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Prescription for a Porn-Positive World


One of the enduring hot-button issues in our culture (and every other culture) is sexually explicit material. Everyone has an opinion on what we, as a society, ought to allow—and what should be prohibited.

Everyone has an opinion, but not all opinions are formed through sound reasoning. More often than not, our opinions are visceral responses to things that frighten us, or that we don’t understand. And if we don’t like it, don’t understand it, or it puts us off, why, that’s reason enough to have it banned!

It’s no surprise that people on both ends of the political spectrum can comfortably join forces in a pogrom against porn. It’s the great boogieman, after all: the corruptor of youth; that which erodes family values and degrades human sexual expression. What’s not to hate about porn?

I suppose if all that were true, there wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry cranking out everything from soft-core erotica to extreme hardcore. But there is, and it reflects the simple principle of supply and demand. If so many people honestly believe that sexually explicit material is bad for us and our society, why the huge demand?

Case in point—19-year-old Alex from Indianapolis writes:

Hey Dick,
I noticed from your bio that you are a pornographer. How do you justify that? Isn’t pornography basically an insult to human sexuality? How do you square that with being a sex therapist and believing, as you say, that you affirm the fundamental goodness of sexuality in human life, both as a personal need and as an interpersonal bond?”

Wow, Alex! You actually took the time to read my bio? I’m impressed! You bring up a very interesting point, albeit with a bit of a jab. You’re right; I have been a pornographer. If that’s the only word you can come up with to describe what I did at Daddy Oohhh! Productions. I like to think that the adult material I produce is not in conflict with my basic, overall philosophy about human sexuality. (By the way, thank you for quoting it as accurately as you did.)

Admittedly, porn is a thorny issue in our sex-negative culture. Lots of people are hostile to the notion that there could actually be something uplifting and life-affirming about the depiction, in any medium, of sexual behaviors. Lots of people believe that even nudity, let alone full-blown sex, is bad and that it corrupts the consumer, especially if the consumer is a youth. I don’t happen to share that perception. But this is such a touchy subject for most that it’s very difficult to have a civil discourse about the place pornography has in our (or any other) culture. Since we find it so difficult to talk about sexual issues in the public forum, it’s no surprise that pornography—i.e., the public exposure of sexual things—continues to be the big, bad boogieman for even otherwise enlightened people.

I hasten to add that, for the most part, the adult entertainment industry richly deserves the dubious reputation it has. There is an enormous amount of content in the marketplace that degrades, dehumanizes and exploits. And I’m not just talking about the stuff that doesn’t suit my tastes. Because there’s a lot of good stuff out there that doesn’t particularly appeal to me.

Therefore, I caution you in your youthful zeal not to reject everything that depicts sexual behavior as worthless just because a good portion of it is indeed shameful junk. That would be like discarding all religion because a good portion of its practitioners degrade, dehumanize and shame those who don’t share their belief system.

You apparently also think there is an inherent contradiction between being a sex therapist and a pornographer. I don’t agree. For nearly 30 years, I’ve been involved in all sorts of cutting-edge sex education and sexual enrichment projects. So why not attempt to bring a fresh, healthier perspective to adult entertainment? Sounds like the perfect role for a sexologist to me.

Humans have been depicting sexual behavior, in one fashion or another, since we were able to scratch images on the walls of our caves. Some of these depictions are intended to titillate, others to educate, even others to edify, but all are expressions of the passions of the person who scratched, painted, wrote or committed to film (or videotape) the images they did. I think that if you were really interested in getting to know my thoughts about pornography, you’d do well to check out some of my work. And let’s not forget that in more sex-positive societies than our own, sexual practices were and are integral parts of worshiping the deity.

Porn, like most forms of human expression, has both gold and dross. And just maybe, we need the crap in order to appreciate the treasures. Also, today’s porn may be tomorrow’s art. Ask Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin. A lot of stuff that hangs in the Louvre museum today was, upon its creation, considered scandalous and pornographic as well. Happily, we, along with our perceptions, evolve.

The definition of what is ‘pornographic’ changes with the times. Community standards also play a part. A lingerie catalog that showed women in bras and panties might be “pornographic” in one place, but no big deal in another.

