Women, Vibrators, and Shaky Sex Research

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Trojan boasting about the vibrator study it boughtKinsey/Trojan study on vibrators omitted lovers' top question

Sexual exploration is a fine idea, but we need to be radically honest with ourselves about researching its effects, lest we overlook signs of excess.

A couple of years ago, I wrote Vibrators and Other Pleasures: When 'Moderation' Fails. It included self-reports by women for whom vibrator use was making it more difficult (or impossible) to climax during intercourse and sex without toys. More recently, I've checked through hundreds of posts by women on a forum where thousands of people are experimenting with cutting back on excessive (in their view) masturbation—usually to Internet porn but sometimes using other sex aids.

The same phenomenon is showing up among these women. Real sex, and even dating, are losing out to the hyperstimulating phenomena of Internet porn and sex toys—and some women aren't happy with the uni-directional course their sex lives have taken:

First woman: "My biggest problem was using vibration to get off and it destroying my sensitivity. Tossed my vibrator out completely. Unfortunately I had to get rid of everything in the house that vibrates because I kept trying to find a replacement. Goodbye Sonic-Care face-cleaning tool. Sex is much better. There is no question. My clitoris was basically dead to anything not battery operated."

Second woman: "Hopefully a dry spell from myself will get me more interested in dating. 18-year old women should not be confined to their rooms with porn and toys. I'd like to graduate from high school with a dry hand."

Third woman: "I read hentai quite a bit and masturbate almost every day. I need to quit. I've noticeably lost sensitivity in my clitoris from my vibrator."

Conflict of interest and sidestepping the key question

Curious about the research in this area, I was directed to this study by the Kinsey Institute: Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use by Women in the United States: Results from a Nationally Representative Study. After polling over 1000 women, researchers concluded that the majority of vibrator users "did not experience any side effects from vibrator use," and that "vibrator use is a safe activity."

I was struck by two things about this vibrator study's...um...contribution to science. First, it was funded solely by Trojan, a company with an entire division devoted to vibrator sales. Here's Trojan's webpage touting this "unprecedented, comprehensive Vibrator Study." Major conflict of interest there, folks!

Second, it was anything but comprehensive. It failed to ask the question of most interest to lovers: Did vibrator use make toyless sex with a partner less pleasurable? The researchers themselves acknowledged, and downplayed, this glaring omission:

Given the historical belief that vibrator use may habituate women to particular ways of sexual response (i.e., experiencing orgasm more easily with a vibrator and less so with a partner), future research should consider assessing to what extent women’s sexual response becomes habituated—or, alternatively, enhanced—in relation to vibrator use.

Notice that the very idea of sex toy-induced problems during toyless partnered sex is reduced to a mere "historical belief." Moreover, readers would be unlikely to realize that the researchers had never asked this vital question about this "historical belief" unless they read to the end of the study, because the study did ask about genital numbness (as well as irritation, pain, tears and cuts, and inflammation).

Thus, the casual reader might assume that decreased responsiveness during sex had been addressed in the "numbness" category. Not so.

Despite the researchers failure to hone in on the prime question in their artfully crafted investigation, "numbness" was still the most commonly reported side effect for vibrator use. In fact, a rather alarming 16.5% of users reported numbness as a side effect of vibrator use.

So, does vibrator use interfere with sexual responsiveness?

No one yet knows. Under the circumstances, maybe we should pay more attention to the anecdotal accounts of women who had to jettison their vibrators to return to normal sexual responsiveness.

There are other ominous signals, too. When researchers polled 19 new vibrator users, "Women spoke a great deal about the change in their arousal and orgasmic response when they began to use the vibrator. ...Significantly, eight women directly stated that they were concerned with becoming dependent on the vibrator. ...Only three women talked specifically about their partnered sex lives being enhanced by a vibrator."

Incidentally, like many of today's young male porn users, women, too, are reporting that Internet-porn induced masturbation is decreasing their sexual responsiveness during partnered encounters (hopefully only temporarily). A stubborn numbed pleasure response in the brain may turn out to be as awkward and debilitating as numbed nerve endings.

