08.18.22
Rachel Lehrer + Lee Moreau | Audio

The Futures Archive S2E12: The Vibrator


On the final episode of season 2 of The Futures Archive, Rachel Lehrer and Lee Moreau explore pleasure with a conversation about the vibrator and women's control over their bodies.

With additional insights from Lynn Comella, Ti Chang, Jenny Winfield, and Mireille Miller-Young.

Rachel recounted her experiece working with women in Northern Uganda to give them agency over their own bodies:
[In order] to create an environment in which you reduce the amount of shame and the mental and social barriers to women and couples thinking about women's pleasure, we really needed to get the power structure on board.
Rachel Lehrer works on high risk, high reward projects that span violence to pleasure and is building a company for men with the goal of increasing pleasure for women.

Lee Moreau is President of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation consultancy based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University.

Lynn Comella is a professor of gender and sexuality studies and chair of the department of interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada. She is the author of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure.

Ti Chang is an industrial designer whose pioneering work in pleasure products has brought elevated design to a global audience and presents a new definition of luxury in self-love.

Jenny Winfield is a researcher and design strategist who specialises in tackling taboos.

Mireille Miller-Young iis Associate Professor of Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, Non-Resident Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry Berlin.


Subscribe to The Futures Archive on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. And you can browse the show archive.

Kathleen Fu created the illustrations for each episode.

A big thanks to this season’s sponsor, Automattic.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Welcome to The Futures Archive, a show about human centered design where this season, we'll take an object, look for the human at the center and keep asking questions. I'm Lee Moreau.

Rachel Lehrer
And I'm Rachel Lehrer.

Lee Moreau
On each episode, we're going to start with an object with power. Today, that object is the vibrator. We'll look at the history of that object from our perspective as designers who've done work in human centered design, not just how it looks and feels, but also the relationships between that object and the people it was designed for.

Rachel Lehrer
And with other powerful humans too.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic. Later on, we'll hear from Yvonne Doll, design director at Jetpack.

Lee Moreau
Rachel, it is so good to see you again. Thank you for being here. How are you?

Rachel Lehrer
I'm doing really well. It's the summer.

Lee Moreau
And this is our last episode of the season. So we've had this a 12 episode journey that we've all been on together, myself and you and the other three co-hosts, and we're beginning and ending with you on the topic of pleasure. And you know, I think when we started to conceive this, this series about human centered design and objects and design and this notion that we're giving our objects power this season had a lot of different types of potential to it. And but most of it was framed in terms of utility and function, right? So when you give something power, you give it a plug. Somehow you can do something more with it. And we usually think, Oh, well, that's great. That's going to be useful in my life. But we don't often talk about pleasure as being an obvious sort of functional outcome when you give something power. So today's episode is on the vibrator.

Rachel Lehrer
And we are talking about a thing that I think can give you pleasure. I mean, frankly, lots of shapes can give vulva-havers pleasure. But we are something that is, you know, as Walt Whitman says, like the body electric. We are figuring out how the energy that already exists in our body can in a way be like put back into our body to give ourselves maximum pleasure.

Lee Moreau
Can you define for us what a vibrator is?

Rachel Lehrer
So it's a lot of things, mainly because, well, when you're talking specifically about pleasure, people have such an individual experience of what gives them sexual pleasure. But a lot of things are vibrating. So, for example, I just learned today that there are apps that are vibrator apps that leverage your phone's sort of ability to vibrate, to remind you in a discreet, unobtrusive way, but can also give you sexual pleasure. Of course, the main thing that people consider vibrators are either sort of for external stimulation, internal stimulation, couples play, suction — all these things, right. So when you think of sort of the electrical motor, that sort of is, I think how we're defining vibrator, they vibrate.

Lee Moreau
So you've already started to invoke some of the challenges with this episode, which is what kind of language do we use to have these conversations? You know, this is not for many people everyday dinner conversation, right? So like, what words are you comfortable using? I want to make sure that we have a shared vocabulary that works for us.

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah, I mean, it depends on the context, right? So we're not having dirty talk here, but I — which is a phrase I realize is problematic in and of itself — but I prefer technical language. So penis, vulva, clitoris depends on the context a lot, but that's my go to. I'm building a sex tech business right now, so I'm very used to these words at this point. I have a lot of conversations about this stuff, and frankly, I'm a little concerned that I just don't blush anymore.

