Vibrators Sold in Drugstores: A Victory For Female Sexual Empowerment?

Published on The Daily Femme – Friday, April 22, 2011

Contributed by Annamarya

Need a vibrator but don’t want to make the trek to your local sex shop? Never fear, Duane Reade is here!

That’s right. According to a New York Times article about new trends in the use of the female self-stimulating device, retail stores like Duane Reade and Walgreens now carry Trojan’s new $40 vibrator, Tri-Phoria, along with LifeStyles’ A: Muse Personal Pleasure Massager, which hit shelves in January, and Allure by Durex, which debuted in 2008, in the line of sex toys available for over-the-counter purchase. This is a positive and “pleasing” development for self-proclaimed “life-long cheerleader for sexual empowerment” Rachel Venning, founder of the sex toy chain, Babeland. “It’s one more step in the evolution of vibrators to just another customer product, unburdened of its freight of shame, sexual defect and sluttiness,” Venning told NYT.

The sentiment is echoed by both Liz Canner, award-winning director of the 2009 documentary “Orgasm, Inc.” (read our review here and our interview with Cannerhere) and sex & relationship expert Dr. Laura Berman, who hosts “In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” on OWN: Oprah Winfrey. “Women are getting less and less caught up on an unrealistic and puritanical vision of what a good girl is. When they can embrace their self-stimulation, they can take ownership of their sexuality,” Dr. Berman told NYT.

Sure, access, visibility, and conversation have changed for the better over the years. After all, as NYT reports, vibrators have occasionally appeared in pop culture since the 90s, starting with the movies “She’s the One,” “Slums of Bevelry Hills,” and “Not Another Teen Movie,” and making their way into HBO’s wildly popular show “Sex and the City,” which popularized the tool after featuring the Rabbit Pearl. Furthermore, according to Carol Queen, staff sexologist for sex toy retailer Good Vibrations and curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum, the “more-honest discussions about sex and pleasure” can be attributed to the HIV/AIDS scare of the early 90s and the era’s shift to “lively sex publishing” in the mainstream. “As soon as mainstream culture looks at an issue, it becomes fair game for everyone else,” Queen said.

But sex toys–and, by extension, the use of sex toys–are still very much taboo. Take Suki Dunham, a 43-year-old former Apple business manager, for example: According to NYT, Nylon refused to run an ad for OhMiBod, a line of vibrators she created that sync rhythmically with iPads, iPhones, iPods and other smartphone devices (that’s right, Nylon of all magazines). Even worse, while selling sex toys is a legitimate business, the federal Small Business Administration refused her loan application. Their reasoning: she was running a “prurient” business.

This attitude is even visible on a smaller, more personal scale. As NYT notes, “inconspicuous consumption is still the industry standard.” The freedom to pick up Trojan’s Tri-Phoria at your local Duane Reade is undermined by its packaging–a sleek, nondescript, lavender box. The same goes for the packaging of their Vibrating Ring, also sold in drug stores–housed in a small red box that emulates the look of three-pack condoms-to-go, making none the wiser (except the cashier who took care of you). What’s more, even Dr. Berman packages her line of sex toys in a box resembling a perfume bottle’s, which is a bit of a contradiction considering that, in 2006, Dr. Berman openly encouraged mothers to purchase vibrators for their teenage daughters, which stirred a national debate.

This is all somewhat hilarious, if you think about it. As Dunham points out to NYT, she can watch a Viagra commercial with her 10-year-old daughter during prime-time television but can’t advertise OhMiBod via a Facebook fan page. Dr. Berman’s products can make cameos in ABC’s “Private Practice,” and in the 2009 Katherine Heigl movie “The Ugly Truth,” yet honest promotion of self-stimulating indiscretion is still defined as “creepy,” even if, writes NYT, the “creep factor” has declined since sex toys found their way into pop culture. As Ellie, a 32-year-old student and customer of Babeland’s location in Old Town, Maine, says: “People want them, but they don’t want to go to the creepy stores with creepy people.”

And why is that? With the amount of stimulated sexual encounters on television and in movies, you would think we would be willing to explore our sexualities openly. Yet we’re still stuck in an oppressive culture that shames people, particularly women, when they try to promote and take control of their sexuality without batting an eye. That’s why the ability to buy a tiny, ultra-discreet vibrator at a drugstore is not a victory for women’s sexual empowerment. In the end, it doesn’t eliminate the doubt and abasement one feels doing so. Not that I expect that to happen anytime soon but, before we laud this development, we should really take a look at how we approach and regard sexuality in society and how we can turn the tides to a more sex-positive world.

New York Times: Vibrators Carry the Conversation


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