I argue that there is a purpose to sexual depictions, pornographic or not. Otherwise, why would these depictions be so pervasive and appear in every culture? And it’s not just because it’s art. Most pornography is decidedly not art. So if it’s not art per se, what is it? Most pornography is simply designed to arouse sexual desire. And that, generally speaking, is a really good thing. It’s precisely this pursuit that probably brought you, young Alex, to me in the first place. Am I correct?

Sexual desire can stimulate an array of thoughts and behaviors from tender, intimate and passionate to raw, fierce and cruel. The mood of the consumer also plays a part. If your libido is raging, you might find a certain depiction stimulating, while the same depiction can cause disgust when your hormones are more in check. Porn tends to imitate what people fantasize about, rather than what actually happens in the lives of most of us. As a result, nearly everything is exaggerated in pornography: body parts, sexual situations, as well as sexual responses. Everything is staged and a lot is faked. Exaggeration is a time-honored way of calling attention to something that is otherwise pretty commonplace…you know, like sex.

In the end, Alex, you will have to decide for yourself what merits pornography might have in our culture. I suggest, however, that you approach porn with a slightly more dispassionate eye than you are currently using. You may find that it has something to teach you about yourself, your culture and the history of humankind.

Good luck!


You’re probably not ‘totally straight,’ according to new research


Society tends to be less accepting of men who are sexually fluid.


  • There is a new type of sexual orientation called “mostly straight,” according to new research.
  • This sexuality entails identifying as straight but occasionally experiencing same-sex attraction and arousal.
  • Men have a harder time coming out as mostly straight because society is less forgiving of male sexual fluidity.

If there is anything to be gleaned from the past thousand years of human interaction, it is that human sexuality has never been simple.

And now, we have more scientific literature to back up the claim. According to recent research from Ritch Savin-Williams, a psychology professor of human development at Cornell University, there is a spot on the sexual spectrum that is not straight, gay, or bisexual — it’s called being “mostly straight.”

Savin-Williams’ conclusion stems from research on sexuality that he conducted and published in a book titled “Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Young Men“.

In one study Savin-Williams worked on, participants who identified as men or women were shown pornography. By measuring the dilation of their pupils — an indicator of sexual arousal, as proven by a previous study of his published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Savin-Williams and his team were able to conclude that women were aroused by pornography featuring women with men and women with women. Men had similar results, which Savin-Williams calls being “mostly straight.”

This is not to say that no one is straight. “I wouldn’t say that [no one is totally straight] and I never have, despite press reports,” Savin-Williams told INSIDER. “I believe the vast majority of men are exclusively straight.”

Sexuality is a spectrum, but society doesn’t always allow room for male transgressions.

Savin-Williams is not the first scientist to deal with the idea that sexual preference isn’t quite as rigid as was previously believed. Many people already know about the Kinsey scale, the near-ubiquitous system that allows people to gauge their sexuality on a sliding scale, which revealed that people do not always fit exclusively into heterosexual or homosexual categories. In fact, according to Savin-Williams, the Kinsey scale allows space for people who might identify as mostly straight.

The Kinsey scale.

“Because the seven-point Kinsey Scale was a continuum from exclusively straight to exclusively gay/lesbian, there was an obvious place between exclusively straight and bisexual leaning straight — Kinsey 1s or mostly straight,” Savin-Williams told INSIDER.

But men have largely been excluded from the sexual fluidity narrative.

“Very few researchers seemed to notice these [sexually fluid or mostly straight] individuals, except with women,” Savin-Williams told INSIDER. “Then, while interviewing straight men for a study, I discovered that a number of them said that they were not exclusively straight, but mostly straight. These self-reports were confirmed by their confidential surveys and by their physiological reactions to watching porn: their pupils dilated to men masturbating, not as much as their pupils dilated to women masturbating, but an elevation nevertheless.”

This exclusion is due to the fact that, as Savin-Williams said, conventional society doesn’t allow much room for variance or growth in male sexuality.

“Men are affected by the belief that any level of same-sex attraction must mean you’re gay. Our culture likes our men simple — gay or straight,” Savin-Williams told INSIDER. “We give women greater freedom to be flexible, to be affected by the environment; they can act ‘masculine’ and not be labeled lesbian but men can’t act ‘feminine’ without being thought gay.”

Women have sexually fluid representation, but men don’t get as much.

