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Bad Vibrations

September 25, 2011

Earlier this week, my friends and I got into a heated discussion about the acceptance of sex toys. This is a topic far too sticky for a single blog post, so I will attempt a hard and fast condensed version in a mere 1,000 words. I’m sorry in advance for the heteronormativity of this post; I’m even sorrier if you don’t know what heteronormativity means. But our main debate, and thus the focus of this post, centered around the following: is it okay, we wondered, for a girl to use a vibrator, if her boyfriend does not have access to an equivalent sex toy?

Before I get all Carrie Bradshaw on you, let’s take a few steps back. I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a bold claim: our generation is generally accepting of vibrators. When I say “accepting”, I’m not talking about the Michelle Bachmans of the world, who probably think dildos make you go retarded. I’m talking about most well-adjusted, sex-positive young adults who grew up on a diet of Britney, Bachlorette, and MTV Spring Break.

Vibrators and dildos seem almost mainstream these days. (The keyword being almost. I sometimes forget that the liberal arts environment in which I am so deeply entrenched is not the real world.) But even pro-vibrator people still have reservations about the sex toy’s male-oriented counterpart, the fleshlight. For those of you not familiar with this fine product, it’s essentially a masturbation sleeve named for its flesh-like feel. Looks like a flashlight (get it?), feels like a vagina.

The inner-sleeve textures come in Original, Super Tight, Wonder Wave, and the one above, Speed Bump. Or, as I like to refer to it, “Genital Warts”.

I first heard about the world’s number one male sex toy in the news. After the Seal Team 6 succeeded in the Bin Laden mission, the Fleshlight company extended their thanks to the soldiers by sending them each a complimentary pocket pussy. Not only was this a great publicity stunt for the company, it is also interesting because, while porn is forbidden on American military bases (aka. Operation “Don’t Ask, Don’t Swell”, anyone? Nope? Ok.), there are no restrictions on gadgetry. Even terrorist-bashing heroes have to wank off every once in a while.

Initially, the idea of the fleshlight made me a little uneasy. It just seemed so…dirty. Not like perverted-dirty, but like straight-up-problematic-hygiene-dirty. Upon further research, it is now exceedingly obvious that the manufacturers had these concerns in mind when they built the thing. This “pink torpedo of fun” is relatively easy to clean, and just as hygienic as many other sex toys on the market. The how-to video instructs the viewer how to prepare the fleshlight for use. To warm it up, you place the sleeve in a bowl of warm water. According to fleshlight enthusiasts, this process is known as “heating up dinner”.

Popular versions start at $55 and escalate quickly from there. They can be purchased in a variety of orifices (vulva, anus, or mouth) and in an array of flesh-like colors. The fleshlight does not discriminate. Yay diversity! Even for that special somebody who got just a little too into the Avatar sex scene, there is a special-edition Na’vi blue. Yay diversity?

Do aliens masturbate? James Cameron would say yes.

Even though the two toys essentially perform the exact same function, the fleshlight is far more stigmatized than the vibrator. This could stem from the fact that technology is simply lagging behind. Dildos have been around for centuries; in fact, the oldest one is thought to be an object carved out of antler bone (um, ouch?!) from the Stone Age. By contrast, the fleshlight creator was granted a patent for his product, a “device for discreet semen collection”, in 1998. Technology has finally caught up, where it is now possible to produce a realistic (fake) cooter. In Japan, they have taken it a step further with the disposable canned vagina, which is all kinds of problematic. Not to mention just plain wasteful.

I would like to note that it is fascinating (-ly predictable) that the phallic-shaped sex toys are so well received, while the vagina-shaped ones aren’t. Most likely, vibrators are more fully accepted because our society loves associating everything with the phallic. Skyscrapers! Rocketships! Popsicles! Pencils! Guns! The list goes on and on. But what is vagina-shaped, aside from the sexually suggestive flowers in Georgia O’Keeffe paintings? Clams, oysters and tacos aren’t nearly as prominent or distinguished as skyscrapers and the lot. Sigh.

Gatorade’s not fooling anyone with their tagline: “Is It In You?”

Another source of stigma comes from the fact that many people fear that the fleshlight can promote unrealistic sexual expectations among men. The idea of a guy shoving themselves into a prosthetic vagina—one that is hairless, odorless, and bodyless—makes many women fear that they might end up preferring fake vag to the real thing. Quotes from the website only exacerbate these worries:

  • “The Fleshlight will last you a lifetime. If only it were that easy with real sexual partners.”
  • “Some say it’s even better than the real thing!”
  • “The ‘shoe method’ is a style of hands-free Fleshlighting. Stick the narrow end of the Fleshlight into a shoe, on a flat surface…[for] the missionary position.”
  • And from (countless) testimonials: “It was way better than the real thing…”

Nobody seems to be worried that women run the exact same risk with a vibrator. For some reason, we have it engrained in our thick little heads that women and men masturbate for different reasons (they don’t), and therefore vibrators pose less of a threat. I am sure there are women who also prefer toys to boys–but when a woman uses a vibrator, she is commended for embracing her sexually empowerment. When a guy uses a fleshlight, he is often depicted as a sleazy hornball. Its deeply unfair, but its one of the few gendered double-standards that actually troubles patriarchy.

At its worst, the Fleshlight seems like a cheap, fantasy replacement for the real thing, made for guys who can’t get real women. At its best, its actually just the inverse of a vibrator, essentially performing the same function. Perhaps the fleshlight will become more normalized with time.

The ideas here have not been fully penetrated, but my self-imposed word limit just came too quickly. I could go on and on about the ins-and-outs of this topic; maybe next time I’ll get a firmer, more well-rounded grasp on the base of the problem. For now, it’s time to wrap it up. In conclusion, we should all take a long, hard look at the way we think about sex toys and the …okay dammit, no more sexual innuendos, it’s time to retire my cunning linguist skills. I’m finished.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 25, 2011 6:37 am

    i, for one, am a FAN of all the innuendos 😉

    and you’re right, as a fairly sex-positive male who looks favorable upon masturbation and has taken female friends to the sex shop on vibrator-purchasing trips before, I still feel very uncomfortable when I find out that one of my male friends own a fleshlight, or when they suggest that I get one for myself as a joke.

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