Destigmatizing Sex Toys: Why & How (with Dr. Zhana)

  • The more you use a vibrator and the stronger, does it eventually desensitize you?
  • Do vibrators desensitize the clit?
  • If I stimulate my clit with my toy too much, can it cause any damage?
  • Can a sex toy harm your private parts (ex. intense hard vibration on [the] clitoris)?
  • Can you get addicted to using clit toys and have trouble getting off from other stimulation (manual)?
  • If I use one, when I get a guy, is it never going to be enough?

All of these questions are a variation of the same theme—the fear that using vibrators will damage your genitals or your ability to experience pleasure in other ways.

Destigmatizing Sex Toys

This is probably the most common concern and myth that people have surrounding sex toys, especially vibrating sex toys. I received about 10 different questions about this today, and here’s the simple answer: the vibration will not, in any way, cause any permanent damage or permanent desensitization of the nerves, which is what a lot of people fear will happen. 

What does happen is that the nerves in this area get used to and accustomed to a very intense and fast vibration, and if that’s the only type of stimulation that you’re receiving over and over again, and the only type of stimulation associated with the pleasure of orgasm in your brain, then you’ve kind of trained your nerves to only respond to this one type of stimulation and not so much to other types of stimulation

This is no different than getting into any specific pattern of arousal and orgasm. It doesn’t have to be vibrators, it could be anything. Actually, something similar happens to penis-owners, who sometimes get into a pattern of masturbating in a very specific way. They’ll squeeze their penis very hard and jerk off really fast, usually while watching porn alone. Doing this time and time again without mixing it up could provide the same response of arousal associated by only one type of stimulation. 

In both cases, there’s no permanent damage, but you are training your genitals to respond to only one type of stimulation and it’s a type of stimulation that’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce with a partner.

Now, there are some people who have some medical issues that make it difficult, if not impossible, to orgasm through anything besides the intense stimulation that vibrators provide. For you all, I say embrace your vibrator. We luckily live in a time where vibrators exist and we have options for pleasure that past generations didn’t have. For most of us who do have the physiological capacity to orgasm through a wider variety of stimulation, I say mix it up! Don’t just rely on that one specific type of stimulation.

If you find yourself a little bit guilty of consistently masturbating via vibrator for a long period of time, take a break and try something new. Give your nerve endings a chance to experience different kinds of pleasure because there are so many different types of stimulation that you can explore. Even if you’re single, there are so many different ways to stimulate yourself: external clitoral with and without vibration, internal with and without vibration, anal with and without vibration, pulsators, etc. And even within vibration and pulsation, there are lots of different kinds of toys and intensities. 

Q: Are sex toys better than a man?

I mean, that’s up to each and every one of us to decide what’s better for us. I personally think that toys are neither better nor worse than human live partners, they’re just different. Many toys provide types of stimulation that no human ever could, and a lot of the things that we get from human partners are things that toys could never possibly give to us. So they’re different, they provide different things for us.

I like to think of toys as additional tools in our pleasure toolbox, just like our hands and mouths and genitals are tools for pleasure. Toys are tools that dramatically expand the pleasure potential of both our own and our partners’ bodies. And I don’t know about you, but I like to have as many possible tools in my pleasure toolbox as I possibly can. I don’t want to limit my pleasure. I love sexual pleasure and I want to have as much of it and as many varied versions of it as possible. 

Q: How do I get my partner excited about my vibrator without emasculating him?

It is true that a lot of straight men in particular feel a little uncomfortable about toys. They often feel that introducing a toy somehow admits defeat, as if they’re not a skilled-enough partner. But the opposite is true. These are some of the ways that I would approach bringing up a sex toy or a vibrator with partners who might feel uncomfortable: Present toys as tools that expand his ability to pleasure you in a variety of ways, that make him a more skilled, more versatile and a more varied lover as opposed to a one-trick pony.

To me, a guy who knows his way around a multitude of toys (as well as his own dick) and is eager to learn more stuff, is far more impressive than a guy who only knows how to stick his dick in a hole. Honestly, guys, toys are your friends, they’re not your enemies. This masculinity ideal that men should magically be born masters at sex and that their penises are the ultimate measure of their masculinity is really harmful and limiting for everyone, both for men and their partners. 

Q: How do I tell my partner that I can only really cum from a sex toy? (I’m on an antidepressant)

Just be honest. Tell them that the antidepressants make it impossible for you to orgasm through other forms of stimulation. People should be aware of the link between antidepressants and decreased sexual desire and orgasmic capacity. Even if you don’t want to let your partner know that you’re on antidepressants, you can simply tell them that one of your meds you’re on has that effect on you. Especially in cases like this, I would like to think that any man would prioritize your pleasure over whatever minor ego injury that vibrator is going to cause (even though it really shouldn’t cause any ego injuries!).

