Sometimes it's easy to forget how far mainstream American culture has come since the Puritans landed on the blasted, infertile rock we now call "Massachusetts." For instance, nowadays, we can all speak frankly about...doing it without getting a case of the giggles. We are free to objectify the human body (mostly the female body) in order to sell tawdry commercial products, like beer and noisome aerosol deodorant, and we (as in a Western culture "we") are slowly coming to a cultural meeting place where we can acknowledge that human people often masturbate in their free time, and that this is completely okay unless it happens in public. So, when someone writes for a national American audience about how he or she simply isn't comfortable with sex, it often sounds either like a reactionary screed that veritably wheezes with anachronisms, or like some cottony admission to prudishness that nevertheless manages to assume a tone of too-delicate, polite lady-sneeze sanctimony.
Some of that delicateness permeates Joy Overstreet's Motherlode post, "When Sex Is a Family Business," which is about how she, a "proper Bostonian" if you absolutely must know, came to grips with her son becoming a designer of sleek vibrators. Jeepers! Overstreet firmly establish her Puritan prude-cred early on, and it seems like we might be in for a long-winded defense for one lady's modesty:
I've never thought of myself as particularly prudish. But in my proper-Bostonian family, we didn't talk about sex. My early lessons in male anatomy came from surreptitiously peering at Greek statues in a book at the library. As a teen in the late 1950s, I remember admitting to my best friend that I'd allowed my boyfriend to "get to first base." I would have blushed beet red if we had talked about masturbation or intercourse.
The article, however, takes a rather pleasant turn. Overstreet explains that, while she was initially dismayed — "If I'd been drinking tea, it would have come out my nose" — by the news that her son Ethan (whose orgasmic gadgets were recently the subject of an article in The Atlantic Monthly), she eventually remembers that she's the older adult, most assuredly knows where babies come from, and should probably not have so many hangups about her son making clit massagers for a living.
Three potential clients had approached him about developing sex toys, and he headed to Los Angeles for the annual Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo. He told me it was a blur of gaudy color, severed anatomy, penis pumps and porn stars. He had an epiphany. "The taboos around the subject have enabled manufacturers to push out a staggering array of ineffective, poorly made and often toxic products," he said. "What if we could talk about this openly, and present a new generation of accessories you could read about in Vogue or buy at Nordstrom?"
My mind flashed to buying a stapler at Office Depot the year before, and how I proudly told the clerk that my son had designed it. Would I be as up front buying a vibrator at Nordstrom?
These are fair and honest questions, and, while this sort of self-examination isn't exactly revelatory, it's sort of charming in this context (or I'm just a sucker). Maybe Overstreet's reluctance to tell the other Boston Brahmins that her son designs sex toys is a little elitist, but there might not be a whole truckload of Boomer parents who'd readily say at a cocktail party, "Oh, my son? He designs vibrators. Vibrators, you know, like for masturbating. Yup, always said that that boy knew his way around a vagina, and damned if he didn't go and prove me right, little devil."
Besides, the entire Overstreet clan pitches in to help Ethan get his business off the ground, and, once the vibrator factories are humming with activity, Ethan sends his mom a very special gift for her 65th birthday.
Meanwhile, on my 65th birthday, an unmarked package arrived in the mail. Inside was a familiar white box. I opened it to find a gold-plated vibrator engraved "Mom" within a heart, and beneath that the inscription, "Behold the golden years."
In that moment, with a mixture of pride, hilarity and delight, I could only marvel that my son had managed to shock me again.
Aww, right? I mean, in almost any other context, a son gifting his mother a vibrator (even a vibrator that will probably function primarily as a curious paperweight) would seem totally creepy, but here it seems sweet.
When Sex Is a Family Business [NY Times]
Image via Maslov Dmitry/Shutterstock.