This essay was written for 2nd Story Theatre’s current production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, directed by Vanessa Gilbert.
The big O. For centuries, the subject of orgasm as applied to men bore nary a thought as it was expected as part of procreation. Even in the millennia this subject remains controversial and is often embarrassing for women. Many of you who came to see this play were embarrassed or even hesitant to attend. Admit it. Why?
Let’s first start with a bit of history. Yes, doctors invented this vibrating device to treat women with hysteria, often thought to be the womb or excess fluid moving inside the body. Yet this treatment was never connected with sex, as Ruhl depicts in the play.
The Victorian approach of men controlling women’s sexual feelings continued for years, particularly as Sigmund Freud’s work told women that young girl’s feelings in her clitoris transferred to her vagina as she passed into adulthood. Hundreds of thousands of women were then left frustrated that they couldn’t climax during intercourse. We know today that approximately 30% of women cannot have an orgasm during intercourse and this is based on simple biology. Yet somehow much of this information has not translated to the average women’s experience. Furthermore, we know that girls and women are not socialized to masturbate, leaving it up to men to figure out how best to pleasure women. Men are socialized to believe they have an innate sense of how to please women, even though they are not provided with a how-to guide when they reach adolescence, even when every woman is different.
Orgasm, Inc: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure, a recent documentary by Liz Canner, addresses the subject of FSD or Female Sexual Dysfunction. In this film, Canner examines two pharmaceutical companies who want to market a pill to women who have trouble achieving orgasms. These companies (not doctors!) have developed this term, FSD, to somehow convince women there is something medically wrong with them. What lies beneath this corporate ploy, however, is the lack of discussion on the reality of women’s sexual experiences and abilities.
The vibrator has been part of our households since the early 1900s when Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator sale. Yet using the vibrator has long been a secret and something for which to be ashamed or embarrassed. In fact, until recently, it was illegal to sell them in five southern states. I have been teaching a workshop called “The Female Orgasm” to college students for over 16 years. I am still amazed at how much they have bought into a somewhat Victorian way of thinking of women’s bodies. Most of them still think they are supposed to have orgasms during intercourse and there is something wrong with them if they don’t. Numerous college aged women are not familiar with their own bodies and cannot articulate to their partners what gives them pleasure. Many of them think that masturbation is only for single women. I’m certain much of this has to do with the amount of pornography available to them today (but that is a subject for a different essay!).
The good news, however, is that sex toys, today’s version of Dr. Givings electrical device, are generally well known and appreciated by many of the woman who cross my office door. Students sponsor sex toy parties in their dorm rooms demonstrating that while they might not be comfortable touching themselves, they are at least in control of their sexuality. And this is the crux of Ruhl’s play.
Ruhl posits that women must be in charge of their sexuality which is evident in the last scene when Mrs. Givings takes charge of her sex life. She instructs Dr. Givings and explores his body in a way she never has before. In some ways, Ruhl is turning the typical representation of women on its head by making Dr. Givings nude on stage. Mrs. Givings is in command and the implication is that she then too will be in command of her orgasm. Ruhl’s subtle, but significant message is that women must develop their own self agency and not let men control their sexuality.
If you haven’t seen the play, you must. It runs through May 29th.