Sex Toys: Therapy for Some, Symbols of Indecency to Others

November 27, 2000

 

LOS ANGELES -- The sexual choices of Alabamans are being limited by an 1998 obscenity law that outlaws the sale of "any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs"--that is to say, adult sex toys, the Los Angeles Times reported today.

The penalty for selling a sex toy in Alabama, where neither Viagra nor masturbation are against the law, is a maximum $10,000 fine and up to a year of hard labor.

Shortly after the overwhelmingly male Alabama Legislature passed the law, which was primarily aimed at banning topless dancing, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the ban's constitutionality. The ACLU acted on behalf of six women, who either sell sex toys or claim they need them for sexual gratification.

The ACLU argued that the law violated people's constitutional right to privacy and personal autonomy, the paper said. U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith ruled in their favor last year, describing the law as "overly broad" and saying that people would be "denied therapy, for, among other things, sexual dysfunction."

But last month, the state sought to overturn Smith's ruling in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Alabama's attorney general argued that "a ban on the sale of sexual devices and related orgasm-stimulating paraphernalia is rationally related to a legitimate legislative interest in discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex."

The appellate court unanimously upheld the law, saying, in effect, that Alabama's "interest in public morality is a legitimate interest rationally served by the statute."

"The only thing immoral or obscene about purchasing a vibrator is that someone might arrest you for it," Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist who submitted a declaration in the case as an expert on sexual intimacy issues told the LA Times. "The law is hypocrisy, a kind of sexism, and reflects insecurity about women having individual sexual responsiveness that is not connected to a guy."

"Have they outlawed the sale of Viagra? Sex therapists tell women to use vibrators, books tell women how to use them, and couples use them because many women are not orgasmic during intercourse."

According to the Times, research and clinical evidence shows that many women who had given up hope of having an orgasm were able to become orgasmic after using vibrators, usually on the advice of sex therapists. Roughly 43% of women experience sexual dysfunction, including the inability to climax, according to a 1999 University of Chicago study on sexual dysfunction.

In its complaint about the Alabama law, the ACLU notes that the law does not prohibit the sale of books such as "Sex for One" and "The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex" at local bookstores and that vibrators marketed as body massagers can be purchased at Wal-Mart stores and local malls.

Technically, ribbed condoms are included under the law but there has been no effort by the state to go after businesses that sell them, Amy L. Herring, an ACLU volunteer attorney from Huntsville, Ala., told the paper.

But police officers in Montgomery, Ala., did try to enforce the law when they asked Doris Frederick to stop selling some items in her store, BG Novelties, Herring told the Times. Frederick put the items back on the shelf when the U.S. District Court overturned the law.

ACLU volunteer attorney Michael Fees told the paper that he expects to return to the Court of Appeals in the next few months, and plans to ask the court to reconsider the appellate court ruling. Meanwhile, in a state where people have the right to buy a gun, they might not have the right to buy a vibrator.

"What exactly could that possibly mean?" muses psychologist Marty Klein in his online newsletter "Sexual Intelligence." "Maybe they're afraid that women would drive while using [vibrators] instead of driving while drinking," writes Klein. "Or maybe they're afraid that women will start holding their partners to a higher standard of lovemaking expertise. Or maybe they're afraid that women would get so wrapped up with their vibrators that they would forget to make dinner or drive the kids to Sunday school."

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