When I tell people that I am doing a dissertation on sex toy makers, I never really know how they’re going to react. Most of the time, it’s surprise and amusement. Rarely does someone react negatively. Most eventually ask, “How did you get into that?” And I smile and take a deep breath.
Let’s take a look inside my head. Image by Fernando Vicente
It’s a fair question. I ask it of all the respondents for my research. (More on their answers another time). But the embarrassing thing is, I don’t have a good answer to the question. How did I got into this? From my perspective it seems sort of stupidly obvious: I just followed my life. I just wandered along and followed the most interesting questions. And here I am! Talking to you, dear questioner.
Part of the difficulty of coming up with a good answer is that – as a wise friend once told me – interest is difficult to justify because it is so unexamined. It’s not as if curiosity goes through conscious processing, as if we see something, we think about what it is, and then our brain resolves, ‘yes, this is something worth being interested in.’ It doesn’t work that way. Or, it doesn’t seem to work that way for me. But all that notwithstanding, I still have to answer the question.
Full disclosure: I received my first vibrator when I was 16 years old. My friends in England bought me a purple rubber rabbit as a going away present. I remember one friend muttering close into my ear, “use lube with that thing!” It’s funny to remember it at this juncture in my life. But to be honest, that wasn’t what got me hooked. I didn’t become some kind of sex toy fiend. On the contrary, I found the toy a bit mystifying. Vulva stimulation from an inanimate object was fine, but where were human touches: the warm breathe and body weight, the cuddling arms and legs – all the bodily sensations that went with physical intimacy? Those parts were just as important, if not more important.
But back to the question, “What brings you here, Shelly, to do your dissertation on sex toys?” It’s apparently not because I’m a sex toy fiend. Till now, my strategy has been to name all the reasons sex toys are interesting. For one, they’re everywhere. (I live in New York City, OK?). They are at times a political symbol, or even a feminist tool (scholar of feminist history Astrid Henry writes “vibrators in hand, we’re ready for the good fight!”). Sex toys used to be illegal. In parts of the world like Malaysia and India, they still are illegal! They are sometimes shaped like rabbits and people are using them in their most intimate encounters. Isn’t it obvious that they’re interesting? But it’s not. It’s not obvious. There must still be something about me that makes them especially interesting for me.
So this time I’m going to dig deeper. I’m going to try to figure out what is it that makes me interested in sex toys, and trace the interest further back. Of course, this is a project in active self-narration. Maybe I could tell the story of my intellectual history differently. But in the interest of giving me a compelling answer for well-intentioned questioners, I’m crafting at least one version of the story.
The first thing to say is that I have always been a feminist. Sigh. Let’s not get into some old hat debate about why the F word is or is not a dirty word. Let’s just sidestep that. For now it is the right word, and I have been feeling like I identify as a feminist since I could put words together. I always wanted to compete with the boys in challenges of strength and speed. And I was always frustrated that I was disqualified because of my gender. I remember competing with some boys for who could jump from the greatest heights on a playground. I proudly jumped off the greatest height I could find – the roof of a playhouse on the playground. The boys chickened out and I proudly won the competition.
I obviously rejected the assumption that I was physically lesser. And what came with that was a stubborn unwillingness to accept gendered double-standards in the more intimate physical pursuits. What was this thing that boys had desires but girls didn’t or shouldn’t? It seemed like a bizarre rule in a rigged game.
The second thing that guided me to this topic is my talent for imagining other worlds. I have always had a very active imagination. At a young age I had conceived of myriad parallel worlds that collapsed in on each other and also coexisted independently. This heady pass time helped develop me into a critical and analytical thinker. Since I reason that if you are less attached to the world being exactly as you see it to be, you can more quickly ask, why is the world the way it is? Who benefits? And how could it change? It is this curiosity that has drawn me to the boundaries of the socially acceptable: what lurks in the shadows among the so-called “deviants,” the sometime future trendsetters, inventors and activists. I still get excited about imagining the world as other than it currently is.
The third thing is, in various different intellectual ways, I have been thinking about power, gender, sex and the body for a while. In high school I wrote a required thesis as part of the International Baccalaureate program. I wrote about two poems by Robert Browning. I had been introduced to the poems a few years earlier in an English class in England and had just carried around a scintillating passion for these poems ever since. They were “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess.” Give them a read below.
Or, TLDR: They are really deliciously creepy. “Porphyria’s Lover” is about a lover who has an illicit encounter with Porphyria and then strangles her with her own hair. “My Last Duchess” is told from the perspective of a duke showing off a portrait of his last duchess who he had killed because she smiled too much. I was clearly, from my mid-teens, thinking about men who murdered their lovers and their passions and pathologies.
Poster by Jan Lenica for Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play Wizyta Starszej Pani (The Visit), 1958. Polish Posters at MoMA, New York
One other piece of art that I was briefly obsessed with. My freshman year in college I took an amazing writing class that had an absurd art theme. We watched Paris is Burning, which is one of my favorite films to this day. For my final paper, I wrote about a play called The Visit by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. The play is about an old woman who returns to her hometown now a millionairess and offers money to the town on the condition that they kill the man who she had an affair with years back. He deflowered her and then abandoned her back when she was a young girl. The townspeople immediately reject the offer but the hard times and the temptation of prosperity soon turn them and they eventually capitulate. What a story! The influence of money, the ugliness that can result from desire gone awry. And the strange appeal of a story about a topsy-turvy world in which a woman is more powerful than a man.
While in college I also worked at my college’s sexual health resource center that was volunteer staffed, and distributed condoms, lubricant, pregnancy tests and some vibrators. The work served my values by promoting safe sex and open discussion about sexual health and pleasure. It also gave me an opportunity to see up close some of the products out there. Good Vibrations helped school me on the rest.
Given my existing intellectual predilections, it’s perhaps not surprising that when I encountered the sex robot in 2011, I was in love. Not the body-love kind, the brain-love kind. I learned about Roxxxy, who had been unveiled at AVN’s Adult Entertainment Expo. She was the future, or some step towards it. She was full-sized and humanoid. She could say some preprogrammed things and had sensors in her ‘body’ to detect where she was being touched. She could simulate a personality—your choice of several—that had certain sexual tastes and racial ethnic flavors. I was fascinated. Taking a closer look at the sex robot, now relatively uncommon, made me think more about the relatively common sex technologies: lingerie, dildos, vibrators, anal plugs and cock rings. Why did they exist (not that I am complaining)? And how did they get made? What kinds of worlds do they make possible? What does it mean that we turn to the market to solve our intimate problems? And what options do we have? And that is how I got into my dissertation project.
The leading lady in Metropolis is my (anti-) hero. Wish me luck on my dissertation journey!