Penny Harrigan is perfectly average and she’s never had an orgasm. She is the leading lady in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book Beautiful You, in which C. Linus Maxwell, CEO of MicroDataCom releases a line of sex toys so potent that women literally recede from society, preferring to stay home to masturbate incessantly. Remember the 1998 episode of “Sex and the City” in which Charlotte became addicted to her rabbit vibrator? It’s like that, but global. The book is a quirky cross between a motivational anecdote about a woman’s journey to sexual empowerment, and a grim critique of dystopian industrialized society, just with painful details and boring writing.
Palahniuk is stuffing much too much into this book, as if he’s shoving the narrative into a box that’s already packed to capacity. The story involves chemical sex toys, genetic engineering, caricatured sex shamans, nanobots that make women into robots –hijacking them for corporate interest – and even a lurid rape scene. This world is fictional of course, these technologies are all pure fantasy, but the world is also similar enough to our own that it reveals some of the darker taboos associated with sex toys. Beautiful You brings up questions about gendered pleasure, empowerment, control and technology.
Can Sex Toys Give Orgasms For All?
At the outset, our heroine is a “no one;” Penny has failed the bar three times and works as a less-than assistant at a law firm. Maxwell (a.k.a. “Climax-Well”) should want nothing to do with her. He’s bedded European royals, famous French actresses and even the president of the USA (who’s a woman, by the way), so why stoop to the levels of this dull, Midwestern no one? The main answer is, because she’s never had an orgasm.
The common wisdom is that women don’t get off as much as men do. A figure that’s bandied around a lot, even by sex toy makers, is that only a third of women can orgasm from intercourse alone. Intercourse, of course, is commonly seen as the finishing point in the hetero sex script: kissing, touching, intercourse, and it’s over. Intercourse probably ends when he ejaculates, but what about her? Research confirms there are gender inequalities in how well that script serves women. A study of college sex showed that the orgasm gap is especially large in casual “hookup” sex. That is, men are much more likely to report orgasm during their last hookup.
Why is it so hard for straight women to get off? Maybe women need relational closeness more than men do, to reach orgasm? The evolutionary biologists would probably say so. I am unconvinced. My best guess is that men are relatively incompetent at getting women off and women don’t masturbate enough to help them out while having partner sex. Much like Penny, they just lie there passively expecting or accepting pleasure. But more than incompetence, there is evidence that men’s motivation also contributes to the orgasm gap in casual sex. Women’s orgasm rates are significantly higher in relationship sex, suggesting that when men care more, women get off more. Of course, it could just be that they are getting more practice. But the exact cause for orgasm inequality is not obvious. In Beautiful You, sex is like a physics experiment. When Maxwell presses the right places with the right forces at the right times, Penny experiences eye-opening, mind-blowing, life-threatening pleasure. This formulaic sex is pretty hard to believe, and unfortunately, it makes the (many) sex scenes in the book decidedly unsexy.
Unfortunately, sex toy makers haven’t always prioritized women’s ideas of sexiness. The first vibrators were used by doctors treating hysteria! The sex toys we know today were cast during an almost century-long struggle over sex and gender. At the center of this battle was the substantial challenge of securing safe, empowered pleasure for women. In the 1970s, sex toys became more widely available than ever, but the “dirty bookstores” where they were sold were largely unwelcoming to women. Feminists like the recently deceased Dell Williams played a considerable role at this turning point for sex commodities. She opened Eve’s Garden in 1974 in New York City, and two years later Joanie Blank founded Good Vibrations in San Francisco. These “clean well-lighted” stores—as Good Vibes advertised itself—provided a feasible path towards closing the orgasm gap, and delivering equal pleasure for all. That’s how toys came to be known as tools for women (straight, lesbian or otherwise queer) to wrest true sexual liberation from patriarchal oppression (in other words, bad sex). Sex-positive boutiques are commonplace today, but at the time, they were radical.
Sex toy makers to this day are greatly indebted to this feminist rhetorical strategy of empowerment and sexual self-determination. And C. Linus Maxwell’s toys get the same marketing spin, though his are supernaturally powerful. The Beautiful You line of sex toys, were they real, might be revolutionary. But there is still one issue that threatens to rain on our orgasmic parade.
The Perils of ‘Orgasm For All’
Palahniuk’s toys are as sinister as they are sublime. Maxwell’s products include a proprietary formula that is mixed with pink champagne and squeezed into the vagina using a syringe. Et voila: new heights of pleasure (not to mention yeast infections?). The collection also includes the “instant ecstasy probe,” and ghastly “earth magnet” beads that have to be sucked out to release their victim. Each product brings Penny to such extremes of pleasure that she is repeatedly on the verge of death. Riiiiiiight.
The maniacal C. Linus Maxwell and his bizarre products are fantastical caricatures, but the scenario being played out in this book reflects a real taboo for sex toy makers and retailers. Will sex toys be so good that they will become bad? Primarily, this is about what I’m calling a “taboo of replacement.” Could vibrators be substitutes for romantic partners? Maybe not. But what about something more sophisticated, like a moving fucking machine or a humanoid doll?