Lee Moreau
You know, I think I think it's good to kind of level set in the kind of language we use because everybody uses different language and has different levels of comfort on this topic. I think it's also important to talk about the kind of gendered language that we're probably going to be using a lot. So since we're talking about vibrators, we're going to be tempted to say like, this applies to women or woman a lot. And there are many different types of gender identities and expressions that are that people belong to and have and connect with that also use vibrators. And I don't want us to get bogged down through the whole conversation about the sort of biology and representation around those words, but just try to be as sort of inclusive as possible in our search for this broader conversation and the way we can talk about this topic. So if you're cool with that,.

Rachel Lehrer
Great.

Lee Moreau
Yeah?

Rachel Lehrer
Yes.

Lee Moreau
So when we're thinking about the overall story of power and objects, I mean, we talked to a little bit about that already. But, you know, with this particular objects, you know, in our conversation and the first episode on the disco ball, you know, we talked about the fact that, yeah, you can have a disco ball that's like around object in a light and it doesn't need to spin, but it's way cooler, right, if it spins. And one of our other episodes on the refrigerator. Yeah you can have an ice box that's not powered, it's not the same thing, so like there's sort of limitations for objects that don't have power. But some of the things were like blender and defibrillator, they have this like magic that happens where they create something entirely new. Like what you do with a blender is very different than a hand mixer. And I think vibrator fits into that category.

Rachel Lehrer
I mean, as someone who's had vibrators run out of charge mid-stream, I wholeheartedly agree. It's very different when it's vibrating and not so the plug matters. And this is sort of speaking to the range of what vibrators do. The plug matters, especially when it's for external stimulation on your clitoris or on a clitoris. That said, many vibrators are multipurpose and when those that provide internal stimulation are not powered, right, they're no longer the escalators of the vibration world. They're now just penises or dildos, sorry, penis havers. But I think, like, it totally depends. You know, it's like escalators turn into stairs, internal stimulation vibrators turn into something else that also pleasurable for a lot of people. But yes, without the without the charge, without the electricity, they lose their sort of their thing that humans can't actually do, right, their special power that is not possible with our own bodies.

Lee Moreau
So we're going to engage in this conversation. We're going to talk to some of our-our perhaps not quite usual suspects in terms of experts and historians on this topic. But we'll they're going to help us unpack a little bit more about the vibrator. And this is what we've heard so far.

Lynn Comella
The history of vibrators, and the history of sex toys is just kind of shot through with all of these kind of layers of taboo and secrecy and what we consider kind of legitimate design and legitimate worthy cultural artifacts.

Lee Moreau
Lynn Comella is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

Lynn Comella
There is a little bit of a debate about the true history or origins of the vibrator. And I think what's important about these competing views is I think that it also speaks to the challenges of researching and writing sexual history.

Lee Moreau
Lynn is the author of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, where she lays out one of the theories of the origin of vibrators as related to Victorian treatments for hysteria, quote unquote hysteria in women, but also how that theory has been disputed.

Lynn Comella
I think some design history is probably much easier to tell because it's not necessarily dealing with a taboo topic. But when you get to sexuality and you get to all of the kind of layers of cultural meaning and political meaning, you know, these are historically quite fraught topics. And a lot of times not topics that were seen as being worthy of archiving.

Lee Moreau
So Rachel, we don't really have this like robust history of the design of vibrators. And you know, I think this object exists within a collection of many things where we just don't know where they came from or there they're disputed histories. It's not a it's not something that a lot of academic research has done, there aren't museums dedicated to the history of this. So what is it to design something or design in a world that feels a little bit like it's untrodden, just because we don't know about the past.

