Are Penis-Shaped Vibrators Really The Best For Orgasms?

Millennial social media users’ deployment of the aubergine emoji as code for dick, sex, dildos, that sort of thing, has been around since we all got iPhones. Comment with the vegetable cartoon underneath an Instagram picture of a hot babe? You’re DTF (down to fuck). Text your friend with the aubergine emoji? She’ll know you’re getting it tonight. And now, like a swiftly marketed extension of an in-joke, the aubergine emoji-shaped vibrator has arrived.

The vibrating incarnation of the slangy icon does not, thankfully, have the same proportions as an actual aubergine. What it is, however, is four inches long, slightly thicker at one end and well-suited to G-spot stimulation. Otherwise, its narrowness means it’s pretty much a plastic-encased bullet vibrator, with Barney-purple and green colouring and 10 different vibration frequencies.

Some might wonder why the aubergine emoji vibrator exists. Isn’t it just a novelty, a hen party item designed to be bought as a lol then tipped into the rubbish to fulfil its destiny, bobbing about amid carrier bags on the Pacific plastic patch? Not according to Emojibator, the cannily named company behind the toy: “If women were masturbating, or foreplaying, with an eggplant, then they would laugh more in the bedroom,” a spokesperson tells Refinery29.

“And if women or couples would laugh more during sex, they may feel more comfortable telling a story about how great it felt to orgasm. Then, the cycle of word-of-mouth experiences can influence a cultural shift towards women confidently talking about self-pleasure aloud and enjoying it without societal shame.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Emojibator
The Eggplant Emojibator
A tall order for a small piece of buzzy silicone. What it does do, though, is reinforce the radical idea that masturbating women neither crave nor need penis-shaped, penis-looking dildos or vibrators to go inside them in order to reach climax. Don’t believe me? Studies show that between 40 and 60% of women cannot come through penetrative, heterosexual sex. And 7% of women report that penetrative sex is painful. Why, then, would those women opt to masturbate with a replica of a penis?

Ann Summers, the UK’s biggest sex store with over 140 retail outlets, has previously sold sex toys in the shape of: corn cobs, bananas, carrots and even daffodils (the Daffadildo). However, their resident sexpert Eve Fifer tells Refinery29: “Some shapes are great novelty vibrators and dildos, but we take orgasms seriously.”

Following “research into ergonomics of shape”, the company looks to create sex toys that fill a woman’s vagina: “The more contact points between vibrator or dildo with the skin, the increase of vibrations, ultimately resulting in better, quicker and more intense orgasms.”

Eve goes on to explain that, in serious pursuit of orgasm, the company will “often revert to the more traditional shapes.” But what is a “traditional” shape? According to Eve: “internal toys with long phallic styling.”

There seems to be a disconnect between what the sex toy industry is selling and what science – and women – are saying. I checked out six sex toy websites’ bestseller lists and of the 77% of genital-specific toys that are sold to women (they don’t exactly use penis pumps or prostate massagers), 55% of them are penis-shaped, veiny, or designed for insertion. If women can’t come from IRL penises, why are masturbation aids made in men’s image? And why do they sell so well?

“Men designed vibrators before women ever did,” explains Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder. “And they were so obsessed with their penises, that if they made anything related to female pleasure, it had to be shaped like them, because their tools were considered the right tools for the job.”

As for now? She admits that “Most people, regardless of what genitals they have, get off on genital stimulation, but so much of the industry is very tied to women’s pleasure being male-female pleasure. Men don’t like feeling threatened by kinds of pleasure that they can’t give, so they want women to be pleasured by something that looks like them.”
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there was a problem with women masturbating, now there’s a problem with women masturbating with anything that doesn’t look like a dick

In 1968, the Hitachi Magic Wand went on sale, marketed as a body massager for health purposes. The euphemism was easily decoded and soon, women – even those who couldn’t otherwise orgasm – were using the microphone-shaped, mains-powered vibrator on their vulvas and clitorises to get themselves off. As recently as 1999, the taboo around female masturbation was so strong that the wand’s manufacturers insisted it was a “straightforward product. There are no implications of anything beyond standard health care use.”

