Guess Who Finished Her Dissertation on the History of Sex Toys?

Dildo TrophyAfter writing nearly 300 pages on the history of sex toys, you would think that I would be burnt out, that I would shut down dildographer.com and open up an Etsy boutique selling artisanal hazelnut butter and cardamom-infused rum. And I did have a two-day post-dissertation melt-down (sample thought: “Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, and I’ve run out of junk food blogs to read, my life is not worth living.”) Once I clawed my way out of the post-dissertation sinkhole, I realized that devoting the past three years of my life to sex toys had not dampened my love for them, that, in fact, I loved sex toys even more than I had when I started. I guess that’s what true love is: Even when you’re at your lowest the thought of your beloved brings you immense joy. In this case, as I was weeping in bed, thinking about my uncertain future, a penis-shaped beacon shone in the distance, shiny, glittering, burning my eyes with its brilliance. It reminded me that I still have a lot of work to do on the history of sex toys, and the current status of sex toys, and the future of sex toys (sex robots remain woefully ignored by the academy). It reminded me that I have to transform my dissertation into a trilogy of books on the history of sex toys, and that if I don’t nobody will.

But first, a few insights from my dissertation (and committee members, if you’re reading this, these are your Cliff Notes for my defense):

1.  For nearly two centuries, American culture has been simultaneously obsessed with sex and terrified of its power. The sex toy makes literal and visceral this contradiction in cultural attitudes towards sex. Fear of sex toys is really a fear of masturbation magnified and reified.

2. We fear sex toys because women are the most prominent users of them, making sex toys physical representations of women’s unbridled sexuality. They remind us of how powerful women’s sex drive is. A sex toy is an artifact that attests to women’s insatiability and the inability of male genitalia to bring orgasms to most women.

3. Despite our sex phobia, every time we create a new material or discover a new technology we create a new sex toy out of it. Goodyear discovered rubber vulcanization in 1844 and rubber dildos and butt plugs hit the market soon after (Usually they were called vaginal and rectal dilators).  We discovered how to harness the power of electricity in the late 1800s, then we created electric vibrators within a decade. Similar stories can be told about Bakelite, silicone, and motion-sensing technology.

4. While the 21st century media may be openly discussing sex toys more than they ever have before, we have not come to terms with them because we have not come to terms with women’s sexuality and its social disruptiveness. To embrace sex toys is to acknowledge that human anatomy is flawed, that, in some cases, women prefer machines to humans. The thought is frightening to many.

The Great Irony: American culture is less comfortable with sex toys now than we were 150 years ago. Vibrator and dildo advertisements appeared more frequently in the mass media during the early 1900s than they do now.

-Hallie Lieberman

 

 

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It’s Time for the Clitoris to Get Its Due in American Cinema

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) meets his clitoris-free lover for the first time.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) meets his clitoris-free lover for the first time.

Here’s what I learned about the future from Her, the Spike Jonze science-fiction movie about a man falling in love with his operating system:

1. We’ll all wear ugly high-waisted pants

2. Our operating system lovers will fake orgasms.

In the climactic Her sex scene, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is lying on his back in bed, dreamily talking with Samantha (voiced by Scarlet Johansson), his operating system. I wish I could touch you, he murmurs, wherein the conversation shifts into full-on Harlequin Romance mode and the screen goes black. Theodore then begins intoning about kissing her lips and her nipples, while Samantha moans appreciatively. All is well and good, if you enjoy watching phone sex masquerading as sex from the future.  Then Samantha purrs, “I want you inside of me,” and we hear Theodore and Samantha have what sounds like a simultaneous orgasm.  That’s when I began to get annoyed. “Why does Samantha have a virtual vagina but no virtual clitoris?” I whispered to my friend. Samantha never asks Theodore to fondle, lick, or in any way stimulate her clitoris, leading to the conclusion that the future looks bleak for all but the minority of women who receive orgasms from penetrative sex.

This isn’t a problem specific to Her. Clitoral stimulation is routinely absent from sex scenes in film, in favor of scenes where women are shown rapturously orgasming from missionary-style sex. Although Master’s and Johnson dismantled the myth of the vaginal orgasm 48 years ago, Hollywood continues to pretend otherwise.

