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The Dildo Stays in the Picture

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This article originally appeared at The Daily Dot.

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 9.50.35 AMThe latest silly Tumblr to go viral is Subtle Dildo, which features scenes of people casually sitting around their homes engaging in ordinary activities—with a dildo lurking somewhere in the background. It becomes a sort of Where’s Waldo? (an analogy that almost everyone has made in response) with an adult theme, but along the way, it raises some fascinating questions about the Internet, sex, and society. Can we ever grow up and acknowledge that adults are sexual beings without having to giggle into our sleeves when we talk about it?

Let’s face it: Subtle Dildo is popular because it feeds into precisely the kind of “tee-hee” sex humor that runs the Internet — and that humor is rooted in a deep sense of nervousness about sexuality. Writing for the Guardian in defense of comprehensive sex education, Joanna Moorhead made a sharp observation about sexuality that applies here as well as across the pond:

The problem in the U.K….is that we’re afraid. Afraid not just of sex education, but of sex per se. It’s not that we’re messing up in the way we educate our kids on sex so much as that we’re messed up in so many ways as a nation about it: so, of course, we’re unable to pass information on to our kids about it in a healthy, responsible, useful way.

Discussing the tendency amongst women to cloak their need for birth control in medical reasoning, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte points out that we are so afraid of talking about sex that we can’t frankly admit that the reason most people want birth control is that they don’t want to get pregnant:

Any thread or Twitter-stream or people-standing-with-signs or whatever about birth control would lead the casual reader to believe that 75-80 percent of birth control users are virgins who would never but for their painful periods. You’d think we’re all a bunch of teenagers at a Catholic high school the way that S-E-X is treated like the last reason women need birth control.

We are nervous about sex. We don’t want to admit that it happens. The subtle dildo, an object that is blatantly a sex toy, inserted into ordinary scenes of daily life, is discomfiting and challenging. Our way of dealing with that as viewers engaging with this particular art installation is to laugh, but maybe it’s more than a joke, no matter how the Internet is responding.

The responses to Subtle Dildo generally position it fairly in the “joke” camp, though. Many feature double entendres, for example, for the titillation of readers. A blog on the popular Some E-Cards site notes that the project “[combines] the best of childhood find-the-object puzzles and dildo insertions.” BroBible like informs us that: “Dildos are always fun. No matter what use they’re put to they never fail to entertain,” but Bustle ups the ante: “There will definitely be a subtle dildo in the Bustle office by the end of the day.”

Sex doesn’t have to be serious—it can be funny, goofy, and any number of other things—but conversations about sex that focus on making it into a joke make light of larger cultural and social issues around sexuality. Reluctance to talk about sex increases stigma around sexuality. It makes it harder for teens and young adults to be open about sex. It ensures that any website covering sex issues is treated as “adult” and it’s likely to be blocked by nanny software, whether it’s porn, a sex education website, or a site addressing sex and culture.

I had a chat with the founders of Subtle Dildo about the origins of the project and where they plan on going with it; what they had to say about the project was a fascinating look into the way discomfort about sex can make its way into the digital world.

We live together and bought a dildo with the idea of using it as a beer tap, but it made all the beer smell and taste like rubber, so we took it down and left it on a shelf. We had mostly forgotten about it, but people that came over were always excited to notice it. So we started Subtle Dildo.

Sex toys purchased as a joke are a common trend in the offline world, as is leaving them out—whether they’re for sex or other uses—accidentally or on purpose. Spotting a sex toy in someone’s house is cause for a raised eyebrow and a laugh.

Subtle Dildo becomes almost a commentary on that trend, a sly nod to the fact that people are deeply nervous around objects associated with human sexuality. “That’s actually been the most underrated aspect of Subtle Dildo!” they explained. “People respond to the dildo in the photo, but the sterility of the situations is just as important.”

They also touched on the sensations of unease that can surround the appearance of a subtle dildo, and, to some extent, how surprised they were by the fact that they felt comfortable taking shots in their own home but weren’t yet ready to take the subtle dildo to the streets. As an installation art piece, the Subtle Dildo has become almost a commentary on itself.

When a Subtle Dildo actually occurs, it won’t necessarily bring enjoyment to anyone present, especially once it’s more public. When we move this to public spaces, we can only successfully do this if most people involved are unaware of, let alone enjoying, the situation. But, since we’re able to move that (possibly ephemeral) moment into a more permanent digital space, people can then enjoy that scenario while completely physically removed from it, and at any possible moment.

This creates a fascinating tension between our realities online and offline, where the viewer of the subtle dildo on the screen is in on the joke, while the subjects of the joke in public offline spaces don’t even realize what’s been perpetrated—unless someone happens to point them to their pictures online. Subtle Dildo illustrates how the nature of art installations and performance art is shifting thanks to the presence of a digital component, which allows for the construction and creation of art outside what we may think of as traditional venues for experimental art.

Part of the art is not just the presence of the dildo in a room and a game for the people present to guess where it is—it’s also a game for outsiders looking at pictures of the scene later, who enjoy a sense of distance that allows them to turn the subtle dildo into a joke. An ordinary object that many adults have in their home because many adults are sexual and enjoy using toys becomes a symbol of sexuality—but that, in turn, makes it into something laughable, as well.

What would it take for the Internet to come to grips with the fact that some people have sex and enjoy doing it? That question comes up here as Subtle Dildo challenges the viewer not just to find the dildo and laugh about it but pause and question why it’s so funny in the first place.

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