By Sarah White
In honor of International Women’s Day, I offer this essay about an aspect of women’s lives that is still surprisingly absent from the discussion of our wellbeing.
“Knowing how to please yourself gives you freedom.” The Little Black Book for Girlz, 2006
In the fall of 1975 I returned to Franklin College for my sophomore year, after breaking up with my summer boyfriend. I hung around Bryan Hall—the boy’s dorm—because that’s where the boys were and also the after-class pot circles where a girl could always count on a free high.
It was not unusual for the conversation around that circle to turn toward sex, who’s getting it and who isn’t. One day Eddie was joking about how he wished he were a vibrator—maybe then he’d be getting some. That was ironic, because there I was, sitting right across from him and sure, I’d give Eddie a try if asked. So why was he sitting there complaining and making that lascivious jiggling motion with his hand? But instead of propositioning him on the spot, I responded with, “I’d like a vibrator, but I don’t know where to get one.”
So the dare began. Mike offered to drive us (he was older and had a car) and we’d go to an adult bookstore where he would go in and buy me a vibrator. One evening not long after that, out we went into the night and Mike came back with a brown paper bag. In it was about 10 inches of mighty schlong with the girth of a billy club, realistic flesh-tone rubber right down to the molded veins, and on the end of a plastic cord, a little controller switch. It had all the aesthetic appeal of a scientific specimen. I thought to myself, “that’s just what a guy would choose.” Everybody in the car got a good look and then it went back in the bag, to live on under my dorm-room bed and in those boys’ imaginations.
As The Little Black Book for Girlz said, knowing how to please yourself gives you freedom. My previous two years had been punctuated with far too many unwise sexual choices. It was as if my mind was the chauffer trying to get me safely from point A to point B, while my body was the drunken frat boy bent on conquest. At 18, a vibrator was a safety device for more than just me.
We had some good times together, my mighty dildo and me. Not much of it involved penetration—only a young man thinks what a young woman wants might resemble a billy club—but it had its talents, and slowly I learned a few tricks too.
That year I lived with a cohort of misfit girls down in the basement of Elsey Hall, a wing of single rooms where the Black girl, the Lesbians, and I were left to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I had the privacy to experiment, and I took advantage of that. My practice sessions were frequent, as were my purchases of more AAA batteries to nestle lovingly into the little controller switch-box.
I presume everyone knew about my vibrator, because Franklin was a sleepy little 700-student Baptist college, and news travels fast when there isn’t much of it. One time I opened my eyes and looked up from my bed under the window well to see a pair of campus maintenance men watching me. I hope they learned something. I know I did—close the curtains before you go to town.
Another time the Lesbians asked if they could borrow it. Sure, why not? Just use plenty of soap and water before you bring it back, okay? I didn’t ask to compare notes after that little outing for Mr. Penis, and they didn’t tell.
It might have been Christmas that year when I went home to visit my parents, and brought my rubber boyfriend with me. It was still in the bag it came from the adult bookstore in, now considerably crumpled. Sadly, I didn’t remember to grab it from under the bed when I returned to college. Those were long months until I returned to the parental homestead for Easter. But the paper bag wasn’t under the bed! When I found it tucked under the closed lid of my roll-top desk, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or alarmed. This episode was added to the thousand others about which my mother never asked me.
We all have an Achilles heel. For my rubber companion, it was the plastic cord. At some point it developed a short, began to perform only intermittently, and then finally lay still, tumescent as ever but dead as a corpse. I had no use for it in that state. I considered giving it a ceremonial burial, but in the end, the crumpled bag went in the dorm trash and my companion went to rest wherever Franklin’s municipal waste was entombed.
I didn’t find a flesh-and-blood boyfriend to take its place, or a rubber one either, adult bookstores being just as off-putting as ever and the Franklin cast of characters already set into pals-only status. But by then, I knew a great deal more about my needs, and how to take care of myself. I learned to like the peace of that solitary life.
I now live in a time of greater openness about women’s sexuality (in some parts of the USA, anyway). My town features a sex-positive woman-owned store where I can find wide range of toys with woman-pleasing designs. Very little of the stock features the kind of anatomical representation that 1975 dildo did. I’m just speculating, but I’d say the people who design this stuff are getting a lot more customer input.
Feminist author Peggy Orenstein wrote,
In that oh-so-brief window between the advent of the pill and the fear of AIDS,…young women felt an imperative, a political duty, to understand their desires and responses, to explore their own pleasure, to recognize sexuality as something rising from within. And young men—at least some of them—seemed eager to take the journey with us, to rewrite the rules of masculinity so they would prize mutuality over conquest.
That was the spirit of that circle of pot-smokers who leaped into the car to help me get my first vibrator. Boys, I’d like to say thank you.