I thought I took my virginity when I masturbated for the first time. I was 11. When I was done, I squirmed back into my clothes, zipped my shame back into the thick denim shield of my jeans, and went to violin class. I felt sullied. It took four days for me to masturbate again, but it took years for the shame to fade.
Sex became normal for me before masturbation did. In college, my friends cheered when someone went home with a guy. The next morning, over eggs and toast, shouts of “Yas girl!” greeted the theatrical complaints from whomever had walked further than usual to get to breakfast that morning. And then there were the questions. One friend always asked for the scoresheet. “How many times did he go down on you versus you on him?” “Was he good?” And the fatal: “Did you come?” I hated the scoresheet. If the score wasn’t in my favor, I received a chorus of pitying faces and a sympathetic change of topic. Throughout the many debriefs in dorm rooms and dining halls, we never once said the word “clitoris.” These conversations both were and weren’t about sex. Hidden inside the sex-themed scoresheets was a constantly clacking abacus that evaluated not the sex, but what it implied about our individual power or status. We never talked about the masturbation most of us relied on to finish ourselves off after the hook-up had left the room.
Then 2016 happened. Trump won the election and pussy hats, vaginas, and pink feminism flooded America. An illustration popped up on my Instagram feed of a cute little vagina flexing its pink biceps, and I sent it to a partner after my STI tests came back clear. I remember being deluged with uterus enamel pins and boob T-shirts and wall art with sprawling cursive “nevertheless she persisted.” Above all, there was the rise of the cute vibrator.
The rise of the cute vibrator felt like the fist-pumping, chest-beating, self-love declaration I needed in 2016. I felt deep and true heartbreak as I watched Trump ascend to power amidst the thunderous applause of his promise to make America great again — to make America pure again. This “great” America did not belong to me, and it did not want me. It did not want my yellow skin; it did not want my gender-queerness, or my womanhood, or my Chinese immigrant roots; it did not want my vagina, that now felt like a gaping vulnerability. It was no surprise that I fell deep and hard for the rhetoric of the cute vibrator.
The cute vibrator is either jewel-toned or pastel; take your pick. It is coated in smooth, matte, skin-like silicone — the expensive, La Mer version of silicone. It is innocent with a playful wink and has the sex appeal of a Georgia O’Keeffe flower. It comes dressed in the effortlessly cheeky graphic design of ironic ’80s typography. The language in the instruction manual is sweet, but saucy; the diagrams are white line drawings on a deep emerald background. If there are models pictured on the website, they are carefully diverse (but sometimes the hand models aren’t — oops). The cute vibrator makes masturbation pretty — status-worthy even — so that people can Instagram their sex toys and brag to their friends about their new splurge. The cute vibrator insists that you and your vagina are beautiful.
In April 2017, as a college senior, I threw a meet-a-sex-toy study-break party called “Good Vibes Only,” and likely broke a record for the greatest number of sex toys in a single room of Princeton University. I played matchmaker for people and their first sex toy, ticking through questions like: “Clitoral or penetration?” “Price range?” “Aesthetic?” And: “Do you care about discretion?” They whispered their answer with the excitement of confiding a secret.
I leaned into my status as a burgeoning sex-toy expert with an unpaid internship for a sex toy start-up in New York City. In order to afford the internship, I cat-sat for a very strange woman so that I could live in her apartment while interning. For months, I designed cheeky innuendos for posters and brainstormed email headlines that would wink if they could. I spent my days wading through a rainbow of body-safe materials of clit-suckers, dildos, lube, butt plugs, anal beads, but never once did I talk about an actual body. Just as I was instructed to say “one” instead of “you” in college papers, these toys we hawked and lauded were made for disembodied, impersonal, abstract ideas of genitals. We designed and wrote with fleshless, minimalist line drawings of the clitoris and vulva in mind. The company’s focus was sales, Instagram posts, and quippy graphic design. Women’s empowerment was referenced liberally, but embodied shallowly.
I began to see the cute vibrator differently when I wrote a masturbation zine for all genders and genitalia. Many of the people I knew, myself included, had experienced having their sexual consent violated in the murky areas between ignorance and intentionality. It was violently clear to me that negotiating sexual consent was near impossible when words like penis and clitoris felt uncomfortable to say. The zine was born out of the desire to establish a shared space of sexual honesty and empathy without the confusion of another person involved. It started with the idea that first and foremost, people are people; and secondly, we have genitalia.
Despite all of my previous sex-toy experience, I realized I knew very little about pleasure outside of the cis-woman body. I had never had a trans partner. So I didn’t learn about the nitty-gritty of trans pleasure until I asked two trans friends to write the sections on masturbating while trans. And then it turned out that, even though I’d had sex with plenty of cis men, I didn’t know very much about how cis men pleasure themselves either.
