Progressive sex toys leave stigma behind

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Hand clenching the bed sheets

In season one, episode nine of Sex and the City, Carrie proclaimed, “I’m not going to replace a man with some battery-operated device,” to which Samantha responded, “You say that, but you haven’t met The Rabbit.”

Popular toys like The Rabbit, Fleshlight and Purple Rocket may now make up part of the $15 billion global sex toy industry, but it’s been a long road to success for these pleasure props.

Early models of the vibrator were used to treat women with hysteria, which, up until 1952 when the American Psychiatric Association dropped the term, was a disorder associated with repressed female sexuality.

“[Hysteria] displayed a symptomatology consistent with the normal functioning of female sexuality, for which relief, not surprisingly, was obtained through orgasm, either through intercourse in the marriage bed or by means of massage on the physician’s table,” explained Rachel P. Maines in The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and the Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.

Today, sex toys have broken free of their medical means and are making a significant mark in contemporary culture.

Not only does the topic of sex toys warrant shout outs in such television shows as Sex and the City and the upcoming TLC program Mother Knows Sex, a reality show which follows the life of a church-going housewife who has made millions selling sex toys, but it has also been integrated into mainstream culture in more tangible ways.

Sex toy parties have grown in popularity as a more provocative take on the Tupperware party.

“[They] might make people more comfortable, because someone is coming to your home, you’re with friends, it’s fun and informative,” said Michelle Everest, who teaches human sexuality at Western. Everest also mentioned the existence of progressive sex shops, such as Come As You Are and Good for Her in Toronto, which offer information and sex workshops to help people become better in tune with their sexuality.

Despite the growing popularity, acceptance and booming business of sex toys, it’s still an industry facing a number of challenges.

“There’s still probably a stigma about going into a sex store, regardless of how progressive it is,” Everest said.

“We hope to de-stigmatize the use of them. They’re not for oversexualized people. They’re not for single people who don’t have intimate partners. [Sex toys are] a way to explore your sexuality in a very healthy way,” she added.

Susan Knabe, who teaches in both the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the department of women’s studies and feminist research at Western, identified female sexuality and the idea of sex toys as a joke as problematic.

“It’s the way women are positioned as sexual consumers,” Knabe said, adding that lingerie and sex toys have come to be how women position themselves sexually.

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I do think it’s easily recuperated within the discourse of women’s sexuality as being sort of trivial. It’s associating it with toys, infantilizing or at least juvenile.”

The Libido Erotic Emporium for Women, a female-friendly sex store located in London, was dedicated to promoting a comfortable, non-judgmental space to shop.

“[Kelly Garland, the owner of Libido] really tried to support women-only businesses. She was also very conscientious of the packaging things were sold in,” explained Sarah Scanlon, internal relations manager for the Women’s Issues Network and a former employee at Libido.

“If things were ever sold in packaging that was inappropriate " and that could basically be anything from being oppressive to women or hetero-normative " she just refused to buy it.”

Scanlon also explained how more traditional sex stores can be alienating to customers who stray from our society’s narrow frame of who should be having sex, such as Libido’s customer base that consisted largely of older women. When Libido closed its doors in September 2008, Scanlon recalled a lot of regular customers were devastated, as they felt unwelcome in conventional sex stores.

“It was really, really hard and sad,” she said.

Male sex toys, although less prominent in mainstream culture, are also problematic. Knabe addressed the issue of the lack of marketing for male sex toys.

“When you start talking about male sexuality, with the exception of Viagra, it’s ... completely treated like a joke, like blow-up dolls,” she said.

Although still stigmatized and problematic, the sex toy business is just that " a business.

“Sex toys, because of their link to consumption, they’re products that can be consumed and they’re very much tied to different types of taste and marketed according to tastes,” Knabe said.

As a well-marketed industry, there is pretty much something for everyone. From the haute-couture line of London, England’s Shiri Zinn " where the average sex toy runs an average price of $3,000 " to " a young, hip, tongue-and-cheek online sex store with tacky animation and cheesy audio clips " a wide range of products are available.

“[It’s] the idea of marketing it as something for everybody, something all aspects of the demographic profile could find something to fit into,” Knabe said.

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