Rachel Lehrer
I mean, what you have to do in those situations is you have to figure out how to create some kind of archive or history. This has been the case and a lot of my previous work for places like the International Rescue Committee or World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank, where I was working in these humanitarian contexts where women had never been designed for, they had never been asked what they wanted, no one considered them customers and worthy of sort of building for. And in those cases, you build your own knowledge, you start talking to people, you build teams of people who are close to the users who can get real answers. But then you have to deal with the fact that you're talking to people about things that they have never spoken about before, that maybe sometimes they've never even thought about before. And you're asking new, sensitive, probing questions. So, for example, in this project in northern Uganda, we had a team of researchers who were prototyping curriculum that would be sexually empowering and pleasurable for women, that was the goal. The goal was actually to reduce sexual violence but we realized that sexually empowering and pleasuring women, right, was was a big part of that. And we needed it to be delivered by a religious leader. And through some challenging conversations, we actually found that people are not allowed to say clitoris and women can't initiate sex. It's thought to be culturally abhorrent. And if they do, they can be brought before a council of elders. And it was really through talking to people, through putting prototypes in front of people that we realized there were these really like hard boundaries, but that there was a lot of flexibility within that.

Lee Moreau
The notion that this curriculum had to be delivered by a religious leader. That strikes me as surprising — so there must be a back story to that.

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. So it was a decision that the team made and part of it was about recognizing that that there are rules, right? That we couldn't create some kind of change without acknowledging that there is a patriarchal religious structure that has defined the rules. And so we wanted to create a space in which the shame would be less and where it would be less taboo. But in order to do that, it wasn't just about empowering individuals. It was about changing the leaders who were enforcing a lot of that, right, if you want to create new experiences for people, often you have to talk to the policy makers, right. And in this case, those were the people, both men and women, who were really in charge of creating the space of taboo. And so they needed to be the messengers in a lot of cases in order for people to feel like they could explore these risky new spaces.

Lee Moreau
That sounds like really hard work. As somebody who grew up Catholic, where the religious leader was the physical embodiment and the reason that I never talked about sexuality as a child, right, like I can point to the people — and they're all men — you know, trying to bring that person to the table to both engage but also deliver the content. That's impressive. That's hard work.

Rachel Lehrer
It was very hard, complicated work. It is very hard, complicated work. But being able to point to what they referenced, what people referenced as their source of rules, as their guidance, and being able to sort of shed a light on a different interpretation of it and working with some of the best sort of like theological sex consultants out there, we were able to really move the needle.

Lee Moreau
So, Lynn, and you, just kind of brought up the word, which is the magic word for today, which is taboo, right. So what does it mean to be a designer in taboo spaces?

Rachel Lehrer
It's still nearly impossible to teach research, acknowledge, the importance of pleasure. Only in February of this year did the World Health Organization conduct a review and come out with their sort of the results of this global review of sex ed programs where they realize that including pleasure in sex ed, increased condom usage and other health outcomes. But the fact is, is that they only looked at pleasure as a route to get to these other health outcomes. Pleasure in and of itself is not considered an important enough outcome.

Lee Moreau
Wow. Okay. And that's just happening here in the 21st century.

Rachel Lehrer
Oh, yeah. A few months ago. That was a few months ago. And I you know, I'm scared to think of how many hundreds of thousands of dollars went into that research study. And it's incredibly important. But we're still at a really basic place with valuing sexual pleasure as a holistic part of our health.

Lee Moreau
Well, building on that notion of taboo and the kind of conversations that we've allowed ourselves to have as a community and as people, let's hear some more from Lynn now tracing the history of the vibrator.

Lynn Comella
Certainly by the 1960s, early 1970s, sex toys weren't really kind of normalized. They certainly weren't mainstream. Not a lot of thought was given to their design. They weren't intended to last long. But things really did start to change by the early 1970s. And I would say we have feminism to thank for that. All of this ethos of sex positivity really started to kind of trickle out into the wider culture and really, you know, took hold.

Ti Chang
You can buy our products at Urban Outfitters. You know, you can get them in Nordstrom's, very mainstream places.

Lee Moreau
Ti Chang is the co-founder and Vice President of Design of Crave, a company that specializes in discreet luxury sex toys. Crucially, Ti brings her own background of industrial design to her work.

Ti Chang
Design, in a way, is something that we as a culture imbue on something when we think it is an important experience. And so we have gotten used to this experience where women buy a vibrator, they know they have to hide it, and when they want to use it, they have to remember —where did I last hide it? And then pull it back out, makes the battery still working, you know, and all of that it is just a horrible experience from a user perspective. And I think I articulate that because as a designer we are trained to break down these little moments. And so that is sort of where culture can help to drive change in a particular genre of products.

