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Queer People Explain the Struggles of Strap-On Sex

While vibrators and other pleasure products have undergone impressive high-tech transformations in recent years, strap-ons still leave a lot to be desired.

by Sofia Barrett-Ibarria
12 March 2019, 10:08pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Strap-on sex isn’t exactly a beginner move, but even seasoned pros can find the prospect of strapping up with a partner super daunting.

Sex with any kind of additional toys or hardware requires advance planning, close communication between partners, and the time and money it takes to find the right gear. Not to mention figuring out how to look good doing it. A too-tight harness can pinch and create a muffin top effect some strap-wearers might find unflattering on their bodies, and a strap that’s too loose or flimsy could result in a dildo that keeps flopping out, making the wearer feel goofy and self-conscious. Even with plenty of practice, the most promising attempts at strap-on sex can quickly become a deeply unsexy emotional minefield.

Shawne Holloway, an artist and sex educator, understands the unique challenges of navigating strap-on sex. While working at the Pleasure Chest in Chicago, Holloway noticed the limited range of strap-on harness styles available, and many of her customers expressed concerns about size, fit, issues like chafing or snagging buckles, or had trouble finding gender and body-affirming designs.

Holloway also saw how deeply the lack of options impacted her customers’ sex lives and perceptions of their bodies. “There are a lot of stores that don't carry all of the styles, so when someone comes looking for a strap-on that isn't there, but they really need it, there comes this sort of emotional moment, and then they end up walking out feeling like the store has failed them, or that there's something wrong with them for wanting something that isn't there,” Holloway told me in a phone interview. “There's nothing that kills me more than someone saying something like, 'Okay, well, I'll get this because it's the only thing I can get.’”

Vibrators and other pleasure products have undergone impressive high-tech transformations in both form and functionality over the last decade, but as Holloway points out, strap-on harnesses haven’t changed much at all. With the exception of a few queer-focused brands like Rodeoh and Spareparts, most manufacturers seem to project a narrow, gendered, and binary view of strap-on harness users that doesn’t acknowledge a wide range of body types and sizes. Unforgiving materials like leather or velcro straps can be extremely cumbersome, and getting caught in a tangle of straps and buckles in the middle of sex puts a damper on the mood. “It takes practice to get into a harness efficiently,” explained Minneapolis-based marketing manager Cass in a Facebook message. Cass expressed concern that discussing her queer sexual experiences publicly could impact her employment status, and requested to keep her last name private. “It can be a production to get it on and tightened with the right size dildo. If the harness is too loose it makes it harder to thrust, but if it’s too tight it chafes.” As Holloway added, this can cause serious discomfort. “Depending on how large your clitoris is, it can catch it on the way up.”

Harness options for women tend to favor style over function with overly lacy, strappy, and low-rise designs in limited sizes that make finding the right harness especially challenging for larger-bodied or trans customers. Though some trans women may not be comfortable with strap-on sex because it can trigger gender dysphoria, mastering strap-on mechanics can also be a challenge for those who do enjoy strapping on as the penetrative partner. “The placement of everything is funky. They will usually have the dildo holder right over where your existing junk is. The problem is trans women usually have something there already,” Amelia Rodriguez, a writer living in San Francisco, told me. “So what ends up happening is you have this dildo resting over your genitals, and the motion to have sex using a strap on requires you to smash that dildo onto your junk in the most uncomfortable way possible.”

For some queer people, strap-on sex is fraught for both the wearer and the receiving partner. Like scissoring, strap-on sex between queer and lesbian women is a heavily fetishized act popular in mainstream porn, and its association with the male gaze and physical anatomy can be a turn-off. Many big-name adult retailers might carry a wide selection of realistic dildos, but finding something that isn’t an exact silicone replica of a penis can also be a challenge for those interested in something less anatomically-inspired.

Holloway pointed out that, conversely, not everyone wants their strap-on to be obviously fake. “Maybe you're transitioning and you don't want to have to think that this is a prosthetic on your body, so you always wear the harness no matter what it looks like, underneath a pair of boxers, for example,” she said. Al Rosenberg, a writer in Chicago currently exploring a trans masculine identity, told me that wearing a strap-on during sex stirs up complicated feelings about gender identity and body image. “As a fat butch who is primarily attracted to other fat butches, giving and receiving penetrative sex with strap ons can often be a challenge. Very specific positions are necessary to be able to reach the spots you want to reach, and those positions are not always the most gender affirming for everyone,” Rosenberg said.


In addition to the logistical and emotional challenges of wearing a dick during sex, many of the most widely available harness brands and designs lack a sense of style and aesthetic appeal—something Holloway feels is essential for any garment worn during sex. Last summer, she completed a prototype for STRAPP, a modern, adjustable, shape-affirming strap-on harness designed specifically for sex as part of an installation included in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s exhibition I Was Raised on The Internet. Holloway cites S&M magazines like Bad Attitude and Black Leather in Color, as well as high-end activewear lines as inspiration. The harnesses come in two gender-neutral styles that she says can be worn by anyone in any body.

According to Holloway, strap-on sex is shrouded in unnecessary and often unspoken shame and stigma that she hopes to dispel through her work as a designer and sex educator. “My practice is about examining the tools with which we communicate, what powers go into designing those tools, and how design impacts us while we're using them,” she said. “How can we take agency over our tools that either we have created, or appropriate the ones that have been given to us to be able to change them and use them to suit our bodies the way that we want to?”

Strap-on sex isn’t a requirement of queer sexuality by any means, and there are countless ways to enjoy queer sex without a strap-on or any form of penetration that are just as valid and affirming. However, strapping on can also be a form of subversive, gender-fucking sex with liberating possibilities. Holloway believes strap-ons themselves play a critical role in gender affirmation and deserve the same level of attention and innovation in design and function. Strap-on users also deserve products that reflect and celebrate their bodies and identities. “The old designs don’t really serve us anymore,” Holloway said. “We have all these voices, so let's try to gather them and make a little bit of a progress in history here.”

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