Butt plugs get a bad rap. And they shouldn’t. While vibrators have served as feminist symbols of liberation, and cock rings are manufactured by major corporations, the butt plug remains on the sidelines as the outcast, the pariah, the sex-toy-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. The butt plug is a cultural joke. But in many cases, people’s mockery of the butt plug is caused by terror that they would enjoy using them.
One reason the butt plug is so repugnant to a wide swath of the population is simply its association with the rectum. But it’s larger than that. Mocking butt plugs is one way people confirm their heterosexuality, while insisting that their anuses remain utilitarian. Straight men often see anal sex with their girlfriends as a cool and edgy variation on vaginal intercourse, and the assumption is that men are the instigators who are getting the bulk of the pleasure from the act. But a butt plug carries no such camouflage, and behind every man’s purchase lies the gnawing question: “If I get off on a butt plug, will that make me gay?” While straight women ask themselves: “Can a woman who uses a butt plug still be considered feminine?”
Even in the most sexually progressive corners of American popular culture butt plugs aren’t wholly accepted. Witness the words of Hannah, the main character from the controversial HBO show Girls, who defines her sexuality in relation to the toy: “I feel like I’ll do almost anything sexually. I feel like the only thing that I won’t ever do again is a butt plug.”
Its disorienting name also doesn’t do it any favors. Butt plug manages somehow to contain within its nine letters both the juvenile and the antiseptic, garnering images of arcane plumbing tools and cartoon adolescents, boisterous gastroenterologists and giggling toddlers. We don’t call dildos vagina plugs or cunt corks, so why do we call the rectal equivalent a butt plug? It’s related to both the shape of the sex toy and its storied history.
Squat and thick, with a flared base that prevents it from getting lost in the depths of the rectum, butt plugs resemble large wine stoppers. They’re usually constructed of silicone, glass, wood, or stainless steel. Like many other sex toys, butt plugs began their commercial lives as late-19th-century quack medical devices. To escape obscenity prosecutions, butt-plug manufacturers marketed their vulcanized rubber devices as cure-alls, apparatuses that treated everything from asthma to hemorrhoids. Young’s Rectal Dilator Company—manufacturer of the most widely advertised butt plug (pictured above)—even promoted their wares as anti-masturbation devices at the turn of the 19th century. Branding butt plugs as therapeutic devices allowed them to downplay the association with gay sex, expanding the market substantially. But not all doctors were convinced. The editors of an 1893 issue of the Medical Review mocked Dr. Young’s argument that rectal dilators could cure mental illness:
“ [Young argues] that at least ‘three-fourths of all the maniacs’ of the world may be wholly cured ‘in a few weeks’ time by the application of [rectal dilators]. Why then do these men not apply the dilators to himself or to each other?…Kraft Ebing [sic] may have a new chapter to write concerning sodomic perversion in his work upon sexual psychopathy.”
As this quote demonstrates, from its inception, the butt plug was stereotyped as a gay man’s toy and mocked for that very reason. A recent study showed that over a third of gay men had used them, but this is not because only gay men enjoy anal stimulation. It’s because only gay men are allowed to publicly admit that they enjoy anal stimulation
This stereotype prevents butt plugs from getting into the anuses of those who need them the most: women and straight men. That the anus is an erogenous zone for many women and straight men is evident from the percentage of women who engage in anal intercourse, about a third of women, depending on who’s counting and the large number of straight men who enjoy being pegged or watching porn of it (based on the 3.5 million hits when you search for “pegging porn”).
“Butt plugs are a truly democratic toy,” said Jelly Knowles, the founder of The Butt Plug of the Month Club (see video below). “They are unisex. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman or reject the gender binary entirely! It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay or something else… There’s just something beautiful about that.”
While I agree with Ms. Knowles, I also believe that the stigma will remain until we recognize that the anus as a legitimate source of sexual pleasure, and we bestow a new name upon the butt plug. So this Valentine’s Day, present your partner with the most iconoclastic gift on the bloc. Abandon that box of artisinal chocolates bursting with obscure ingredients like dried rutabaga bark and elephant dung. Fight the brave fight, and buy them a butt plug. If you’re worried that your boyfriend will turn gay from using a butt plug, have no fear. Sexuality doesn’t work that way. Gay men have been having sex with straight women for centuries, and it hasn’t turned them straight. —Hallie Lieberman