Q: Straight men using anal toys. Why such a stigma?

This is another great example of how masculinity norms limit straight men’s ability to experience as much sexual pleasure as they possibly can because they somehow think that receptive anal play will make them gay or means that they are gay. Wanting something in your butt has nothing to do with your sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is not about the kinds of sexual activities you want to engage in; it’s about the gender of the people you want to engage in said sexual activities, like who you might want to put something in your butt or do something else sexual with you. 

In fact, there are many gay men who don’t particularly like receptive anal play and tons of straight men who love it. I mean, why wouldn’t you, there’s so much going on in the anus that feels amazing and that’s even more true if you have a prostate that can be stimulated through anal play. Please don’t let silly and inaccurate stigmas prevent you from experiencing all the pleasure your body can experience. That goes for the women too! Sometimes it’s the women who stigmatize and shame men for wanting this “gay” thing. So, ladies, encourage your male partners to explore and expand their capacity for pleasure instead of suppressing them.

Q: What is a healthy amount of prostate stimulation? How often or frequent?

I don’t think there are any guidelines on minimums and maximums for frequency of prostate stimulation. You do it as often as it feels good and you want to do it. 

The one thing we do know is that it’s not good for the prostate to go without draining its contents for long periods of time, like for over a month or so. The prostate drains every time a person with a penis ejaculates, so unless you’re playing with orgasm denial for long stretches of time, there should be no health repercussions. If you are playing with orgasm denial for long stretches of time, make sure you stimulate the prostate until it drains (colloquially known as “milking the prostate”) once a month or so.

Q: Butt plugs for men?

Butt plugs for men are the same as butt plugs for any gender because we all have butts! There may be some differences in the angle that gets to the prostate better, but that’s also so individual that you really just kind of have to try different ones and see what works best. 

Q: I’ve never masturbated (27y). Better to start with toys or how?

Oh wow, there is so much pleasure in your future! Seriously, do both. Try your hands and see what they can do. They can be amazing, I love my hands! And then also try some toys, there are many to choose from!

Q: Where do I even start? Selections are so vast and I don’t know what I’d like.

I hear you. The selection can initially be quite overwhelming, but I’d say there are like 4-ish main types of motorized toys: 

1) the external clitoral one (like LILY 2 or SMART WAND), 

2) the internal vaginal one (like GIGI 2 or MONA 2), which generally you can use anally as well, 

3) the combined vibrator for internal and external stimulation, often known as rabbit vibrator (like SORAYA 2 or INA 2), and 

4) clitoral pulsators (like SONA), which is more a pulsating, sucking sensation, quite different from standard vibrators. 

Beyond that, we’re mostly talking differences in sizes, shapes, angles and materials. So figure out which type of stimulation you think you might like the most. I often recommend starting with something like LILY, and take it from there. 

Q: How safe is TPE?

Sex toys are made of a variety of materials, some of which are porous (they let bacteria and other germs in and can also be toxic, meaning their ingredients can leak into your body) and non-porous, which don’t do either of those things. TPE (thermoplastic elastomer) and TPR (thermoplastic rubber) are porous materials so they do retain germs, which is why I would avoid them. That being said, TPE/TPR toys are not toxic, they don’t leak any toxic ingredients into your body, so as porous toys go, they are not the worst.

Q: How to clean it best?

How to clean toys really depends on what they’re made of, if they have a motor or not, and if they’re waterproof or not. Generally speaking, soap and water is the best way to do it. You can also use a toy cleaner

Q: Is bleaching my toys a bad idea?

I don’t think it’s necessary. Soap, water and a good air dry are plenty. But if you really want to do that, you can. You can only do that with stainless steel and glass toys though, not any of the other materials. 

Q: Do you deliver to Dubai?

Unfortunately, nobody does because it’s illegal. There are a number of different countries, mostly in the Middle East, where possession of sex toys is illegal and you can get in trouble for owning one. And don’t travel with sex toys to these countries either! 

Written by: Dr. Zhana

Zhana Vrangalova, PhD, is a NYC-based sex researcher who studies casual sex, nonmonogamy, and sexual orientation. She holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Cornell University, teaches Human Sexuality at New York University, shares new sex research on social media, and runs the Casual Sex Project, a place for people to share their true hookup stories. She provides daily sex education using the live video streaming app Periscope, and is currently writing a book about the science of healthy hookups.

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