This is certainly true in popular culture. It’s hard to come across a movie or TV show these days that doesn’t feature a complex, sexually fluid female character, like Eleanor Shellstrop on “The Good Place” or Petra Solano on “Jane The Virgin.”

Male characters have some sexually fluid representation “Jane The Virgin,” for example, has a male character, Adam, who is bisexual) but, generally, male figures in popular culture are relegated to one of two binaries: 100% straight or 100% gay.

Savin-Williams believes that the answer to helping men and women becoming more comfortable with mostly straight men relies, in part, upon “more famous people coming out as mostly straight,” he told INSIDER. “Josh Hutcherson began this years ago, but few have followed. I would love to see more young men come out as mostly straight to their friends and families.”

More pop culture representation wouldn’t hurt, either.

“There are more mostly straights among the millennial generation than in previous generations, largely because there’s an incredible acceptance and celebration of sexual, romantic, and gender diversity. Young people believe in the spectrum of sexuality and romance,” Savin-Williams told INSIDER. “There are already more mostly straight women and men than bisexual and gay/lesbian individuals combined. Mostly straights need to be freed from their closets — how about a movie or two?”

Complete Article HERE!


‘Sex Invades the Schoolhouse’


Fifty years ago, panicked parents helped spread sex-ed programs to schools across the country, even as panicked critics mobilized to stop them.

By Conor Friedersdorf

Earlier this month, The New York Times Magazine published “What
Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn,” a feature that probed the frontier of sex education: a 10-hour course for high schoolers titled, “The Truth About Pornography.”

The course aims to make teens in this age of ubiquitous porn “savvier, more critical consumers of porn by examining how gender, sexuality, aggression, consent, race, queer sex, relationships and body images are portrayed (or, in the case of consent, not portrayed) in porn,” the Times reports. One of its creators, Emily Rothman, explained that the curriculum “is grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.”

While the conversation that ensued focused on porn’s place in American life, the story struck me as a useful point of comparison for a look back at sex-ed 50 years ago. In 1968, The Saturday Evening Post ran its own feature on the frontiers of the subject, billed as “The Truth About Sex Education” on the cover and “Sex Invades the Schoolhouse” on the page. The story documented a rapid shift in attitudes.

Until 1965, biology students in Chicago schools “might scarcely have imagined, for all the teachers ever told them, that humans had a reproductive system,” it reported. A principal in Miami said that, only recently, a pregnant pet rabbit couldn’t be kept in the classroom. Superintendent Paul W. Cook of Anaheim, California, was quoted as saying, “Not long ago they’d have hanged me from the nearest telephone pole for what I’m doing.” By 1968, all had formal sex-ed programs.

“America seems to have suddenly discovered an urgent need for universal sex education—from kindergarten through high school, some enthusiasts insist—and is galloping off in all directions to meet it,” the journalist John Kobler reported. “The trend is nationwide. Nearly 50 percent of all schools, including both public and private, parochial and nonsectarian, are already providing it, and at the present rate the figure will pass 70 percent within a year. Clergymen, including many Catholic priests, not only do not oppose sex education, they are often members of the local planning committees.” The impetus behind the change: “parental panic,” he wrote.

Venereal diseases among teenagers: over 80,000 cases reported in 1966, an increase of almost 70 percent since 1956—and unreported cases doubtless dwarf that figure. Unwed teen-age mothers: about 90,000 a year, an increase of 100 percent in two decades. One out of every three brides under 20 goes to the altar pregnant. Estimates of the number of illegal abortions performed on adolescents runs into the hundreds of thousands. One of the findings that decided New York City’s New Lincoln School to adopt sex education was a poll of its 11th-graders on their attitudes toward premarital intercourse: the majority saw nothing wrong with it.

Teen-age marriages have risen 500 percent since World War II, and the divorce rate for such marriages is three times higher than the rate for such marriages contracted after 21. Newspaper reports of dropouts and runaways, drug-taking, sexual precocity and general delinquency  intensify the worries of parents. But these evils are only the grosser symptoms of a widespread social upheaval. Communications between the generations has stalled (“Don’t trust anyone over thirty”), and moral values once accepted by children because Mom and Dad said so have given way to a morality of the relative. In addition, parents’ own emotional conflicts, and reluctance to recognize in their children the same drives they experienced … make it all but impossible for them to talk honestly … about sex.

