Vibrators and Women’s Sexuality: 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!

Georgia Platts

Ms. Magazine cross-posted this on their blog May 16, 2011.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 9, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, men, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. “Vibrators were once illegal in several states”.

    That is just bizarre. Stupid laws being made by unevolved stupid people.

  2. I feel women should do as they please. Men will.If a woman wants to use a vibrator oh well! Society is out of its mind thinking sex is a big deal.It has been done the same old way for centuries.I wouldn’t mind watching a woman “massage/masturbate”or any other slick term in front of me. What everyone needs to understand is that everything comes down to a personal prefernce.Also,if you feel you need a vibrator to make climax women,change your boyfriends maybe.Now,you men who have a problem with your women wanting to use a vibrator during sex or just in general,you may just crazy.If it turns her on you should be happy,she just may show you a little something!!

  3. You asked, “What positive word applies to women who enjoy sexuality?”
    The simple answer is, a woman. An adult woman. Period.
    A woman does not need a nickname, or some sort of slang word to accomadate or hide what she truly is. To degrade her worth. Simply said, a woman who is a human being and a sexual creature who enjoys and even embraces her nature, is a true woman.
    We live in a society that almost fears the stregnth and power of a woman. That is why a woman who is a woman is given such degrading slang terms lessens her worth.

    The other day, I had gone to a nude beach for the very first time in Santa Cruz. It’s called Panther and it is my favorite beach in Santa Cruz. When I arrived on the beautifully serene beach, I notcied there was a man there laying naked on the rocks. I figured, I am sure I am not the first naked woman he’s seen, and proceeded to take off my clothes and play in the waves. After playing in the freezing ocean, he approached me. This older white male, made me nervous and I started worrying that I was going to be raped on the beach, what kind of girl gets naked just like that on the beach-
    and I immidealty got defensive.

    I think it’s sad that in the society I live in, a woman being nude in public is absolutely dreadful, where as in Europe nudity is not as not a big deal there.

    Sid, introuced himself to me in all nudity, and actually made me feel really comfortable. I did not feel like he was judging me and spending time with him was extremley insightful on how many taboos societiy places on it’s indviduals to keep order. Being nude on a beach was absolutely freeing and exhilarting. Before the invention of bathing suits, that is what people used to do! It was compltely natural to be in that state and I liked having Sid’s company there to keep me entertained.

    After spending time with him, and driving home I realized… that was the first time I had been in front of a naked man and there wasn’t any sexual expecation that followed. That was nice.

    • Thanks for your beach story.

      I hope you got my point that the fact that there are no positive nicknames reflects the trouble our society has with women’s sexuality. A problem that reflects in too many women’s sexual repression. Because, unfortunately, too many adult women don’t enjoy sexuality.

  4. In our society, women are still portrayed as passive beings who apparently only have sex, so that they can have kids. And if we were the type who sleeps around and having one night stands all the time then we are considered whores and sluts. As for if a man slept around and had one night stands with all the women in the office, he would be considered a pimp or player. I think if women were able to be more open about their sexuality, then they would orgasm more often because then they wouldn’t have to be so worried about how others would perceive them. In reality, everyone that is old enough has sex for pleasure, it’s just a part of being human.

  5. I’ve recently been considering the terms that go along with male and female parts as having a discussion with a friend of mine who has two young children.They have taught the children to simply call their parts “boy parts” and “girl parts” so far. But isn’t it time that they start to teach them the right words for these parts? And what are those? Penis, Vagina of course are medically accurate but on one hand it doesn’t seem right of me to send them out into the pre-school world using those words when other kids might be using other less medical terms. I certainly wouldn’t advocate some of the harsher phrases, but it is something I think of, there are few neutral terms out there that don’t connect with some other meaning – as Georgia points out cock and down-there have clear connotations. It seems to me that girl and boy parts is a fine term to use in the meantime.

    Meanwhile, the question of where vibrators stand in social view is an interesting one. I recall when I was in my early 20s, my then-boyfriend had walked with me into some sex shop in seedy off-strip Las Vegas to purchase one. It was a humiliating experience for me, just really a dirty feeling to have to go into such a sleazy place. I clearly recall the male clerk with long yellowed fingernails installing batteries in my new utility to make sure it worked. Terrible! 10 years later, circa 2000 – I took some of my girlfriends to a large and popular strip club to their upstairs store where we made easier purchases. Still, it’s an experience we would only awkwardly talk about today even, as married women all nearing 40. Meanwhile, I hear my male friends talking jovially on a Saturday night about their sex-purchases – things like pornographic magazines, movies and in one case a pocket stimulator (whatever that might be). They give the proverbial high-five to each other and laugh like it was a winning world series game they were recalling. If they catch wind of us women talking, laughter – chiding us for using a vibrator let alone owning one.

