By Amanda Eisenberg
For Unwind magazine
Junior Daphne Pellegrino perused through the shelves of brightly-colored vibrators at Secret Pleasures, a U Street sex shop. She dragged her fingers across the silicon and plastic pieces, gingerly picking up a few items before setting them back down. The journalism major moved around the small row house aimlessly, looking a little unsure.
“I don’t know my body as well as I wish I did,” Pellegrino admitted, before leaving the store empty-handed.
She is not alone. Despite 76.8 percent of women between the ages of 20-24 who reported masturbating at least once, according to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, female sexual pleasure is rarely discussed.
“If you’re starting [a discussion] at a young age and the focus is all the bad things about being intimate, it makes sense why it’s stigmatized,” said Natalie Gaudette, a graduate student majoring in school counseling. “Assuming a woman understanding and being comfortable with her body leads to pregnancy” creates a stigma.
As an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Gaudette worked as a consultant for Pure Romance, an in-home party company that sells sex toys. She organized these parties on and off the campus, where other students could host the event and invite friends.
“I went to my first party as a college freshman,” Gaudette said. “It was more about education and empowering women than it was about the toys.”
Nicole Pedowitz, a senior biology and chemistry major, also went to a Pure Romance party. It was much different than she expected.
“We weren’t taking it that seriously. I thought it was going to be a sales pitch,” she said. “They’re trying to take away the stigma. You’re in a safe space. It’s literally like a party — you’re eating snacks and drinking.”
Although Pedowitz left without a buying anything, she said her approach to talking about masturbation has changed, especially now that she knows other college women are doing it.
“I was surprised … it’s such a private thing, but it’s common,” she said. “When I think about private, I think about not really happening.”
Sex toy parties bring light to that, creating a safe space for those conversations, Gaudette added.
“I get to be in a fun environment that creates a safe and educational place for people to go to learn about their bodies,” she said. “They realize that their intimacy and needs are just as important [as a man’s body].”
Pellegrino agreed with that assessment during her trip to U Street.
“When you walk into a store filled with vibrators and dildos, people actually care about my positive experience,” she said.
For Gwen Fallon, the education coordinator at Secret Pleasures, it is a priority to make women feel comfortable.
She added that part of her job is figuring out what people really want or need, rather than what they ask for.
“People will come in and ask for a rabbit because they saw it on TV,” Fallon said. “A lot of stigma is on the 35 and older crowd.”
But the stigma still exists, even among the more liberally-minded college students.
Women “experiencing pleasure is something that’s still kind of taboo in society,” said Jenna Beckwith Messman, the University Health Center’s sexual health program coordinator. “There are not a lot of conversations of what you want a whole lot more of and a whole lot less of.”