Why Do Sex Toys Make Me Blush?
Even though they’re broadly accepted as part of sexual wellness, they still feel taboo to me, a cisgender woman who came of age in the 80s. Why?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sex. And toys. Maybe it’s because sex toys seem to be everywhere. More and more Americans have been buying them during the pandemic. Social media blogs, videos, and influencers rank “top toys” and encourage long-time couples to try them out. Target now features a “Sexual Health” section online where it sells sex gadgets. Even my AARP newsletter, The Girlfriend, recently posted a piece on “must-have” sex toys for women over 40. And they’re increasingly on my mind as I approach menopause with raging hormones that give Lifetime movie sex scenes the power of porn. You’d think horny middle-aged woman + ubiquitous sex toys would = success. And yet, why does it pain me so to buy a sex toy, let alone use it?
“Can I help you, ma’am?” asked the 20-something employee quickly advancing towards me at Spencer’s, the suburban mall’s primary purveyor of all things risqué, on a recent afternoon. I had come to purchase a replacement for my “mini-massager,” a sorry excuse for a vibrator I had purchased years ago that had literally just broken in two.
“Um, no, um, I’m fine, um, thanks,” I mumbled, looking down at the floor. I was trying to take in the huge volume of products without feeling overwhelmed. Or observed. I noticed two teenage girls laughing loudly in the next aisle. Had they seen me? Might I know them, or their parents? “Focus!” I told myself.
About 50 different kinds of vibrators hung from the wall: straight ones, curved ones, large ones, round ones, and remote app-activated ones. Alongside them, thick silicone-y dildos, butt plugs, cock rings, and a host of high tech-looking objects whose purpose I could not immediately glean shared the display. Lubricants and potions from brands called “Hott Love” and “Sweet Licks” with functional names like “Prolonging Delay” and “Aroused AF” crowded the few shelves beneath the display.
As I took off my glasses and tried to get closer to read the small print on the packaging, another young employee approached me with a “Can I help you, ma’am?” This time, I offered a blasé, “nah, I’m good” response, but my red cheeks belied my real state. Why was I mortified that this kid was watching me check out sex toys? After all, I was a grown woman and allowed to take charge of my sexual pleasure, I tried to tell myself, echoing the mantras I’d been reading of late online. But all I could think about was that I was old enough to be this kid’s mother, which got me thinking about my boys and how I would be HORRIFIED if they saw me here.
Starting to sweat, I quickly selected two “basic” vibrators and batteries, as well as the antibacterial wipes the cashier said were a “must have” for “healthy” toy maintenance. Before I could escape, he advised me to turn on the larger vibrator “for three to five seconds before first use” and asked if I wanted to round up my bill by 82 cents to $60 “for charity.”
“Of course,” I replied, not even asking for the charity’s name. I just needed to get out of there.
The stigma attached to sex toys
As I finally exited the store, I tried to hide the rather large, black Spencer’s bag in my small purse, but it kept falling out. I was drenched from shame (and a hot flash). What was wrong with me? I hadn’t been a 70s swinger, but I was certainly no prude. I’d had a lot of sexual experiences, not quite as many as Samantha on Sex and the City, but probably more than the “average” young heterosexual woman in the 80s. I loved regaling my friends with tales of my exploits and hearing about theirs. We thought of ourselves as pretty progressive and open about sex. At my small liberal arts college, I ran a sexual health group where we gave out condoms, dental dams, and pamphlets on fisting, rimming and golden showers, the latter three all somewhat newly acknowledged “mainstream” practices at the time. But somehow, we never really talked about masturbation, even though we all did it.
And there was something about toys that gave me, and my group of fellow GenXers, pause.
None of us were “proper,” in the sense that our mothers wished we were, and none of us were religious. But we just didn’t talk about toys with either our male or female heterosexual friends, or our gay male friends. You giggled at them in the aisles of the Pleasure Chest or when a vibrator popped up in a movie scene. They were seen as something outside our middle class norm, something uncomfortable and even a little bit deviant.
Sex toys in mainstream culture
In an effort to understand sex toys’ place in mainstream culture, I asked some of the thoughtful millennial women in my writing group for their opinions. Most of them said that they didn’t see them as a big deal. It’s a “personal choice,” said one. “Pretty run of the mill,” said another. It’s no wonder that they make you blush, Steph, commented another, “because for years the patriarchy shamed female sexuality and applauded male sexuality.” Even though I considered myself a liberated woman, I had never really extrapolated it that far.
I admired the openness of these women who publicly owned their sexuality, as well as those across my fledgling social media circles. One of them, Ashleigh Renard, who is soon releasing a book on her failed attempt at swinging, co-leads a writing platform class that I attend. She regularly posts Instagram videos on making monogamy “hot,” encouraging couples to “lube up,” and bring out the toys. I am in awe of her chutzpah, and that of countless other women whose work I began reading on blogs and websites who weren’t afraid to articulate their sexual needs, and advocate for their right to sexual pleasure, including self-pleasure. It made me feel somewhat backward that I still was embarrassed to talk about masturbating. Clearly, I was much more inhibited than these women even though I did come of age in the “decade of decadence.”
I had been living under a rock regarding evolving sexual norms during the last 20 years while I was consumed with working full-time and raising my kids.
Changing sexual norms
Reading all of this content made me feel like I had been living under a rock regarding evolving sexual norms during the last 20 years while I was consumed with working full-time and raising my kids. I had somehow missed out on the “sex positivity” movement that the American Psychological Association defines as “individuals and communities who emphasize openness, nonjudgmental attitudes, freedom, and liberation about sexuality and sexual expression.” I supported all of these things, but still harbored that shame.
The wellness industry at large though, has no problem advocating for self-pleasure. And toys are definitely part of the deal. Case in point: Dame, a company that millennial blogs describe as a “progressive” and “inclusive” seller of high quality, adult toys. Its homepage features the inspiring, “You deserve pleasure. Upgrade your self-care ritual with toys for sex” and lauds its status as one of “The Most Innovative Wellness Companies of 2020.”
And if sales trends are to be believed, the pandemic boost that sex toys are seeing is here to stay. It’s largely due to an “increase in acceptance and availability of the product on the market,” according to Transparency, a leading market researcher. Other sources report that a majority of Americans plan to continue their increased use of sex toys, post-pandemic, while “20% said their views on sex toys have become more positive during quarantine.”
Last, and perhaps most important, guess what happens to the vagina after menopause (without hormone placement)? Blood vessels can become smaller and result in changes in the collagen composition that make the vaginal wall thinner and weaker. Increased collagen has also been associated with prolapse. Unfortunately, women don't have daily erections to increase pelvic blood flow, so what's a woman to do? “Sex can definitely increase pelvic blood flow, but most people can't or don't want to do this every day,” says Karyn Eilber, MD, Associate Professor of Urology and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and co-founder of Glissant, makers of luxe lubricants. Put simply: Daily use of a vibrator is good for increasing the blood flow to your vag to keep it functioning optimally.
With all of these compelling reasons to embrace sex toys, surely I could learn to accept (and use!) them. And as a scrappy Gen Xer who was proud of my “nothing phases us” generation, couldn’t I join this movement to normalize female self-pleasure?
So, next time I find myself needing a device—whether for myself or my husband and me—I may just try out some of those inclusive, quality online vendors. And the next time I make a trip to Spencer’s, I may just look the clerk in the eye, sweat a little less, and even ask for the name of that charity.
Read more by Falls Church, VA, writer Stephanie Vuckovic on her site, giantsheetcake.