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Home > Culture and Society

Bad Vibes

18 December 2005

Of all the grim, stomach-knotting moments that define parenthood, one of the most awkward must be the 'Mum, what's this?' scenario. This involves innocent snot of inquisitive age picking up object of dangerous, sensitive or incriminating nature, waving it aloft and enquiring as to its purpose, whilst blinking big Bambi blinks. It must have led over the decades to some glorious feats of the ossifying adult imagination, from 'um, it's a kitten hammock' to 'er, that's... ooh listen, the ice cream van, here's fifty pounds'. Now a whole new world of knuckle-chewing opportunity is opening up, thanks to the invasion of supermarkets by sex toys. A bit like 'War of the Worlds', only with greater need for lube.

Condom kings Durex made the inevitable diversification into vibrators some months ago with their Play range. The line is basically the embodiment of the gradual normalisation of sex toys - looking much like interesting Italian lighting, these *objets* are perfectly aligned with the whole sleek, simple Noughties aesthetic that doesn't go anywhere without its iPod. They are self-consciously modern, abstract items that bear only a Picasso-when-pissed resemblance to the humble human knob. This will please a great number of women wearying of lurid veiny jelly things, but then the Play range is carefully gender-neutral in
its marketing. Men as well as women could buy these without embarrassment. Men could practically display them on their desks next to framed pictures of themselves holding up large fish and grinning. Look at them:

The wand.

The gem.

Aren't they lovely, though? Even designed as they clearly are by clammy-palmed scientists to make people squeak in specifically-engineered ways, the 'toys' themselves are neutral, sexless. There is nothing about them that could embarrass anyone - they're like a lovely blank canvas. Or big pens with which to scrawl something new and sexy. And as it clearly says, they're just 'massagers'. Good for what ails you. Relieving of stress. Perfect. They seem to bridge an important gap, to quash an important quibble. The marketing is terribly canny, and has helped Durex sales to er, swell markedly. Such is the classy appeal of this reinvented basic, and such are the tentatively progressive times, that supermarkets including Tesco and Asda have followed girlie-friendly chemist Superdrug into stocking them. Uh oh.

Yes, just in time for Christmas you can now purchase, along with your endangered chicken and your fair trade coffee, goods which are designed solely for the inducement of sexual pleasure. Previously barren suburban households will echo with uninhibited Boxing Day shrieks; unless, that is, they're all glumly mooching to their first family counselling session after Benjamin Junior picked up something he thought was the newest Starship Enterprise model and all hell broke loose. Lots of people are pleased, suggesting that this move heralds a new era of emancipation and acceptance; lots are pissed, predictably, sounding alarum bells about these things indicating a deadly slide into moral degradation. There is a slight attendant queasiness to the thought of vibrators in supermarkets (as there must surely have been about the sale of condoms). If nothing else, it takes some of the excitement and seediness out of the idea of sex toys, negating or at least deflating their inherent rudeness. There's always a certain casting down of eyes when the transgressive Other becomes the humdrum mainstream - consider the Prodigy, once cop-baiting insurrection on bootlegged cassette, now drudgy stocking-filler-fodder for balding dads. It's sad. But it's not *scary*.

Unless, of course, you are Dr Adrian Rogers, former director of
the Conservative Family Institute or Family Focus, a bastard ugly cousin of pressure group Mediawatch. Dr Rogers' view is of the oppositional, polarised, Dubya kind; if you're not explicitly *for* the family, you're waging war on it, and in this case the curvaceous massagers are the buzzy swords of battle. He was quoted this week as calling the supermarkets' decision 'inappropriate, unwelcome and detrimental to family life'. Which is funny, and sad, and baffling. Does he mean detrimental in that it's better that people - OK, women - don't discover how pleasurable sex can be, because they'll just want to fuck themselves stupid all day and leave the children locked in their rooms to starve? Surely, though, if you put sex toys in Tesco, it'll encourage mothers to do a proper weekly shop, thus averting such disaster? Perhaps it's just Rogers' frustration with Durex's main product, which is certainly detrimental to the family in that it frees people of child-bearing age to neither be fruitful nor multiply. Rogers has previously expressed horror at the idea of gay marriage - homosexuality itself being 'sterile, disease-ridden and God-forsaken' and 'a form of activity which is less than desirable, medically hazardous and which really stands in opposition to the alternative, which is heterosexual family life.' So, a man who is safer than a pack of Extra-Safe to ignore.

For people who enjoy a healthy sex life and have built up a nice little library of joy-buzzers, the Play crossover is neither here nor there. However, it should give us a moment of grateful pause considering that there are not a few places in the world - yes, the American south, this means y'all - where you can practically be led away in chains for possessing an electric toothbrush. The supermarkets themselves are clearly intimidated by the potency of the sex toy and the implications of its sale. Boots dithered, rejected and reconsidered before putting the products on their own shelves. Tesco, who began stocking Durex's throwaway vibrating rings before taking the plunge, eased themselves into a particularly inviting idealogical loophole by considering them 'healthcare products'. ('Wank care', surely?) Although a spokeswoman did point out that this was because 'female sexual dysfunction is a serious problem for thousands of women'. While in this case it may just have been to spare some blushes, it's undeniable that this is a medical issue which causes untold misery; which means that while the vibrators are likely to be an enhancement to most, they may be essential to others. Helping people with decent sex lives to have better ones is fine, but helping people with miserable sex lives to have decent ones would be better. Vibrators aren't some miraculous cure-all for the chronically inorgasmic, of course, but if that line of logic is followed, we might start to think of pleasurable sex as less of a recreation and more of a basic necessity which everyone deserves. (The name 'Play' doesn't help much there, but baby steps.)

In any case, your curious children aren't likely to be distracted by the muted packaging of Play products, and if they are, well, just be grateful they didn't happen upon the Tampax. Whoo, Nelly. You don't want to go *there*.



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