As the Biebs once decreed, “you should go and love yourself.” But I don’t mean spiritually –– no, I’m talking shameless self-love with a little electrical help. I recently had a conversation with a friend, and even in the cradle of liberal university ideals, she thought our gal group had just been joking about having vibrators, as if it was too perverse an idea for women to enjoy taking control over how and when we orgasmed. In our society, men, on the other hand, are allowed to have strong sexual appetites and are at liberty to discuss sex and wanking (who hasn’t heard at least one sore wrist or tissue-related joke) without shame or being labeled an “over-sharer.”
In the same way we fought for the vote, women also fought for control over their orgasms. For most of the time humans have been on this earth, female sexuality has been considered some kind of illness that needs to be controlled and treated by distant professionals. Termed hysteria during the Victorian era, “suffocation of the womb” during the Middle Ages, and “pelvic disorder” in the late 1880s, female sexuality has long been deemed something clinical and embarrassing that needs to be cured.
Common symptoms apparently included “fainting, anxiety, sleeplessness, erotic fantasy, excessive vaginal lubrication,” or, as they eventually realised in the 1920s, good ole’ sexual frustration.
The orgasm, or “hysterical paroxysm,” was considered the cure, but discourse surrounding it was similarly negative and has influenced society’s feelings towards female pleasure to this day. In 200 AD, Galen, a Roman physician, said the “touch of genital organs” left women “free of all the evil” they had previously felt. In the 1600s, masturbation was described as “the most common disease after fever.” In 1869, George Taylor advised use of a steam-powered vibrator to “prevent pelvic disorders” (but cautioned women should be supervised to prevent “over-indulgence”), and Freud famously postulated that hysteria was caused by “repressed childhood trauma.” Doesn’t exactly make orgasms sound fun, now does it?
We have come a long way. Once the hedonistic ‘20s hit and greater knowledge over female sexuality became widespread, vibrators began appearing in porn films and the game was up. Even in this slightly more liberal time, women were still forced into thinking that orgasm was only okay in the performance context of porn and was otherwise shameful and taboo. It was only by 1952 that the term hysteria was dropped from medical usage, and in 1973 Betty Dodson launched the first modern vibrator at NOW’s sexuality conference.
Nowadays, you can get a vibrator in all shapes, sizes, and discretely shaped receptacles. Omg Yes, a website claiming to take “something that has been hidden in the shadows […] out in the open” was launched recently. It’s an educational, non-pornographic resource all about the orgasm and different ways to reach it. However, even in the 21st century, nipples are censored on Instagram and the clitoris on television. In Alabama, you have to fill out an anonymous form promising that the purchase of a vibrator is for strictly health-related reasons.
No one at my school admitted to masturbating. It was equated with picking your nose or doing a poo in the library. You’d probably only admit to it in a really rogue game of never have I ever, and even then, the next morning you’d say you it was just because you were drinking (and who tells the truth when they’re drunk, right? Yeah right).
There was a definite change in attitude once I reached university. I talked about sex and vibrators with my gal pals a lot, and it was such a relief. We’d occasionally scroll through the lingerie pages, laughing at the weird and wonderful options available. This normalised something that for me had previously been hidden and shameful.
On returning home at a dinner with my school friends, we somehow made it onto the topic of vibrators. There was this weird, excited hush that fell over the group, and one of my close friends burst out with “wait, you have one?!” as if I’d been lucky enough to catch a rare breed of unicorn in the Scottish Highlands.
The next day, two of my best friends went to Ann Summers and got themselves a new toy, and I couldn’t have been prouder. It was like a mini sexual revolution, only no bra burning and in middle-class, suburban London.
Aside from the fact that orgasming is chemically proven to improve your health (increased levels of oxytocin and decreased stress levels), it also increases self-confidence and can make sex a lot better. The female orgasm isn’t as elusive as guys (and some girls) like to think it is.
So, to my friend and any other ladies who think a “vibrator” is just one of those outrageous jokes, it isn’t, and sexual pleasure isn’t either. This attitude makes me sad: sad for all the women throughout history who have thought something was wrong with them or pretended to just so they could have the right to orgasm, sad for those women who fought for and continue to fight for the transparency and shameless attitude we should have towards female sexual pleasure, and sad because you should be free to love yourself without fear or guilt.
I’m going to quote from something I first heard in (a now favourite) slam poem of mine –– thanks Hannah Raymond Cox. As RuPaul once said, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?!”