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Vibrators & Women’s Sexuality are Out of the Closet

Vibrators, once steeped in shame and secrecy, are going mainstream. Does this mean women’s sexuality has thrown off the covers, too?

As a culture, we are of two minds.

Vibrators were once illegal in several states, including Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama, or found only in seedy sex shops. But as the New York Times reports, today they may be purchased at your neighborhood drug store. Out in the open, even Oprah has pitched the helpful tool. And who can forget the “Rabbit Pearl” popping up in Sex and the City?

And yet, they aren’t quite out of the closet.

As one seller described the problem, “I can sit with my 10-year-old daughter during prime-time TV and watch a commercial for Viagra,” she said, “but I can’t advertise our OhMiBod fan page within Facebook.” Nylon Magazine won’t run her ads and the Small Business Administration refused her loan application because vibrators are a “prurient” business.

Ambivalence over tools and meds that enhance women’s sexuality reflects the larger cultural view. On the one hand the media glamorizes women’s sexuality. And plenty of porn approvingly portrays women with voracious sexual appetites.

But porn is off-limits. And women are told “Keep your legs together,” as if open legs were an open invitation.

Male sexuality is something to brag about, but female sexuality is something to hide. Men are praised as players and pimps. Women are called sluts, whores, tramps, and skanks… What positive word applies to women who enjoy sexuality?

Slang for penis and vagina says a lot, especially “cock” and “down there.” Cock: Cocky, boastful, swaggering. “Down there”? Unspeakable. Shameful.

This all reminds me of Zestra’s difficulty getting ads on TV for a product that arouses women. TV networks, national cable stations, radio stations, and Web sites like Facebook and WebMD all resisted. Yet “An erection lasting more than four hours” is O.K.?

Is it any wonder that sex surveys find mixed experiences among women when it comes sexual pleasure?

Indiana University’s comprehensive survey found that while 91% of men had an orgasm the last time they had sex only 64% of women did. These numbers roughly reflect the percentage of men and women who say they enjoyed sex “extremely” or “quite a bit”: 66% of women and 83% of men. Only 58% of women in their 20s had “the big O” on their last occasion.

As I’ve recently posted, 30-40% of women report difficulty climaxing. Women who lose virginity are also likely to lose self esteem, largely because they’re so focused on how they look (bad, they apparently think) and so unfocused on the sexual experience. And one-third of women under 35 often feel sad, anxious, restless or irritable after sex, while 10 percent frequently feel sad after intercourse.

On the other hand, many women do enjoy sex a lot, and frequently orgasm.

Does all this reflect that ambivalence, with enjoyment perhaps affected by which message gets most drilled into a woman’s mind?

Women’s sexuality kept in shadow and suspicion has an effect. Time to come out of the closet!

Ms. Magazine cross-posted this May 16, 2011 I first posted this piece May 9, 2011.

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