Giving young people more information suddenly seemed less risky to many than the alternative. And in this telling, many parents preferred to let teachers do the hard part.

In Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States, Janice M. Irvine noted that the first calls for in-school sex education came in the early 1900s “from a disparate group of moral reformers including suffragists, clergy, temperance workers, and physicians dedicated to eliminating venereal disease.” They disagreed among themselves about the purpose of sex education, but united against Anthony Comstock and his anti-vice crusaders in arguing that expanding public speech about sex would better advance social purity and retard vice than restricting it.

A similar divide endured as sex-ed began to spread rapidly in the 1960s. Its proponents believed that talking openly about the subject would help cure social ills, as they had since at least 1912, when the National Education Association passed its first resolution calling for the introduction of sex curriculum in public schools.

1960s social conservatives countered that “if we talk to young people about sexuality, it should be restricted so as not to lead to destructive and immoral thoughts and behavior”—and that “controlling or eliminating sexual discussing best allows for the protection of young people and the preservation of sexual morality.”

For them, too much information posed the greater threat.

Some conservatives even saw sex education in schools as a Communist plot, causing local controversies like one in Utica, New York, where a contemporaneous newspaper article reported that “Joseph Smithling of Syracuse, a member of the Movement to Restore Decency, told an Oneida County Patriotic Society meeting that the national sex education movement is part of the ‘International Communist conspiracy.’ He said local teachers are being fooled by a Communist plot to take over this country by getting American children ‘interested in sex, drawing them away from religion and making them superficial and less rugged.’”

The era’s most far-reaching anti-sex-ed pamphlet was published in September 1968. Selling at least 250,000 copies, Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? took aim at the Sex Education Council of the United States, the biggest and most influential group creating sex-ed curricula and spreading them to public schools.

The pamphlet’s first section portrays its opponents as a bunch of sex-positive relativists who can’t even be counted on to declare premarital sex morally wrong. “The public school is intruding into a private family and church responsibility as it frightens and coerces parents to accept the teaching of sex,” its second chapter begins. One can only imagine how these conservatives would regard media that children are exposed to in 2018 when reading their take on teaching materials circa 1968:

Sex education, as a symbol of curricular innovation, is in the classroom with all of its rawness, its tactlessness, its erotic stimulation. The flood of materials for classroom use includes books, charts, and unbelievably clever models which even include multi-colored plastic human figures with interchangeable male and female sex organs––instant transvestism.

The sexologists, who we cannot help but feel are Johnny-come-lately pornographers, are devoting their full creative powers to inventing sexual gimmickry.

Other passages could as easily be critiques of sex education (and especially porn education) today. “The embarrassing frankness of many sex education programs force the sensitive child to suppress his normal, emotion-charged feelings in listening to class discussion,” the pamphlet’s authors fretted. “This may develop into serious anxieties. On the other hand, he may either become coarsely uninhibited in his involvement in sex, or develop a premature secret obsession with sex.”

The pamphlet ended with a rousing call to parents to resist sex education and the notion that only teachers—“the professionals”—are qualified to decide what kids should be taught. In its telling, “the sex educators are in league with sexologists—who represent every shape of muddy gray morality, ministers colored atheistic pink, and camp followers of every persuasion, from off-beat psychiatrists to ruthless publishers of pornography. The enemy is formidable at first glance, but becomes awesomely powerful when we discover the interlocking directorates and working relationship of national organizations which provide havens for these degenerates.”

While the spread of sex education in the late 1960s undoubtedly changed the socialization of young people, giving progressive educators more relative influence and social conservatives less, claims that the curriculums were “sex positive” or grounded in “moral relativism” were very much exaggerated, as scenes from the Saturday Evening Post feature and other contemporaneous accounts illustrate.

The birth-control pill was deliberately excluded from many curricula. In Evanston, Illinois, which boasted a well-known sex-education program, “a junior high school teacher responds to the frequent question ‘Why is premarital sex wrong?’ by handing around a list of horrifying statistics on venereal disease, illegitimacy, abortion, and divorce,” Kobler wrote. San Diego described its goal as promoting “wholesome attitudes toward boy-girl relationships and respect for family life.”

