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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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 November 12, 2012, in feminism, gender, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Women not recieving orgasms during sex is quite well known a fact through multiple researches. The lack of foreplay is often considered a reason for the same.
    Yet, neither the men (mostly) try to please women, nor do the women demand pleasure from men.
    I believe in a relationship, sexual compatibility and expectations should be clearly communicated instead of saying incomprehensible phrases like “down under”. If one is not comfortable speaking such words in public, he or she can atleast discuss and speak to their partners openly.
    In many places, not only vibrators, even condoms or viagras never come out of the closet. Any device related to sex is considered taboo – irrespective of which gender is going to use them.
    Thank you Doctor for sharing. It’s good to learn facts from your research..

    • Because women are so often shamed for their sexuality they often grow out of touch with it, by pushing it down and minimizing it. That makes it difficult for women to know what they like to be able to communicate.

  2. Regarding, male enhancement pills being advertised, I think the reason commercials for Viagra and Enzyte are played on TV at regular times is because advertisers do a good job at hiding the actual product intentions. The commercials are so vague; the product isn’t being advertised for what it actually is – it’s being advertised as “male enhancement”. Enhancement is to increase the value and quality of something, so to a child, this can really mean anything. Vibrators have been openly advertised and displayed for years: as back massagers. A child who sees a display of phallus shaped body massagers at The Sharper Image isn’t going to think “penis” because the product visibly states what the use is—even though it can clearly be used for sexual pleasure.

    I think that if both products were obvious about their actual uses, they wouldn’t be allowed to be advertised on television, magazines (with the exception of gender/sex specific ones) or Facebook.

    Look at tampons for example. To some women, they are a necessity. In the ads, you see women playing sports, dancing, going out and being social. Nowhere in the ad does anyone say “you stick this in your vagina five days out of the month”- If they did, there would be controversy, and there isn’t even anything sexual about the actual product use.

    With that being said, I DO understand the point the author is making about pride vs. shame when it comes to men and women’s sexuality. To adults, the intention of male enhancement pills usage isn’t a secret, yet it’s being advertised all over. I’ve never seen a commercial like the Enzyte one that shows a woman walking around with a huge, fake smile across her face… Oh wait, there are commercials like that for woman- but they aren’t about sexual satisfaction—they are about yogurt and chocolate. Things need to change.

  3. haha, It is soooo awkward when my parents and I are watching TV and a Viagra commercial comes on. This should be X rated and only played as a commercial after midnight. Vibrators to me are becoming very public especially in college. I had a friend who would use her vibrator in her dorm room at night when her other roommates were in the room. I do not like how women are looked down on if we have casual sex, and guys are praised if they do. it just does not make sense.

  4. I love this article. It seems as though men get to have fun with their sexuality in any way they want and have no problem letting everyone and their mother know, whereas women are expected to hide their sexuality. Judging by my own experience and the stats posted regarding orgasms, men also usually get what they want out of sex. Women on the other hand, aren’t on the same level of satisfaction. What the hell? Men would go nuts if this was reversed.
    I also want to point out Amy Lynn’s response above. She discusses the sexual situations women are put in by media, often controlled by men, and the hypocrisy involved. You can’t exploit women and then turn around and shame them for it! Well said Amy Lynn.

  5. It’s a really hypocritical message, women are portrayed in the media as being hyper-sexual, constantly in sexual situations, but when women are sexual in real life they are put down. In real life, men seem to want women who seem virginal but who are secret porn stars. I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like everyone is expected to pile on more and more disguises in order to be accepted. It’s difficult as a woman, even though I don’t flaunt my sexuality, to just be myself without getting criticism about my sexuality or gender; or people making jokes about my sexuality, not to mention being treated like an object and being sexually harassed on a regular basis. This kind of stuff is normal to most of us. There are really distorted sexual standards for women, and I think it causes men (and even other women) to think that there are different standards for the way women deserve to be treated.

  6. After reading this post I think I should have started talking to my daughter much sooner about masturbation and orgasms. I think maybe 13 may be a little too young to introduce a vibrator but certainly before girls become sexually active. This will differ for every child so there is no magic age to introduce a vibrator. I have always been open discussing pretty much anything with my children. However, when I read your blog I felt like I could have started earlier with my daughter. I feel it is important for all women to take control of their own pleasure and not wait and hope for some guy to do it for her. I want to raise a sexually empowered daughter.

