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Girl Power

Girls' Night In's home parties have feminist-minded vibrator buyers buzzing

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The first thing you notice when you walk into Tara's living room is not the group of stylish young women and men sipping cocktails on chairs arranged in a semi-circle. It's not the music playing. It's not the candles burning, or the art on the walls, or the little bowls of Asian snack mix. No, the first thing you notice is the table arranged with dozens of sex toys, most of them standing upright: a battalion of vibrators, dildos and butt plugs awaiting deployment.

At the front of the room are Karen Derzic and Alison Bodenhemier, co-owners of Girls' Night In, a year-old sex-toy business. Bodenhemier, 21, who designed the company's Web site (girls-night-in.com), wears jeans and a black T-shirt and is sitting cross-legged on the floor. Derzic, 32, wearing a black pullover, black jeans and a translucent strap-on harness that is at the moment unencumbered, is standing. The duo are far more witty and intelligent than flirtatious: You're less apt to imagine them beating you with Girls' Night In's Cheetah Paddle ("soft and flexible ... slightly furry on one side," $22) than beating you at Scrabble.

Derzic, who like Bodenhemier has a background in activism and sex education, runs home parties like this one. She's just handed out a pink photocopy with diagrams of the female and male sexual anatomy. She'll refer to the sheet periodically as she introduces products over the next couple hours.

Theresa (party attendees asked that their last names be withheld) asks how the company got started. Derzic and Bodenhemier explain that they've known each other for years but that it was at an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade last year that they decided to start a feminist-oriented sex-toy business. Their initial plan was to open a bricks-and-mortar store, but they started instead with home parties and their catalog. They intend to open a store in Pittsburgh within the next two years, they tell the partygoers, though they're not sure where.

"I did have a dildo thrown at my car once in the South Side," Theresa offers. "That seems like a sign, so I think that's a perfect place for your store."

"They have a lot of Monongahela whitefish there," says Carolyn, a first-grade teacher.

To puzzled looks, Derzic explains that "whitefish" are "the used condoms floating in the river."

Derzic's capacity to instruct goes far beyond the local lexicon. Girls' Night In's mission states that it's "committed to a feminist vision of sexuality education and exploration." By education, of course, they're talking not about how to change the two AAA batteries of their Tsunami G-Spot vibrator ("just right for reaching that magic spot," $25), but about how to change the way we think about sex.

"To a certain degree we try to get people to be more open about their sexuality," Bodenhemier has explained in an earlier interview. "Women for the most part are less likely -- in mixed company at least -- to talk about sexuality. And we find that a lot of people don't have very basic information about their bodies, about sexuality, and about sex in general, really." Such education is a feminist impulse, she says, because "the feminism that I personally subscribe to is very highly influenced by sex-positive politics, and the way this business feels feminist to me is that it's people who are controlling their sexuality."

Sex -- we can't stop thinking about it but we can't start talking about it, at least not in a way that's constructive, that addresses researchers' findings that women are up to three times less likely to have an orgasm than the men with whom they copulate.

But at parties like this one, where a woman is at this moment passing a humming Dolly Dolphin ("water resistant for shower time fun," $55) to a man she was introduced to only minutes ago, they are talking about sex. And they're talking about it in such a way that everyone -- man or woman, gay or straight -- is part of the conversation.


***


Rachel Maines was working on her doctoral thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1970s when she first saw the advertisements. Researching the history of needlepoint in the U.S., Maines turned countless pages of such early 20th-century magazines as Modern Priscilla and Woman's Home Companion. When Maines saw ads from as early as 1906 for devices that looked a lot like the masturbation aids of today, "my first thought ... was this could not possibly be the purpose of the appliances sold in the pages of the Companion," she recalls.

But that's exactly what the ads were, and eventually Maines pieced together the history of the vibrator, culminating in her 1998 book, The Technology of the Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Dysfunction (The Johns Hopkins University Press), from which the above and below quotations are drawn.

The prize-winning book, which one reviewer described as a "history with a chip on its shoulder and buzz under its skirt," links the invention of the first vibrator in 1880 to "hysteria," a condition women had been diagnosed with as far back as 500 B.C. (Hysteria comes from a Greek word meaning "that which proceeds from the uterus," thus the term "hysterectomy.") The physical and behavioral symptoms attributed to hysteria varied wildly and included anxiety, insomnia, causing trouble for others and a diminished appetite for food and sex.

Since these behaviors were presumed to be linked with the uterus, the prescribed cure was intercourse or, as a Renaissance-era medical text put it, "If she be married, let her forthwith use copulation, and bee strongly encountered by her husband." No husband? "Let the mydwife ... rub or tickle the top of the neck of the wombe which toucheth the inner orafice."