Lee Moreau
We talked a little bit about the fact that there is really no proper design history for vibrators, right, but when we look where there is design history, we see the more design history and the more design attention something gets, the more value it has to us, right. And so if you just like did a heat map of design attention, it would suggest like where there are values. But the big exception is around these areas of like shame and taboo, which are also important. But somehow we don't talk about the fact that we're applying attention there and therefore we ignore them.

Rachel Lehrer
And I think education, right? So it's shame and taboo, but also people, you're buying something for your body, but the experience that you want your body to have while using it, it's important to do the work ahead of time. And we just don't we don't talk about masturbation. We don't talk about that kind of physical sexual education in our country at all. And so I think in addition to the shame and taboo, right, which would in some ways alleviate or allow the motivation to go and purchase these objects once we're at the purchasing point, we still have a serious decision making problem.

Lee Moreau
And this is something that keeps coming up throughout the episodes of the season and the show generally, it's like we're really not focused solely on the design of the objects or if we are, we have to talk not only to the people who are going to be using them, but also imagine what is the experience that's going to be around these objects. Like objects don't exist in isolation, they exist through interaction, and they exist in a real world.

Rachel Lehrer
And one of the things I think that is interesting about vibrators is how often they're paired with other pleasure objects or facilitators of that pleasure. So are people thinking about vibrators being used with condoms? Are they thinking about vibrators being used with lube? And these combinations actually make a huge difference. Or, what position are vibrators being used in? Do they need to be hands free? And so it's been fascinating over the past, you know, decade to see how people's experiences, how the use cases, how the sort of gender of the partnership comes into play when thinking about these objects and the massive sort of universe of objects that now exist.

Lee Moreau
So is there— this is going to sound naive, but do you believe that the kind of service design world of the vibrator ecosystem is emerging to such a degree where we're kind of almost getting to a point now where these things really are conceived together rather than as categories of specific things where condoms versus lube versus vibrators and all these other objects are actually developed by independent people in isolation and not together.

Rachel Lehrer
Absolutely, yes. So you start seeing vibrators as being part of like a suite of lifestyle products. So there might be candles that you can use as oil that is sold by the same brand that sells the fancy lube that sells the fancy vibrator. I think what's missing here is a real sort of internal focus, right? That's harder for companies to invest in because it's not sellable. Right? No one has figured out how to sell you like hardcore prioritizing masturbation. So you understand technically what gives your body pleasure. And that I think is is a missing link in a lot of this is you can buy all the products you want and frankly products are great because they're a way to subvert the hard conversations about like: Hey, can we try this? It's like, let's buy a toy, it's a- and we'll just use it and we don't have to have a conversation about it. You know, so frequently it's a salve for people who are like looking to, quote unquote spice things up. But really, you know, unless people commit to sort of knowing their own body and unless there is information out there about the different ways to manually stimulate pleasure, whether it's with a vibrator or not, these products are always going to sort of miss what they could be, in a sense.

Lee Moreau
I mean, this education space that I think you're suggesting would seem to be an incredible opportunity. Like where is the Noomof of sexual pleasure and and sexual health?

Rachel Lehrer
Well yeah, we still can't put vaginas on the app store. So that's part of the problem, right? Is we live in a very prudish, puritanical society where like you can't have anything graphic in the app store and so there are amazing resources out there, I will namecheck OMGYES, they're out at the University of Indiana, but it's behind a very expensive paywall, you know, and these are like great diagrams, great descriptions of things that tens of thousands of women have said, give them pleasure. But yeah, you got to pay to have access to it. So frankly, like they're great sexologists on YouTube also who talk about sexual education. But on YouTube, if you show a vagina, right, you can't show a vagina. You can't talk about anything graphic. And so the limitations that exist on a lot of these digital platforms have massively hindered our ability to provide quality sex education to youth and adults.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic, which is building a new web and a new workplace all around the world.

Yvonne Doll
My name is Yvonne Doll and I am the design director at Jetpack, and I'm in Chicago, Illinois.

Lee Moreau
For Yvonne, Automattic's unique approach to distributed work is important.

