Women and masturbation: We’ve come a long way, maybe?

Happy Friday, y’all! Let’s talk about orgasms!

Last night I saw In The Next Room: The Vibrator Play, which was written by Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Sara Ruhl. Inspired by Rachel P. Maines’s book, The Technology of Orgasm, Ruhl wrote a play about the use of vibrators as a Victorian-era treatment for women’s “hlogo for The Vibrator Playysteria” — a broad diagnosis that could encompass anything from what we recognize today as depression to merely being a bit emotional. The theory went that “hysteric” women had too much pressure built up in their wombs, and inducing a “paroxysm” (aka orgasm) would provide relief. It marked perhaps the first glimpse of a new era in which women’s sexual pleasure would be valued — but still seen as highly dangerous. After all, only a male doctor could administer the “treatment.”

The play has a ton of hilarious moments. Indeed, the very idea of seeing an “orgasm doctor” — who identifies as a scientist, not a sex-worker — is pretty funny. After all, we now live in a world where most major American cities boast a woman-friendly sex shop (with a few notable exceptions — I’m looking at you, D.C.), and we know much more about women’s sexuality. Orgasms may not relieve pressure in the womb, but they certainly are stress-reducers for many women. We can thank earlier feminist generations for the fact that times have indeed changed: sex is generally accepted as something that should be about women’s pleasure as much as men’s.

But the more I thought about it, the more modern this Victorian-era plot seemed. Just look at the statistic Rose cited a few weeks ago:

According to an article in the June 2008 Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics Journal, only 30 percent of women “almost always” or “always” achieve orgasm during sexual activity. Compare that to the 75 percent of men who “always” or “almost always” do.

I certainly have no desire to return to an era where women’s pleasure is divorced from sex. But that statistic should give us ALL pause: Have we really come a long way if some of us don’t come at all? There are a lot of adult women (yes, even feminist adult women who identify as sex-positive) who have never had an orgasm. And sexual fulfillment, however that’s defined, is certainly an important aspect of women’s overall health. Who’s to say that some women today wouldn’t benefit from seeing an orgasm doc? Or, at the very least, being encouraged by their regular health-care providers to consider getting a vibrator? There’s still a lot of work to be done to destigmatize the notion of women enjoying masturbation — manually or with something battery-operated. (If you’re one of the many women who are a little intimidated by the world of sex toys and don’t live near a woman-friendly sex shop, the Good Vibrations website has some basic info to help you figure out what to buy online. Probs NSFW, though.)

In addition to all of the great questions this play raises about women and pleasure, it also features queer themes, a strong central character who is a woman of color, and some transgressive explorations of male sexual pleasure, too. Not bad for a play set in the Victorian era. Even if there weren’t already a lot of great reasons to support female playwrights, I’d recommend it very highly.

If you’re in DC, In The Next Room is running at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company through Sept. 19. Before the 8pm performance on Sept 1, Amanda Hess (formerly of The Sexist) and Zack (from The New Gay) and I will discuss sex and technology. There will also be gelato! As the orgasm doctor would say, you should definitely come.

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