In Miami, a youth counselor answered a common question posed by ninth-grade girls as follows: “Should a girl kiss a boy on their first date? Certainly not. A kiss should be a token of affection, not a favor freely distributed. Going steady? It’s too easy to slip into an overly close relationship.” In a separate classroom, boys were told, “Don’t you and a girl go pairing off in a corner. It’ll only lead to frustration. You’re not prepared for sex except as animals. Don’t start a relationship you’re not ready for.”

Only the most liberal educators were advocating for co-ed sex-education classes, that no position be taken on the morality of premarital sex, and that students be given “full information.” Fifty years later, Americans remain divided on many of these same questions. One change is that “full information” back then meant a curriculum that covered, for instance, birth control and homosexuality; by the 1990s, advocates of “full information” favored teaching students about masturbation, a taboo that cost Joycelyn Elders her job in the Clinton administration when she forthrightly broke it in response to a question.

And today? That New York Times Magazine story on porn noted a survey of 14-to-18-year-olds. Half said they had watched porn. And among them, “one-quarter of the girls and 36 percent of the boys said they had seen videos of men ejaculating on women’s faces (known as ‘facial’)… Almost one-third of both sexes saw B.D.S.M. (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism), and 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females watched videos with double penetration, described in the study as one or more penises or objects in a woman’s anus and/or in her vagina. Also, 31 percent of boys said they had seen ‘gang bangs,’ or group sex, and ‘rough oral sex.’”

Put another way, if sex educators today are to cover just the terrain that millions of American teenagers have already been exposed to through the Internet, they will be covering acts that even the most liberal sex-education teachers of 1968 would’ve found unthinkable to teach, and that they had more than likely never seen themselves. Imagine the confusion typical adults of that bygone era would feel if told about the content available to today’s teens—and then told that alongside porn’s rapid rise, teen pregnancies, abortions, and STDs have fallen simultaneously and precipitously.

Complete Article HERE!


How to close the female orgasm gap


Studies show sexual pleasure, self-esteem and satisfaction profoundly impacts our wellbeing. That’s why increasing our ‘sexual IQ’ matters


In this moment of brave truth telling and female empowerment, it’s time to address one topic that’s been missing far too long from our conversations around sex: female pleasure.

Study after study show that sexual pleasure, self-esteem and satisfaction have profound impacts on our physical and mental wellbeing. It is a natural and vital part of our health and happiness.

As a society, we accept this premise fairly easily when it comes to men and they learn it at a young age. When discovering how babies are made, male ejaculation (ie his pleasure) plays a featured role. Men feel entitled to pleasure and our culture supports that. There are endless nicknames for male anatomy and jokes about masturbation; and TV shows, movies, advertisements and porn all cater to their fantasies.

Women, on the other hand, appear mostly as the object in these fantasies rather than as subjects. In middle school sex ed classes, drawings of female anatomy often don’t even include the clitoris, as if women’s reproductive function is somehow separate from their pleasure. Female pleasure remains taboo and poorly understood. There is little scientific research on the topic and even doctors shy away from discussing it: according to a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, less than 30% of gynecologists routinely ask their patients about pleasure and sexual satisfaction.

This silence has real consequences. Almost 30% of college-age women can’t identify their clitoris on an anatomy test, according to a study from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Another survey by the UK gynecological cancer charity, Eve Appeal, finds that women are more familiar with men’s bodies than their own: while 60% could correctly label a diagram of the male body, just 35% of women correctly labeled female anatomy. (For the record, men scored even worse.)

Lack of sexual health knowledge is associated with lower rates of condom and contraceptive use. It also contributes to pleasure disparities in the bedroom. While gay and straight men climax about 85% of the time during sex, women having sex with women orgasm about 75% of the time and women having sex with men come last at just 63%, research from the Kinsey Institute shows. The reasons for this “orgasm gap” are surely multifaceted, but we can start to address it by talking more about the importance of women’s pleasure.

Let’s talk about what women’s sexual anatomy really looks like, so that we can normalize differences, reduce body shame and improve self-care. We should encourage self-exploration from an early age so that women (and men) learn what feels good to them and how that changes as we move through the different stages of our lives.

