Busted! When private toys go public

Even the brashest women can be undone by its appearance. Why does a buzzing gadget have such power to mortify us?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published March 20, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

It's been a week of sex toy embarrassment. During Etsy's privacy lapse, countless users were publicly outed as artisanal dildo enthusiasts. A few days later, news broke that a bomb squad was dispatched to a Russian post office to inspect a suspicious buzzing package -- only to find a vibrator inside. (Now that's a buzz kill: Your sex toy shipment makes international news and all you get is drained batteries.)

Vibrators, like tampons, stand out among women's most-dreaded scenarios of public humiliation. There's a real hunger for these stories, as you can tell looking at women's magazines -- blame it on masochism or schadenfreude. So, I put out a call for firsthand accounts of sex toys turning women red in the face for all the wrong reasons. The results were entertaining, of course, but they also reveal that no matter how mainstream sex toys have become, they are still major objects of shame. They may have migrated from shady adult novelty shops to your neighborhood Walgreens, but those few inches of silicone still pack huge potential for humiliation.

Anne, 26, took one of her vibrators with her when she spent a week dog sitting for "a very sweet family." A few days in, the sparkly hot-pink toy went missing. Assuming the dog had taken it, she turned the whole house upside down but it was nowhere to be found. A month later, she ran into the wife at the grocery store and remarked how charming their neighborhood was -- what a lovely place to raise a family! "She just gave me a funny look and made some comment about how 'Yeah, I'd thought so, too, but you would not believe what someone threw into our yard! I won't go into details, but there are some sick people in the world!"

No one enjoys being labeled as such, but at least in Anne's case she wasn't exposed as the culprit. Most aren't so lucky. Just last weekend, Laura was moving into a new place and had shrink-wrapped her nightstand to keep the drawers closed. In the course of the haul, the 34-year-old says, "my battery-operated vibe got knocked around and turned itself on. The movers brought my vibrating nightstand upstairs and said, 'Uh, something's going on in there -- we'll give you a minute to figure it out.' Then left me to my red face and furious attempts to remove the shrink wrap so I could get in the drawer and shut it off."

"Rebecca," 63, used to keep her vibrator, "one of those huge magic wands," hidden in the closet. One day she came home to find that there had been a fire in the upstairs apartment and she entered her place to find that "every single piece of furniture, plus the entire contents of my closet, had been moved by firefighters to the center of the room -- except that vibrator, sitting by itself on the shelf of the closet." To hell with the vibrator -- let it burn! "It seemed very pointed that they'd left this one little item behind," she said.

Kate's story took place in her college years during a visit to the laundromat with her roommate. "I unfurled a sheet before throwing it in and a blue 'Rabbit' vibrator rolled out and thudded onto the floor," the 30-year-old wrote me in an email. "Hu-miliating." Naturally, there were several attractive guys standing by to witness the whole thing. "I was deep into a Vocally Sex Posi Feminist era," she writes, "so while I was totally mortified I played it like 'Ha, ha! That's where that went!' and immediately buried the embarrassment. But it still stings, eight years later."

I know a sexually candid and confident young woman who was mortified when the man she had been sleeping with for months accidentally stumbled across her vibrator, which was -- how shall we say? -- noticeably unwashed since its last use. Here was a man whose face had been between her legs, but she was red in the face and apologizing profusely over a glimpse of her used vibrator. (Kudos to him: He looked at her askew and asked, "Don't be silly, why would you apologize for that?")

Sex toys are also ripe for prankery. "Ken" writes, "Back in college my wife and a group of her friends planned a spring break trip to Florida. Sadly, one of their friends ("Gwen") had to cancel." Just to further punish Gwen, they took her vibrator on vacation with them and took photos of it at various tourist attractions. "It's like the adventures of one of those garden gnomes, only much better," he said. Gwen was "horrified."

Of course, the embarrassment isn't reserved for just the vibrator owner. Jen, 41, says her 8-year-old entered her home office one day offering to give her a neck massage. In his hand was her "blue G-Swirl vibrator" going at full speed. He was so insistent that she gave in and says, "I've already started saving now for the therapy he'll need after he figures out he massaged his mother's neck with her own vibrator" -- and that a meddling journalist then wrote all about it.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that vibrators still have the power to mortify. There lingers the outdated but familiar stereotype of the lonely spinster who shacks up with her Hitachi Magic Wand and a couple of mangy cats. Just as sex toys can challenge a guy's manhood, there's still the notion that a bunch of double-A batteries in a woman's bedside table means that she can't find a real man. On a more fundamental level, masturbation, maybe even more so than sex, is filled with shame -- and it doesn't matter any that we rationally know that most people do it. Sex toys represent our basest drives -- precisely the parts of ourselves that we struggle most to hide from the world. No matter how many times the New York Times covers sex toy Tupperware parties in Middle America, that is unlikely to change. And -- if you'll allow me to get on my feminist high horse for a moment -- the "Girls Gone Wild"-esque ephemera of the past decades suggests we still have a ways to go before women fully embrace their authentic sexual selves and the pursuit of their own pleasure.

It's refreshing, though, that even in our age of overexposure, an absurd little pastel toy can make a woman blush. It turns out some things are still private and personal, and that's kind of sweet -- and sexy, too.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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