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November 01, 2005

Feminist intimidation tactic?

Chris Nolan has written a critique of Maureen Dowd's latest rumination the sexes. Overall, I like Nolan's post, but I don't understand what she's saying in this paragraph:

If Dowd had started her pretty-much first person take on the state of Modern American Womanhood in the aisle of, say, Good Vibrations, trying to work out why a cadre of women have decided to elevate feminine sexual experience to some kind of wacky cult that needs lots of equipment (not to mention lube) I'd have a lot more sympathy for her. That, it seems to me is a kind of feminist intimidation tactic - legitimized, by the way, by Sex and the City's Samantha - that really gets in the way of honest discourse. But for the right sort of girl, it can also be a nice way of leveling the field. There's interesting stuff going on here - just ask Dan Savage - and a feminist perspective might have been a good place to start talking about it.

The vibrator industry is a feminist intimidation tactic? Against whom?

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OK, here is my guess:
The vibrator industry is a feminist intimidation tactic against the sort of men who drive Hummers, Escalades, Navigators and other such phallic inadequacy compensation vehicles.

Did I win?


Cheers,

Naked Ape


I'm not sure "feminist intimidation tactic" is the phrase I'd use, but I do know the feeling of being slightly worried that I must be just too dumb to actually be good at sex, or--and this strikes me as a very modern girl type of feeling about just about everything--that I'm just not working hard enough to get as much out of it as I should be. The profusion of advice, equipment, toys, costumes, positions, and endless other variations with which to experiment sometimes feels overwhelming. Is there something wrong with me if I occassionally enjoy sex without all the bells and whistles (literal and figurative)? Then there's also the expectation to have a mind blowing orgasm every time, and the fear that a failure to do so represents a major problem with my body, my feelings, my partner, our relationship...which of course reduces dramatically the likelihood of the desired event. I don't know that feminists are the crew about which to be complaining here--sometimes it feels more to me like the very antifeminist notion that a woman must perform like a guy's abusrd porn star fantasy on all occasions, but I can certainly feel quite intimidated sometimes.

Shorter Chris Nolan: Susie Bright and Carol Queen scare the shit out of me.

My thought: we are so used to the idea that what anyone stands up and says "this is what a woman is" or "this is what a woman wants", because of our culture's sexist inclination to shove women into small boxes, we all assume that person is stating, "this is what a woman has to be in order to be acceptable." If you know much about Good Vibrations or Susie Bright, you'll find out that's absolutely untrue--Susie wrote a column once that made me laugh my ass off, since it was sweet, where she praised pillow-humping as a time-honored masturbation method.

The vibrator conspiracy, aka the sex positivity movement, has been one of the defining parts of my feminist philosophy. Reading some of the literature, it occured to me that I had been inadvertently defining my sexuality my whole life as something that existing to please a man, not something I owned for my own purposes. Which helped turn me onto seeing all the other ways I tend to define myself through male approval, not for my own reasons. Which in turn led me to think about how sexism really isn't just a few major issues--equal pay, domestic violence, etc.--but is an insidious social attitude where men are valued above women in almost every area of life. Since I write with sex positivity in mind in a lot of ways, I get lots and lots of emails from people who tell me that they have similiar thoughts.

The vibrator industry is a feminist intimidation tactic against the sort of men who drive Hummers, Escalades, Navigators and other such phallic inadequacy compensation vehicles.

My man drives a Toyota Corolla.

You do the math. ;-)

I find the whole post difficult to read, but since people are venturing guesses:

Maybe Nolan means that when some people "elevate feminine sexual experience to some kind of wacky cult that needs lots of equipment," they are shrouding it in an appearance of requiring complex specialized knowledge for anyone who wants to interface with it. This is what some law does for government, or what many people thought some modernist writers were doing for literature. In both realmss, the appearance certainly has scared some people away.

As to who the object of intimidation would be - hell if I know. Less-versed women? Timid or insecure men?

My dad drives a Corolla from, oh, 1988? Those things last forever. He's allegedly going to switch to a Prius once one arrives at the dealership. I have a bike, personally (being a college kid and all). (my lack of private transportation doesn't give me a particularly big penis, though: length: about average, I think. Girth: I think slightly below average. Ah well. One less defense to be used if I wanted to get away with raping someone.)

Right now, I'm picturing a gang of cliché feminists -- buzz-cut short hair, dungarees, hairy armpits showing proudly -- mugging someone on the street, threatening him with vibrators. "Give us all your money or we'll masturbate! I have a Hitachi Magic Wand and I'm not afraid to use it!"