Knowing our own bodies can promote our own health and wellbeing, and empower our relationships. The Kinsey study showed that compared to women who orgasmed less frequently, women who experienced more pleasure were more likely to ask for what they want in bed, act out fantasies and praise their partner for something they did in bed, among other things. We can’t talk about what we like or don’t like with our partners if we don’t know ourselves.

In order to cultivate a culture of true gender equality, we need candid conversations and accurate, sex-positive information. Without this, pop culture, pornography and outdated cultural institutions fill in these gaps with unhealthy stereotypes and unrealistic expectations that center on male pleasure and leave women in a supporting role.

Through our willingness to speak openly about sex and to seek out empowering information, we can increase our “sexual IQ” and make more informed choices that will improve our sexual satisfaction, happiness and wellbeing throughout our lives.

As author Peggy Orenstein says “We’ve raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the homes, in the classroom, in the workplace. Now it’s time to demand that ‘intimate justice’ in their personal lives as well.”

Complete Article HERE!


The Sex Toy Shops That Switched On a Feminist Revolution


The “White Cross Electric Vibrator Girl” as pictured in a 1911 Health and Beauty catalog.

The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy
By Hallie Lieberman
Illustrated. 359 pp. Pegasus Books. $26.95.

How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure
By Lynn Comella
278 pp. Duke University Press. $25.95.

Think back, for a moment, to the year 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The Beatles released the “White Album.” North Vietnam launched the Tet offensive. And American women discovered the clitoris. O.K., that last one may be a bit of an overreach, but 1968 was when “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” a short essay by Anne Koedt, went that era’s version of viral. Jumping off of the Masters and Johnson bombshell that women who didn’t climax during intercourse could have multiple orgasms with a vibrator, Koedt called for replacing Freud’s fantasy of “mature” orgasm with women’s lived truth: It was all about the clitoris. That assertion single-handedly, as it were, made female self-love a political act, and claimed orgasm as a serious step to women’s overall emancipation. It also threatened many men, who feared obsolescence, or at the very least, loss of primacy. Norman Mailer, that famed phallocentrist, raged in his book “The Prisoner of Sex” against the emasculating “plenitude of orgasms” created by “that laboratory dildo, that vibrator!” (yet another reason, beyond the whole stabbing incident, to pity the man’s poor wives).

To be fair, Mailer & Co. had cause to quake. The quest for sexual self-knowledge, as two new books on the history and politics of sex toys reveal, would become a driver of feminist social change, striking a blow against men’s overweening insecurity and the attempt (still with us today) to control women’s bodies. As Lynn Comella writes in “Vibrator Nation,” retailers like Good Vibrations in San Francisco created an erotic consumer landscape different from anything that previously existed for women, one that was safe, attractive, welcoming and ultimately subversive, presenting female sexual fulfillment as “unattached to reproduction, motherhood, monogamy — even heterosexuality.”

As you can imagine, both books (which contain a great deal of overlap) are chockablock with colorful characters, starting with Betty Dodson, the Pied Piper of female onanism, who would often personally demonstrate — in the nude — how to use a vibrator to orgasm during her early sexual consciousness-raising workshops in New York. I am woman, hear me roar indeed.

Back in the day, though, attaining a Vibrator of One’s Own was tricky. The leering male gaze of the typical “adult” store was, at best, off-putting to most women. Amazon, where sex toys, like fresh produce, are just a mouse click away, was still a glimmer in Jeff Bezos’ eye. Enter Dell Williams, who after being shamed by a Macy’s salesclerk while checking out a Hitachi Magic Wand, founded in 1974 the mail order company Eve’s Garden. That was quickly followed by Good Vibrations, the first feminist sex toy storefront; it’s great fun to read the back story of Good Vibes’ late founder, Joani Blank, along with radical “sexperts” like Susie Bright and Carol Queen.
Continue reading the main story

