m comfortable enough with but I don’t really need the mailman knowing everything about me :)

  3. I am currently living in St. Louis, and my roommate and I love your blog and recommend it to friends. Those tiny little pockets of change are important to us, don’t give up!

  4. I didn’t masturbate until I bought my first vibrator at somewhere around 24. This wasn’t because I don’t know or wasn’t comfortable with my genitalia – I’d done my exploring with mirrors and fingers – it’s because I’m asexual and have a low libido. I didn’t (still don’t) really understand the fuss, and the hassle of the mess and the time investment required to get myself off manually was enough to make me not bother.

    Then I bought a vibrator. I’m not going to say that it changed everything, but if it wasn’t for that quick and convenient path to orgasm, I probably wouldn’t be taking advantage of those occasional times when I’m actually in the mood. So I guess it’s kind of a relief to not have to use my own hands, but not one born out of shame, just practicality.

  5. Hey E,

    so one of the things I like to tell customers when they are buying vibrators is to consider how it works with their body. I start out with the example of the contours of the shape of the vibe and one’s back as a more pc version of “personal massage”. By selling the toy this way I make sure to connect the buyer with themselves, not just the product.
    The trick is to sell vibes not as a “treatment” but as a toy. Something enjoyable. That helps women understand that I am not selling to them based on what their body “should” do, but instead starting a dialogue about what it can do (which is a thousand million things).
    but like you said, this all takes about 2-10 mins, depending on the person.

  6. At 32, I am a completely different person than I was at 28, or at 25 or at 18. I am much more open sexually, experiment a lot more and enjoy my sexuality much, much more. That is all because of people like you, friends who have touched me in my personal life, columnists and bloggers.

    I think your reach is much further than you feel right now. Change takes time.

  7. For some women, vibrators unfortunately make them numb which defeats the idea :/

  8. I totally hear you about wanting women to not be ashamed of their sexuality, but I think we can reframe our understanding of discreet packaging to fit that paradigm. I bought my first vibrator when I was 18. I went with my college roommate to one of those sex stores that mostly serve the bachelorette party crowd (penis lollipops, etc), and we were scared out of our minds. It took us an hour to work up the courage to go up to the counter and actually make a purchase. That was ten years and way more than ten sex toys ago, and now I’m thrilled to walk out of Good Vibes with a logo-fied bag, but there is no way I would have had the chutzpah back then.

    Have you ever seen Better Than Chocolate? It’s a super cheesy/lovely Canadian dyke movie, which I adore. There’s a scene where the protagonist’s mom comes across a vibrator in her daughter’s house and uses it to bring herself to an operatic-crescendo style orgasm. Ick-factor of using someone else’s vibrator aside, it’s an image I love: a woman figuring out how to access her own pleasure, and exploding that out to become more empowered and grounded in the rest of her life. If even a small handful of women are able to access empowerment around their own pleasure because of a nondescriptly packaged vibrator, I’m into it. :)

    In other news, thanks for blogging. In my real life I work to empower women in politics, but in my imaginary life I’m a sex educator. (My friends in college called me the Masturbation Crusader because of how many friends I took to buy their first vibrators.) I love to indulge my sex nerdery here!

  9. I’m sorry that the first time I’m commenting is to say “but, but…!” because I’ve really been enjoying your blog and have forwarded a couple of your pieces to friends, so I want to say that this comment is coming after weeks of me nodding along and saying “I wish I’d said that so clearly.”

    But, but….!

    I was 21 when I bought my first vibrator yet I had been masturbating since I was at least as young as 8, probably younger. (I’m 40 now, and lesbian.) I’ve always been very comfortable with exploring my body, from as long as I can remember, but I thought the mind-blowing aspect of orgasms was some kind of porn myth before I had a vibrator.

    Did I reach orgasm from masturbating? Yes, but the form it took was that the tension was just gone, not much peak, just a kind of softening, no stars, no transcendence, no spinning out and returning, not anything to write home about. It was more like something you do to help yourself sleep, and it was very much about my own relationship to myself, and it was so *subtle* it was not something that I ever imagined I could do, or would want to do, with a partner, though my experience with partnered sex was pretty patchy until I was a lot further into my 20′s…but I’m not totally sure that’s a coincidence. There were other factors, but I think the vibrator expanded my understanding of my own sexuality enough that I eventually became confident I could share it.

    With a vibrator, I get all that crazy, trippy orgasm stuff, and more, and it’s very easy to share with a partner–easy, fun, and rewarding, and it takes the pressure off both me and my partner if there aren’t any performance issues about whether or not I’m going to come, we can just enjoy. Do I sometimes still do it without plug-in assistance? Yeah, sure, because it’s comforting and soothing, or because sometimes that’s just the mood I’m in. But if I want to *get off*, now, please, right this instant? Vibrator, every time.

    So my experience of using a vibrator is not about being broken and then fixed, not about not touching myself, but about an expansion of the kind of sexual responses that I know myself and my body to be capable of.

    And discreet packaging just makes sense if this is something you’re going to stand in line to purchase from a teenager at CVS!

  10. I think this is actually a step in the right direction. It enables women who are too nervous to go into a sex toy store (admittedly, many of them can be a little, um, harsh the first time you walk in), or too nervous to have on in their browser history, to buy a sex toy. Selling sex toys in drugstores means that teenagers who aren’t allowed in sex toy shops to buy a sex toy, and perhaps being able to discreetly hide it from parents is a plus in some situations.

