A week ago, I went to see the University of Minnesota Theatre Arts & Dance department’s production of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. The show certainly lived up to it’s name: I can confirm that, in fact, there were vibrators involved. Or rather, the early vibrator, which came into being following the advent of electricity. The play is centered about a doctor who treats women for hysteria by inducing “paroxysms” — what we’d today call an orgasm — with a vibrator. As it progresses, the play stages themes of female sexuality, marital satisfaction, effective communication, race, maternity and queerness.
One scene in particular stuck with me after the curtains had closed. After both using the vibrator on themselves without the doctor present, two women try to describe their different experiences of orgasm while almost completely lacking the language to do so. Instead, they speak in broad, figurative terms until one reluctantly admits that many of the sensations in question are “down below.” Finally, a third woman states that the sensations they’re describing are reminiscent of sensations women may experience when they are having “relations with their husbands.” The two women are stunned, having never associated pleasure with sex.
The element of this scene that was most impactful for me was the characters’ lack of language to describe their own sexual experiences, and furthermore, the fact that they weren’t able to identify the pleasurable sensations that they experienced as sexual in nature. This play takes place in 1880, but, unfortunately, these problems still exist today. Female pleasure is a topic that’s pretty thoroughly dodged in conversation and general social dialogue. Many sexual education classes fail to discuss pleasure in any meaningful capacity. One salient example of this is a general ignorance about what the clitoris is, what it does, and where it is located. The clitoris is crucial to generating pleasure for those who possess it (and those who do are not necessarily female). Furthermore, there’s a societal focus on penetrative sex that leads to a phenomenon that sexologist Ian Kerner dubbed, “The Intercourse Discourse,” which, in his words, “promotes the hegemony of the penis over the clitoris… and relegates the female orgasm to the outskirts of sexual pleasure.”
The implications of this are critical to our understanding and discussion of women’s pleasure. At an extreme, it discredits the notion that women are meant to experience sexual pleasure at all in the context of sex or on their own. I didn’t know that people without a penis could orgasm until I was at least 18, much less experience any kind of sexual pleasure. This was in large part due to general avoidance of the topic itself.
In order to bring women’s pleasure to the forefront, we need to stop beating around the bush and address female sexuality when relevant. This includes using proper terminology rather than euphemisms, having frank discussions about sexuality and educating ourselves about how women have sex and experience pleasure. Sexuality is important in any time period, vibrator or no vibrator.