Yvonne Doll
I started in tech a billion years ago. I have worked at a large variety of companies and in the last seven years I have been working remotely and I really enjoyed that. So when I was thinking about making a change, I was looking for more distributed teams because I really enjoy that environment. And so I started researching and found Automattic. So now I have a designer in Peru —in Lima, in Massachusetts, in Portugal, in Lithuania, another in California. I like that there's a there's a freedom with when you get your work done, there's a flexibility to it. The way that I like to look at it is a 24 hour design cycle. So it's like I go to sleep, here's the problems I couldn't solve before I went to bed. Because you get stuck in design and there's a solution that is probably a little more apparent if you take a step back. So another person coming in is really helpful. So what I've learned over the past couple of years with working distributed teams, I am more integrated, I'm integrated into my day. And I know that if I am working a little later than usual, I have freedom then to start a little later, the next day, or working in the hours that are most productive for me, which is, I think, a really big benefit of being distributed.

Lee Moreau
Designing a better web. Join us at Automatticdot com slash design. That's auto-m-a-double t-i-c dot com slash design.

Lee Moreau
I am struggling to come up with an analog where so many objects are produced to exist in the world about a particular topic. But there actually is no real conversation about that topic basically to speak of, right? I mean, this is a super unique circumstance.

Rachel Lehrer
So I'll go back to my previous example in northern Uganda and to create an environment in which you reduce the amount of shame and the sort of mental and social barriers to women and couples thinking about women's pleasure. We really needed to get the power structure on board. So this was religious leaders, this was community leaders. We had to dive into the Bible. We had to go to the Song of Songs, and we had to show how this was okay, right. And get people to also sort of like co-create with us this content to be like, oh yeah, okay, this is okay. But at the same time, we also had to not piss people off, right? So we couldn't just ignore the existing rules. And here there were rules around not communicating about certain things. So you couldn't, again, say like clitoris, women weren't allowed to initiate sex. And frankly, like, I haven't met a lot of people who like communicating about sex, right. So we had to essentially find a workaround so that people in this case and women were like 100% behind us trying to do this, but we leaned into different sort of cultural traditions. Like in Burundi, we heard from a woman who said: Oh, my grandfather used to turn these beads on my grandmother's belt, and that was him letting her know that he wanted to have sex later- initiate sex. So we encouraged all these non-verbal ways that people show they want to initiate sex without necessarily saying the words because the words were not okay for women to say.

Lee Moreau
So they were they were doing it behaviorally. There were kind of cues that were permitted or understood, but not the language.

Rachel Lehrer
Exactly. Not the language. And so we we sort of made that obvious to people. And then at the same time, you know, okay, we're not allowed to say clitoris. Women are not allowed to say clitoris. Men are not allowed to say clitoris. But what we could do is create visual diagrams of bodies where women could circle where they wanted attention without actually having to say that. So we found that like the work to empower women and men sexually and increase understanding, like it required so many levels of sort of permission and so much respect of the current sort of social structure. But that there— once you got people on board, once there was this sort of understanding, everyone you know, was all for it. And now we have a massive program scaled in Uganda, but for us, it was incredibly important to create that environment that so many of these experts have talked about, where there was that permission from on high.

Lee Moreau
So let's sort of broaden the conversation here a bit more and kind of take what we've learned so far about these tough conversations and how you can foster engagement into a broader sense of how we learn from that through design research.

Jenny Winfield
Helping people speak their truth, understanding contexts, and really the idea of overcoming shame is very central to taboo research.

Lee Moreau
Jenny Winfield is a human centered design researcher who specializes in areas of shame and taboo.

Jenny Winfield
So a lot of the time, actually in the work that I do, it'll be the first time anyone has ever spoken about the things that they're struggling with. So and they'll be lots of tears and there'll be lots of joy, actually. And yeah, a lot of it is that people it's not that they're hesitant to talk, it's that they haven't been able to. And so the research that I'm doing is about creating a space for them to share, whilst at the same time making sure that we're learning enough to create actionable insights for design.