So, who’s to blame? The MPAA is primarily at fault, although ingrained cultural attitudes about women’s sexuality also play a part. Movies with cunnilingus scenes frequently get slapped with NC-17 ratings. Most recently, the MPAA required that the director of Charlie Countryman cut a scene of Shia LeBeouf performing cunnilingus on Evan Rachel Wood in order for it to receive an R rating. Scenes of characters annihilating each other with bullets to the head were allowed to stay. The MPAA considers cunnilingus more harmful to children than gun violence, beheadings, and rape.  I guess there’s nothing more detrimental to the youth of America than showing a blissful woman with a man’s face firmly ensconced between her thighs.  Clearly, our society is bat-shit insane. Instead of preventing teenagers from seeing a movie with cunnilingus in it, we should be screening these movies at high schools.

It’s time for the clitoris to get its due in American cinema. In that spirit, I propose the Lieberman Test. For a movie to pass this test, it has to meet the following criteria:

At least one sex scene depicts a woman receiving sexual pleasure from having cunnilingus performed on her.

The Lieberman Test is inspired by the Bechdel Test,  a test that gives a movie a passing grade if the movie “has… at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.”

Although the absence of clitoral orgasms on screen may seem like a minor problem, it’s not. Hollywood’s portrayals of sexuality influence cultural norms.  What’s even worse is that we’re targeting the vaginal-orgasm myth to teen girls, leading them to believe that their genitals are defective, and setting them up for a life of frustratingly orgasm-less sex. People have campaigned successfully to remove positive depictions of cigarettes in movies targeted to teens. Why not have a similar campaign to remove false depictions of sexuality in movies and show more clitoral orgasms instead?

To inaugurate this campaign, here are three movies that pass this test:

1. Blue Valentine (2010): For its scene where a husband (Ryan Gosling) performs cunnilingus on his wife (Michelle Williams). This scene initially earned the movie a NC-17 rating.  Harvey Weinstein protested and got the movie reclassified as an R.

2. Cruel Intentions (1999): High-school student Cecilie (Selma Blair) receives cunnilingus from Sebastian (Ryan Phillipe) when he’s teaching her about sex.

3. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013): In addition to cunnilingus, this movie is full of masturbation and scissor sex between the two main characters, Adele and Emma. It got an NC-17 rating. (Note: It’s a French movie, so it doesn’t really count).

-Hallie Lieberman

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A Pegging Primer

Pegging Santa

Picture Credit Meghan Boehners

There’s no better way to get locked out of a party than by bringing up the subject of pegging. It was 2010 and I was sitting on a porch in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a bunch of friends from high school, when I drunkenly shouted, “I love pegging!” A heated conversation ensued, and ten minutes later, the host’s wife had locked the front door, and we had to beg to be let back in. I talk about a lot of things that other people are afraid to discuss, but nothing makes people more uncomfortable than discussing pegging. So consider this my PPSA, Pegging Public Service Announcement.

Pegging is a neologism coined by Dan Savage to describe when a woman dons a strap-on dildo and sodomizes her boyfriend. Nobody surveys how many people engage in this practice, so I can’t give you exact figures on how common it is. What I can tell you, though, is that judging from the private correspondence I get, pegging is on a lot of people’s minds, yet few people dare to discuss it publicly.

So, here’s a primer on pegging for women.

1. Pegging isn’t gay. Just because a man wants a dildo in his rectum, it doesn’t mean that he’s gay. In fact if he doesn’t want to be pegged, he’s probably gay, or at the very least, uncomfortable with his sexuality. A man who’s confident in his heterosexuality won’t be worried that enjoying being penetrated by a be-dildoed woman will make him spend his nights dreaming about Neal Patrick Harris. Gay men don’t want to be pegged by women.

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Why We Need a Porn Portal For Teens

A still from the anti-porn movie "Don Jon."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Don Jon,” a porn-addiction dramedy.

When I was a teenager, the only way to get porn was by traipsing down to the Adult Fun Shop, where I pored over such titles as Gee Your Cunt Smells Terrific and Itty Bitty Bang Bang, with the enthusiasm of a sex-crazed scholar who believes the secret to life is scrawled across the back of Seymore Butt’s Cream Pies 12. I felt initiated into a hidden world of pure sex that legitimized my adolescent sexual desire. The commodification of erotic fantasies made me feel as if I wasn’t alone. My desire for older men was accepted in this world of ever-present orgasms, while it also confirmed my belief that the world was driven by sex, that Freud was right, that my Mom’s admonishment against sex before marriage was wrong.