I began to understand that the rise of the cute vibrator wasn’t a revolution in bodily love at all. The cute vibrator was a creation of The Man for a specific definition of womanhood. At its cold electronic heart, beneath all of the pastels and cheeky double entendres, the cute vibrator is a narrative primarily crafted by and for cis, straight, white people with money.
Out of the 17 top vendors in 2020 in the U.S. vibrator industry, 14 publicly identify their leadership. Of these 14 leaders, 12 are white. 8 of these 14 are led by men. As Scott Watkins, the vice president of sales at industry leader Doc Johnson, confirmed to Marie Claire, most major sex toy companies were founded by white people.
Just like our college sexcapade conversations, the vibrator world is only tangentially related to genitals. The vibrator shopping dialogue could easily be about the newest kitchen appliance: It’s waterproof! It pulses! It vibrates! It’s angled for better access! It’s NOT dishwasher safe! The cute vibrator resonates with America because it requires absolutely no change in our relationship to our bodies or masturbation. It doesn’t require us to say clitoris, vulva, vagina, or mons — let alone yeast infection. With a sex toy like this, we don’t even have to touch our genitals.
The cute vibrator is not an innovation. It is packaging. Sex toys have been around since the very beginning of human history. The oldest dildo, found in what is now southwestern Germany, is made of polished stone and dates back to 29,000 BCE. Bronze dildos were found in Chinese Han Dynasty tombs from 2,000 years ago. While sex toys have existed for millennia, the cute vibrator made them Instagrammable.
The cute vibrator markets itself using the same rhetoric as Moon Dust and crystals. It focuses on cis women with money, promising to help them unlock the confident, youthful, naturally glowing, sensuous beauty buried inside them. The vibrator world evangelizes solo-sex dates, self-care splurges, and reclaiming your womanhood and power through luxury orgasms. Masturbation for cis women became empowering, so long as it was chic.
Back in January 2017, right after Trump’s inauguration, I happened upon the website of the sex toy start-up I would eventually intern for. I cold-emailed them immediately, volunteering any and all involvement, with or without payment. Their narrative of modernized girl-power and cheeky, cool-girl vibes of women who loved their vaginas felt like what the country needed. I wanted to buy that narrative and plug it into my brain and feel like my body, too, was powerful and beautiful. It didn’t work.
It’s true that my Instagram feed is now plastered with gorgeous sex toys, of which I own many, and I am surrounded by winky faces and animated sparkles that tell me, like my college friends once did, “Yas, girl!” And yet, I still find it hard to talk frankly to my friends or my partner about how I masturbate. Sometimes, after I’ve orgasmed alone in my bed, I don’t feel empowered or beautiful about masturbation at all. Sometimes, I still feel sad, slightly pathetic, and alone.
To its credit, the cute vibrator narrative broke through the social stigma I felt around masturbation. It made those whispered, vulnerable confessions from sex toy matchmaking achievable. The cute vibrator gave masturbation a door into the pop culture of BuzzFeed’s listicles and Urban Outfitter’s lifestyle shelves. And it is likely that the cheeky, pastel packaging made this progress possible.
But, our masturbation narrative needs to mature beyond these flawed first steps. A truly empowering masturbation narrative must uplift marginalized voices. We need to be intrepid enough to interrogate ourselves and others about who is excluded from our definition of sex positivity. We need to shop at POC-owned sex toy shops like Enby or Feelmore and support people designing sex toys for masturbation with physical disabilities like Handi. We need to put in the effort and energy to articulate a narrative that includes complexity and differences, a narrative that is truly intimate and genuine, instead of relying on frothy double entendres. Above all, we need to be brave enough to do the work to truly embrace our individual bodies. No matter how pretty or quippy the packaging is, someone else’s narrative will not grant us the power to celebrate our bodies and who we are. A new vibrator will not erase internalized shame.
For me, the journey from shame to self-acceptance consists of vulnerable, honest conversations with myself and my partner. Achievements look like my ability to remark offhandedly to a friend that I masturbate out of boredom when I can’t fall asleep. I have to remind myself — often — that my body and I are doing just fine. The journey from shame to self acceptance requires hard self-reflection, vulnerability, and emotional labor. The real work isn’t cute, easy, or Instagrammable, but, at least it is free.
Vic Liu believes that people would be happier and safer if they weren’t embarrassed about their genitals. Her book Bang! Masturbation for People of All Genders and Abilities is out now. You can follow @bangforall on Instagram to continue the conversation.