The authors of “Vibrator Nation” and “Buzz” each put in time observing how sex toys are sold, so have firsthand insight into the industry. Whose take will hold more appeal depends on the reader’s interests: In “Buzz,” Hallie Lieberman offers a broader view, taking us back some 30,000 years, when our ancestors carved penises out of siltstone; moving on to the ancient Greeks’ creative use of olive oil; the buzzy medical devices of the 19th century (disappointingly, doctors’ notorious in-office use of vibrators as treatment for female “hysteria” is urban legend); and the impact of early-20th-century obscenity laws — incredibly, sex toys remain illegal in Alabama — before digging deeply into more contemporary influences. In addition to feminist retailers, Lieberman braids in stories of men like Ted Marche, whose family business — employing his wife and teenage children — began by making prosthetic strap-ons for impotent men; Gosnell Duncan, who made sex aids for the disabled and was the first to expand dildo production beyond the Caucasian pink once called “flesh colored”; the Malorrus brothers, who were gag gift manufacturers (think penis pencil toppers); and the hard-core porn distribution mogul Reuben Sturman, who repeatedly, and eventually disastrously, ran afoul of the law. Although their X-rated wares would supposedly give women orgasms, unlike the feminist-championed toys they were sold primarily as devices that would benefit men. Much like the era’s sexual revolution, in other words, they maintained and even perpetuated a sexist status quo.

“Vibrator Nation” focuses more narrowly on women-owned vendors, wrestling with how their activist mission bumped up against the demands and constraints of the marketplace. Those early entrepreneurs, Comella writes, believed nothing less than that “women who had orgasms could change the world.” As with other utopian feminist visions, however, this one quickly splintered. Controversy broke out over what constituted “sex positivity,” what constituted “woman-friendly,” what constituted “woman.” Was it politically correct to stock, or even produce, feminist porn? Were BDSM lesbians invited to the party? Would the stores serve transwomen? Did the “respectable” aesthetic of the white, middle-class founders translate across lines of class and race? If the goal was self-exploration through a kind of cliteracy, what about customers (of any gender or sexual orientation) who wanted toys for partnered play or who enjoyed penetrative sex? Could a sex store that sold nine-inch, veined dildos retain its feminist bona fides? Dell Williams solved that particular problem by commissioning nonrepresentational silicone devices with names like “Venus Rising” from Gosnell Duncan, the man who made prosthetics for the disabled. Others followed suit.

Even so, Comella writes, the retailers struggled to stay afloat: Feminist stores refused, as a matter of principle, to trade on customers’ anxiety — there were none of the “tightening creams,” “numbing creams,” penis enlargers or anal bleaches that boosted profits at typical sex stores. Employees were considered “educators,” and sales were secondary to providing information and support. What’s more, Good Vibrations in particular was noncompetitive; Blank freely shared her business model with any woman interested in spreading the love.

Consumer culture and feminism have always been strange bedfellows, with the former tending to overpower the latter. Just as Virginia Slims co-opted the message of ’70s liberation, as the Spice Girls cannibalized ’90s grrrl power, so feminist sex stores exerted their influence on the mainstream, yet were ultimately absorbed and diluted by it. In 2007, Good Vibrations was sold to GVA-TWN, the very type of sleazy mega-sex-store company it was founded to disrupt. Though no physical changes have been made in the store, Good Vibrations is no longer woman-owned. Although the aesthetics haven’t changed, Lieberman writes, the idea of feminist sex toys as a source of women’s liberation has faded, all but disappeared. An infamous episode of “Sex and the City” that made the Rabbit the hottest vibrator in the nation also portrayed female masturbation as addictive and isolating, potentially leading to permanent loneliness. The sex toys in “Fifty Shades of Grey” were wielded solely in service of traditional sex and gender roles: A man is in charge of Anastasia Steele’s sexual awakening, and climax is properly experienced through partnered intercourse. Meanwhile, the orgasm gap between genders has proved more stubborn than the pay gap. Women still experience one orgasm for every three experienced by men in partnered sex. And fewer than half of teenage girls between 14 and 17 have ever masturbated.

At the end of “Buzz,” Lieberman makes a provocative point: Viagra is covered by insurance but vibrators aren’t, presumably because while erections are seen as medically necessary for sexual functioning the same is not true of female orgasm. Like our feminist foremothers, she envisions a new utopia, one in which the F.D.A. regulates sex toys to ensure their safety, in which they are covered by insurance, where children are taught about them in sex education courses and they are seen and even subsidized worldwide as a way to promote women’s sexual health.

In other words: We’ve come a long way, baby, but as “Vibrator Nation” and “Buzz” make clear, we still may not be coming enough.

Complete Article HERE!