But I knew that at some level this porn was “bad.” It was illegal for me to buy it, though compassionate (or sleazy) adult-store employees let me do it. I had to hide it from my parents, even though I felt a strange pride in my collection of videos. I had to defend my interest in porn to other teenage girls who had a knee-jerk porn-is-misogynistic reaction. Of course some of the porn I purchased  was misogynistic. One of the first porn films that I bought, Bagladies, had the following slogan: “Every Chick Looks Hot With a Bag Over Her Head.” But I chose Bagladies knowing that it was misogynistic,  that it portrayed women so badly that it actually rose to the level of sick art. I felt a particular form of glee that only comes to those who wade so deeply into transgression.

My limited access to porn as a teenager makes me insanely jealous of the current generation. They grew up having access to millions of videos, and they didn’t have to pay for any of them, nor did they have to leave their houses to get them. I know, most people bemoan the fact that porn is widely available to teenagers. And their concern is valid. Porn isn’t realistic. The performers frequently have perfect bodies and hairless genitals; they have unprotected sex with seemingly no repercussions; and women always have orgasms even when they’re not being clitorally stimulated. But not all porn is like this. A lot of porn focuses on women’s sexual pleasure. It shows clitoral stimulation via cunnilingus or manual stimulation, and it shows dominant women sexually manipulating men. And, for all of porn’s flaws, it does have the virtue of showcasing different body types (if you look beyond run-of-the-mill porn) and sexual positions.

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What Are The Best Erotic Books Ever Written?

house of holes Dhb lo

“Nicholson Baker does not look like a dirty-book writer. His color is good. His gaze is direct, with none of the sidelong furtiveness of the compulsive masturbator.”-  The New York Times, August 4, 2011

From the opening three sentences of this New York Times magazine profile of NIcholson Baker, you would assume that Baker was a writer of 50 Shades of Grey-style books. But he’s not a writer of fan fiction-turned erotica. He’s a revered prose stylist and winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award. So why did a journalist from The Times presume that Baker must be a masturbating sexual deviant? Because he’s written books with sexual themes. Journalists would never assume that murder-mystery writers have a history of homicide. So why do they treat writers of erotic books as if they must be morally unhinged?

In part, it’s related to our American value system that celebrates violence in cultural products but pillories sex. One need only to look at the MPAA to get an idea of how Americans view sex. To take one example: the heart-wrenching drama Blue Valentine (2010) received an NC-17 rating because it has an oral-sex scene between a married couple in it, while the dismemberment and cannibalism-filled Hostel 2 (2007) received an R.

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What It’s Like to Date a Married Man

The Mother and The Whore, 1973  (La Maman et la Putain)

Scene from “The Mother and The Whore,” 1973
(La Maman et La Putain)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My boyfriend is married to another woman. Yes, he’s in the process of divorce right now, but for much of the past year that I’ve been dating him, he’s been legally married and informally separated. Dating a man with a wife tars me as a hussy, a vixen, a minx—all the stereotypes of the devouring woman. And since I’m blonde and a quarter of a century younger than my boyfriend, I become a walking cliché, a symbol of the mid-life crisis, a threat to marriages everywhere.

People assume I’m a homewrecker, which I’m not. I can see it in their eyes.  There’s a certain look that you’re given when your recently separated boyfriend introduces you to his friends, a look that suggests with little subtlety that you are a stain on the pristine fabric of society. That you have dared to entered into a relationship with someone who is still legally married to someone else is still a socially fraught act, even in this supposedly progressive America. Sure, fewer people are getting married, but make no mistake about it, Americans still revere marriage. Gays are clamoring for it. Women are Pinteresting the shit out of it. Parents continue to pressure their children about it. In this matrimonialist culture, I’m cast as the villain to my boyfriend’s soon-to-be-ex-wife’s martyr.

I’m used to being judged for studying sex or having controversial viewpoints, and I’m fine with it because I’ve made a choice to devote my life to helping to change attitudes about sex. But being judged for falling in love with a married man is a different experience because falling in love is not a choice. I guess I could have not acted on my feelings. I could have walked away. But that would have left me and my boyfriend miserable. And his marriage would still be over. Continue reading

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Why Vibrators Should Be Covered By Insurance

Doctor Love

Imagine this scenario:

A woman walks into her doctor’s office complaining of an inability to orgasm. The doctor compassionately explains to her that there are millions of other women just like her, women who are also suffering from anorgasmia. An inability to orgasm can be caused by high blood pressure, aging, or other physiological reasons, the doctor reassuringly says, as she opens up a cabinet to reveal a plethora of gleaming vibrators made of medical-grade silicone and filled with the most powerful miniature motors known to man. But I can’t afford these vibrators, counters the patient. Access to orgasm is not a luxury for the rich, replies the doctor, as she explains that with a co-pay, each vibrator will only cost five dollars.

