Love: batteries not included

| 1st November 2006
Relationships, like so many other aspects of modern life, are increasingly subject to the pressures of commercialisation. ‘Buy this and you’ll be happy’, suggests the marketing. And one recent product, both intimate and as impersonal as can be imagined, boasts particular success…

Women in the West are becoming slaves to a new addiction. During the day, they slip off for a quick fix; and in the privacy of their own homes a flat battery can trigger a desperate panic. So strong is the compulsion that their husbands and lovers are at a loss, the women themselves can’t concentrate at work – or don’t show up at all – and the economy is on the brink of collapse…

Women’s sexuality, it seems, has long been defined in terms of the problems it causes for men, and for the world in general. Now, with the outrageous premise that the women of the world are addicted to the Rabbit vibrator (just £28 from good retailers), the ‘mockumentary’ Rabbit Fever does little to move us forward from that tired cliché. This, however, is not a movie review. It is more in the nature of a reality check – because, like most comedy, Rabbit Fever has a dark truth lurking just beneath its single-punchline surface.

A friend of mine once opined that being sexually sophisticated and an environmentalist seemed mutually exclusive. Ecologically-minded people are notoriously (and rather unfairly) seen as sexless, hemp-wearing guardians of virtue and steely-eyed defenders of the missionary position. Yet how can anyone who espouses a slower, more genuine, more connected way of life, resist the temptation to comment on the relative virtues of slow, connected, committed sex compared to a quick-fix encounter with a buzzing, two-headed, bunny-eared, rubberised cartoon penis?

The Rabbit is the world’s best-selling vibrator. It exists in many versions and colours, with a variety of buttons to control the speed of the vibration, the rather intimidating swivel of the head, and the rabbit ear attachments that stimulate the clitoris or the anus, depending on your predilection. It is an intriguing piece of technology, efficient in its own specialised way.

But what happens if you subject the Rabbit to the kind of simple but reasonable questions that should be asked of any technology: How much and what kind of waste does it generate? How does it affect our perception of our needs? To what extent does it redefine reality? What is its potential to become addictive? What is lost in using it? What aspects of reality does it allow us to ignore? Does it reduce, deaden, or enhance the human experience? What aspect of the inner self does it reflect? Does it concentrate or equalise power? Does it foster diversity?

In the harsh light of such questions, the Rabbit suddenly becomes much more interesting.

From a purely ecological standpoint, many vibrators and other sex toys don’t pass muster. They can be made of PVC and contain phthalates – cancer-promoting and hormone-disrupting chemicals. PVC also promotes a great deal of waste in its manufacture, and phthalates – which have been banned in children’s toys but not in grown-up toys – take a long time to break down. The lubricants necessary for the use of many sex toys can contain synthetic substances derived from petrochemicals and are likewise unsound.

There are better alternatives. Glass dildos, as a single example, are beautiful, hygienic and temperature-responsive. Unfortunately, like every other aspect of modern life, sex has become a plastic wasteland; and the Rabbit, for all its efficiency, is a big, brutal, ugly machine that requires a woman to be lubed up like a Ferrari before it can be comfortably, even safely, used.

Although the PR behind the Rabbit and other vibrators suggests that it has freed us from sexual repression, our embrace of the Rabbit has more to do with capitalism and consumerism than anything else.

In the struggle to normalise sexual diversity in our culture, sexual fulfilment has relatively recently been redefined as a human right. This is a risky strategy, because once something becomes a defined as a ‘right’ it is all too easily co-opted by commercial concerns. The ongoing popularity of the Rabbit says something very telling about how we as a society react to complex issues – usually by asking, “What can we buy to make things simple again?”

Hardly surprising, then, that vibrators are big business these days. In the UK, we buy more than two million of them each year – more than the number of washing machines sold. You can purchase them in a bewildering array of sizes, shapes, textures and colours. They are so much a part of the Zeitgeist that you can even find ones – sporting groan-inducingly evocative names such as Audi-oh, iBuzz and OhMiBod – that plug directly into your iPod and vibrate to the beat of the music. Talk about a whole new way to play…

The popular press assumption is that frustrated heterosexual women are the sole purchasers of vibrators – though, of course, they are probably equally popular among gay men. We will never know who buys what or in what quantity, since the Department of Trade and Industry doesn’t monitor such things.

Few people realise that the vibrator was the fifth electrical device to receive a patent – after the toaster but before the vacuum cleaner and iron. The grouping of a sexual aid with household labour-saving devices is as enlightening about our attitudes to sex as it is unsettling.