  6. it’s unfair how sex is more of a negative notion if women enjoy it and it’s a good thing when men do it a lot. seems like it is extremely hard for women to achieve “the big O” and if guys can’t give it to you ladies? i’m on your side! buy as many and as fancy vibrators as you can as long as it makes you happy. sex in this culture has become part of happiness and health. articles and health program always mention exercise, diet well, have good amount of sleep and keep a healthy sex life. so, i guess if men can not deliver what you need then give vibrators a shot.

  7. Beth Kamaloni

    Not too long ago around 11 pm I was flipping through channels and I do not remember what channel it was but it was like the home shopping network of vibrators and different sex toys for women. I was pretty surprised because I had never seen that on television before. I am a Mother of a three year old and of course I would not want my son seeing ads for those during Sesame Street but I do not think there is anything wrong with advertising them late at night. I think that ever since shows like Sex and the City have come out, Women do not have to hide their sexuality any longer. It still seems however that it might be frowned upon yet but why should it be? I do not think that women should get a bad rap for doing what men have done for as long as I have known. I remember it used to be sort of taboo but now it is so common for my friends to just blurt out that they use a vibrator. I think that women are trying to break through that boundary that has been set against them as far as what they should want to be perceived as. It’s a vibrator, safer than sleeping with random men on a weekly basis but we still don’t get credit. We still look bad? But men have admiring names made up for them when they do sleep around.

  8. The media is still very androcentric as well as are notions of female sexuality. There is a lot of representation of what sexy is as dictated by men but not a real discussion or representation of what sexuality is. I don’t even find that there is a subtext that involves sexuality I think the whole message is about penetration. Men may be threatened and offended by the vibrator because they might view it as their inability to satisfy their partner by their sexual prowess and also may not understand that many women require clitoral stimulation during intercourse to reach orgasm.

    Women have been ceaselessly bombarded by what sexy looks and sounds like that I can very will imagine that once the act is actually taking place that they would feel as though they were acting. Lights camera, action: hit your marks, make sure your make up is okay rather than engaging in how they feel mentally let alone physically. And men may be listening for the display of porn cries rather than feeling their partners arousal.

    What is boils down for to me is there is no real discussion about sexuality rather a representation of what sexy is and sounds like casting women into absurd,confining and singular roles.

  9. You make a good point; thinking about all the commercial ads that I have seen I have not seen one about the satisfaction of women sexually. There are many ads about Viagra and impotence all over the place and how to get help for the problem but nothing to stimulate women or how to help women get an orgasm except for in magazines such as Cosmo. I think that women who are more open and comfortable with their sexuality are the ones who get more satisfaction from it, women who are taught that sex is wrong and it will make you be a slut find that having sex is very uncomfortable and not pleasurable, because in the back of their mind they know that sex is wrong. I had a friend that was very comfortable with sex she had multiple vibrators of different shapes and sizes and she always talked about how satisfied she was, I on the other hand can’t find doing that to myself pleasurable at all; but then again I’ve never tried. If the sexual feelings of women were more open and an “ok” topic to discuss I think that it would make a lot of women more confident and able to find pleasure in the act. Also if men were more educated on what women want instead of their own selfish pleasure it will lead to more satisfaction for the women.

  10. I would like to comment specifically on the point about the unfair treatment to males and females on what they are called when they enjoy sex. All men are born equal, and “men” here includes women. If men are able to embrace sex, why can’t women, too? In fact, I believe women enjoy sex more than men do. When a guy has a lot of sex and he enjoys it, he is called a pimp or player, and he might feel good about this. However, in the case of a woman, she will be called a slut or a whore which she does not like it and lowers her self-esteem. In worse case, she dislikes sex. How is this happen, why can’t guys and girls just be treated the same? Or, this has to do with guys feeling superior over girls?

  11. Until I began your course at FH I was never bothered by the fact that we live in a “man’s world” It never occured to me that advertisement for a woman’s pleasure would be so biased. But I do recall often seeing an add by trojan that is a vibrating device. The commercial was shown at night and advertised 3 of the same vibrators given to a bride to be as wedding gifts. It shows off the three different pulse setting all made to pleasure the woman during sex. But honestly, other than the trojan “triphoria” I have yet to see any other toys adverstised in women’s favor.

  12. I thought I would try to rise to your challenge about finding words without negative connotation for female sexuality. Think how even though cock is an animal (rooster) it is still used in a positive and boastful way. So the word “Sex-Kitten” is not negative as far as I can see. According to the wiki:

    Sex kitten is a term that typically refers to a woman who goes around with a sexually provocative approach. It also refers to women with abundant sexual aggression.[1] The term originated circa 1958[citation needed], and was used to describe French starlet Brigitte Bardot. . . It has also often been used in association with Ann-Margret. However, it does not always describe the youthful.

    I thought the most problematic things in that definition were the words “provocative” and “aggression.” But provocative is in the dictionary as, “1. tending or serving to provoke; inciting, stimulating, irritating, or vexing.” I thought, well, being hot & bothered or getting blue balls could be an irritating condition, so also not bad. And is aggression inherently bad? It seems to be a positive thing in regards to male sexuality, so I don’t think using that word to describe female sexuality is inappropriate.

    So maybe that one works?

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