Vibrators and Other Pleasures: When Moderation Fails
Can you use sex toys or Internet erotica in moderation? The answer lies in your brain—not in any external advice, wisdom or dogma. It depends on the state of your reward circuitry, your brain's ancient appetite mechanism.
Sure, your brain may be particularly vulnerable to intense stimulation due to genetic make-up or past trauma. Yet it also matters what kind of stimulation you hammer your brain with. Consider this woman's experience:
Vibrator-use can absolutely desensitize a woman. I started using one in college, thinking I was a modern, sexually empowered woman, and couldn't believe how effectively it got the job done. It worked TOO well. Within a month, I could no longer orgasm with my boyfriend, and a few months after that, I couldn't even do it with my own hand any longer. The vibrator went in the trash and my responsiveness came back some weeks later. Even now, a decade later, I still sometimes miss the intense stimulation. However, I definitely do not miss having the sexual responsiveness of a rock.
I've stayed away from Internet porn for the same reason. It's too stimulating, and I know I would quickly get hooked. I tried masturbating to it once. I literally came in less than one minute (not at all like real life!) because the stimulation was so intense. Real-life sex will never be able to measure up to that. Perhaps I am the exception, but I know myself well. If I started regularly using Internet porn, I would end up as one of those people who can no longer get turned on without it. No thanks. I'll keep my sex-life organic.
Orgasm using natural methods (think fingers and imagination) is not likely to become a problem. It also stands to reason that your brain evolved to handle the odd binge. Nor is occasional indulgence in something superstimulating likely to decrease your sexual responsiveness.
On the other hand, too much supernormal stimulation can easily become a problem—at least in some of us. It can actually decrease brain sensitivity, and thus satisfaction.
I had a girlfriend who said that there was a period in her life where she got really into using her vibrator. But she found herself completely unable to orgasm with partners because she had become so desensitized. She quit the vibrator, and I think she said it took her about 6 months to get back to normal.
Nearly half of the participants in a study earlier this year stated that they were concerned with becoming dependent on the vibrator's supernormal stimulation.
'Supernormal' refers to a stimulus that releases inordinate amounts of neurochemicals in the brain's reward circuitry. This occurs when our brain decides something is more enticing than anything our ancestors generally encountered. This extra neurochemical wallop deceives us into registering our abnormal stimulus as Extremely Valuable. That's when we can more easily become hooked. (For more, see Intoxicating Behaviors.)
To understand just how coercive superstimuli can be, consider this: When scientists constructed synthetic butterfly "mates" with exaggerated cues (i.e., the signals that males use to assess mate desirability),
A male silver washed fritillary butterfly was more sexually aroused by a butterfly-sized rotating cylinder with horizontal brown stripes than ... by a real, live female of its own kind.
It it's not only males who are fooled by exaggerated stimuli. Female birds preferred to sit on large, brightly spotted, fake eggs, and ignored their own. Supernormal Stimuli author Deirdre Barrett defines such stimuli as "imitations that appeal to primitive instincts and, oddly, exert a stronger attraction than real things."
Now, think about the synthetic thrills that light up our brains today: larger-than-life video games, glittering casinos, enticing junk food, drugs, sex toys that out perform any penis, cam2cam chat.
The Internet itself feels like hyperstimulation...surfing with many tabs open/multitasking, snagging interesting things from the net. It's like my brain always wants to be entertained by something now. Reading books is not good enough for me anymore.
These are enticements your ancestors couldn't indulge in with the ease you can. They can lead to bothersome brain alterations that are tough to reverse. For example, Internet addiction has been associated with reduction of gray matter in the brains of adolescents. Pathological gambling and overeating have been shown to alter brain function, too.
We can overstimulate our brains many ways, but food and sex are particularly alluring. Unlike drugs, both are already coded into our brain's reward circuitry as Necessary For Existence (top priorities). That is why many users can, and do, get hooked on superstimulating versions of food and sex even though they have no problems with other enticements. Seventy-nine percent of Americans are now overweight, and half obese. By some accounts, half of American ministers reported problems with their own porn use as early as 2001.
The point is that an intense "natural" pleasure can morph into a risky indulgence for you (or your loved one)—even if it seemed quite innocuous at some earlier point in life, or still doesn't appear to cause trouble for your friends. This shift happens quite innocently in an environment saturated with enticement. Eskimos eat seal blubber all day long with a smile, but most American kids are crying if they don't get the thrill of an exciting MacDonald's Happy Meal.
Fifty-two percent of women are already using vibrators according to a 2009 study. Thirty-one percent of young women are using porn. One young man who fought a long battle to recover from porn use, and realized how profoundly his brain had changed, said:
1 out of 3 women my age are watching pornography. I remember I used to think it was so cool if a cute girl watches porn. But seriously, this is really, really bad—not good—for me and for people in general. I definitely don't want my future wife's brain to be desensitized by porn, so her life and my lovemaking skills seem boring and bland. Jeez this is awful. It's sad to see how bad technology has screwed with our brains thanks to Internet porn.