Almost 20 years on and the situation has progressed: The global sex toy industry is worth $15bn a year, Ann Summers is a staple of even the most provincial of British high streets, and even mums' magazine Good Housekeeping reviews sex toys. Yet, with a prevalence of dick-shaped toys, it looks like an updated version of the old taboo persists: There was a problem with women masturbating, now there’s a problem with women masturbating with anything that doesn’t look like a dick.

Penis-shaped sex toys are the pink elephant in the room at Sh!, an east London “female-focussed pleasure store”. Ky Hoyle, Managing Director, tells me: “Women have been socialised for centuries to believe all their pleasure is phallocentric, that pleasure must come from a penis right the way up to sex toys.”

“It’s one of the major reasons we won’t sell phallic toys. We’ve been so drenched in this confusion for so long and women have been encouraged to aspire to something that physiologically doesn’t seem to work. We just want women to be able to say ‘No, penetration doesn’t do it for me’ and for us to say ‘That’s fine, you’re not a failure, explore the pleasure that you do get.’”
Photo: Courtesy of Emojibator
The Chilli Pepper Emojibator
As for the ubiquity of massive, veiny flesh-coloured dongs on sex toy websites? Ky explains: “At one industry webinar, the speaker said a lot of the toys are bought by men for cam girls. It’s a massive part of the industry and it skews the results. If you’ve never bought a sex toy before, you go onto bestsellers on a website and if you think everyone’s buying dick shapes, you’ll think you’re meant to buy dick shapes. It’s so frustrating!”

As for the future of sex toys? There’s hope. “Mass production of anything means we pay to get the lowest common denominator, but eventually, the industries making tons of money out of something that’s badly designed will catch on and change what they’re doing.

“We’ve already seen the transition from horrible fabrics that wouldn’t pass safety tests to silicon and more body-friendly material, and more innovation in the marketplace will come as more women, start-ups and tech companies think radically about redeveloping products. We’ll see a change in what’s being invented for people in the next 20 to 30 years.”

“It’s one thing about sex and relationships that I’m very optimistic about”, she concludes, before guiding me to check out the Mystery Vibe, an item which “is flexible and prehensile; you can do almost anything with it. They’ve got massive investment and it’s got a female founder.”

Ky has high hopes, too: “In 2009 it was discovered that the clitoris is a bigger organ than we ever knew before and the differentiation between clitoral and internal orgasm has been blown apart. And new technology is breaking through – like suction technology. It looks like an ear thermometer and is used on the clitoris to slightly suction it. So many women are reporting absolutely different orgasms while using it.”

Even Ann Summers is launching products that don’t look like dicks, with their new Fusion toy “which is C-shaped and targets her G-spot and clitoris, whilst also sending vibrations to his shaft” set to launch just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s a “couples toy”, and the language remains firmly his’n’hers, but with time, and more women buying for themselves based on their own pleasure, perhaps one day all sex toy companies will learn that orgasms do not require a male chaperone.

While sex and relationship education is still not a compulsory school subject in the UK, sex toys are low on our list of sexual priorities. But just like a string of anal beads, all the nonsense is interconnected. If male inventors are injecting themselves into moulds that should be carved of women’s pleasure, it’s another symptom of a wider social problem which assumes that women’s pleasure centres around a monolithic ideal of male-ness, and not what their bodies enjoy and take comfort in. What we clearly have to do now, is continue to have honest discussions about what female pleasure is. We also need more women to be unafraid to be in tech companies, go after investments and feel confident to push their products. In its 2017 trend-forecasting report, intelligence agency JWT hailed fourth-wave feminism and its de-stigmatising discourse around female anatomy and experiences for making this the year of “vagina-nomics”. How about we make it a decade, a century, an eternity? We’ll need a few more batteries, mind.
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