This not-so-oblique directive to massage a hysteric's clitoris became the prescription of physicians right up until the 1950s, Maines demonstrates. Women would appear at doctors' offices regularly for such massages, and a doctor or his assistant would stimulate the patient to the point of orgasm -- though such euphemisms as "paroxysm" and "evacuation" were favored. The treatment could take more than an hour.

So the first electric vibrators were introduced as labor-saving devices. They were used for decades in doctors' offices and at health spas, while consumer models were advertised in popular magazines. Not until the 1920s, when they started appearing in stag films, did vibrators lose what Maines calls their "social camouflage" as medical devices and disappear from respectable publications.

As Maines, now a researcher at Cornell University, put it in a recent phone interview, the assumption had been -- and for many men still is -- that "penetration is the be-all and end-all." That belief is debunked by studies such as the University of Chicago's 1994 "Sex in America" survey, which found that less than one-third of women reach orgasm during sexual intercourse, versus three-fourths of men. Maines cites findings by sex researchers Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite that "more than half of all women, possibly more than 70 percent, do not regularly reach orgasm by penetration alone."

That the medical establishment, right up through Freud, diagnosed women who didn't experience orgasm through intercourse as being hysterics, or "frigid," could be viewed as a culture-wide abdication by men, a failure to recognize that women were most likely to achieve orgasms through clitoral stimulation. Maines characterizes the hysteria-diagnosis legacy as "medicalizing the production of female orgasm, thus relieving husbands and lovers of the chore of stimulating the clitoris, a task rarely compatible with such masculine favorites as coitus in the female-supine position."

In the '70s the vibrator returned to the limelight, but was embraced -- or, more accurately, firmly gripped -- by the very women it had stigmatized. Some of the country's most successful sex retailers, like San Francisco's Good Vibrations and New York City's Eve's Garden, were started by women with no small amount of indignation. In 1973, sex educator Betty Dodson began "masturbation skills" seminars for women, and still gives the seminars today, often to adult women who'd never experienced an orgasm. Today, sex toys are the new Tupperware, peddled by enterprising women all over the political spectrum, including a woman featured in a July New York Times Magazine story who was too "professional" to say "masturbate."

Such women owe it to those pioneers three decades ago, Maines writes. "The women's movement ... put into the hand of women themselves the job nobody else wanted."

But three decades later, maybe, just maybe, more men are ready to apply.

***


At the party, someone asks Derzic about her unusual fashion accessory, which some had at first mistook for a belt. "This is a harness that we're starting to carry," she says. "This is a really nice harness. It's adjustable, so you can put in any size dildo you want."

Phil, who's in his 20s, leans forward on the couch and points to a dildo no larger than his finger. "Is there much call for a piece like that? I mean, that size?"

Derzic explains that there are larger models, but that this size might be about right for certain purposes, say a couple who just purchased the Bend Over Boyfriend Pack ("1 New Cummers Harness and Dildo Kit, 1 Copy of Bend Over Boyfriend on VHS, 1 Bottle of Probe Thick Rich Lube, " $68).

"What would a guy do with a strap-on?" asks Mike, who's also in his 20s.

"Double penetrate," Karen responds. "Or you could use it if you have erectile dysfunction."

Phil picks up the Flavored Condom Variety Pack ("Vanilla, Strawberry, Cola, Grape, Mint, Banana, and Chocolate," $3) and says, "Can I just say that I hope they never flavor a condom with something that suggests chewing -- like granola."

During a break a little while later, someone's mixing up a pitcher of cosmopolitans in the kitchen, a few people are smoking on the porch, and the host, Tara, is in the dining room scooping some hummus with a triangle of pita bread. "I'm surprised at how much I'm learning about myself," she says. "It's really amazing how complicated a woman's body is. We very rarely are satisfied by men -- that's why I think it's great that guys are here."

Mike, who came to the party with his girlfriend, is for a moment awkward to find himself in this zone of sexual candor. "When women get together they can talk about sex --" he begins, but doesn't finish the thought. "If men just stopped acting like they were in a porno ..."

"Most women know what gives them pleasure," says Christine, a corporate attorney in her 30s, stabbing a little ball of fresh mozzarella with a toothpick. "If men would just ask."

"I think culturally we all know what the penis likes but not what the vagina likes," Tara says. Popular women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour abound with explicit advice to women on how to please men, but men's magazines such as Playboy and Maxim rarely detail how to please women. Those men's magazines are about sex, of course, but focus on sexual conquest, not technique.

