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The Problem With ‘Feminist’ Sex Products

Modified from Google

‘If you’re making money off of the oppression of women, that doesn’t seem very feminist to me.’

On February 4, an email arrived in my inbox advertising Lorals, a pair of lingerie designed to be worn during oral sex. I was confused.

Why would I want anything (besides a dental dam, perhaps) getting between my clit and my partner’s mouth? Then, I took a look at the company’s website, which claims the “revolutionary” underwear “blocks tastes and fluids,” and its Twitter profile, which says it lets you “feel fresh anytime.” This was rather dissonant and surprising messaging to see alongside tweets condemning slut-shaming, praising women in tech, and promoting pay equality.

I’d heard it before, this message that my vagina wasn’t “fresh” in its natural form. In fact, that same week, I got an email advertising DeoDoc’s pear, coconut, and violet scented vaginal “intimate washes,” “deodorant wipes that help neutralize odor” in the vulva, and “intimate deodorant that prevents unwanted odors and leaves a fresh feeling all day.”

DeoDoc’s press release claims its founders are “breaking taboos and empowering women with knowledge about their bodies and women’s health.”

These kinds of body-shaming products masquerading as the feminist fight have been going on for years. Back in 2016, I received an email with the subject line “VSPOT MediSpa — Treatments for Vag-Empowerment,” alerting me of VSPOT, a “vagina spa” that’s still advertising a vagina-tightening laser treatment and shot, a “lift” that “plumps and smooths out wrinkles” in the labia, and a “steam” that “cleanses, tones and nourishes the cervix, uterus, and vaginal tissues.”

Most troublingly, I’ve gotten emails like these from women who—like Lorals founder Melanie Cristol—count themselves among the “Women of Sex Tech” who are bringing feminism into the bedroom. Another was Lauren Schulte, creator of Flex, a vaginal disc that keeps your period blood in. Flex aims to combat period stigma by making period sex “mess-free.”

Why would I want anything (besides a dental dam, perhaps) getting between my clit and my partner’s mouth? Click To Tweet

As Cosmo’s Hannah Smothers pointed out, the company’s mission, per Flex’s website, was to let women “have sex every day of the month, uninterrupted” with “no explanations, no fears, no judgements — just fun,” as if our bodies are normally too messy for that. (Perhaps in response to critiques like these, Flex has since updated its website to emphasize its potential as a tampon alternative rather than a period sex aid.)

It seems ironic that the products claiming to combat shame around our sexuality are helping us hide it — and implying that we need to. Before learning about them, it hadn’t occurred to me that my period was too messy, my vagina’s smell was unpleasant, or giving oral sex would be anything but enjoyable for my partner.

Why are so many businesses with the word “empowering” in their marketing materials body-shaming us? In short, because that’s how they make money, says Lisa Wade, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College.

Unless companies are advertising something (like, say, food) that’s actually necessary, they have to convince us we need their products. And that means telling us we’re not our best selves without them. Making people feel good enough as they are would conflict with these businesses’ interests. “If you want to boil down all capitalist marketing to one theme, it’s, ‘Your life is not good because of something and we can sell you something to fix that,’” says Wade.

I don’t have a problem with women using these products if it makes them feel more confident. I don’t even have a problem with companies providing them. I support people’s right to buy whatever might help them cope with the shame routinely imposed on women in our society, just as I support their right to, say, get plastic surgery if that makes them more comfortable with their looks.

The difference is, we don’t pretend plastic surgeons are advancing feminism.

With so many companies pushing products designed to hide women’s bodies and sex lives in the name of feminism, it’s easy to forget what actual progress looks like. Real progress would mean people feeling comfortable enough with their vulvas that they don’t want to disguise their taste or smell, contain their fluids, or conceal what they’re doing with them.

It seems ironic that the products claiming to combat shame around our sexuality are helping us hide it — and implying that we need to. Click To Tweet

Cristol conducted a survey asking women: “Have you ever been in a sexual situation where you were interested in receiving oral sex (cunnilingus), and you had a willing partner, but you said ‘no’?”

80% of women said yes.

Indeed, many women seem to have profound insecurities about their vulvas; labiaplasty is the world’s quickest-growing cosmetic surgery, according to a 2017 International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery study. Data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reported in a 2015 New York Times article that some of women’s most common sex-related Google searches concerned their vulvas’ taste, smell, and appearance. And that’s a problem worth combating.

While oral sex lingerie may perhaps help individual women facing this insecurity enjoy oral sex more, they won’t address the root of this problem: the cultural message that vulvas are dirty, gross, and unattractive — which Lorals risks perpetuating.

