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Sex Toys: The Male Perspective & A History of Stigma

Sex Toys: The Male Perspective & A History of Stigma

At first glance, one might think that we’re living in a pretty sexually liberated time. It’s clear that Gen-Z is more sexually empowered than the 1950s housewife, but with progress comes pushback, and certain aspects of sex are still extremely taboo. Whether Oprah is discussing fake orgasms on her show or bachelorette Katie Thurston is making her first impression on live television with a vibrator in hand, sex talk is constantly circulating in the media. Even TikTok has taken to exploring sexuality, with memes circulating about male pegging and bi/straight male bottoming, challenging the usual idea of male control in the bedroom. Even with all of this open-mindedness and disassembling of stereotypes, we are missing a key part of the conversation. Research has shown that a majority of men are uncomfortable with using adult toys, whether with a partner or in solo play. Why is this? With a brief history of the sex toy industry, alpha vs. beta male theories and masturbation misconceptions, we will get to the root of this stigma and provide some fresh insights.

The sex toy industry has been around a lot longer than one would think, deeply rooted in sexual stereotypes and expectations since the 1800s. At the heart of the conversation lies a clear disparity between society's acceptance of male and female bodies. The male form has been celebrated since the beginning of time, seen in ancient Greek and Asian communities as they honoured male genitalia through their artwork. Clearly, female sexuality has never been quite as celebrated. One famous rumour claims that in the 1800’s early prototypes for vibrators were created via western medicine to masturbate “hysterical” women. Though there is no evidence that this is true, this story illustrates the notion that the female body is something to be “dealt” with. Meanwhile, vibrators were being prescribed to men for pain, headaches and constipation, and though it was not an overtly sexual use of the toy, we can clearly see that there are two very different attitudes when it comes to men and women’s bodily needs.

By the 1900s, the vibrator industry was becoming more established, but a sex-negative society imposed “obscenity” laws that prevented companies from advertising their products in an explicitly sexual way. At this point, men were using vibrators for genital stimulation while their female counterparts were being dissuaded from masturbation by Victorian doctors who despised the female orgasm. Even when The Polar Cub vibrator was created, it was only advertised as a beauty tool for blood circulation, wrinkles and weight loss. With the 1970s came a wave of sexual liberation, as the birth control pill was distributed, and pre-marital sex ideals were challenged. Still, Texas continued to pass the “Obscene Device Law,” which prohibited the distribution of devices designed to stimulate the genital organs. We can clearly see the psychological consequences of these restrictions, as one 1974 survey discovered that “61% of women surveyed masturbated, but 25% of them said they felt guilty, perverted or feared going insane from doing it.” In 1983, the Japanese company Vibratex finally evaded obscenity laws by manufacturing sex toys that were colourful and shaped like animals, “The Rabbit” popularized by the television show Sex and The City. Since then, we’ve seen a more sex-positive society as female pleasure products are made more available and discussed in the media.

This brief history lesson teaches us that to some extent, society has always promoted the idea that female sexuality is shameful, trivial and simply inferior to sex with a man. Though it seems that we’ve come a long way, sex toys are still seen as threatening symbols of female liberation. The legality of toys outside the US is a grey area and the regulation of male vs. female sex products and contraception is a complete double standard. Even the 50 Shades of Grey movies, which seemed like a cultural reset in terms of explicitness, depicted a man dominating in the bedroom, using the toys on the woman rather than focusing on her own sexual exploration. To this day, female adult toys lack clear advertisement and obscenity laws are only being recently overturned. The point is, we have a long way to go.

Though it may seem surprising, men use vibrators too. One study found that men who used vibrators “scored higher on four of the five domains of the International Index of Erectile Function (erectile function, intercourse satisfaction, orgasmic function, and sexual desire).” If the science is right, why aren’t more men open to exploring solo/partner vibrator play? This may have to do with societal expectations of male sexuality. Though male masturbation is relatively socially acceptable, it is also often associated with bizarre habits and compulsions. While women’s pleasure is often framed as an exploration, men have often been taught to masturbate quickly and quietly, never encouraged to take pleasure in the process. A statistic from Pornhub tells us that an average user’s visit to the site is under 10 minutes, including searching for content. With such a short period of time, it’s hard to believe that masturbation is seen as anything more than a chore.