  7. Adrene Garabedian

    Women’s sexuality being stuck in the closest while men’s sexuality is out in the open is what society considers a double standard. These double standards which we have to deal with on the daily as women are one of the reasons that no matter how hard we push for our rights, we are constantly shut down. It is mind boggling that men can run around saying anything and everything they want about their sexuality and what they do in the bedroom. However, once a woman opens her mouth slightly about her sexuality, society, right away, places labels. With these labels, it makes it harder for young women like me to want to even state my opinion out loud. But, I know that I have to speak up if I want to be considered anything in society. Women will constantly fight for rights no matter how long it takes.

  8. I think the only thing that will work is for us to keep on commenting on articles, writing articles, talking about our experiences and lowering our own shame – like Georgia has done in this article.

  9. I agree that even though women’s sexuality has become more accepted and less shame upon, yet women are still put down when they are doing the same things as men. For example, the good point about men enjoying sex, and having sex with many women, they are glorified by other men and “young” men look up to be like them for having a lot woman. They have positive alias, to make them seem like they are doing something right. On the other hand, if women do the same, by enjoying sex with many men, they are called negative names like whore, slut, tramp etc, the list goes on.. Yet the men and the women are doing the same exact thing. Why is it that women cant be accepted and less shameful and open about their sex just like men.

  10. Excellent thread. As a male I support women exploring their sexuality. It is not right to deny a human being the right to express themselves.. However in a way it is mens sexuality that is repressed in society. For example, in American films, it is okay and accepted to show a female nude either the fron and back. . However, rarely does an R rated film show a mans nude especially frontal.
    Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to explore and express her Bisexuality. While for a man he is forbidden to explore and express his bisexuality.I know many men who admit to getting aroused at female bisexuality. If a male explores his bisexuality he is labeled a pejorative term like “faggot”, and even beaten.
    On a positive note, it is a good thing that female sex toys such as vibrators are now getting accepted. Interestingly, there is a soon to be emerging industry in male sex dolls.. In the very near future, male sex dolls will be lifelike women. There is even a Japanese company called “Real Doll” that makes lifelike female dolls for 6k. A documentary about men who love these dolls as and use them for companionship and relation. Conversely, women should use if its their discretion sex toys such as vibrators

  11. It’s absolutely true, and blows my mind at how male-centric our sex culture truly is. On facebook I often see friends and relatives sharing provocative images and links endorsing lingerie/swimsuit calendars, catalogs, and magazines to which most receive “likes” and suggestive comments. When I share posts notifying friends and family that I need help launching my PassionsParty business (in-home sales parties much like Mary Kay, but revolving around women’s sexual health and fulfillment), I’m repeatedly met with a chorus of crickets and private messages chastising me for “embarrassing” relatives for implying that I *might* know a thing or two about lube and furry handcuffs. Gimme a break!

  12. I think my experience growing up in San Francisco caused my personal view of sexuality/masturbation to strongly differ even from that of girls who grew up in another part of California. Every day after school in high school, I was free to roam about a city that encourages one at every opportunity to “come out of the closet”- to celebrate your individuality and sexuality, because “baby, you were born this way.” At home in San Mateo, sex and masturbation were NEVER talked about, but at school, the topic wasn’t even scandalous. Conversations such as: “Do you masturbate?” “No” “Well, you should!” took place so casually that I can’t even remember how many times I explained a vagina to someone between classes. After I left San Francisco for Cal Poly, I saw a stark difference in attitudes towards sex. In San Luis Obispo, sex talks involved much quieter volumes and euphemisms such as “in that area” rather than the word “vagina.” It was an odd difference, and I definitely prefer the former’s attitude.

  13. well coming from a womens point of view with a child the truth is, its about time vibrators are made more public. not saying that my husband doesn’t do it for me but when he has a full time job, i go to school and take care of home and our kid which is a full time job sometimes there isn’t time for sex. so for a quick in the shower thing its great. as for tv. i have a 3 year old and i never have time to watch but when i do i have seen the adds for the Viagra and male enhancers but why not the casual womens helper? seems a little wrong that in todays society we can talk freely about mens issues but not women’s.

  14. It seems like women’s sexuality has started to become more accepted and less shamed upon. Ultimately, both men and women are sexual beings so I don’t see why one’s sexuality should be kept in the dark. Before, women had to go to sex stores, or adult websites to get a hold of a vibrator but now, it is quite common to find them at certain stores at the mall even!, which are exposed to audiences of all sorts. I do believe that sexuality should not be kept in the dark, or in the “closet”, because just because we don’t see them out there, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

  15. I think the writer brought up a very good point in that you can see Viagra commercials in the middle of the day but can’t advertise vibrators for women. I think that’s pretty unfair and there is no reason one should be ok and the other should be forbidden because essentially they are talking about the same thing. We can’t keep saying its ok for men to do these things but its wrong for women. I think either both should be allowed the same rights or neither of them do.

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