“It’s a product that is at best putting a bandaid on the problem and at worst exploiting women’s insecurities,” says Wade. “They’re solving women’s bodily ‘problems’ rather than questioning whether or not women’s bodies are problems to begin with.”

The Dirty Politics Of Period Sex

That hasn’t stopped “feminist” sex tech companies from setting lofty goals. “Lorals block women’s worries and concerns (like scent, menstruation, grooming, and diseases) while allowing them to feel all of the pleasure their partner is passing along,” Lorals’ PR rep told me in that initial email, sprinkled with supposed-feminist catchphrases like “YAS, QUEENS” and “It’s great to see women on top.” (Despite the mention of “diseases,” Lorals has not gotten FDA approval for STI prevention). “Lorals’ mission is to increase the amount of oral sex women receive, whether using the product or not — because oral sex, and the orgasms that often come with it (3x more than intercourse!), are so empowering,” it continued. (There’s that damn near meaningless word again.)

In a study of 150 women conducted by Lorals, 43% had said “no” to oral sex despite wanting it because they were “concerned about my vagina’s scent or taste.”

Lorals’ Twitter bio claims its mission is “to close the orgasm gap,” implying that the primary source of this gap is women’s insecurities over oral sex. But the fault for this gap doesn’t belong to women, and it’s not women’s responsibility to spend money fixing it.

The orgasm gap stems from a culture that values male pleasure over everyone else’s and a narrow, heteronormative definition of sex. Relying on a product to fix it masks these larger issues and puts undue responsibility on women to combat their own oppression. It demands money and emotional labor from women without telling men to do anything — a pattern many women are all too familiar with.

Everything from a penis spray to a condom collection has claimed to close the orgasm gap (though the products for men have unsurprisingly gotten less attention), and Wade takes particular issue with sex toy companies saying this. By implying that a product is necessary for women to orgasm, these companies depict our bodies as inadequate on their own. They also neglect the larger issue: that women’s pleasure is often neglected, and “sex” is defined in a phallocentric way.

Perhaps most famously, Dame Products’ vibrator Eva is designed to be worn during intercourse to “close the pleasure gap,” as its Indiegogo page states. Underlying this marketing is the cultural assumption that women should orgasm during intercourse. A SELF article about Eva states another assumption used to sell it: “The female orgasm can be an elusive creature.”

Wade disputes this notion. In fact, one study of 19,000 Australians ages 16–59 found that 90% of women who received oral and manual sex in their last sexual encounter orgasmed and another “hook-up” study hailing from 2010found that 92% of straight U.S. college women in relationships orgasmed during their last sexual encounter if they experienced intercourse, self-stimulation, and oral sex.

In addition, a 2015 study tracing the differences in orgasm frequency among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual men and women in a U.S. found that 86% of lesbians “usually always” orgasmed during sex over the previous month. It also found that 91% of lesbians, 80% of straight women, and 71% of bisexual women usually or always orgasmed if they received oral sex, genital stimulation, and deep kissing.

“The orgasm gap is only a problem when women are sleeping with men. Toys aren’t necessary. [This kind of marketing] teaches us women’s bodies are unable to perform properly without mechanical intervention, and/or that they should be manipulating their bodies to suit a preconceived notion of sexuality that is based on men’s pleasure…This is definitely based on the idea that the proper way for women to have an orgasm is through the same behavior that gives men orgasms.”

Still, the feminist media has largely bought into such companies’ pseudofeminist PR tactics. Bustle, which first covered the launch of Lorals, said it would “let your [sic] embrace your sexuality and enjoy the oral sex you deserve.” HelloGiggles wrote that Cristol had set out to help women “gain confidence.” Cosmo UK said Lorals “seems like a revolutionary product” before musing at the very end, “I wonder if the knickers might inadvertently contribute to the shame women feel about the taste and smell of a vulva.”

Clearly, this is a confusing moment for sex-positive feminism. We really want to support female startup founders who say they’re helping women embrace their bodies and sexualities. But, like Cosmo, we can’t help but feel something’s off when these products hide or change the things we’re supposed to feel good about — and when the companies behind them are invested in us feeling we have something to hide.

The orgasm gap is only a problem when women are sleeping with men. Click To Tweet

Wade feels similarly conflicted. “If [Lorals are] the only way [a woman is] ever going to let her partner anywhere near her clit with their mouth… that is probably a positive for her,” she says. “It just makes me sad. It doesn’t make me think, ‘Oh yay, I’m so glad this product exists.’ It makes me think, ‘That’s awful, and I wish we lived in a different world.’ I don’t think this product is going to change the world. In a world where we fixed these problems, that product would not exist.”

The bottom line? “If you’re making money off of the oppression of women — even if you’re offering a product that purports to solve their problems — that doesn’t seem very feminist to me.”