The more humanoid the product is, the greater the taboo of replacement. Sex shop retailers and educators routinely counsel consumers on how to confront a partner “feeling threatened.” They anticipate that men in particular will be threatened by the introduction of other penis-like objects in the bedroom. This appears to be fundamentally caused by a prospect of being replaced. The imagined doomsday scenario being a sex cyborg: a composite organic body and (wo)man-made technology, that is so superior to regular-old, unaided sex that not just sex, but relationships cease to exist.
For some, the scenario is appealing. Why put up with bickering or communicating about needs if a vibrating member gives you quicker, better orgasms? But for sex toy makers and retailers, it’s a menace to the approachability of their products. Of course this is a false binary: the idea that high tech cyborg sex will replace human relationships is preposterous. Relationships offer a lot more than orgasms. And a cock ring can’t hug you. Yet, sex toy makers find themselves having to constantly emphasize that their products are for partner play. Their message is clear: ‘it’s not substitution, it’s supplement!’
A World Made Mad By Sex Toys
Palahniuk not only delves into the cyborg doomsday scenario, he goes beyond it. In the world of Beautiful You, women don’t go to work, don’t bathe, and forget to eat and drink. Penny herself must first accept and eventually master her most animalistic, inner self: a self that lets out a “long scream of obscenities… a torrent of animal gibberish and profanities” during climax. Meanwhile, men fill the post-apocalyptic streets in search of their girlfriends and wives. Here is where I think Palahniuk is pointing to something interesting about modern sexuality. Sexual desire is a realm where we play out our modern battle between the civilized and the animalistic. Indulgence in sex is an indulgence in visceral desires, so-called animal ‘drives’ that threaten to take over. So frightening is the scenario in which we cross over to the other side that they lead to the world in which men are reduced to infantile shadows of their former selves. Penny is practically attacked by one man who demands, “You’ve got to help me! … As a woman, you’ve got to take care of me!”
What’s more, the main drama of this book unfolds between a civilized company man, Maxwell, and a foul-mouthed sex victim, our heroine. As if that’s not already wild enough, Penny has to apprentice with a bearded lady shaman to survive. Our company man is deranged, yes, but his DataMicroCom stock still soars. At his most evil, Maxwell tortures and murders women with a few swipes on a handheld controller, as he reclines in the back of a darkened limo. At her most powerful, our heroine is eating scavenged food in the Himalayan mountains, masturbating with the aid of human bones. Which is the civilized being and which is the irrational animal? And Penny gets off easy compared to the rest:
The only other females to be found were those haggard zombies standing in the miles-long line that stretched from the doors of the tapered pink tower on Fifth Avenue. The bedeviled wretches looked interchangeable. Their stringy hair had fallen out in clumps, and their fingernails were bitten down to the quick. To a woman, they each carried the same purse, wore identical shoes, dressed in look-alike outfits. These articles of clothing weren’t attractive or well made, Penny noticed, but they were all products manufactured by DataMicroCom and its subsidiary companies (181)
Is this the destiny of liberation? So potent is sexual pleasure, that if women can achieve amazing orgasms without men, they will no longer participate in modern society. Though I’m always intrigued by the potential for speculative fiction to offer social critique, Palahniuk falls short here. In this world, ‘orgasms for all’ leads to zombie women who neglect personal hygiene and obey their capitalist manipulators. Replacement leads to an uncivilized woman. Is Palahniuk really implying that women’s dependent heterosexuality and the labor they perform (emotional and otherwise) in taking care of men, is the only thing keeping us civilized?
Lucky for us, it’s only a book. We can still put our toys back in their boxes. But the world we return to is one in which orgasm gaps persist among young straight college students, and relationships remain the modal path to intimacy. Meanwhile, sex toy makers continue to avoid the taboo of replacement, seeking to position their toys as compatible with all kinds of relationships and intimate arrangements. They are forever balancing the need to appeal to the animalistic desires in their civilized customer, and narrowly avoiding turning customers off from their products because they appear uncivilized.
If I could write the ending to Beautiful You (or perhaps hold the controller that determined Palahniuk’s keystrokes?) I would take us somewhere else. I would embrace the uncivilized woman. I would have Penny accept herself as a cyborg heroine. She would have a message of sisterhood that could truly wrest these women-turned-robot-shoppers from the clutches of their civilized oppression. Abandoning patriarchy and overcoming their consumerist chains, these cyborgs would indulge in frenzied masturbation—sure, why not?—and remember to feed each other and bathe. Theirs would be a sustainably sexy and collectively just society. That’s my vision of the revolution. Who’s with me?
Shelly Ronen is a PhD candidate at New York University. Her dissertation looks at how ideas of sexual intimacy and deviance are reflected and challenged during the production of sex technologies such as vibrators, dolls and robots. She blogs regularly at shellyronen.com, tweets as @sronen, and her work has appeared in both academic and nonacademic publications.