Vibrators Generate New Buzz

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Mari Vial-Golden ’14, Matt Ball ’14 amd Lana Meyer ’17 confront female masturbation (Campus/Paul Gerard).

By Middlebury Campus

At intermission of the opening night of “In the Next Room” (or “The Vibrator Play”), the audience of the packed Seeler Studio Theater collectively sighed with relief upon realizing that despite it’s name, Sarah Ruhl’s Tony Award-nominated play was far from vulgar. Gathering from the chatter of the elderly men seated behind me (who remarked approvingly, “very well done — not scandalized”) and the female students to my right (who nodded in agreement that the show was “tasteful”), it seems audience members came to the production with some reservations regarding its subtitle.

On this point, the name was not misleading; vibrators were in fact central to the plot, as was female masturbation, and orgasms were frequent throughout the show. But perhaps what people were responding to most, as it seemed to me during intermission, was the unexpected level of comfort present in the face of these usually awkward subjects.

This was, in part, crafted by director Claudio Medieros’s ’90 choice of a small, intimate space, the actors’ incredible skill and professionalism and the humor and naiveté scripted for the characters.

The vibrator was treated as a medical device, which contributed in a big way to making the play feel less erotic.

Celia Watson ’17, who attended Wednesday’s opening, said, “The acting was my favorite part of the show. What was interesting was that while the characters’ orgasms seemed very natural and realistic, you never forgot that they were still inside a doctor’s office.”

The major player behind the audience’s ease, in my opinion, was the play’s confrontation of the taboo of female sexuality, and its overriding message that sexual intimacy is a healthy and fulfilling part of life, and should be seen that way, rather than in the harsh light of shame or disgust typically attached to it.

Yet, the fact that students and town residents alike walked into the play bracing themselves for vulgarity speaks to our attitudes toward sexuality, specifically towards the private sexual lives of women. While science has come a long way in understanding the female orgasm since the late nineteenth century — in which the play is set — confusion and silence still rule the masses.

“I think that female sexuality is very much a black box to a lot of people—men and women,” said stage manager Gabrielle Owens ’17.

When I asked a group of male friends how many girls they thought masturbated, estimations ranged from 70 to 98 percent. More telling, however, was that the girls I talked to were just as, if not more, uncertain. Even those more brazen on the topic admitted to feeling a lack of solidarity in their conversations with others.

“In our friend group, I like to think we’re open-minded and it’s true that we do talk about these things,” said Emily Bogin ’16. “But when we talk about female masturbation, there’s definitely a layer of self-awareness that we’re talking about something taboo. This makes it even funnier to talk about, but it also engages the fact that it’s not socially acceptable.”

“And it just isn’t,” she added. “I don’t think that it is socially acceptable in Middlebury or in the world at large or anywhere. It’s sort of just accepted that women aren’t supposed to masturbate.”

This of course, brings up the rift between the general acceptance of male masturbation as a common practice and the resistance to the thought that female masturbation is essentially the same thing. When it comes to male sexuality, the world seems, for lack of a better term, desensitized. But flip the coin in calling the subject a woman, and masturbation holds immense shock value.

This is what Erin Ried ’16 found when testing a female version of an all too common phrase.

“The world seems so focused on penises. My friends and I are tired of hearing ‘suck my dick’ all the time. Nobody goes around saying, ‘lick my clit.’ And if they tried, it wouldn’t go over; it sounds way more vulgar somehow, way less acceptable.”

The world is certainly advancing in its recognition of female sexuality. And while “The Vagina Monologues” and events like this play are opening space for dialogue on our campus, we still have long way to go before male and female sexual experiences are viewed in the same light.

“It seems like a cultural hangover,” said Owens. “For most of the Western world, we’ve gotten past the idea that women aren’t allowed to enjoy sex. But we’re still stuck in this place where we don’t really want to know about them enjoying sex. If you watch commercials and things like that on TV, you see all these women acting sexy, but they’re doing it all for men, basically. I think that’s still a huge issue — that when women enjoy sex, they enjoy it for other people, not for themselves.”

“In the Next Room” presented sexuality as a potential unifier, something with the power to connect groups across different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, as well as individuals, both homo and heterosexual. It showed sexuality as a basic human quality, a shared experience that, like others, should have a voice and a discourse.

So in the spirit of the play, let’s talk about it.