That incongruity irks sexologist Ian Kerner, whose She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman (HarperCollins), was featured recently in the New York Times Book Review. Kerner urges men to acknowledge women's overwhelming tendency to be aroused by clitoral stimulation over penetration. "Dispense with the conventional wisdom that exalts genital penetration as the apogee of sexual pleasure," Kerner writes in the "The Cunnilinguist Manifesto" chapter. "Take one small lick for man, one giant lick for womankind. ... Vive la Vulva!"

Recasting cunnilingus not as foreplay but "coreplay," Kerner wades further into semantics, explaining that he's not "anti-intercourse but rather pro-'outercourse' -- a conception of sex that goes beyond penetration, embraces mutual pleasure, and is better suited to stimulating the female sexual anatomy to orgasm."

Finally, Kerner details the intricacies of the female sexual anatomy, and suggests a number of elaborate "routines" to ring a woman's chimes. Those routines primarily deploy tongues but also call for the occasional vibrator.

Kerner's converts are the sort Girls' Night In hopes to see at their parties. Many sex-toy home-party companies exclude men, and Bodenhemier thinks their rationale's not simply to put women at ease. "I think the problem with some other parties is they tend to capitalize on the perceived gender differences," she says. "They poke fun at men a lot of the time. It's very much jokes against men -- 'Well, if your man can't satisfy you, well, ha ha ha.'"

Bodenhemier counts Girls' Night In among sex-toy purveyors who are moving toward what she calls an "enhancement paradigm." Rather than a vibrator's selling point being that "you can't get a man, or your boyfriend is off in Iraq," she favors "incorporating couples play" into presentations. That has the added value, she says, of reassuring men who might be threatened by a device that is, after all, more reliable than they are.

Vibrator historian Maines recently was in Austin, where she was giving a talk for the local chapter of the ACLU, which was representing a woman who'd been cited for selling sex toys. (Along with Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, Texas law prohibits devices "manufactured or marketed primarily for the massage of the human genitalia." One reason sex toys are marketed as "novelties," and include no instructions on their presumed use, is to circumvent these laws.) The sex-toy merchant and Maines were appearing on a local radio station to promote the lecture, and had placed some vibrators on a table in the studio, where several young men in a band happened to be waiting to give an in-studio performance. "One of these young guys was looking at the vibrators and he was shaking his head and said, 'I don't need this kind of competition, I really don't.'

"But the five other guys in the room said, 'That's the wrong attitude -- you have to think about it as a member of your team.' We thought that was great. One would suppose intuitively that this would be a relief to guys because [with a vibrator] it doesn't all depend on them."

According to a 1996 National Health Survey cited by American Demographics, 10 percent of sexually active adults use vibrators or other sex toys during partner sex. That percentage increases at higher income and educational levels, while gays, lesbians and bisexuals are three times as likely to bring in the reinforcements.

Later, in the living room, Derzic picks up The Fukuoku ("a small vibrator that slips onto a finger so it can hit all the right places," $25), and explains that it's particularly handy for a woman's partner to use while performing oral sex.

Tara cannot contain herself. She pumps a fist in the air and says, "Yessss!" A minute later she's watching it hum quietly on her finger and the awe hasn't left her voice. "Oh my God, thank you. Thank you, modern science. It's perfect."

***


Under the fluorescent lights of the suburban sex-toy and adult-video store, while Cat Stevens laments that it's a wild world through the ceiling speakers and actors emulate jackhammers on the two wall-mounted televisions, Alison Bodenhemier reaches for a vibrator in a package that features a woman in lingerie.

"Why?" she asks. "If you're a [straight] woman, you don't necessarily want to see a scantily clad woman. If you're a [gay] man, I don't know why that would make you want to buy a vibrator. It's very nonsensical." Bodenhemier explains that their parties eschew the "horror of sex-toy packaging" by displaying the items unpacked, letting potential buyers touch them (but not, of course, test-drive them), and educating people about how, say, one uses a curved vibrator designed to hit the G-spot as opposed to a standard model. "I'm not buying a vibrator because there's a sexy lady on the front [of the package]," she says. "I want to know how strong the vibrations are. How heavy it is. How loud it is."

The store's three employees are behind a raised counter. "Do you find it interesting that they have their counter raised so high?" Bodenhemier asks Derzic. "I think it's so they can see people so they don't steal anything. But there's sort of a power dynamic there."

With Bodenhemier and Derzic, for whom conversation, engagement and education are their calling card, you can see why the store would be a bit off-putting. The workers, who are in their 20s, don't circulate around the store or ask shoppers if they need assistance. And for many shoppers that's probably just fine. If a woman who was one of these clerk's guidance counselors five years ago were to come in and purchase a "Realistic Cock" ("hand colored and detailed to capture every vein, bulge and crease of a real erect penis"), chances are she'd just as soon he pretended not to recognize her, and let someone else ring her up.

