By Glenda Boza Ibarra (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – In spite of sex shops not (legally) existing in Cuba, sex toys are being more frequently used and purchased in recent years.
Orlando has a very unique photo album on his cellphone. The folder contains images of vibrators, penis extenders, artificial vaginas, harnesses, vibrating rings, condoms and lubricants. He offers these sex toys to his classmates at the Central University in Santa Clara every day. Some turn red when they see the photos, while others find it normal.
“Years ago, my sister brought me a dildo (vibrator) from Spain, and other toys, but I never used them. I decided to sell them and they went like hot cakes.” This is how Orlando describes the beginning of his “business”.
He discreetly shows people his products. He’s no longer embarrassed. On the weekend, he goes to the Mejunje bar or Santa Clara’s “Malecon” where he says most of his customers come from.
Near the La Caridad Theater, a medical student takes a look at his photo gallery. She believes that using sex toys is a positive thing. “I think they’re a good incentive in relationships,” she says. Standing next to her, her classmate turns red when she talks about the subject: “I don’t believe they are necessary in a relationship.”
Others in the group talk about it, at complete ease. Some confess they have a vibrator or vibrating ring at home. Others would like to have them. They know how to get a hold of them: buying them in secret or bringing them in from abroad.
Pleasure or business?
Selling sex toys doesn’t feature on the list of permitted activities for the self-employed. However, underground and illegal, they are within the public’s view on social media and virtual sex shops in Cuba are gaining more and more customers.
“We have been open for two years,” the admins of La Primera Sex-Shop de Cuba tell us by email. “We have tried to look for private sector licenses, but we haven’t found any that fit what it is we do.”
Given the growth of their business, they say that they would like there to be a legal framework that supports them.
“Today, there is a greater sex toy culture and there is also more information and variety,” they explain.
This online sex shop’s catalogue (including the toy’s description, use, materials, dimensions and price) appears all over social media and several Cuban apps for classified ads.
From unflavored and flavored condoms that cost 0.50 CUC to BDSM kits or double vibrators that cost 40 CUC (=USD).
“I have four different vibrators and I can tell you, from my own experience, that it’s a lot more viable for someone to bring or send them to you from abroad,” Jordan says.
She says that she could never find them in Pinar del Rio and that she only knew about a store in Havana, where they were really expensive too.
“I have a normal dildo, a vibrator, one with a harness and a double vibrator, and this would have all cost me at least 400 CUC here in Cuba, back then.”
High in demand, sex toys and a growing number of sex shops or other opportunities to buy/sell, have meant that the prices of these toys have fallen, although they still remain inaccessible to some Cubans.
“I would like to get others [toys], but they cost a lot,” Jordan adds. “Plus, if I’m being honest, they’re exciting at the beginning, then you forget that you have them in the drawer.”
Luis Angel and his wife Rosa Maria frequently bring them from Haiti and Mexico. She bought a packet with several dildos because it worked out better value and she came back to Cuba without any problems. These objects don’t seem to be regulated by Customs regulations.
“The number of sex toys entering the country is on the rise,” a Customs official at Jose Marti International Airport says. “You can see them clearly on the X-ray machine. It used to make us laugh a little and embarrassed passengers, but now it is normal to find them in baggage.”
She says that even though people enter the country with suspicious quantities that are hard to justify for personal use, there is no legislation to ban it either as it is a quite a recent phenomenon.
Lacking other consolation…
On her first trip abroad, Annaelis Ramos visited a sex shop. She was embarrassed in the beginning, but then she saw how all the other customers in the store found it completely normal. That afternoon, she came face to face with a dildo for the first time.
“It was love at first sight,” she jokes. “When I was at university, I used a Blue Moon deoderant bottle to stimulate myself sexually. Later, my boyfriend gave me a vibrator as a gift and I always buy a new toy whenever I can. It’s very hard to find them because there aren’t stores here in Cuba like this.”
Because of its “illegal” character, and the preconceptions that surround this subject, sex toy sellers take great care to remain anonymous and only deliver to home addresses. They don’t only sell these toys, they also sell other products such as lubricant, condoms and lingerie for both sexes.
“A few years ago, you could find different colored and flavored condoms at several drugstores selling in CUC,” Luis Angel says. “Now, you can’t even find normal ones. Sometimes, you only find the “Momentos” brand and you’ll end up having a bad “moment” with them,” he jokes, “because they hardly have any lubricant and break easily.”
In 2018, Cienfuegos’ 5 de septiembre newspaper warned that condom sales in the first four months of this year had fallen by 23% compared with sales in over the same period in 2017. It recognized that there have been shortages on the national drugstore network and other retail points.
“I’ve been looking for condoms in Santa Clara for weeks now,” a pre-university professor says. “A health promoter friend of mine managed to get me some good condoms (in a silver packet) and some packets of lubricant, but I can’t even get those anymore. I had to buy three for 1 CUC because I’d rather die than have sex without a condom.”