Some guys are also intimidated by vibrators. They're afraid that they'll have to compete with the vibrator to be the one that sexually satisfies their partner, like how some gals are intimidated by their partners' pr0n usage. I guess some people still think that masturbating while in a relationship is a type of cheating. (I wonder if this is correlated, among guys, with thinking that intercourse is usually sufficient to bring a woman to orgasm, in which case there's no way for most women to come that he approves of!)

L.,

I think your blog is amazin'. Not sure I'm said that, and I'm sure I have say it enough.

You completely lost me with the Dan Savage link.

Maybe Nolan means that when some people "elevate feminine sexual experience to some kind of wacky cult that needs lots of equipment," they are shrouding it in an appearance of requiring complex specialized knowledge for anyone who wants to interface with it.

I think that's right. I am often put off by sex that seems to require a lot of equipment, creativity, and outside reading. I can see why role play would be fun, but honestly I can’t muster the energy given everything else in my life. Isn't there a Seinfeld where he says that he could never get into S&M because it requires you to buy to much stuff?

The object of intimidation here is simply those who are satisfied with a vanilla sex life. Just as people who are into Joyce can make someone satisfied with Tom Clancy feel inadequate, so too can members of the sexual avant garde, (which seems to be based in San Francisco) make those who like the missionary position feel inhibited.

That said, it shouldn't be surprising that the sexual avant garde appeals to many feminists. Normal vanilla sex was defined by men, and it shouldn’t be surprising that we are more likely to be satisfied with it.

But the thing is, rob, no one in the "avant garde" judges you for being vanilla. I joke and constantly on my blog that while I'm a fiend and a half for Da Booty, I'm also pretty vanilla, not really big into S&M or anything like that. I'm probably not vanilla by the average person's standards, but by that standard I am. And the only reaction I get from people that have much more rarified tastes than me is that they think I'm cool. It's not what I do, it's that I don't think of my tastes as a universal standard that makes me cool with them.

Aside from any principles other than consistency and self-interest, I'll wholeheartedly endorse vibrators because it means I get to keep the aforementioned pr0n. So shouldn't it be the opposite of intimidating?

Amanda, you're right, no one (or at least few people) judge the vanilla, and I personally don't feel all that judged or intimidated. But I do know that the mere presence of someone with more outré tastes can make people insecure. I get that all the time as a college professor: people I meet will feel the need to name drop highbrow books or apologize for having read and enjoyed Dan Brown. I don't look down on them--decent people in an egalitarian society try not to look down on anyone. But the insecurity exists.

Slagging the "equipment" is just wrong. Many, many of us guys love the equipment. My favorite way to play.

>Is there something wrong with me if I occassionally enjoy sex without all the bells and whistles (literal and figurative)? Then there's also the expectation to have a mind blowing orgasm every time, and the fear that a failure to do so represents a major problem with my body, my feelings, my partner, our relationship...

I would never want someone to put expectations on sex like that. It seems like simply putting anxiety on it. Whether a woman comes very hard or not, or whatever a woman looks like, or any of the other things we worry about; for me, the only thing that kills it is the Anxiety. I would just say go with your true mood at the time and respond to it moment by moment. As long as the woman is pursuing the best feeling for herself, as the guy in the picture, I'll be happy too. The only thing I can't stand is when someone puts on a performance out of anxiety that she "should" be doing it. Most of all, I want it real. (Though yes, I love it when all this loss of self-consciousness leads to a big, huge, neck-tension-releasing orgasm.)

>the sexual avant garde, (which seems to be based in San Francisco)

We're number one! We're number one! :D

I love San Francisco.

Bg, the Dan Savage link was in the original. I didn't get it either.

I think the pressure to buy gear has more to do with capitalism than feminism. There are lots of industries that survive by convincing us that we need extra gadgets in order to get the most out of life.

But I don't feel like the B&H camera catalog is a plot to intimidate me because I can't afford or don't want every single gadget they sell. Likewise, it's in Good Vibrations' interest to promote as many gizmos as possible, but it's not intimidating.

Vibrators are scary to male sexual mythologies. Not to women.

Two Good Vibrations anecdotes:

1. A decade or so back I went to their original store on Valencia Street in San Francisco with my then-wife and a friend of hers. Seeing all sorts of rubber objectifications of the male thingie was a scary experience for me. None of the women there seems terribly threatened. I half expected to see a couple women break into a faux swordfight with a couple of the larger, er, representations.

