Tag Archives: Sex toy

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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Let’s Rebrand the Butt Plug!

Young's Rubber rectal dilator, circa 1890's, Courtesy Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History

Young’s Rubber rectal dilator, circa 1890’s; Courtesy Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History

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. Continue reading

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One Vibrator Per Teen

Hello Kitty Vibrators

One Vibrator Per Teen: Changing A Teenager’s Life, One Sex Toy at a Time.

To get sex toys when I was a teenager, I had to break the law. Like all teenagers, I was obsessed with sex. Unlike all teenagers, I was obsessed with sex toys and would tromp into sex-toy stores just to gaze at the bizarre dildo packaging. This being the late 1990s, shopping online wasn’t an option. So I went to brick-and-mortar stores for my dildo fix. The only problem was that I was 16, and the minimum age was 18. So every time I went into the Adult Fun Shop, I was afraid that I’d get kicked out. Even its name reminded me that I wasn’t welcome. That added to the thrill, of course, but it also made me think that exploring my sexual desires was illegal, which leads me to my proposal (actually it was my boyfriend’s idea) that all adolescent girls should be eligible to receive a free vibrator when they turn 13. 

Here’s how the One Vibrator Per Teen program would work:

When a girl turns 13, she would be eligible to sign up for the One Vibrator Per Teen program via a website, which would feature information on masturbation, sexual health, contraception, and all the other things you need to know when you develop breasts and pubic hair. A week later, a phthalate-free rechargeable silicone vibrator clothed in discreet packaging would arrive at her home, packaged with water-based lubricant and an informational booklet.

Not only would teenage girls benefit from this program, but sex-toy companies would also profit from the early brand recognition. Gaining brand loyalty by giving away swag to hormonal girls is a time-worn strategy. For decades the feminine-hygiene company Kimberly-Clark has offered free sex-education materials to teachers in an attempt to get their maxi pads in the hands of as many new menstruators as possible, so why shouldn’t Trojan also get in the game?  Continue reading

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Do Sex Toys Infantilize Women?

I Rub My Duckie Kitty

Is this a sex toy or a children’s toy?

Sex toy. The very name implies a childish device, something that doesn’t take sexuality seriously. While in theory this is fine, in practice the toy-ness of the devices sometimes ends up flowing through the design in a way that implies that female sexuality is infantile and frivolous.

It’s not that I want all sex toys to be realistic looking. In fact, one of the appealing things about sex toys is that they represent the cleaning up of the genitals. They’re not marred tangly pubic hair, pendulous droopy testicles, or uneven textures. But it’s worth examining why we have so many cloyingly designed genital stimulators. There is something decidedly un-erotic about many of the female sex toys on the market. It’s as if sex toy companies were focus-group testing  themes on elementary school-aged girls. Why else would we have sex toys in the shape of seahorses, kitty cats, butterflies, roses, and cupcakes?

Take the Big Teaze Toys’ I Rub My Duckie, which is, as its name implies, a rubber duck-shaped vibrator (pictured above in the Furry Hoodie Kitty version). More akin to a Polly Pocket doll than to a dildo, the I Rub My Duckie comes in a variety of personalities, including Bondage Fashionista, Sweetheart, and Pirate. Most of these come with matching removable accessories, including a feather boa for the Paris and Sweetheart ducks and a fuzzy hat for the Furry Hoodie Kitty, unfortunate accessories for devices that routinely get slathered in female sexual juices. (In all fairness, the boas and hats are removable.) With its Swarovski crystals and hard plastic exterior, the design of the I Rub My Duckie has very little to do with sexual pleasure, and everything to do with play. It’s all toy and no sex. Continue reading

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The History of Sex Toy Humor

The Delighter

Sketch of “The Delighter.” (Circa 1920s) From the National Museum of American History Archives Center Business Americana Collection

For as long as sex toys have been around, we’ve been laughing at them. But why we think they’re funny is difficult to explain. If you asked a group of people to explain why they laugh at dildos, you’d be met with blank stares. (Or you’d be forcibly removed from your family reunion. Don’t ask).

In an attempt to understand the mechanics behind sex-toy humor, I recently read Gershon Legman’s Rationale of the Dirty Joke. In the book, Legman argues that one of the functions of humor is that it allows us to discuss taboo subjects in polite society. We can joke about sex in venues where we can’t talk seriously about it because the humor “absorbs and controls… by means of laughter, the great anxiety that both teller and listener feel in connection with certain culturally determined themes.” Following this logic, we joke about sex toys because it’s the only way that our society allows us to discuss them without facing societal repercussions.

One of the earliest records of dildo humor  is from the Greek poet Herodas, who was writing in the 3rd Century BC.  In a bawdy sketch titled Mime , a woman (Metro) is asking her friend (Koritto) where she bought her dildo. Koritto responds to Metro’s question with a rhapsodic description of her sex toys: When I saw them, my eyes swam at the sight—men don’t have such firm pricks! Not only that, but its smoothness is sleep, and its straps are like wool, not leather. As is typical of much dildo comedy throughout history, the humor is related to men’s fears of penile inadequacy, a fear that given a choice, women would prefer the smooth, perpetually hard dildo to the flawed and fallible penises of their partners. Continue reading

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Ask the Dildographer

While guiltily not working on my dissertation on Labor Day, I decided to traipse down to the bookstore and pick up a few sex advice books and magazines, a few of which contained sex toy history in them. So I ended up technically working on Labor Day, after all, which calmed my bat-shit crazy mind. Some of what I found in these books was enlightening (I learned a new fellatio technique, for example), some was disheartening (no, author of Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man, your boyfriend or husband isn’t gay if he enjoys being pegged. He’s straighter than Mitt Romney on a ski slope.), and some was essential basic anatomy that I never learned (ie. where the frenulum is).