Is this scenario wildly utopian and unrealistic? Not necessarily. Insurance companies have been paying for men’s erectile dysfunction drugs for over a decade. It’s time that women’s sexual health devices received the same coverage.

Why is insurance coverage of vibrators necessary? First, it’s about access. High-quality vibrators usually cost around $100, so women on a budget frequently purchase cheaper, lower-quality versions or forego vibrators altogether, because they see vibrators as an indulgence. Second, insurance-subsidized vibrators would take us one step closer to defining women’s sexual pleasure as a right and not a privilege.

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Terrorist Porn

Time magazine's Boston Marathon coverage shown above. http://nation.time.com/2013/04/15/boston-marathon-explosion-gallery/

Time magazine’s Boston Marathon coverage shown above. http://nation.time.com/2013/04/15/boston-marathon-explosion-gallery/

“Warning- Horrific Images From Boston Marathon Blast” screams just one of the 1.6 million results from a routine YouTube search on the Boston Marathon attacks. Graphic. Disturbing. Chilling. Bloody. These words pepper the coverage of the bombing, enticing our reptilian brains that are wired to respond to sex and death. Gruesome photos of runners with legs blown off and tendons dangling like jellyfish are all over news sites, along with photos of victims lying in pools of blood as bystanders helplessly look on. While publishing some horrific images is necessary to convey the magnitude of this tragedy, these photos aren’t just serving to inform the public or to bring the community together. They are fulfilling our sadistic urges.

This disaster coverage frequently devolves into “terrorist porn,” as On The Media referred to it in their most recent podcast. Terrorist porn is news that is stops informing and instead fills our screens with never-ending loops of destruction.  It happened after 9/11 with repeated images of planes slamming into buildings, and also during the tsunami, with TV news obsessively airing the crashing waves. But unlike run-of-the-mill pornography, terrorist porn is splashed across the front pages of CNN, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, under the rubric of informing the public. This sadistic impulse is sanctioned by American culture, becoming so routine as to be quotidian, which begs the question: why are we so comfortable displaying unjustified images of death and violence in our news media and so uncomfortable with sexual imagery?

The phrase “terrorist porn” is apt, because the similarities to sexual porn are numerous. Both are disseminated and consumed in a similar way. The images frequently consist of decontextualized, graphic close-ups of body parts covered in bodily fluids, which are shown in endless loops. There’s usually no narrative, or if there is one, it’s merely an afterthought, a means to delay satisfaction, to increase the payoff when the desired images are finally shown. The CNN Slideshow: Deadly Attack at Boston is a prime example, as it intersperses wide shots of the explosions with close-ups of things like people’s feet covered in blood. Continue reading

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Playtex Thinks Your Genitals Are Dirty

Playtex Fresh and Sexy Wipes Ad

How many times has this happened to you? You’re furiously ripping off your partner’s clothes in a mad, hormone-fueled dash, when you unbutton their pants and you catch a whiff of their malodorous genitals. Sighing, you zip their pants back up and tell them you’ve changed your mind, all the while thinking to yourself, “If only there were a product that could instantly remove rank genital odors…” That’s never happened to you? Well, some mastermind at Playtex seems to think it has because they just trotted out a new product to cure this problem: a wet wipe for cleaning your genitals before and after sex.

Although the product is simply another in the long line of rebranded wet wipes, Playtex’s Fresh + Sexy Intimate Wipes are the first attempt by a major company to address pre- and post-coital cleanliness (although the ad campaign exclusively focuses on the former). With clever taglines like: “A clean beaver always finds more wood” and “A clean pecker always taps it,” their message is clear: your genitals are smelly and gross and nobody will have sex with you until you deodorize them. Ironically, the opposite is true. Genitals secrete pheromones during sexual arousal that attract mates. Wiping away these pheromones may actually make you less attractive.