Bodenhemier and Derzic amble about the store, which they asked not be named because they didn't want to single it out for criticism, with a mix of curiosity and bemusement. They do credit the business, which has about a dozen shoppers, including another pair of women and two young couples, with being well-lit, not creepy, and clean -- if a bit sterile.

On one wall hang boxes big enough to hold basketballs that contain foam rubber ("revolutionary UR3, the ultimate skin feel") replicas of famous porn stars' vaginas, behinds and, in one case, a foot.

"I think they appeal mostly to a single male demographic who consume mainstream heterosexual porn," Bodenhemier says. "We think there's a place for them, but the demographic we're appealing to is not the same as the one those vaginas appeal to. Most of our customers are either new to pornography or aren't fans of particular stars. The ones who are real fans, who will pay for a replica of Jenna Jameson's vagina, tend to be heavy pornography buyers, whereas we don't even carry her videos."

Bodenhemier's day job is at a mainstream mail-order adult retailer outside Pittsburgh that she won't name, citing company policy. There, she says, such items are popular. "They have a deal where if you buy a Jenna Jameson video, you get 20 percent off of her vagina."

Girls' Night In does carry gel "strokers" for men, such as the Friday Night Special ("made of stretchy glittered Senso material that will knock your socks off," $14), though they are considerably more innocuous-looking than the porn stars' replicas.

The company also carries a limited amount of porn, anathema to some feminists who deem it inherently exploitative, but Bodenhemier says she "respectfully disagrees" and stocks titles such as Sexpositive Production's Please Don't Stop ("Featuring an all women of color cast and crew, explosively real orgasms and a spectacular off-the-charts female ejaculation scene," $34.95), in which "women look like they're being pleasured and are actually taking control of a situation."

Derzic studies a light-up butt plug. "There's kind of a disconnect between designers and consumers," she says. "They come up with a lot of designs that I guess at first glance look good on paper. They're like OK ideas, but when you actually think about their use -- well, why are you lighting up your ass? It's a lot of novelty but no real use."

If they have a certain neighborhood in mind for a Girls' Night In store, they're not saying. While such stores are legal in several neighborhoods in the city, they are subject to public review and comment, and they want to introduce the idea to would-be neighbors as delicately and thoughtfully as possible. In this, as in so much, they are advocates of taking it slow.

Now that they've had some measure of success transforming living rooms into stores, their goal is, in a way, to transform a store into a living room. "Before Alison and I met, I was talking about making it so comfortable as to have a coffee shop and a space [to sell sex toys]," Derzic explains. The espresso machine's no longer in the plan, but she's still thinking cozy. "It will be well lit, but not necessarily blaring fluorescent lights," Derzic says. "There's a difference between dark and creepy and 'Welcome to Kmart.'"

Bodenhemier envisions "nice painted walls, and a homey feel. We want it to be a place where people could meet, show films, have book clubs. On a commerce level, we may not be entirely different [from other adult stores in the area]. But we have a different mind-frame -- we want to be more of a fixture in the Pittsburgh community, more of a resource and less of a store."

***

A few weeks after she hosted the party, Tara's at a coffee shop near her Downtown office. She reports that she purchased, among other things, the little finger-mounted Fukuoku. Saying it -- foo-koo-yo-koo -- still curls her mouth into a smile.

While she laughs about some things men said at the party that struck her as particularly naïve or off-base, and about one male friend's apparent mortification when several women spontaneously donned strap-ons and started strutting around, she says she was heartened that they attended. "It means they're open-minded to be engaged, and that's nice," she says. "This was a social situation where we have demonstrations [and where] men are learning to become more responsible sex partners. And that's great, because it's usually too late when you're involved in a certain way and you have to say, 'Stop.' I don't understand where some of the ideas about the way to touch a woman come from, when it just hurts. And having to say that to someone hurts. I just don't know where men learn about sex."

Maybe, as Mike had said at her party, they're learning about it from mainstream pornography?

"Yeah, so I think men are missing out in a way too. That can't be pleasurable for them either. Wouldn't it be better for them to see what feels better for their body and who they are? You had a table full of choices [at the party]: Try this, try that."

One friend Tara invited begged off. "It was his 21st birthday. I'm like, 'I'm inviting you to a roomful of single women who are into sex and are going to be purchasing sex toys -- and there will be alcohol.' And instead he went to" -- her voice drops an octave -- "a marching-band competition. I just couldn't believe it."

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