According to Rachel Maines’ book The Technology of Orgasm, the first vibrators were steam-powered and used to treat women suffering from anxiety and hysteria. Before the miracle of steam, male physicians performed what they called ‘clitoral massage’ to treat these hysterical women. The manual procedure was considered to be a form of drudgery and many doctors welcomed the newer steam- and, eventually, electrically-powered devices that got the job done more quickly and efficiently.

The continued popularity of vibrators in general, and the Rabbit in particular, suggest that the ancient biases which view a woman’s orgasm as both a chore and a cure persist even in the so-called enlightened 21st century. While the Rabbit can deliver a decent orgasm, it can also be a distraction from some fundamental problems relating to the breakdown of loving relationships in the UK and elsewhere.

Earlier this year, the women’s magazine Grazia surveyed readers to ask how often they fret about their bodies. It found that the average woman worries about her perceived bodily flaws every 15 minutes – more frequently than most men think about sex. Nearly a third of women worried about their size and shape every minute of the day. In the context of all this self-loathing, the rising popularity of the Rabbit makes sense. The Rabbit gets the job done without the potential complications and judgments that a man whose fantasy life is fuelled largely by reading Nuts or GQ would bring to the relationship.

Surveys into women’s attitudes to sex are similarly depressing. Newspapers and magazines fairly groan with stories of women who can’t be bothered with and aren’t enjoying sex any more; stories that suggest that women do indeed see sex as a chore.

Fay Weldon’s latest book, What Makes Women Happy?, proposes that the best way to dispatch with the chore of sex is to fake orgasm (ie lie), tell your man what a clever chap he is for making you so happy (lie some more), and then cheerfully get up and pour yourselves some champagne (and get drunk). Such an emotionally numbing solution to the lack of pleasure and connection in people’s lives beggars belief. Yet it goes some way towards explaining why the Brits recently came bottom of a list of developed countries where sex was viewed as a source of satisfaction.

For years, the vibrator has been sold as an antidote to all this. It’s been hyped as a woman’s strongest weapon in the battle of the sexes – a feminist-approved tool that will help women express their sexuality and release them from inhibitions. If you can’t get a man, get a Rabbit. If you’ve got a man but he’s some sort of sexual nitwit, buy two.

But the suggestion that women using a Rabbit are somehow taking a more active role in their sexuality, is like suggesting that women are taking a more active role in the laundry by using a washing machine.

The Rabbit is not about sexuality; it is about orgasm. Indeed, orgasm has become both the destination and the journey of modern sex, a quick release and temporary cure for anything that ails you. What, after all, were the women in Sex in the City, the TV programme that launched the Rabbit into the marketplace, looking for except a little sexual slave?

Sexual expression is a constantly evolving thing and the normalisation of sexual options is a positive thing. A broad sexual palette can make life more interesting. But the most worrisome aspect of the Rabbit phenomenon is the way it distracts us from all the stuff that makes sex so good in the first place: the sensuality and spirituality, the light and shade of lovemaking that everyone has to work at to get right over the longer term.

If we have reached a point where we can’t enjoy or even imagine sex without all the bells and whistles, the jelly spikes, ridges, nodules and rotating ball bearings, then we are in trouble, because sexual satisfaction is more complex than a handful of batteries and a variable speed-control button.

Sex isn’t always easy, or good, or glamorous. If it was we’d all be getting it right all the time and the Rabbit-makers would be out of business. Instead it is dependent on a complex mixture of things: the psychological state of the people involved, their health, their ability to recognise and acknowledge their own and each other’s needs, desires and emotions, their level of intimacy and maturity, as well as the ambiance in the room, its temperature, its sounds, its smells and tastes.

What is more, sexual satisfaction can almost always be correlated to relationship satisfaction. A recent global survey found that the couples who are most fulfilled and happy with their sex lives are those who whose relationships are based on equality rather than the will to dominate. In this context, sexual pleasure and orgasm aren’t something that one partner bestows upon another but are instead part of a shared journey.

There’s a bigger picture here too. The premise of a deep ecology is as valid in the bedroom as it is on the savannah, the rainforest or the wetlands. How we relate to each other and to ourselves directly influences how we relate to the world. How we treat our bodies is reflected in how we treat the environment.

If we increasingly treat sex like fast food, rush through it without consciousness or contemplation, then move on to the next item on the day’s to-do list, and if we can’t find a nourishing connection with the ones we love the most, how on earth are we going to find the personal resources to understand the world we have created and strive to make it a better place?

Can fast, orgasm-focused sex be good sex? Of course it can. But an over-dependence on bedroom gadgets like the Rabbit can encourage a kind of sexual monoculture where fast sex, like fast food, becomes the norm. And, like fast food, it may fill a hole, but it hardly makes a dent in the void.

Pat Thomas is The Ecologist’s Health Editor.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2006

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