The Story of a Woman in Sexual PleasurePosted: May 30, 2014
A few years ago I was asked to participate in a storytelling show. The piece I read was called “My Vibrator Story.” I had written it in a workshop and test read the story at the end of class. The audience, made up of the other participants, was primarily women that day. My story, a personal tale about masturbation, ended up getting lots of laughs—so much so that I was invited to share it in front of a much larger, public audience.
But when the time came to read “My Vibrator Story” at this bigger event—no one had told me there would be over 100 people there—I bombed in my delivery of the piece. I indicated to the audience when I wanted them to laugh. I kept looking at them and smiling as I read as if to say, “This is one big joke, let’s not take me or my story too seriously.” The audience’s response, as I read my work and when I finished, was lukewarm.
It was a long time before I was willing to read any story in front of strangers again. What happened to me that night? How hard could it have been to just read words off a page? Maybe I was too nervous. I’d never read my work in front of that many people before. Or maybe I’d felt insecure. The list of performers that evening had included original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman and other known performers.
Looking back now, I realize that beyond nerves and self-doubt there was something else going on for me that night: I’d felt deeply ashamed to be talking about female sexual pleasure, especially my own, in front of an audience that included men.
“My Vibrator Story” is about what I did years ago one summer. Tired of feeling disappointed in dating and having no desire for casual sex, I went down to the local sex shop and bought myself a sex toy. I liked mine so much that I went back to the store and got vibrators for my closest girlfriends, too. When I got tired of my vibrator I bought another and then another.
The story version of my experience, told in 1400 words, includes a jaunty play-by-play with orgasms. It also talks about the relief I felt for the respite: For once, I had total permission to not worry about someone else’s sexual satisfaction. I could let my sexual experiences be all about me. And as I got to know my body better, I learned more about what I liked and what I didn’t like. I began to recognize what worked for me and didn’t work.
When it came time to share in public what to me felt like an empowering, self-honoring experience, the last emotion I expected to feel was shame. But that’s exactly how I felt—as if I was telling a disgusting, dirty story.
Also, thoughts like these ran through my head as I had read: Why couldn’t I have read the story about the night I was almost date raped by that frat boy in college? Or what about the one where my swim teacher fondled me when I was ten? As if those stories were less offensive because they were about horrible sexual experiences and not positive ones.
Granted, there are now more stories out there that portray the more pleasurable aspects of a woman’s sex life—The HBO shows Girls and Sex and the City and Showtime’s The L Word are a few examples. Also, more women are openly talking and writing about the female sexual experience, including their own.
Still, many people in this world continue to treat female sexual pleasure like a taboo topic: Fit to be viewed mainly in a pornographic context, and even then primarily for the purpose of arousing the male gaze. God forbid the portrayal of sex when it revolves around a woman’s own pleasure.
In 2010, the movie Blue Valentine almost got an NC-17 rating because of a scene where actor Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on his wife, Michelle Williams’s character. She is the one who orgasms. Last year, the CW network edited out a scene from an episode of the drama Reign because it depicted a female character sexually pleasuring herself. And just this month, Jean Franzblau, a writer/performer, got fired from a corporate job because the client found out she has a one-person show called Coming Out Kinky: A Grown Up Story.
Why are so many people in society still uncomfortable with stories about female sexual pleasure? I suspect this has a lot to do with a patriarchal paradigm that generally refuses to acknowledge women as sexual beings in their own right. It’s okay to think of a woman as a slut or frigid or a sex object. A sexually empowered woman is still a big no-no.
Despite my behavior in private and my personal belief that female sexual pleasure is awesome, I’d obviously internalized the cultural shame around talking about it. Although the truth is, if the audience (no matter the size) had again been primarily women, I wouldn’t have felt mortified when reading my “My Vibrator Story” out loud.
To be clear, the men who were in the audience that night didn’t do anything to make me feel bad about telling my story. But as I looked out into the crowd and saw them there, my first response was shame. I think it’s because on some level a part of me believed that patriarchy was right: female sexual pleasure is acceptable but only when a man is involved and not if it’s all about the woman.
Any kind of societal or internalized conditioning that makes a woman feel ashamed about owning and embracing her sexuality has got to go. The next time I read “My Vibrator Story” in front of any audience, I’m going to do my best to tell the story simply and unabashedly.