2. After the divorce I did some internet date-searching and swapped a few emails with the woman who founded Good Vibrations. She was enough older than me that our formative histories didn't match, so nothing beyond the emails, but I found it fascinating how someone involved in a company so radical would be such an unradical person, at least to my way of seeing things.

There is some good discussion above about how people react to complexity and consumerism and sex -- a discussion that really deserves its own conversation (and one I may comment on separately). But that discussion does not save Nolan from himself.

Nolan says, in summary:

1) he's uncomfortable with equipment and lube
2) he perceives a "feminist intimidation tactic"
3) he associated Samantha on SITC with this.

Now, Samantha was not really kinky. With the exception on one lover, she was straight; she was not into BDSM; and she had a single threesome that didn't work out, IIRC.

All one can say about Samantha is that she had a lot of partners, and she was unashamed of her own sexuality and demanding pleasure.

The concession that Nolan associates Samantha with the phenomenon he's imagining should guide our understanding of what he's on about. So should the parenthetical about lube. He thinks lube is adding complexity to sex as part of a feminist intimidation tactic. Now, most of what GV sells, and what straight guys know it sells, are vibrators and dildoes: tools women can use, in part, for their own sexual fulfullment. It's stuff that gets women off the way they want to get off.

So what is this "feminist intimidation tactic"? Sad to say, I think Nolan is just nervous that once women are (like Samantha) very savvy consumers of sexual pleasure for its own sake, they will demand what they want, and they will be unwilling to accept a sexual palette that primarily works for their partners' satisfaction.

In short, Alan Bostick has it right. Feminism and its implications for female sexual demands intimidate Nolan.

Chris Nolan is a woman.

Lindsay, I hear what you're saying about consumerism, but for some kinky folks, the kind of sex we like really is material-intensive. Dacia at Waking Vixen once ran a "guess how many toys in my toybox" contest, and the winning answer was something like 40 -- and she's not into BDSM. Rather, she's a penetration gourmet, with lots of dildoes, butt plugs and vibrators. As to BDSM, some folks can do what they like with no toys, but lots of things require some gear. A cane feels different from a crop feels different than a flogger, and a stingy nylon cord flogger feels different than a thuddy deerskin.

Some folks don't like having to buy lots of gear, and many of us are handy (or learn to be). For example, I built most of my toy collection while I was a student: I taught myself leatherwork and I made most of my restraints and impact toys myself. There's plenty of DIY spirit in the BDSM community.

If your major point is that the existence of a lot of stuff that you might not need and only marginally want should not be intimidating, then I agree with you. I can look through the Mr. S catalog and see lots of stuff that I could use if I got it as a gift, but don't need and don't want all that much. But if you're making the broader point that we don't need much in the way of stuff and people only tell us that we do to sell us things, I think that's too broad. YMMV.

Then my analysis is almost certainly wrong in significant respects. That'll teach me to wing an answer (or, likely, not).

I don't have a problem with gear. I love having the right equipment for every activity. I love nifty gadgets. I think it's good that entrepreneurs are marketing high quality, innovative products to enhance our lives.

I'm just saying the intimidation factor that Nolan describes probably has more to do with consumerism than feminism.

Lindsay, you may be right. However, I'm not sure that this explains the Samantha reference.

Its all a wonderful supplement....or should be. Sexuality should not be a contest of wills or egos...in my humble opinion.

Life is good. Enjoy it.

I can certainly see why people would feel intimidated, and I think that for anything that can intimidate people, there'll likely be someone who chooses to use it to elevate him or herself over others. So I'm sure some people engage in the "complex skills and equipment" scene for those reasons, though I've never seen any evidence that the need to intimidate is a driving force. I also don't think that that need to intimidate, for whoever indulges in it, is really particularly feminist. The only relationship to feminism that I can see is that the whole setup is contingent on the assumption that female sexual satisfaction exists and matters.

So, to the extent that anyone actively uses it as an intimidation tactic, it's only a "feminist intimidation tactic" to the same extent that, say, a menacing female supervisor is always using "feminist intimidation tactics" because her authority was made possible by feminism. It's just bad behavior that wouldn't exist if not for some very good things. All changes in power dynamics enable some form of abuse that wouldn't be possible before - just as they eliminate some form of abuse that was possible. That's the nature of power - you can be a jerk with it. No news there.

I do worry a lot about the creation of economically enforced sexual castes, though. It comes up, as well, with the question of gender reassignment surgery. There's a tension between encouraging fulfillment and leading some people to believe they can't be fulfilled without things they can't afford.

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