Rachel Lehrer
I'm actually familiar with Jenny Winfield, just having been in this space. I recently finished design research for this business I'm building, and it was amazing to have conversations with so many men and having so many of them and with, you know, I'm not as enlightened as I thought I was. I have never actually asked myself some of these, you know, the very basic questions that we as designers ask people: how do you measure success? What are your values? How do you know that your partner feels this way? You know, like it was such basic thinking and yet it was shocking. And I say this as someone who's completely in the same boat, how little time we dedicate to sort of thinking about this with the same sort of rigor and thoughtfulness as so many other parts of our life. Honestly, with some of the best conversations I've ever had because it felt so new and fresh to people to think about, and I think triggered a lot of follow on sort of thoughtfulness and, you know, massive email chains with some of these folks I spoke to.

Lee Moreau
In that sort of heatmap of design effort or emphasis that I talked about earlier, right, like you're basically talking about new territory.

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah.

Lee Moreau
We never played there before.

Rachel Lehrer
No. No. And, you know, maybe in less sort of restrictive, prudish cultures, people have spoken about this, but not people in my generation, not people — and, you know, I shouldn't say that I exist in a very small sliver of my generation. But for the a lot of the folks I was talking to, oh and I should say there was a portion of people and there are a portion of people out there that are in sort of the kink sort of realm of things. And these are people who are experts in communicating about this, in developing frameworks for establishing consent, in doing the research, in building a safe space to experiment wildly with their pleasure and their partner's pleasure. And so I should say, like as much as that sort of, I think quadrant of or category of people get sidelined a little bit. When I reflected on sort of the research, those folks were really the experts in what a future could look like that includes healthy communication and conversation and experimentation and responsiveness. Those were the folks that were really writing a new narrative for how we can engage and build new experiences in bed.

Lee Moreau
I mean, I think in design, you know, we do need precedents, right. We need precedents both from like actual formal examples, but also in process. And I think that's-that's a great one.

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. Some, some folks are figuring it out and I think it's again, like there's so many stigmas and taboos to deal with, but it's great to be able to find a really, really bright spot within sort of the industry in the space where amazing things are happening.

Lee Moreau
0So some of the topics that Jenny has consulted on include people experiencing sexual dysfunction, the unmet needs of women in prisons in the United Kingdom, and even navigating infertility and menopause.

Jenny Winfield
I think having worked in that world and then taken some of the kind of key concepts and thoughts from how to do research for designers for creative endeavors, and how to take the ideas of empathy one step further and think about things that are a bit more radically empathic in the face of, you know, very shameful feelings. I think that is incredibly interesting to think about and to work on as a designer.

Lee Moreau
This notion of radically empathic is, you know, foundational in the world of human centered design. And so much of our work is in listening to people about their own concerns and aspirations and ultimately their needs. But how do we sort of teach that? And I think a lot about this when I'm sort of structuring curriculum for students and how to engage in conversations that they're not familiar with, right. And I think so much of this is about sort of like what we did at the beginning of this episode is establishing vocabulary, like there's kind of baseline knowledge, but then there's also to actually begin engagement, we have to agree on what are the words we're going to use, what is the context we're going to be talk about? What are the cultural tropes that we're going to be engaged in like and really level setting that. Talk about that in your work.

Rachel Lehrer
Well, I think I think it can be it's both working sort of globally, but also working in the United States like this is still a really risky conversation to have for a lot of people. And for some, it's much easier than others. And I think you have to de-risk it, right. You have to create some very much a safe space. I can't tell you how many times in the beginning of these conversations I was like, this is confidential. I am not recording this. This, you know, this will not be shared with anyone. And so I think it's really creating a safe space, recognizing and really questioning who should be having these conversations, who is allowed to have these conversations, and who is going to enable the person who is transmitting the information to be comfortable and to feel like they can open and explore parts of their thinking and desires that they've never explored before. But it's really you know, these are high risk conversations for people. And I think it's imperative that we create ethical and safe spaces for people to open up.

Lee Moreau
So the topic in general is challenging, and it's hard to get people to talk, and that's really understandable. But let's go back and talk a little bit more about pleasure and the vibrator and try to redeem or maybe use that as a way to kind of unlock the larger conversation.

Mireille Miller-Young
When you're looking at vibrators, that's a really great way to think about the concept of pleasure as privilege.

Lee Moreau
Mirelle Miller-Young is associate professor of feminist studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. She researches and teaches about race, gender and sexuality in U.S. history, popular films and film culture, and in the sex industries.

