Imagine for a minute that your female friend were contemplating purchasing a masturbation sleeve for her boyfriend. What advice would you give her? Would you tell her that giving him a masturbation sleeve would jeopardize her femininity? That her boyfriend would become addicted to the pleasurable sensations produced from the masturbation sleeve? That such a purchase would augur the end of the relationship? That woman cannot compete with machine?
Such statements would be absurd. Yet if a male friend were purchasing a vibrator for his girlfriend, such a conversation would be likely. When I discuss my research, usually someone tells me that men are intimidated by sex toys, and consequentially that sex toys will always be taboo because of this male uneasiness. On the surface of it, the argument seems to be logical: How could a man not be afraid of a powerful mechanical device that produces consistent orgasms that are sometimes more pleasurable than those provided by their penises or tongues? So I set out to investigate one of the most persistent claims about sex toys, in an attempt to discover the origin of this belief in the male fear of sex toys, as well as whether or not data back it up.
There’s no way of knowing for sure how men felt about sex toys throughout history because surveys of sex-toy attitudes only came about in the 21st century. Even The Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953 did not include much information about sex toys, aside from the finding that a few women masturbated with vibrators. But this idea has existed for at least a century, as warnings about women’s dependency on vibrators show up in sex guides fromthe early 1900s. However, it’s in underground erotic comics from the 1930s and 1940s ( known as Tijuana Bibles or Eight-Pagers) where the theme is most vividly articulated.
One prime example can be seen Tillie VI, where the title character masturbates to orgasm with a dildo, but is deeply dissatisfied.
“There’s something lacking—no kiss when I come—no hug—no dozing off all cuddled up and I know damn well it won’t take me out to eat—–so—–TO HELL WITH IT!” Tillie says.
Even though she has an orgasm, dildo-assisted masturbation is so unsatisfying to Tillie that she immediately calls her friend and demands to have him send over any man he can find so she can have “real” sex. He sends over a short, unattractive man named Mac. As Tillie’s having sex with Mac, she says, “There’s no substitute for nature.”
In this comic, not only is masturbating with a dildo shown as inferior to “real” sex, but also the dildo is portrayed as a device that leads beautiful women to have sex with ugly men. What better way of deflating the threat of the dildo than by transforming it into a tool that allows ugly men to get laid?
Yet these underground comics also portray dildos in a positive light. In The Inventor Gets an Idea (1935) the main character cannot keep up with his sexually voracious girlfriend. After they have sex twenty times in one night, he becomes frustrated and arrives upon an idea to create an “automatic prick” to please her. The end of the comic shows him relieved when his girlfriend is finally sexually satisfied. In this comic, sex toys are a solution to the problem of discordant levels of sexual desire in relationships.
Similarly, in the 1970s, sex manuals written by men portrayed sex-toy use as beneficial to a relationship. In the best-selling sex manual in the 1970s, The Joy of Sex (1972), author Alex Comfort called vibrators a “a new standby, which have proved very useful in teaching sexually inexperienced women to stimulate their own responses.” And when discussing dildos, he was similarly positive:”The sight of a woman using [a dildo] is clearly a turn-on for some males,” Comfort said.
Although cultural depictions of sex toys in the 20th century show that the idea of men being afraid of sex toys existed during this time, it was not until a few years ago that researchers investigated men’s attitudes towards. What scholars have found is that most men are not afraid of their partners’ use of vibrators, and in fact, they like it. A nationally representative study by Debra Herbenick, and Michael Reece, et. al.(2010) discovered that 80% of heterosexual women “indicated that their partners somewhat or strongly liked that they used a vibrator,” and 42% of heterosexual women who had ever used a vibrator had been given one by their male partner. Similarly their 2011 study found that “the majority of men and women in the United States feel positively of women’s use of vibrators.”
So what explains the stubborn persistence of the idea that men fear women’s use of sex toys? Well, some of it is based in truth: some men do genuinely have this fear. Yet I suspect that male fear (or the perception of it) is not actually a fear of vibrators and dildos, but of what these devices represent. When somebody says that men fear sex toys what he or she is really saying is that men fear female sexual autonomy. The belief that women should depend on men for orgasms persists in our culture. But since it is not socially acceptable to state this belief out loud, we pretend that 7-inch slabs of vibrating silicone cause men to quake in fear. – Hallie Lieberman