But what these books made me realize is that people crave very basic information about sexuality and that this information is in short supply (the entire sex advice section would’ve fit on my coffee table).  The recent popularity of 50 Shades of Grey demonstrates that when the market for sex advice literature isn’t satisfied, readers will simply transform their smut into sex-advice manuals. The only problem with employing 50 Shades as a sex manual it is that it encourages the use of dangerous hardware-bought sex toys like zip ties and ropes. I don’t fault E.L. James because she didn’t intend for 50 Shades to be used as an instruction manual. But now that women are using it that way, it’s important that they apply the central message of the story to their lives–that people in love can and should have taboo-busting rough sex and not just make vanilla love to each other while pumpkin-scented candles flicker in the background–without reenacting the sex scenes using the possibly dangerous tools mentioned in the story.

I figured that I’m as good a person as any to offer this type of sex-toy advice, so I’ve decided to start a recurring Ask the Dildographer feature. Ask me anything sex-related (not just sex-toy related), no matter how bizarre or taboo you think that it is. Chances are that I’ve either tried it, thought about trying it, or read about someone who has tried it. All question-writers will remain anonymous. Send all your emails to askthedildographer@gmail.com Continue reading

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What is a Sex Toy?

Wahl 2-speed all-body massager

Is this a sex toy or a therapeutic massager? How do we make this distinction?

It seems ridiculous to ask this question, nearly a year into writing my blog and my dissertation. But it’s an important one because what is and is not a sex toy is not readily apparent. Sure, you could confidently state that the devices sold on a sex-toy site like Good Vibrations, are in fact instruments that are designed to stimulate the genitals. But not all sex toys are sold in sex toy stores. Nor are all massagers that are marketed to “relieve pain and fatigue,” actually used for back massage.

So how do we judge whether something is a sex toy or a therapeutic device? Do we accept a company’s marketing claims at face value? Or do we factor in how the consumer actually uses the device?  Take the Wahl Two-Speed All Body Massager  for example. Wahl makes vague claims that the massager: “Increases circulation,” “Relieves aches and muscle pain,” and works well for “facial” and “deep tissue” massage. But nothing indicates that the massager provides women with incredible orgasms. You have to look to Amazon.com’s product reviews to find that information:

“Best. Thing. Ever. No clue how it does at massaging sore muscles, but as a vibrator it’s definitely in my top 3. Most of the time the low setting is perfect, but for an extra little something there’s a way to hold it so you can flip it to high right before you have a orgasm [sic] and I have to say it’s better than anything else I’ve experienced. A definite must for anyone.”- Anonymous

Not all of the reviews are like this, of course. But enough of the reviews are like this that there should be no doubt in any consumer’s mind that the Wahl provides an amazing clitoral massage. Continue reading

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One Nation Under Sex Toys

Rejected Newsweek Cover with American Flag Vibrator

Rejected Newsweek Cover with American Flag Vibrator for the February 14, 2012 issue. Image from http://newsweek.tumblr.com/

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.

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Why Technological Innovation Always Leads to Masturbation

Young's dilators

Young’s Rectal Dilators from the late 1800s. These rubber butt plugs were made possible through the vulcanization of rubber.

One of the questions that my dissertation aims to answer is why technological innovations are nearly always followed by sexual innovations. The discovery of the rubber vulcanization process in the mid-1800s led to the production of dildos. Electrification in the late 1800s was quickly followed by the invention of the electromechanical vibrator.  The invention of Bakelite plastic led to innovative vibrator casings.

If technology is an extension of human faculties, as Marshall McLuhan argued, if it is driven not by an autonomous force but by very human desires for love and sex, community and connection, then it would make sense that new innovations in materials are followed by new sexual products. What drew me to the topic of sex toys in the first place was a naive hope, shared by inventors, that someday the inexplicable mysteries of the universe could be solved through human ingenuity, that sexual intercourse and masturbation, two of the most enjoyable activities that a human being can engage in, could be improved if only we spent some time designing the perfect sex machine.  And it is this same sort of optimism that I’ve seen in early 1930s brochures for Bakelite plastic, touted as the material of a thousand uses, one of which was to enclose our vibrators in beautiful, yet durable cases. There is a downside to this optimism; it burdens our technologies with expectations that they can never live up to. But what interests me is not the fact that our expectations always fail, but that our expectations never change.

When a new technology is developed, we always think that it will elevate us above our animal nature, yet we end up burrowing deeper into its recesses.  Inventors claim that their new technologies will create world peace. Yet, in reality, something very predictable happens. Instead of using technology to better humanity, we use it to improve our sex lives. For example, the internet was supposed to revolutionize education, but instead it improved masturbation. Few celebrate this. But the glut of pornography on the internet should not be ignored. It shouldn’t necessarily be championed either. It’s not a black-and-white issue. As Richard Randall argues, the pornographic imagination has always and will always exist. The human erotic imagination is messy and beautiful, revolting and sublime, but we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It should be treated as a uniquely human trait and not dismissed as an aberration. It is our job to understand it, to study it, and to acknowledge it as one of the defining features of our existence. Continue reading

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