Mireille Miller-Young
If we think about pleasure as a privilege, it means that historically there's always been people who've been able to have the ability not to have their bodies become sites of violence and experimentation that found a way to kind of pay off, to get off and avoid a lot of the scandal. And it kept secret and it got framed as something like a rich women's nice vacation, you know, or a great object for a housewife to use on her neck.

Lee Moreau
So, you know, with Mirelle's statement, she basically helps us come full circle, but actually not just on this episode— to the history at the beginning, but also like for the whole season where we've been looking at things with power. And yeah, it's not just about the fact that you have a plug in them in that they afford different capabilities. But actually that privilege is about giving people power or some access to capabilities that they would not have had before and that could be defined as rights as well.

Rachel Lehrer
Some of this, right, this is certainly not a solution, but a lot of the way the industry has dealt with this is thinking about discretion, right, making it something that you were able to hide from people, right. From, whether it's your kids or, you know, someone who might be in your home, someone that you might share your space with. I remember my bags being gone through at the Lahore Airport in Pakistan and this security guy pulls out my vibrator. This was the Hitachi magic wand so it was not a discrete one in the sense that it's massive, but it was discreet in the sense of like it was initially sold as a quote unquote massager in the sixties. It's still like the number one vibrator today, according to a lot of sex experts. But it looked— he he pulled it out and then he looks like quizzically around and sort of confused by what this thing was. And, you know, at the time and still now, Pakistan is a very Muslim and conservative country. There's still honor killings there. When I was traveling there for about three months, I was only allowed to walk around if I was accompanied by a man, right. And yet, in this airport moment, I was relieved to be able to tell the security guy that it was a muscle massager, and with the sort of knowing that I have the privilege of a colleague who was a larger white man behind me, I pulled it out of his hands, which I was only able to do because of who is behind me and because I was a foreigner. And yet you see that same sort of focus on discretion that allows vibrators to be sold in, you know, Target and Walmart and Sephora, you know, where vibrators can be mistaken for a lipstick case, for example, that gives women, right, it certainly doesn't solve an enormous amount of problems, but it allows women to have pleasure — privately. Which was the way a lot of us want it and the way it can start. And so I do think the design element of making something that could be mistaken for something else is the way you've seen a lot of these vibrators evolve.

Lee Moreau
It's design changing the terms of engagement, right. That is something that design can provide.

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah. And certainly makes it more acceptable. Right. If it if it were found and you know, would have certainly made my situation okay. But I think in a lot of cases, you know, I think— I was in another airport where my vibrator was like going off in my bag. And I convinced some guy that it was like a Wi-Fi router because it looks so crazy.

Lee Moreau
Well played. Okay.

Rachel Lehrer
Just one word to the wise out there that that line totally works, but yeah.

Lee Moreau
Two things that nobody understands are vibrators and Wi-Fi routers. I like that.

Rachel Lehrer
I think they're both the ambiguity and the lack of knowledge and research into female bodies, and then the contrasting abstraction and ambiguity of female pleasure — or not female, but like vulva toys, you know, somehow they they work together. And at this point where we're sort of doing the best we can with them.

Lee Moreau
So I want to go back to the notion of radically empathic or radically empathetic. And what is radical really mean here? You know, if you think about it from a dictionary definition, it's like, you know, in a fundamental way or completely like that's the kind of radical— does that take us to this notion of scale? So you talked about discretion, which is like, I have something and I can basically make it invisible or I can make it so out of sight as to be my own. But shouldn't it also work the other way, too, which is that in that radically empathetic or radically empathic is actually like allows us to have broader conversations and create communities as well?

Rachel Lehrer
I think it allows us to design for when we think about scale, it's not like how can we reach more people? Right, it's not let's make more toys for this one segment that is already invested in toys and will buy the $250, you know, like jade dildo or vibrator or whatever. But it's really thinking about the massive range of women's experience of pleasure and many women's lack of access to it because of shame, taboo or harmful social norms or cost and stress. And so from suction and air pressure vibes to internal or external stimulation to partnered play, to a desire for sensors and sort of digital feedback, we need to validate and design for all of it, right. Because right now it's getting there. But there's such a and we talked about this before is such a disconnect between our limitation on what we know about like vulva bodies that have vulvas and how those experienced pleasure, you know, we need to validate and design for all of it. And so that despite our horrible Supreme Court that's denied women control over their bodies, at least we might still have some access to our pleasure.