While condom supplies have been irregular since 2014, this is the only “sex product” that is sold legally. There is no space for sex toys in Cuban stores, not even for lingerie. It would seem that everything that has to do with sex is banned or linked to pornography.
“I would like to see my boyfriend using male lingerie,” Francis says. “When we started wearing these ensembles and creating sexual fantasies, we realized that they strengthened our relationship. After six years of living together, you have to try new things to try and recover the spark that is lost over time and with a routine.”
According to various studies, 91% of men orgasm during sex, while only 39% of women manage to orgasm.
“The most important thing is that both people involved are enjoying sex to the max,” Rosa Maria explains. “This is probably why vibrating rings are our best-sellers, as well as because they only cost 3 CUC. They are made to stimulate the clitoris during penetration.”
Are sex toys dangerous?
Sex toys are as old as the human race. A feature by El Mundo newspaper tells us that in 23000 B.C. Germanic tribes used stone dildos and in the time of Christ, Roman aristocrats collected phalluses made out of marble and bone.
“We have to break taboos that surround sex toy use,” psychologist Alexander Afont says. “There’s nothing immoral about it. What a couple does is their own business, and nobody should be denying, stopping or prohibiting their pleasure.”
Alexander points out that the use of sex toys has different emotional and physical advantages such as exercising the pelvic muscles, prostate massage, satisfies the intimate connection, enables and strengthens a woman’s orgasm.
However, the psychologist warns that when a toy becomes necessary for people to enjoy sex, then it becomes a fetish relationship and borders on paraphilia (sexual behavior where the source of pleasure isn’t the intimate relationship, but object or activity that accompanies it).
Other disadvantages relate to the use of toys that aren’t made of suitable materials or are substituted by objects that aren’t made for this purpose.
A few years ago, Juventud Rebelde published a note about the increase in accidents and surgical procedures as a result of foreign objects being introduced into the rectum or vagina.
As access to adult sex toys isn’t legal and viable, Cubans have used fruits, plants, objects that have a similar shape to the reproductive organs of both sexes and some teenagers have one or two experiences of zoofilia among their earlier sexual memories.
Doctor Hebmar Almaguer remembers that a young 20-something-year-old woman came during one of his shifts at A&E with a deoderant can in her rectum.
“The anus was dilated in the emergency room to try and take it out by hand, but you couldn’t even touch it,” the surgeon says.
The girl had to go to the operating room. She was given local anaesthetic to relax the muscles in the area and to dilate the anus completely. If it didn’t work, then she would need to be operated on.
Every surgery has its risks. The risks were quite high in this one because we would have had to open the abdomen, sigmoid colon and take out the object that way,” Hebmar admits.
Other unusual objects that other health professionals who have had to face similar situations include lanterns, bottles and even a Krim 218 TV bulb. Some turn out fine, others not so much.
“There are many risks such as perforations and the complications these result in, bowel obstruction, hemorrhages as a result of injuries to the rectal mucus membranes, etc.” the doctor says. “Plus, the introduction of foreign objects into the rectum or vagina can cause bacteria, virus and fungi growth.
“A sex toy store would be a possible solution to prevent these kinds of accidents,” Luis Angel points out. “That way, people don’t have to “invent” and would be able to purchase products that are made and certified for this purpose.”
Are they necessary?
The global sex product market moves over 15 billion USD per year and is estimated to move over 50 billion by 2020.
Like the rest of the world, the erotica industry is also gaining customers in Cuba, although it is still fighting taboos, associations with pornography and lacks a legal framework that allow it to function and develop.
“No matter how much I think about it, I can’t get my head around such prudishness,” journalist Lisandra Puente Valladares says. “Especially with how much we like to boast about our erotism, warmth, sexual prowess and everything else here in Cuba. But no toys, they’re not for us.”
Several of the interviewees say that it would be better to stop thinking of sex and everything sex-related as something taboo and begin to give information to the masses about it instead.
“When a practice is naturalized it’s much better and a lot easier to handle,” psychologist Alex Afont claims. “I don’t understand why sex shops are banned in this country. It would be a good way to break down stereotypes and preconceptions about this topic.”
A sign of the popular acceptance of these erotic stores would have was the high sale of handmade vibrators made by artists from the Consolez Vous project, which aims to become a roaming sex shop.
Presented as a performance piece as part of the II Design Biennial in Havana, the sale of sculptures in the form of dildos “is an exercise to unmask and break extreme moralistic attitudes.”
Luis Angel says that sex toy shops would be a good place to break down preconceptions when it comes to sex and to openly talk about the subject. “Most of the people who buy these objects are young people and sometimes they are too embarrassed to even ask how they’re used,” he explains.
There have been many campaigns in Cuba about using condoms to protect against STDs; yet, it seems they haven’t been totally effective. The age of people’s first sexual relations has dropped to 13-14 years old and there has been an increase in teenage pregnancies, which goes to prove that there is still lots to be done in the field of sex education.
Naturalizing the subject of sex toys might not only allow men and women to have greater control and a better understanding about their bodies, but it might also lead to more unprejudiced and responsible sexual attitudes.