This Fourth of July, as I reside in the nation’s capital, studying the history of our regulations against sex toys and the various ways that sex toy manufacturers have attempted to evade these laws, I should have a pessimistic view of the nation. After all, my raison d’être, the motivation that keeps me going, is the belief that sex toys are objects that are symbols of American ingenuity, that dildos are proof of American Exceptionalism. In fact, as I like to imagine it, masturbators all across the country are now sublimely bringing themselves to orgasm while contemplating how lucky they are to be Americans, or simply to be humans, a part of the tool-making species that has contrived such wonderful motorized devices to speed up and intensify “the little death,” that thirty-second moment of ecstasy that has driven invention and innovation since the beginning of time.
But America has been attempting to frustrate the nation’s masturbators for the past 150 years. They’ve incinerated sex toys in fires in the mid-1800s, arrested people for selling them, shamed people for using them. Unlike the burned book, few take up the torch for the sex toy, feeling, incorrectly as it happens, that sex toys are not full of ideas and ideals, are not, in fact, objects worthy of intellectual contemplation. But all objects, however reviled, especially the reviled ones, posses the ability to become muses, to expand minds, to launch dreams. We have an idea that great literature is full of lofty intellectual ideas, that it ignores the bodily processes, that nobody farts in Shakespeare. But literature embraces the body. James Joyce revelled in defecation, Marcel Proust lovingly described gay sex, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s characters buggered each other with plow blades. That’s not to say that sex toys are books’ intellectual equals, just that we mischaracterize classic literature. We consciously create a divide between the body and the mind, a divide that allows people to believe that they are above animals. Instead, we need to admit that we are animals with the accompanying animal instincts, but that we differentiate ourselves in our ability to think deeply about these instincts, to make choices about them, to improve upon our genitals.
But what gives me hope isn’t that most of our anti-sex-toy regulations have been lifted; it’s that Americans have always ignored them. No matter how much our government has done to stop us from using sex toys, we have continued to manufacture and market them. Even in the face of imminent arrest, American entrepreneurs have always produced and sold sex toys because they’ve believed, correctly, that deep within the soul of the red-blooded, pragmatic American consumer lies the indefatigable hope that the newest dildo or butt plug or tube of clitoral stimulation gel will change the face of orgasm forever.