Lee Moreau
On that topic of scale, that scale of system is interesting in relationship to the vibrator because it's there, but we don't talk about it, it's there, but we don't always know about it. On occasion we can like bring it up or like listen to a podcast and find out, but basically it's under the radar. This topic is under the radar and we want to keep it there and we never want it brought up like we know we're we're doing something kind of different in this, but it's, you know, it's it's important that we kind of flip this if we are going to engage in the kind of pleasure that we're trying to champion here.

Rachel Lehrer
Well, I think when I think of the power structures or what has scaled when it comes to sex, I think of porn. Right? I think of penis and vagina sex. That's what I think of. That is what the sort of prevailing notion is. So I do think there is something there. There is something there that eyeballs are looking at. And this is, you know, if you've never seen like porn hubs annual review, I highly recommend taking a look at it. It's fascinating. But globally, it it exists, right? There is a narrative out there. And I think what is important is for people, companies, businesses to start challenging that narrative. But that will be incredibly hard to do because there are platforms, whether it's social media, YouTube, etc., that limit the expression of this kind of information.

Lee Moreau
So, you know, as we're kind of wrapping up here, I'm curious about we started with disco ball, right, and then and then we're now talking about vibrators, this conversation about pleasure you know, for me, this is a pretty important topic. And I think it gets to the the role that we have as designers to not just, like, solve problems, let the engineers do that and they do it well, but to actually bring a different kind of way of engaging the world to us as people and spreading that around. Where do you see this going in the future?

Rachel Lehrer
I mean, in the future, I think there is an enormous amount of work to do to de-stigmatize, to reduce the shame. And I think a lot of that has to come through policy. A lot of it has to come through the work that the World Health Organization is doing to say this is an important part of our lives, this is an important part of our health. We have to acknowledge this. I think it comes from a lot of academics doing research on this work. If you look in PubMed, which is the massive medical database of research, there are 50,000 articles on penises, less than 2000 or around 2000 on clitorises. You know, there is just a massive inequality when it comes to research and knowledge about this. But really, I think, you know, and I hate to say this, but there need to be better pornographers out there. And sex work needs to be destigmatize and decriminalized. There's amazing sort of areas in in the sex field right now, sexological body workers— these are people that are essentially sexual healers. They help people understand their body through physical touch. So there is so much work to do in this kind of industry because it is so nascent and it has been illegal in a lot of senses. So, you know, it's it feels very nascent, but it also feels like a space with tremendous opportunity.

Lee Moreau
As, I mean, this space of service and experience designed in this realm for that to be an open place to play and to investigate into work. I think that's just a huge area and I'm very excited and I'm really grateful for the work that you are doing in this space. Before you go, we have this thought exercise that we'd like to do, right, so we sort of meditative thought exercise that we'd like to leave our listeners with. And I'm wondering if you have any ideas about something that our listeners could could do to kind of, I don't know, engage in this topic more?

Rachel Lehrer
Yeah, it's masturbate more. Honestly, it's it is so much of I think what's important in relationships when you are playing with someone else is to be able to create an understanding of what gives you pleasure. But unless you spend a lot of time exploring that with the same freedom and openness and joy that young kids can, you're not going to be able to claim it for yourself. And so it's not much of a thought exercise. It's more of a a a a request to to give yourself pleasure and to really create a foundational knowledge for how you can then communicate what what you need from partners in your future.

Lee Moreau
I think it's a brilliant thought exercise and I think it will be very popular with our listeners. So thank you so much, Rachel.

Rachel Lehrer
My pleasure.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer. To keep up with the show, go to TFA dot design observer dot com or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you liked what you heard today,and we hope you do, please make sure to rate review us and share this with your friends.

Rachel Lehrer
And make sure you're keeping up with what I'm doing at Rachel Lehrer dot com.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you this season by Automattic. Thanks again to Lynn Comella, Ti Chang, Mirelle Miller-Young, and Jenny Winfield for talking to The Futures Archive. You can find out more about them at our shownotes at TFA dot design observer dot com along with a full transcription of our show. Our producer is Adina Karp. Owen Agnew edits the show. Thanks as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer executive producer Betsey Vardell


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