While jokes about porn and casual references to male masturbation have made their way into mainstream culture, female pleasure—and especially masturbation—has typically been a touchier subject. But August 7, 2012 might be the day that female sexuality finally became a “mundane fact of life.” That’s when Trojan—the company that made its name selling condoms—inaugurated a line of vibrators by giving 10,000 of them away on the streets of New York City from hot-dog carts emblazoned with cheeky slogans such as, “Getcha vibes here!” According to company representatives, the giveaway is part of an effort to normalize vibrator use. As Bruce Weiss, vice president for marketing at Trojan, told The New York Times, “What we’re doing is taking something like a hot dog cart that is so everyday and so mainstream ... We’re showing people that vibrators are mainstream.”
The shift toward accepting female sexuality has been a long time coming. Almost as soon as the sexual revolution kicked off in the 1960s, feminists countered that more sex didn’t necessarily mean better sex for women. Critics accused feminists of being prudish and trying to squelch fun sexy times. In the subsequent decades, feminists reacted by proving their pro-sex bona fides by building up their own, pro-female avenues for sexual advocacy: feminist erotica, playful safer-sex campaigns, and an entire industry built around helping individual women enhance their erotic experience with education and quality sex toys. Stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland set out to separate the experience of buying sexual enhancement from the seedy environments of old that degraded women. While anti-feminists still resort to accusations of prudery at times, the country by and large knows that feminists are behind this gradual cultural shift towards accepting, even celebrating, female sexuality.
It might be hard to believe that there’s a trend towards greater acceptance of female sexuality given the increasing hostility toward reproductive rights on the right. The past two years seem to have featured a resurgence of American prudery. States passed nearly three times more abortion restrictions in 2011 than in the previous record-setting year of 2005. The anti-choice movement also expanded its attacks on access to contraception by pushing to defund Planned Parenthood and virulently opposing a provision in the health-care law that requires insurance companies to offer contraception without a co-pay. But there is no paradox here: The reason the right has grown so hysterical over female sexuality is that they’re reacting to women’s increased freedom. They didn’t earn the title “reactionaries” for nothing, after all.
Susan Faludi discussed the push-pull effect of feminist advances in her famous book Backlash, where she observed that sexism rises in direct proportion to the gains women make. Of course, we needn’t even turn to Faludi’s work to know as much; conservatives are more than happy to point out the “excesses” of female liberation that they’re trying to curb. Take William Bennett, who responded to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray by describing the current state of affairs as “sexual nihilism” that “pro-family conservatives” “have been condemning” for a long time. Last week, National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez claimed that the contraception mandate forced employers to “underwrite the contraception-driven promiscuity of your employees.” And of course, who can forget Rush Limbaugh calling young activist Sandra Fluke a “slut” simply because she admitted to using birth control? Faludi’s book didn’t offer a prescription for avoiding backlash—it’s just what comes with progress. But the strength of the backlash suggests that feminists are winning.
In an era where women can go to their local pharmacy to buy a vibrator instead of a seedy porn shop and ninety-five percent of Americans have had premarital sex, conservatives know that they’re powerless to reverse the trend toward acceptance of female sexuality. Instead, they have shown they can exact their revenge by restricting access to abortion and contraception. If they’re successful in this mission, we may end up with a culture in which women’s sexuality is open, but the price they pay for it is incalculably steep.