In the 2011 study mentioned above more women reported concerns that vibrator use was having a negative impact on the intimacy of their relationship than felt it enhanced their relationship. Do you and your partner already need to join three-somes to have satisfying sex (that is, you two plus your favorite toys and two computer screens with your favorite porn)? If ordinary sexual stimulation isn't doing it for you, your brain has probably adapted. So, the question is, do you want to get rid of the crowd and "reboot" yourself so you can enjoy sex with each other?
"Can't I just cut back?"
Sure. But suppose you find that you can't cut back without experiencing withdrawal symptoms? These might include: intense "need" for an orgasm (even if you just had one, the "chaser effect"), consistently feeling less responsive during sex, powerful attraction to novel partners, fantasizing about extreme stimulation, cravings for rougher or more painful sex, irritably snapping at others over nothing, or feeling uncharacteristically deprived, anxious, dissatisfied or unfairly treated ("needy").
These can sometimes be signs of an addiction process at work. Remember, a primitive part of the brain perceives substances and activities that release lots of stimulating dopamine in the brain as Extremely Valuable. It wires itself to be on the lookout for them. Whenever you get near one, your brain's reward circuitry jumps up and down like a crazed Jack Russell terrier. This is known as sensitization. When you activate a sensitized pathway, it releases a bigger blast of dopamine than usual, igniting demanding cravings.
However, there's growing evidence that sensitization actually gives rise to desensitization—and a numbed response to pleasure. The result can be a need to binge in search of satisfaction, and decreased sexual responsiveness. For example, older men who have stuck to "vanilla," still porn images don't seem to develop the erectile-dysfunction problems that other, often much younger, men who use more extreme porn do. For more on how superstimuli can hijack brains watch this video series.
Paradoxically, it can be easier to give up a superstimulus entirely than to try to use it in moderation. (At first, it's often very uncomfortable, however.) The reason a period of abstinence can succeed where moderation fails lies in that extra jolt of dopamine a sensitized brain releases in response to conditioned cues. In a brain that has changed and is not back to normal, moderation sets the sensitized pathway aquiver with reverberating cravings instead of satisfaction.
In short, "Everything in moderation" only works for some people, with regard to some stimuli, some of the time. Happily, if you avoid a stimulus to which you are sensitized for a lengthy period, the noisy brain pathways gradually weaken, and your appetite moves back toward normal sensitivity. Consistency pays. Mark Hyman, MD makes this point with regard to cravings for another superstimulus, sugar:
Eliminate sugar and artificial sweeteners and your cravings will go away: Go cold turkey. ... You have to stop for you brain to reset. Eliminate refined sugars, sodas, fruit juices, and artificial sweeteners from your diet. These are all drugs that will fuel cravings.
The same is true of sex toy and erotica use. It could be easier to go through the necessary withdrawal discomfort and reboot your brain than wrestle intense cravings repeatedly to maintain moderate use.
"When you want to climb out of a hole..."
If you think you may be overusing erotica or your vibrator, experiment with stopping completely for a month or two. Can you feel yourself move back toward normal sensitivity (or toward increased sensitivity)? Is an evening of flirting more satisfying than an evening with your vibrator? If you relapse early on, do you notice extreme cravings afterward? As you make your own experiments, it grows easier to steer for the results you want.
You could even notice unexpected benefits as your brain returns to balance. One woman reported that when she gave up her magic wand (after a trip to the emergency room with a damaged ovary, and a discreet tip from the attending physician), she was also able to stop smoking and improve her diet, both with relative ease.
It is hard for any of us to accept that a once-harmless pleasure has morphed into a risky indulgence. Yet whether or not the pleasure has changed (e.g., Internet porn in lieu of romance novels), our brains can, and often do, change. Arguing about whether a particular enticement is "bad" or "good," "moral" or "immoral," is beside the point. Its effects on you are what matter, and your mileage will vary depending upon the sensitivity of your brain, whether it has changed, how much your tastes have escalated, and so forth.
It pays to observe yourself carefully so you don't inadvertently numb your pleasure response with today's synthetic superstimuli. Here are some more first-hand insights from women and men:
Porn's not only a problem with men. I find, for myself, when I masturbate I lose all of my natural flowing juices... so when HE'S READY to have it, I'm NOT! He has to lather on the LUBE like crazy and I have to keep stopping to apply more lube and he gets frustrated with me. Even with all the lubricant on the outside, it becomes uncomfortable and even less enjoyable because I am having thoughts that I'd rather look at porn than be dry and having sex...I always knew that when his **** was half-hard or he was limp, that it was because of the porn. And he always knew when I'd been masturbating because I would be dry.
If you are someone who can get off to Internet porn in moderation, hey, great. More power to you. But if you are not—and you know if you are not—then you need to stop entirely. I tried the "once a week" promise; it never held. I had to stop totally.
After giving up porn for a time, I'm noticing that just watching the sexy girls (with clothes) is much more exiting than when I was deep into hardcore porn. I think that's a sign that my brain is rebooting—that it has regained normal sensitivity for visual stimuli.
To sum up, "When you want to climb out of a hole, first stop digging." Completely. Give your brain time to return to balance. Eventually, subtler pleasures will register as delicious once again. If your brain has changed a lot, this process may take months and be uncomfortable. But it's worth it.