The What, Why, and How of Sex Toys
Cover Image of Oriane Adjibi of My Fashion Break
When you think of sex toys, what do you think of? An old straight married couple trying to ~spice things up~ in the bedroom? A sex dungeon for intense kink? A “broken” girl who can’t cum with her boyfriend and needs a vibrator to get off? Lesbian porn created primarily for straight men with huge strap-ons and an overemphasis on penetrative sex?
Sex toys have been used since ancient times but have a long history of taboo and stigma. Vibrators were first used to cure women of “hysteria,” an pseudo-psychological condition used to explain the behaviors of women who were sexually or socially deviant. The first mainstream vibrator, the Hitachi Magic Wand, was actually created as a back massager and still isn’t recognized by Hitachi as a toy used for sexual pleasure due to the stigma surrounding such an association. It’s time to change the narrative about sex toys — they are for you, me, and anyone who wants them, and using sex toys is normal.
Why might someone use sex toys?
Difficulty orgasming: People who have difficulty achieving orgasm, often cis-het women, might use sex toys to aid in exploration and self-understanding.
The “Orgasm Gap” is no myth — cis men are more likely to have little or no trouble achieving orgasm compared to women and trans/non-binary folks often do, alone or with a partner. According to one study, 5% of women have never orgasmed, period. Another 2017 study found only 65% of heterosexual women, 66% of bisexual women, and 86% of lesbian women orgasmed in their last encounter — rates for heterosexual, bisexual, and gay men were 88%-95% range. While this data does not account for trans/non-binary folks (a common thread throughout research, I might add), it sheds light on how internalized shame and the stigma of non-male sexuality contribute to an orgasm deficit which can be ameliorated in part with the use of sex toys.
Medication interference: Some necessary medications can affect sexuality in all people.
Some antidepressants, for example, can cause sexual side effects like decreased to an entire lack of libido; impaired sexual performance, such as difficulty self-lubricating, difficulty producing or sustaining an erection difficulty or inability of reaching orgasm; or a combination of all of the above.
Sex toys can be one way to more easily facilitate orgasm,especially for people with clitorises, because of their consistency and power. However, this is not to say that sex toys can get rid of all medication side effects — talk to your doctor about how you can prioritize both your physical/mental and sexual wellbeing.
Trauma Recovery: Survivors of sexual violence, abuse, or other trauma may have physical or emotional effects that impact their sexuality.
Becoming comfortable with sexual activity after trauma can be facilitated by thoughtful use of sex toys. For some survivors, realistic and real-feeling sex toys (like this toy which uses suction to simulate oral sex, for example) can make sex feel natural and their toys not feel like a foreign object that may be triggering. For other survivors, realistic or phallic objects can actually be more triggering, and colorful or silly toys (like this vibrator set that’s Alice in Wonderland themed) can make sex light-hearted and easier.
Bondage/kink/BDSM toys can also be used to reintroduce sex in a safe, controlled environment and to subvert trauma experiences with safe and consensual pain and/or power play.
Masturbation generally can be a helpful tool in increasing comfort with sexual pleasure and relinquishing control, something survivors can sometimes struggle with, which can often be aided by the use of masturbatory toys.
Coping with chronic pain: People with chronic conditions like endometriosis, vaginismus, or other sources of discomfort can experience physical pain during sexual activity and therefore can have negative mental/emotional attachments to their sexuality.
Non-penetrative toys can be especially helpful to increase comfort with sex, allowing someone with a physical condition to experience sexual pleasure,with or without a partner, in a safe and painless way.
Smaller penetrative toys or dilator sets can be helpful in allowing someone with a vagina to work up to penetration at a size and level that is comfortable, especially if partnered penis-in-vagina sex is an important goal for the individual.
Many people with chronic pain redefine sex according to what they are able to do and what gives them pleasure, which can often be unconventional or involve toys. Anal play (with or without toys) is a good example of a pleasurable alternative if vaginal intercourse isn’t possible.
Interest in kink or power play: Toys can be an important step in ensuring any power play, bondage, BDSM, or kink happens safely.
Consensual pain is an important part of many people’s sexuality and sexual desires. This can only be accomplished safely when using materials that won’t cause any short- or long-term damage. For example, if someone has an interest in bondage or rope play, it is essential that the materials used for restraint will not chafe their skin, will be able to hold their weight, and are able to be removed safely at any point during the sexual experience if any partner decides they would like to stop. Want to learn more about safe bondage? Check out this site for information about safe knot-tying and keep reading for more information on what materials are safe.
