It’s Not Sexual Harassment to Buy a Sex Toy!

ESSAYS ON THE RECKONING, #1:
Carol Queen PhDIt’s Not Sexual Harassment to Buy a Sex Toy!

 

All right, friends, I hope it’s not too late for those of you who, despite the enormous outpouring of #MeToo social media and mainstream press discussion about unwanted sexual advances, behavior, and sexual harassment in the workplace, somehow still decided to wrap up a dildo for your co-worker to open at the office Secret Santa party. I’m consoling myself for my tardiness in speaking up about this in two ways: one, I have been giving the following advice for over 25 years (seriously, where has everybody been?), and two, I bet you wouldn’t have let me stop you anyway. But Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and this is all going to start happening again, so here are some thoughts.

First—in spite of the actual appearance of sex toys in some of the Reckoning narratives—giving someone a sexy present is not ipso facto inappropriate. Many of us would very much like a fancy sex gizmo as a gift. BUT! We almost never want one from someone with whom we don’t already have a sexual relationship. And even that’s not a guarantee the gift-giver will choose the correct gizmo, as we at Good Vibrations know all too well.

Here’s what I ask a customer looking for a present for someone else:

“Does this person know you’re buying them a toy?”

If yes, the follow-up is “Have they expressed an interest in this specific thing?”

If yes, the relevant follow-up questions probably have to do with who’s going to gift-wrap the gizmo. It might get as involved as “What’s their favorite color, do you know?”

But if the answer to the first and/or second questions is no: Maybe don’t buy the toy! Even intimate partners of sex-toy-gift-givers have responded with tears or disgust if they don’t want the thing the person bought them. I’ve spoken to wives who mourn, “He must think there’s something wrong with me!” and partners who really didn’t want a big dildo (some shoppers appear to read their spam email credulously and believe that size is all-important).

And even if it’s just the wrong size: You can’t return it, you know! We’re not Zappos! (When asked why not, the most concise answer is “Would you really want to shop at a company that takes back potentially used sex toys?”)

I always, always recommend that a sex-toy gifter present their beloved with a gift card instead, and add that it’s especially awesome to take the person out for a nice meal and then come shopping together. Sweet! Sexy! Special! That way, the partner can choose exactly what they’d like, even if they insist that all they’ll do with it is massage their back.

I do know that, within relationships, this sort of gift is sometimes chosen as a spicer-upper, a kickstarter of erotic play that may have fallen into the proverbial rut, and I have enormous compassion for this desire. It is still very frequently not the right course of action. Talk frankly first—maybe even include a sex therapist!—and buy sex toys second, unless you are buying them for yourself or have received clear hints that a toy or other sexy present is desired and welcome.

And if you don’t have an intimate relationship with the person (and just to remind those who need it, the definition of “intimate relationship” is not “you fantasize about them”), don’t get them an intimate gift. It inserts sexual implication and attraction in a relationship that has not moved to that status via mutual agreement, effort, or desire. I’ll have much more to say about these issues in days to come—this is the first of a series of posts inspired by issues I find noteworthy in the Reckoning. But let me spell this out right now, vis-à-vis gifting toys (and sexy garments too):

It might be that some of our friends in the animal kingdom bring their intended a gift that is supposed to move things to the next level: a newly-hunted vole, for example.  It may seem like the height of logic for us humans to do this—surely this sexy gift will be worth a thousand words. But if you haven’t already exchanged several hundred of those words, consensually and mutually, the gift’s recipient may think: “Awkward!!” or “What. The. Fuck.” Or “I wonder how soon the HR staff will be back from lunch?”

Giving a sex toy as a gift is a variant on a sexual act. (There’s a get-out-of-jail card for gal-pals who drink white wine and tell each other everything, but even in that context it might be unwelcome or inappropriate—and would also be an unwise idea if the gals gather in the same workplace.) It is not safe to test the water with a sex toy when what you hope for is a relationship, or to play with the toy together, or just to hear about the person using the toy after they take it home and lock the door. Sex toys are personal and intimate for most people, and one of several elements of our Reckoning moment is the exposure of people’s experience when that kind of intimacy is assumed, that kind of privacy breached. I’m talking about the gift recipient’s experience, AND the giver’s, because on both sides of this problematic exchange there are likely to be problematic sequelae.

You may be protesting, “But I have sex-positive colleagues and we have gathered together in a sex-positive workplace!” Rest assured that I will address the misuse of the term sex-positive, and stay tuned for that, but let me just break this news: Just because a person is enthusiastic about sex in their own lives with their own chosen partners will not guarantee that they will be enthusiastic about sex with you. Or with me, for that matter, because this isn’t about you, but rather about the way so many people get insufficient support to make sure that what they do and say is consensual and welcomed. A seeming work-around is “We’re all sex-positive here.” If anything, that means actions outside the bounds of consent will be judged even more harshly.

Oh, also upcoming? The Charlie Rose “but I thought it was mutual” excuse. It’s actually surprisingly close to the “sex-pos utopia” fallacy.

Look, I love selling sex toys. These items can change people’s lives; I’m not suggesting they’re the least bit problematic in and of themselves. But we will all live in a better and yes, more sex-positive world when every gift-wrapped sex toy is a wanted sex toy, not something that makes co-workers burst out laughing and the recipient feel humiliated, teased or stalked. Let’s use the Reckoning as an opportunity to consider communication, boundaries, respect, and all the things that make sex more awesome, once we find someone who we know wants to have it.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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