Incidentally, since the Kinsey vibrator research came out, other researchers have found that, "Anxious attachment was associated with lesser vaginal orgasm consistency, but with higher frequency of vibrator and anal sex orgasms. Avoidant attachment was associated with higher frequency of vibrator orgasms."

In short, it could be unwise to decrease sensitivity to vaginal intercourse with chronic hyperstimulation of any kind. As an aside, karezza lovers report that their sensitivity to sexual pleasure and sexual contentment increase, even though (perhaps because?) they don't go for climax during intercourse.

Bottom line: Chronic vibrator use may be a bit of a one-way street for some users. They need to ask if it is taking them to their desired destination. Above all, researchers need to exercise full integrity in their research in order to help sex-toy users chart their course based on accurate—not purchased—conclusions.

Watch for shaky studies that are too good to be true

How often have you glanced at a study abstract's last few lines and assumed the researchers had reached a legitimate conclusion? This happens, in part, because we place inordinate faith in the peer-review process. "Inordinate" because an surprising number of researchers cut corners, cook data, and lie about results. "Clinical psychology is especially rife with misconduct."

One in three scientists report using questionable research practices, such as changing a study's design or results due to pressure from a funding source. Hmmm....


Sexologist A: Is there any research addressing the oft-reported claim (myth?) that regular vibrator use in women reduces their ability to orgasm by other means? The studies on vibrator use that I could find don't mention long-term effects.

Sexologist B: It would be interesting to see if there were actually data on this.  Intuitively, it makes sense...assuming that one becomes 'accustomed' to a certain kind of stimulation.  There's no question that a human being would be able to replicate the vibratory stimulation.  It's pretty intense.  So, if one has 'decided' that one needs intense stimulation, there might also be that expectation effect.

Sexologist C: I don't know of any data (please share publicly if you do), but you certainly hear that complaint from a lot of women who frequently use vibrators. Only last week I came across this post from a popular UK sex blogger about her 2-month quest to stay off of vibrators (and only have orgasms by manual or partner stimulation): http://carasutra.co.uk/2013/04/60-day-vibe-chastity-the-route-back-to-manual-orgasm/

Sexologist D: Although we have much data on vibrator use, we have none that specifically address this question (e.g., that examine the introduction of a vibrator and then sexual experiences over time).

I don't personally think vibrator use keeps women from experiencing orgasms from other forms of sex. Anecdotally I know of many, many women who experience orgasm from several sources, including vibrator use. I also have some data from a convenience sample that demonstrates women experiencing orgasm from various sources, including vibrator use.

I *do* however think - but cannot prove - that whenever people rely on a single source of orgasmic release over time that they may become accustomed to that form of stimulation. This may mean that, when presented with a new stimulus (or an old one they haven't relied on in some time) that they have to get back into that rhythm in order to experience orgasm from it. Response may be slower with the new stimulus (or old, unused one) but it doesn't mean it's gone. I don't think this is limited to vibrator use. Again, anecdotally, I have seen this many times with women or men who, for example, have orgasms from vaginal sex regularly but haven't received oral sex ever, or in ages, and then their bodies or minds learn or "re-learn" how to experience orgasm from oral if they start engaging in it. I don't think that vaginal sex has crippled them from other orgasms. I think people sometimes just get used to certain behaviors and their related responses.

Sexologist E: I've given workshops and meet with a few groups of women who like myself have used a 120v (plug in the wall) vibrator for years. We still come quickly and easily with our partners.  But wouldn't give up our vibrators for anything! Especially with multiorgasmic women long term vibrator use does not seem to cause any problems. But then we enjoy porn too so something must be wrong with us.

Sexologist F: Hypothesis:  Exactly the same logic applies to heavy pornography use among men.  Men who consistently use only one type of stimulation to reach orgasm over an extended period of time, i.e. one hand, in one position, at a consistent speed and rhythm, with a consistent amount of lubrication, will be more likely to experience some level of sexual dysfunction when trying to reach orgasm by other means.