TOOLS OF EMPOWERMENT

Girls know what girls want

by Sumiko Oshima

At first glance, it looks like a small shop filled with hundreds of colorful fancy goods.

A range of plastic creations rather like computer mice nestle on a shelf, waiting for small batteries to bring them to life, while a transparent cylindrical object stands on a small table like an artistic ornament. Creams and lotions are attractively arranged in a glass case, and costumes made of lace, rubber and shiny black plastic are displayed around the room on mannequins.

Many of these items are designed by women. All of them have been sought out by the women’s group Love Piece Club to provide female customers with what they want: a wide variety of cute, fun sex goods made with women’s needs in mind.

“This industry is now largely run by men, for men. My aim is to supply products that appeal to women,” says Minori Kitahara, Love Piece Club’s general manager. “In most other retail areas, everything is there for women to purchase, but there’s generally very little available when it comes to sex-related goods and services.” Kitahara, who’s in her early 30s, started her business in Tokyo’s central Hanzomon district in 1996 “as a step toward liberating female sexuality,” after getting fed up seeing run-of-the-mill sex stores. Although in the early ’90s some of those stores started to claim that, with their female clerks and bright lighting, they were also catering to women customers, to Kitahara’s eyes their ranks of penis-shaped vibrators priced according to how fast or much they moved were “just grotesque.”

“In fact,” says Kitahara, who studied feminism at a Tokyo university, “all those lurid, gold- and pink-colored ‘toys’ obscenely named with crude words for female and male genitals just made me feel like vomiting.”

The word “phallicism” instantly came to her mind, she says, “because those kind of things are all made by men, who naively and ridiculously believe in a myth that sex is just an insertion of a penis into a vagina — so they think the male member must be large and strong, and sex is an act to control women.”

In an attempt to overcome the myth, Kitahara designed her own vibrator. Inspired by the award-winning 1995 novel “Oyayubi P-no Shugyo Jidai (Big Toe P’s Training Time)” by Rieko Matsuura — in which a woman’s big toe turns into a penis she uses to enjoy sex with her boyfriend and herself — she made a vibrator that fits on the forefinger.

The product, called P-labia, is the most popular item at the Love Piece Club, which advocates sex as a way to relax women’s bodies and minds. As well, the shop offers some 500 items through the Internet, and its customer database now lists 7,000 names.

“Several years ago, everybody thought it was sad for a woman to buy a vibrator for herself,” Kitahara said. “But I really feel the situation is changing.”

Good-looking hosts

Indeed, although it’s happening without any great fanfare, more and more Japanese women are now participating in the sex industry as buyers, not just as sellers. Host clubs have become increasingly popular, while male prostitution and male-operated sexual massage parlors are also on the rise. Some of the clubs boast a selection of good-looking hosts who will escort female customers, while some parlors offer massages with aromatic oils just like beauty-treatment clinics — but staffed by male beauticians.

Although there are no figures for the number of male-to-female sex-service businesses, there are certainly dozens of easy-to-find Web sites offering sexual services to women. In addition, Kitahara says that her group is receiving an increasing number of inquiries from visitors to its Web site, asking for sex-service advice.

Meanwhile, female erotica has also been quietly establishing itself as a popular genre. Fiction magazines have special issues every year focusing on erotic writing by women, and the stories they write are poles apart from both conventional male-penned pornography and the once-popular “ladies’ comics” magazines for female readers. Those typically depicted women as stereotypical sex objects wanted and constrained by men — and the men as stereotypically active and dominant as they lead women to ecstasy.

In contrast to these, the storylines in the new-style erotic writing by women, by novelists such as Matsuura, Ayako Saito and Natsuko Mori, generally feature women who actively explore their own sexual fantasies.

“I want to portray the diversity of female sexuality and women’s sexual fantasies,” said Mori, who, as a bisexual herself, often has sexual minorities as her main characters. In her books, sexual relations often intertwine a wide range of persuasions, and have featured, for instance, a bisexual young woman; a love triangle between a heterosexual couple and a lesbian; and a stalking by a “non-sexual” woman who loves women but hates sexual relations.

However, Mori insists she presents such settings not only to cater to sexual minorities, but for everybody — including heterosexual women and men — to empower them to get out of their conventional sexual straitjackets.

“My readers are mainly young women, although men who are frustrated with the expected role of taking the initiative in sex also like my stories,” she says. “I wish people would take a chance and embark on a sexual adventure — they might discover hidden desires in themselves.”