It’s also important to note that the most well-known male sex toy is The Fleshlight, which is not only graphic but hasn’t been updated since its inception in 1998. In general, there is a clear difference in how male and female products are advertised. For men, the packaging is often explicit and violent, with product names promoting domination in the bedroom. In this respect, we are selling sex to the “alpha man,” validating the idea that entitlement and intimidation is a standard for the male partner. This idea of alpha vs. beta man is a narrow and inaccurate construct, teaching men that power and status can be accumulated through brute physical force. This idea that “nice guys finish last” is a wildly skewed view of what women find attractive. An extensive study explored the specific characteristics that undergraduate women look for in both long- and short-term partners, with results concluding that the most attractive combination was confidence and sensitivity. More importantly, less than 12% of women wanted an aggressive or dominant partner. So, while men may think that dominating in the bedroom is most appealing, women most likely find a man who is attuned to their needs and feelings more attractive. When this ingrained idea is suddenly challenged, insecurities and discomfort may arise. Cue sex toys in the bedroom.

Research shows that 43.8% of heterosexual men in the US have used a vibrator before, usually with a female partner. Still, an Indiana University research study surveyed over 1,000 women ages 18-94 and found that 80% of women need something more than just penetration to reach an orgasm. These numbers don’t match up. Why is there a male aversion to toys in the bedroom if only 18% of women in heterosexual relationships can finish solely from penetration?

Many men have voiced that they have issues with using sex toys in the bedroom. The major reasons given are that they feel that sex toys are replacing them, or that their partners are insinuating that they are not capable of fulfilling their sexual needs. Even the men who are open to using toys with their partner are quick to establish that no toys will be used on them. Though it is slightly humorous that a shiny pink dildo can shatter the great walls of masculinity, sexual expectations are a difficult and sensitive topic that must be evaluated more closely. Still, we must wonder, are men simply intimidated by female empowerment? Only a hundred years ago, women were told to “give themselves away” to their husbands in return for money and stability. Now, women are not only financially independent but can have sex with themselves and each other. Women’s sexual empowerment might be seen as a threat to male sexual entitlement, and as conventional masculinity is shot, this lack of control can lead to insecurity and jealousy.

Here’s the bottom line: there is an obvious orgasm gap between men and women. A 2015 Cosmopolitan Survey of 2,300 women found that only 57% orgasm nearly every time they have sex while 95% of their partner’s finish. Plus, women in homosexual relationships have much higher rates of orgasm than those in heterosexual relationships, so we know it’s not an issue with the female anatomy. Often, sex toys are focused on clitoral stimulation, so the fear that women are replacing their partners with 9-inch dildos is just unfounded in truth. Simply, sex toys are levelling the playing field, a means for women claiming pleasure when men have long been entitled to theirs. Though many view sex toys as a “want” or “kinky” add on, many women can’t get off from penetration. Sometimes, sex toys are a need.

Just like any other conflict in a relationship, if you or your partner are feeling insecure about using toys in the bedroom, try having an open conversation about it. We must remember that male aversion to sex toys is not an individual issue, but a deeply engrained construct of masculinity that has thus far gone unchallenged. How do the men in our lives discuss sex toys? What does the media tell us? How has the history of sexual expectations shaped our views? We must consider all of these external forces.

If the conversation does come up, assure your partner that they are sexually capable, and this is merely a means of bridging the gap. Nothing is more attractive than a partner who prioritizes your needs, and toys will only bring the two of you closer. On the other hand, just like you wouldn’t date someone who is mean to their mom or talks over you, you shouldn’t date someone who is sexually inconsiderate. If you’re really concerned that she’s going to leave you for a vibrator, you have other problems you need to sort out.

Equality in the bedroom, now that is sexy!

Works Cited:

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