At 33 years old, I have run a marathon, snorkeled in the clear blue waters of the Phi Phi Islands, moved across the country twice, and have never owned a vibrator. I was raised in a Southern Baptist household where the only word on sex was, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Throughout my adolescent years, I tried my hardest to keep this commandment in its most technical sense. I rounded all the bases except the big one. But after a significant breakup toward the end of college, I decided to just have sex already. In the nascent stage of separating my faith from my religion, I decided God couldn’t be that enamored with my ability to abstain from sex. And guess what? Despite all my bible study teachers over the years warning that committing adultery would cause awful things to happen, nothing came to pass. Sex was… fine.
My soul wasn’t taken out of my body like when Ursula took Ariel’s voice in The Little Mermaid. I didn’t pine after the guy I lost my virginity to, nor have I pined over the other guys I’ve had sex with since.
Yet even though I had decided my religion’s demonization of sex was not for me, the idea that pursuing sexual pleasure was somehow sinful stuck with me. And I can see now, with the benefit of hindsight, that my self-inflicted penance for committing premarital sex was not pursuing orgasms of my own, and instead simply thanking God for the ones that came without trying. For years.
By the time I hit my 30s, though, I learned life has a way of forcing people out of their own prisons. For me, that came in the form of a marital separation. It felt like a cruel joke from the universe to go from years of reliable, meaningful, safe sex to absolutely no sex at all. I tried perusing my options on Tinder for a couple weeks, but for some inexplicable reason found the app-driven optimization and curation of sexual possibilities to be overwhelming and off-putting. Something had to give, though, and when I started eyeing a stuffed animal in my room, I knew I needed to get serious about pleasing myself — the adult way.
I’d considered getting a vibrator over the years, but it seemed like something that was for ladies. Ladies who drank a classy glass of wine after a day in the corner office. Ladies whose lives were so together, they successfully executed an annual tropical beach vacation in the wintertime. Ladies who kept their pretty vibrators tucked away in a perfectly organized chest of drawers and, perhaps most importantly, experienced zero guilt when it came to pursuing their pleasure.
Then one day, while lugging my groceries up four flights of stairs, a thought occurred to me: If I can support myself living in New York and eschew ordering takeout every night, then I can also confront my own irrational guilt by learning to pleasure myself beyond the limitations of my fingers. Maybe I, too, am a lady — one interested in knowing my own body as opposed to waiting for a partner to solve my vaginal Rubik’s cube. So at 33, I decided to acquire my first vibrator.
Tucked under my covers with All Things Considered streaming from my iPad, I poured over online reviews on indie sex toy websites. When the number of options began to make me dizzy, I jokingly searched “vibrator” on Amazon, convinced that the same place I order protein powder and neon Sharpies wouldn’t also sell sex toys. Of course, I audibly gasped when I saw that even Jeff Bezos was invested in my pleasure. Still, I was at a loss, and as All Things Considered wrapped up and The Moth began, it occured to me that even if I bought a vibrator, I might not know what to do with it. After a cursory glance at YouTube’s quite disturbing “how to use a vibrator” search results, I abandoned my hunt and resolved to figure it all out later.
A few days later, while awaiting a call about a job I’d interviewed for, I decided there was no time like the present. Rather than throw myself back into the decision paralysis of online vibrator shopping, I decided to do it the old fashioned way and go to a local sex toy shop. I put on nondescript yoga pants and thanked God for the rainy weather that called for an identity-concealing jacket. Not exactly the picture of female empowerment, I thought to myself as I pulled my drawstring hood taught to cover most of my face, but it will have to do.
As I approached the sex toy store, my heart began racing and thoughts of fake alternative errands or maybe giving my fingers another try pinballed off the panicked edges of my mind. When I got to the door, I physically hurled myself into the store before I could second-guess the decision and was immediately taken aback by its calming interior. A group of young women were giggling at some of the sex prop contraptions on the wall. An older couple was quietly perusing sex toys as if in a museum learning about Byzantine architecture. I did a lap around the entire store by myself, trying not to let my facial expressions give away my delighted surprise at all the naughty objects lining the walls, hanging from racks and resting in velvety showcase boxes.
When I finally asked the saleswoman for help, she took her job as seriously as the straight part down the center of her head and was completely uninterested in my self-deprecating humor. “Most first-timers go for vibrators like this,” she said with an eyeroll, holding up a sparkly confetti stick that had to be two feet long. It was the exact vibrator that had caught my eye earlier because all sparkly confetti things catch my eye, but the saleswoman said that it was made with a porous material and had limited functionality. I told her about my budget and my quest to learn more about my body, and she directed me to a wall with much less sparkly offerings. “So this is a dual action vibrator,” she said, holding up a neon green instrument that looked like a futuristic cooking utensil. She pressed one of the buttons and it started waving at me. I jumped and laughed; the saleswoman was unmoved.
“Just to be clear, it’s going to do that … inside of me?” I asked.
“Yes. This will be your best bet for G-spot stimulation.”
Having grown up thinking the G-spot was an urban legend, I instantly saw how my Texas sex education had failed me. The saleswoman pressed another button and it started waving and vibrating. She pressed another button and the waving increased while the vibrating decreased. Another button press and, hilariously, it seemed like the sex toy had caught the holy ghost.
Eventually I chose my vibrator — one of the futuristic cooking utensils, but in pink — and followed the saleswoman to the cash register. “Do you have lube? As a first timer, you definitely want to use lube,” she said as she rang me up. In an effort to hold onto whatever shards of dignity I had left, I quipped: “Of course I have lube.” I did not have lube.
When I got home, I opened the vibrator with the precision of an archeologist removing soil from a precious fossil. After putting the vibrator ever so carefully aside, I cleaned up my room, deciding I wanted proper first vibrator experience, which apparently involved an uncluttered room. I decided against vibrator background music, not wanting to ruin a good song in the event things didn’t go well. After double-checking to make sure my roommate wasn’t home and that her judgmental dog was tucked away in her room, I gave it a go.
As I fidgeted with the settings like a fumbling flautist, I kept thinking, Am I doing it right? Am I doing it right? Until, well, I didn’t have to ask. After the fact, just like when I had sex for the first time, I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner.
When I was done, I set it aside with a fraction of the care I’d used before and opened my Moleskine agenda to get on with life. As with my foray into sex, my first vibrator experience was perfectly fine. My life did not suddenly change in some fundamental way after using it, and considering that I still think of showers as a daily inconvenience, I’m still decidedly not a “lady” … by society’s standards, at least.
Instead, my newfound exploration has allowed me to define what it means to be a woman who knows what she needs on her own terms. In a relatively short amount of time, I’ve transitioned from fumbling flautist to competent cellist. It’s refreshing to spend time with myself, to laugh at the maneuvers that are a definite NO, to identify the positions that make me yell out a Herbal Essence-inspired YES! YES! YES! Now I know what I need to please myself — and I’ll know how to articulate those needs to another person when the time is right, guilt-free.
Jennifer Epperson is a proud Texan living in New York. She has written for Lenny Letter, Estia Collective, and Blavity and writes sketch comedy for Magnet Theater. You can follow her on Twitter @comeonjennfoo.
Photos by Madeline Montoya.