Although Playtex’s ads may seem novel, they actually follow a simple formula that companies have been using since the 1880s to convince consumers of the necessity of soap and mouthwash (which Julian Sikulva skillfully details in Stranger Than Dirt):

  1. Pinpoint a part of the body as particularly dirty
  2. Connect this dirtiness to social reprobation
  3. Offer a product that cleans the area, and, in turn, helps the aspiring consumer to achieve a cultural norm

What’s new is that our cultural norms have shifted. Instead of urging consumers to buy personal hygiene products by persuading them that cleaning their bodies will win them a spouse, companies are asserting that their products will bring consumers copious amounts of sex. Companies have been telling men this for years (see: the Hai Karate ads from the 1970s).  But, for the most part, they’ve shunned sex appeals in favor of marriage appeals when selling women personal hygiene products.

Listerine Ad From 1923.

Listerine Ad From 1923.

To trace this cultural shift, it’s instructive to examine the father of all orificial-odor shaming ad campaigns, Listerine’s “Often a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride”  campaign from the 1920s.  A typical ad from this era featured an image of a dour woman bemoaning her lack of a husband, a lack which the ad traced directly to her bad breath. But it was the prose that laid the message on thick, as this ad from 1923 shows: Edna’s case was a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry…And as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever.” Little did Edna know, the ad suggested, but it was her halitosis that was scaring away all her potential suitors. “That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (bad breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it,” said the ad. The ad worked because Listerine tied their mouthwash to the aspirational goal of the middle class woman of the 1920s: marriage.

Like Listerine, Playtex’s Fresh + Sexy ads shame women into purchasing their products to achieve an aspirational goal. In their most widely run print ad (shown above), an innocent beaver makes its way through the water, gazing at the consumer with imploring eyes. Next to the furry animal is this statement, “A clean beaver always gets more wood.” The implication is that women’s dirty vaginas are preventing them from achieving a cultural ideal. But instead of telling women that a cruddy cooch will stop them from attaining their dream of marriage, Playtex has a radically different message: A dirty vagina will prevent women from having a lot of sex. Playtex is implying that the 21st century woman aspires not to marriage (or a long-term relationship) but to sexual fulfillment.

Although the Fresh+ Sexy Wipes campaign is problematic, its pro-sex message represents a sliver of progress in our consumer society. It would be ideal if its sex-positivity weren’t tied into a larger message shaming women about their naturally occurring genital odors. However, the bigger problem lies not with Playtex, but with our commercial culture itself, which has succeeded by playing on our profound fears, one of the strongest of which is a fear of  sexual rejection.–Hallie Lieberman

 

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Why We Need Taboos

taboo
In almost every news story about sex, someone declares that we’ve “broken down the taboo of” a sexual practice or sexual device. Breaking down a taboo is always assumed to be a social good. The implication is that once we break down all the taboos we’ll live in peace and harmony in a mesmerizing sexual utopia. However, not all taboos should be destroyed. Some taboos are needed for our imagined sexual utopia. The problem with our discussion of taboo is our failure to distinguish between types of taboos. We conflate social taboos with sexual taboos. The former needs to be destroyed; the latter needs to be savored.

A social taboo involves shunning those people whose consensual sexual or relationship practices differ from the norm (whatever that happens to be at the time). Social taboos affect groups as wide-ranging as gays and lesbians, the BDSM community, plushophiles, and the happily non-married. This type of taboo can and should be destroyed. Historically, non-procreative sex has always raised suspicion, but we should be enlightened enough in the 21st century not to ostracize people for engaging in sexual acts that make us uncomfortable. What people do with their genitals should be irrelevant to their social status. We’re making a lot of progress on this front. That nine states have legalized gay marriage is a start, but we need to stop thinking in terms of having gays and lesbians conform to heterosexual ideals and actually allow them to make their own space.

In contrast to the social taboo, the sexual taboo should always remain. The sexual taboo is the I’m-doing-something-wrong-and-it-turns-me-on taboo that leads to the eroticism of such practices as anal sex, double penetration, and rim jobs. Because it heightens sexual pleasure, the sexual taboo should never be destroyed. There’s something erotic about violating rules. Sex is dangerous, and there’s no reason we should pretend that it isn’t.  The possible complications of sex are serious, from the physical—unwanted pregnancies and STDs—to the emotional—soul-crushing blows to self-esteem and unshakeable heartbreak.  Of course the possible benefits outweigh the risks: sex can bring you the most acute pleasure that the human body is capable of. And, there’s a particular euphoria between two people that can only come from a sexual relationship. The taboo that says that sex is dirty needs to stay. It is this taboo that brings us love and happiness. Continue reading

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