By Eugene Volokh
A post of InstaPundit’s reminded me of a couple of blog posts of mine from eight years ago; but this is an, er, timeless subject, so I thought I’d pose the question again (and back then we didn’t have comments).
Let me remind people that this is a post about vibrators — I know not all our readers like to read posts like this, so I thought I’d make that clear up front. This is, after all, a family blog, and you can’t very well start a family if you’re too interested in your vibrator.
So here’s a circumstance I’ve wondered about. Imagine that a close single female friend (just a friend) mentioned to you that she has a vibrator that’s shaped like a highly stylized penis. It’s not too anatomically correct, just a normal vibrator. Assume that this came up in a suitable context, for example when something — a store you’re driving by, a joke you hear on the radio, a blog post you’ve just read — naturally raised the question, so it didn’t just come out of the blue (“You say you’re out of batteries? Speaking of batteries, I just LOVE my vibrator!”). What would you think?
I suspect that in my general circle — coastal, relatively socially liberal professionals — most people wouldn’t think much of it. We expect that many women use vibrators occasionally. We’ve heard about them often enough that they’re hardly shocking. If anything, some men might find the idea a bit exciting, perhaps because they see it as a sign that the woman is at ease with her sexuality.
OK, now imagine that a close single male friend (just a friend) mentioned to you, under similar circumstances, that he has a vibrator that’s shaped like a stylized vagina. What would you think then?
My sense is that many people will think it’s a bit icky, in some hard to pin down way. Not everyone would; some people won’t care. But I think that a much higher fraction of people — again, at least people in my social circle — would be put off by the idea of a man using a vagina-shaped vibrator than a woman using a penis-shaped vibrator. It wouldn’t be entirely like a man saying that he has an anatomically correct blow-up doll in his closet (remember Dennis Hopper in River’s Edge?); our negative reaction to that, I think, would also be influenced by the greater ridiculousness of the visual image (sorry if you hadn’t visualized this until this point, and have now done so and regret it). Still, it seems to me that some part of the reaction to the doll would also apply even to the vibrator.
Is that so, and, if it is, then why? Why is this sort of sexuality seen as fine for women but not for men? Here are some possible options, based partly on my thinking and partly on the responses that I got after the initial post:
1. Probably the most common theory — and the one that I had before I blogged the original post — is what we might call the Signaling Lack of Sexual Success theory. If you hear that a woman wants sex but doesn’t have a partner, what do you think? She’s picky; she’s afraid of being emotionally hurt; she’s getting over a bad break-up; she doesn’t have the time for a serious commitment; she’s worried about pregnancy; she doesn’t want to be thought of as promiscuous. If you hear that a man wants sex but doesn’t have a partner, what do you think? He can’t get a woman to sleep with him. A vast overgeneralization, of course, but it has some truth to it. Therefore, a male desire to use a vibrator is evidence that he’s sexually unsuccessful, in a way that doesn’t apply the same way to women. Hence, women with vibrator = sexy; man with vibrator = pathetic.
2. The Signaling Too Much Interest in Sex theory, Anatomical Division: Women, several correspondents told me — and this seems right, though naturally I lack personal knowledge — often find it hard to get an orgasm (at least the way they like it) without a vibrator; men generally find their hands quite adequate to the job, simply because male anatomy is different from female. Therefore, a woman with a vibrator is showing merely a natural interest in sexual satisfaction, while a man is showing a bit too much interest. I’m not sure whether this is right; I think most people of my circle wouldn’t be that troubled if a woman told them that she was using some special, extraordinarily stimulating vibrator. But perhaps this ties in to the next theory, which is ....
3. The Signaling Too Much Interest in Sex theory, Social Division: Some people assume (whether rightly or wrongly) that men are more interested in sex than women are, and that in fact men are too interested in sex, and women are not interested enough. I do think this is a fairly common assumption, though I express no opinion of whether it’s accurate. If that’s so, then when these people hear that a woman is more interested in sex than they expected (which the vibrator comment signals), they approve, because it shows that she’s more likely to have the supposedly right level of sexual interest. But when they hear that a man is more interested in sex than they expected, they disapprove, because they assume that he’s even more sex-obsessed than they think men are and ought to be.
4. The Aesthetics theory: Naked women having sex are attractive and sexy. Naked men having sex are ugly (at least to heterosexuals, both men and women, and again I realize that this is a vast overgeneralization). If you hear about someone using a vibrator, you visualize them using the vibrator; if the resulting image is unpleasant, then you’re more likely to disapprove.
Now I suspect straight men do perceive things this way, but the tough question is whether straight women perceive it, too. My tentative sense is that at least many women do, at least as to some extent; but then the question is why they do. Part of the reason might be that straight women are less interested in men’s looks than straight men are in women’s, but I’m told that straight women are indeed at least somewhat interested in men’s looks. So I suspect that this ties into the signaling theories — if the image of men masturbating with an artificial vagina is unappealing to women, it’s probably because of what this signals about the man.
5. I also saw in the responses some Political theories, such as radical feminism has led people to disapprove of masculine sexuality; I’m skeptical, because I doubt that most people in my circle have really bought these theories. There were also some theories that using artificial devices for attractiveness (makeup, jewelry, hair dye, plastic surgery) is more permitted for women than for men, for whom anything beyond clothes and cologne still raise some eyebrows (though note clothes are a very important artificial device for attractiveness), and that this carries over to using artificial devices for sexual pleasure — but I’m just unpersuaded by the asserted psychological connection between tolerance for attractiveness-enhancing artificiality and tolerance for pleasure-enhancing artificiality.
There were some Harmful Psychological Effects theories, mostly suggesting that some people fear that use of vibrators is dehumanizing, and that since men are already more likely to have emotionally disconnected sex than women, that fear would be more so for men. But I don’t quite buy that, either, since masturbations seems equally emotionally disconnected with toys as without. There was even the Rugged Individualist theory (“I’m a man, and I can do it myself, without any commercial assistance!”). And there was the Familiarity theory — we’ve just heard more about vibrators for women, and are thus more used to them; if enough men come out of the closet about their artificial friends, we’ll become as jaded about this as we are about female vibrators.
So my favorite theory is still #1: Real men have sex with real vaginas. And masturbation? Oh, no, no, we won’t tell, and don’t ask.