Exploration in partnered sex: Anyone who wants to try something new for the excitement factor, to experience a specific sensation, or to fulfill a specific fantasy may use sex toys to accomplish these goals.
Hands-free vibrators, for example, can help many people with vaginas climax during penetrative sex (considering multiple estimates say around 75% of women cannot orgasm from penetration alone) if that is a desire for them and their partner. Sex toys can add fun or fantasy, with themed toys (check out Geeky Sex Toys for a Game of Thrones dildo or an Iron Man butt plug) and lighten up a sexual encounter, increasing communication and pleasure for all involved.
Preparation for safe partnered sex: For some types of sexual activity, it is safest and even more pleasurable to prepare with certain toys either alone or with a partner.
Anal play, for example, can require preparation if penetration with a penis is the ultimate goal. This can be achieved safely and progressively with a trainer kit, for example, with toys that increase in size to prepare an individual for the mental and physical body experience.
Affirming gender identity or sexual orientation: Some folks in the LGBTQ+ community may find certain toys very gender-affirming in the context of sexuality.
Strap-on harnesses, for example, can be very affirming for some folks in partnered sexual experiences, to either validate their gender identity or to allow exploration beyond genitals.
And simply any reason you could think of . . .
Anyone can use sex toys! Sex toys can be used solo or with a partner, for a reason or just to explore, to try new things or stick to a sensation you love. The most important thing is to have fun and be safe.
“But I’m a broke college student -- I don’t want to drop money on this.”
Sex toys can seem inaccessible, too expensive, or intimidating. But both online and at retail stores, quality sex toy shopping can be easy and relatively inexpensive! Big online stores like Adam & Eve, Body Candy, or LoveHoney have safe basic vibrators for as cheap as $5-10, butt plugs from $10-15, and bondage cuffs or rope from $15-20. Independent feminist stores like Good Vibrations, Spectrum Boutique, or Babeland (which have retail locations as well!) have more unique and luxury choices at a more mid- to high-level price point. Shopping at one of these places can allow you to invest in a high-quality, long-lasting item and to support feminist-owned businesses. If privacy is a worry for you, most of these places offer discreet and subtle packaging and shipping to keep your purchases accessible and private.
If you don’t have the ability to access these online or in-person options, there are plenty of ways to be resourceful with sex toys, but be sure to keep safety as the number one priority. Some ideas for “DIY” vibrators or clitoral stimulators include: electric toothbrush, facial cleansing brush (Clarisonic, etc), phone vibrations (download an app like these or set multiple alarms), back/body massagers, shower heads, and bathtub faucets. For penetration, there are many options as well: food (cucumber, eggplant, banana, any phallic fruit or vegetable really) is a good option as well as other phallic objects like a hairbrush, for example. But it is essential that anything you’re inserting into an anus MUST have a flared base - unlike a vagina, your anus doesn’t have an end, and anything you’re inserting needs a stopper to prevent it getting stuck in your rectum. Be sure to use caution if you’re going the household-item route: you should always use a barrier (dental dam or condom) between you and your DIY-toy to be safe, especially if you’re using this for insertion!
Ultimately, it’s worth it to drop $5-20 on a toy rather than take a chance on an unsafe toy, and who knows — you might discover a totally new form of pleasure that gets you hooked on toys.
Quick basics to remember:
Toys used for anal MUST have a flared base, as the anus doesn’t have an end like the vagina (if you’re not sure what that means, here’s an explanation).
Make sure any toys you’re using are made of body-safe materials like silicone, glass, or safe metals for penetrative/external toys or safe rope/fabrics for bondage toys.
Make sure you’re using lubrication that is compatible with the material of the toy you’re using. For information on what types of lube can be used with what materials, check out this guide.
Sex toys should be cleaned after each use (usually with warm water and soap), especially if they’re being shared! It can also be a good idea to use barriers like condoms or dental dams to increase protection.
Knowing what you want or need is important — not everyone should use the Rabbit vibrator just because they saw it on Sex and the City (it can actually be too overwhelming for most people!). Consider about power, type of toy, amount of stimulation, and the purpose of the toy before making a purchase.
Be safe, explore, and prioritize your pleasure!
About the Author
Elena Phethean (she/her/hers) is a junior from Pleasantville, NY studying Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Community Health at Tufts University. There, she is the co-coordinator of Tufts Sex Health Reps, a student group bringing comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education and sexual assault prevention to campus. She also loves music and sings with her a cappella group, the Tufts Jackson Jills. As a queer woman, she is especially passionate about women’s/gender minority health and queer sexual health outcomes, as well as working with survivors.