  11. Can I just reiterate that I am 100% PRO-VIBRATOR and I don’t intend any of this to be anti-vibrator? Ya’ll are responding with all these excellent pro-vibrator comments and I’m like, “Yes! I know! Vibrators are GREAT!!” Totally, absolutely. The mainstreaming of sexual pleasure is A Good Thing. I just want us to remember that things move into the mainstream when there’s a massive corporation PUSHING IT into the mainstream, and that means it’s being SOLD to us.

    It’s another sort of individual v. population thing. Individually, each person whose life is changed and mind is blown by a vibrator has a great experience. At the population level, let’s pay attention to what it means for our culture that we’re being sold a cute plastic orgasm friend in a girly package.

  12. Well…like Sheila, I think vibrators do things fingers can’t. Which is pretty much how you started your post. But it’s good to highlight because I think for some women there’s no shame in getting your fingers dirty – it’s just not all that rewarding, even after lots of practice. I do agree though, that it would be lovely if we could back off the marketing aspect of sexuality. If only bodies and fingers were all we needed!

  13. Vibrators are just things. They are in themselves neither good nor bad. It is clear from Emily’s comments that she is very aware of the wonderful pathways to pleasure they open up but like any thing there are possible downsides. In a world where we are increasingly told that we need to buy a product to be OK vibrators are ripe for being used by people who want to make money as another avenue to tell people they are not OK until they have, “The Orgamatrator! Not only gives you great orgasms but firms up those abs! Only 5 easy payments or $15.95!”

  14. Yes, vibrators are being sold to us. And yes, the more “mainstream” they become, the more easily and openly they will be marketed. Unless we create some sort of government program where everyone is issued a vibrator on their 15th birthday, I can’t see how we can both give people access to them and prevent them the potential of being misleadingly marketed.

    Yogurt, of all innocuous things, is now being marketed to cure us of our “irregularity.” Enough yogurt with enough good bacteria in it can help restore proper intestinal flora for some folks, sure, but I don’t think it should be marketed as some magic cure. I also don’t think we should restrict access to yogurt to specialty shops or online purchasing because some manufacturers have a tendency to jump on whatever health-related craze yogurt might be linked to.

    And as for the discreet packaging, I have no problem with it. I don’t think there should be any shame around sex or sexuality, but at the same time, I prefer to keep my personal sex practices as something between myself, my partners, and my physician. And, really, being able to buy vibrators in drug stores is really nothing new. “Personal Massagers” have been around for ages. Heck, I’ve even seen Hitichi knock-offs at Walgreens! The pictures on the package was always a woman using a strangely phallic thing to massage her back. So these vibrators now being sold alongside the lube and condoms explicitly for sexual pleasure are really a step forward.

    My biggest concern is that women will see these and think they are the only vibrators out there, as I don’t see the day when more than the one or two varieties made by large brands already associated with sex or potentially “feminine hygiene” will be on store shelves, and I doubt that they will be of the quality or variety women deserve.

  15. I hope you don’t get too discouraged about not being able to do enough. I think that by doing ANYTHING, you’re getting something done. I know I retweet or recommend your blog to friends, a lot. I try to help spread the knowledge. And I wouldn’t be able to do that if you weren’t already writing about it.

    I consider my myself VERY lucky to have stumbled across your blog, and am grateful for the advice and the empowerment I feel after reading it. So thank you, Emily, and keep on truckin’.

  16. I prefer the discreet packaging to the ones you see in “adult toy shops”. Here’s a product made for women (I guess), coming in a package adorned by a busty blonde Pamela Anderson-copy in sexy lingerie (usually licking the vibrator). What’s up with that? “I know I’ll feel sexy if I buy this, because the woman on the package is”? Or do the package designers assume that all women who use dildos and vibrators are lesbians? I don’t get it. Discreet package, here I come!

    (No offence meant to anyone who may fit into the above mentioned categories.)

  17. I prefer discreet packaging. Graphic designers tend to start using cheesy fonts when they start trying to hard to sell something as a sex product.

  18. Emily, feel free to lament the state of the world, but please please please don’t be dissatisfied with what you *are* doing.
    First, comparing the changes you can effect to what marketing agencies can do is just not right. You are an individual and with limited funds, they are people and with deep pockets. Does not equate; comparison not rational.
    Second, as a thinker spending a lot of time in your head, it’s easy to lose sight of everything you’ve mastered to get where you are and to not value those things enough. You are effective with people and with sexuality, which is evident all over your blog. Just take a look at the number of hits. Or go and re-read your post “science FTW!”. You touch lives. You help people embrace themselves and their bodies. And I’m certain you have helped more people than you could ever imagine.
    Emily FTW!

  19. Huh. No comments on the making money part?

    I think there has to be a market for making women feel good about their bodies. Feeling good about yourself allows you to enjoy sex in general, and therefore, enjoy owning more toys, costumes, porn, and stuff about sex.

    We buy food because we need to eat, sure, but also because we enjoy it. Some people celebrate food better than others, just like some people are willing to slow down and savor sex as a celebration more than others. Nutrition could be compared to advocating emotionally meaningful sex. Am I indulging in something sweet because I’m broken? Is that always a bad thing to do?

    So most of the beauty or utility industry is based on convincing you that you NEED something you don’t have. So what? I don’t think one can say that about the game industry or the decorative industry. Those industries are about marketing things we’ve been convinced we WANT. Isn’t there an indirect market for women who can give themselves permission to WANT?

  20. I wish you did have a Lucy 5 cents stand, I would totally come to you and talk to you about fellatio and switchiness and intercourse and gender expression and more.

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