Jess is the President of her campus’s pro-choice group, Rider University Vox. She has also been moonlighting as a saleswoman for a sex toy company since January. Pink pro-choice posters hung behind the display table last Friday night in the Terrace library, where she had arranged a mélange of dildos, vibrators, bottles, and anal beads for her sex toy demonstration. Though the catalogs she had brought prominently featured her company’s name, she insisted that her employer remain anonymous because the co-ed event she had planned with Princeton Pro-Choice Vox violated the organization’s policy on women-only group parties. “If they find out I did this, I’ll get in big, big trouble,” she explained. For the uninitiated, the words “sex toy party” may bring to mind debauchery and dim lighting. I spoke with several students a few hours beforehand who were cautiously optimistic that the event would provide an early start to their Friday night drinking. To the disappointment of a few, however, this was not a mixer or orgy, but a demonstration party in the great post-war tradition pioneered by the Tupperware saleswoman Brownie Wise. The lights were on in the Terrace library, and the only potential refreshments were the theoretically edible fruit-flavored warming gels Jess had placed on the table. “All right, we’re going to have a lot of fun,” Jess told her audience of around two dozen after the Vox officials had introduced her. “First we’re going to play a little game, the X-rated ABCs. I call out a letter, and you say the name of something sex-related. The person who answers first gets a card…and the person with the most cards at the end wins a prize.” The game was intended to loosen up the crowd, though that seemed unnecessary as the male and female guests showed immediate enthusiasm, shouting out “Fellatio!” “Libido!” “Erection!” “I’ve done one other party like this with a mixed group, and the guys there were a lot more squeamish,” Jess said later. “That’s because we’re at Terrace,” one of the Vox officers explained. The presenter assumed little prior knowledge of human anatomy as she introduced each featured catalogue item and quickly added safety tips for proper use as the guests passed them around the room. She also suggested inexpensive alternatives to her products wherever possible. “If you can’t afford a dildo, what some people do is fill a condom with birdseed,” she suggested, although she warned that this device would not be as scintillating as some of the sophisticated products her company offers. At almost any given moment, some section of the audience was laughing. Jess is not an exceptionally talented comedienne; there is simply enough discomfort in the air at a sex toy party that almost any statement can be funny. “Everyone’s like, ‘Uh-oh, we’re going to talk about butt toys,’” Jess said, holding up a set of anal beads, and waited for the laughter to subside. The testimonials for her company’s products came largely from her own experience or from that of close family members. “Guys, get a vibrator for your girlfriend. I’m away from mine at school for most of the week. And I can tell you, the Jack Rabbit relieves stress,” she admitted. Her boyfriend, a student at Penn who was present to assist shy male students with order forms, watched her impassively from the corner of the room. “My mother ordered cock rings from me,” Jess also confessed to the group. “I guess she’s pretty pleased. I haven’t heard anything since.” The audience found this anecdote particularly funny. Jess’s mother is not unusual, though. The sex toy party and the mass consumption of sex toys are both quickly becoming fixtures in American culture. According to an MSNBC special report on sex in America, this segment of the sex toy industry has exploded in the past few years, and the bulk of that growth has come from middle aged women in rural and suburban areas. The sex toy party has become common in these rural areas precisely because sexual experimentation is still a taboo topic there. Many of the women who have been interviewed at these events explain that they would be afraid of entering a sex shop if one were nearby and wouldn’t know what to buy anyway without some friendly, professional guidance. While the Princeton students in attendance were probably more knowledgeable about sexual paraphernalia than the average fifty-something Midwesterner, they were equally anxious about being identified. “If you print my name, I’ll sue you,” one girl threatened. Many other attendees did not want to be identified, but they weren’t shy about discussing their purchases. “I texted my boyfriend during [the party], and he sounded kind of annoyed,” one anonymous female said. She opened her cell phone to show how the text conversation progressed: Girl: i’m at a sex toy demonstration. want me to get anything?
Boyfriend: what are you doing there? if you get a dildo or vibrator ill use it on you!
Girl: ok Boyfriend: yes! Hannah Pavlovich ’09 pointed to a bowl of Planned Parenthood condoms when asked why her organization had presented this event. “Princeton Pro-Choice Vox is a sex-positive group,” she said. “We believe in responsible sexual activity.” “You can’t get pregnant using a vibrator when you use it by yourself,” Jess added. “And there are ways to minimize the risk of pregnancy when you’re with a partner.” Princeton Pro-Choice Vox has never presented a sex toy party before. In recent years, the group has generally limited its campus activities to editorial writing, airing pro-choice films, and hosting the occasional guest speaker. Most recently, Vox protested the U.S. government’s anti-abortion NGO funding policy by tethering a gagged lingerie-wearing blowup doll to a lawn chair on the lawn outside Frist Campus Center. “You think this is dirty? Learn about the Global Gag Rule,” the nearby banner read. Sara Viola ’08 was critical of Princeton Pro-Life when I suggested that the group might object to Vox’s foray into hosting a “sex-positive” event. She explained that Pro-Life would not be able to come to a consensus on how to criticize the sex toy party. “One of our big frustrations with Pro-Life is that they refuse to take a stance on contraception,” she offered as an example. “Their membership is split on the issue. One of our members would like to have a safe-sex fair co-hosted with Princeton Pro-Life. We could talk about how condoms lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies and how that leads to fewer unwanted abortions… But they can’t agree to that.” As guests left, the Vox members’ conversation turned to the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the 2003 federal ban on partial birth abortions. What a terrible week for women’s reproductive rights, they concluded, though the party had nothing to do with recent rulings. “Obviously we decided to have this event far in advance,” Anne Twitty GS explained.
Meanwhile, Jess was nearly finished tabulating the take from the party. The party was not a Vox fundraiser, but since they were playing host, they received a thank-you gift. “You guys netted $199.45 in sales,” Jess said. “You know, there’s an additional free gift worth $30 at $200.” The remaining members huddled over the display table, scanning the catalog for the cheapest item to push the event’s sales total past the price break. “The pleasure feather is only $7.95,” one noted.
“Sorry, I have to admit, I’ve already got a feather,” another explained. “What are you going to do with your free gift?” I asked.
”For a future Pro-Choice Vox event,” they agreed. “It’ll be a door prize.”