“[They] should come with a warning label and their use should be rationed,” Salon.com sex columnist Tracy Quan wrote in 2003 about something she clearly considered dangerous—something that, according to two 2009 surveys, more than half of adult women and slightly fewer than half of adult men in the United States use. Quan was referring to vibrators, and her negative view of them is far from unique.
The scary word around the sexual playground is that vibrators are so powerfully stimulating that women who use them too much can no longer orgasm any other way. But are vibrators actually addictive like that? Are women who use them regularly truly ruined for any non-battery-operated sources of pleasure?
The Straight Talk
Quan’s thoughts on the matter notwithstanding, vibrators are a safe, healthy way for women to explore what makes them feel good. It’s true that vibrators stimulate the clitoris at a speed far greater than any human can match, which is why they often yield orgasms more quickly and consistently than other methods of stimulation. And if a woman relies solely on vibrators long enough and frequently enough, it’s possible that her body will get used to that kind of stimulation. But that’s not because vibrators are addictive—rather, it’s because sexual responses can become habituated.
When you stimulate the body a certain way, it learns what to expect and builds nerve pathways accordingly. Switching out the vibrator for a finger, a tongue, or anything else might throw off the body a bit, but by no means does the device block other pleasure pathways entirely. Contrary to popular myth, vibrators don’t dull a woman’s clitoral sensation, requiring increasingly intense stimulation the more she uses one. If anything, prolonged use in one session could lead to temporary numbness in the genital area, but the key word there is temporary. And as one of the aforementioned 2009 surveys found, 71.5 percent of the 2,056 female respondents had never experienced adverse side effects, like reduced sensitivity or irritation. The ones who did reported dealing with such issues for only a “short duration.”
Granted, these studies, which were published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, were funded by the maker of Trojan, a company offering a line of condoms with vibrating rings and that therefore has a vested interest in promoting the benefits of vibrations. But the fact remains that vibrators can be a positive presence in the lives of women and men, whether they use them apart or bring them into the bedroom together. After all, of the 44.8 percent of men who reported using vibrators in the 2009 survey, 91 percent of them reported using them during foreplay or intercourse with women. And it’s worth noting that both male and female respondents in the pro-vibrator category rated themselves higher when it came to intercourse satisfaction, desire, and other indicators of sexual function.
Physical addiction to vibrators is a myth (probably one born of a society that’s uncomfortable with women’s taking control of their sexuality). The use of a vibrator might make the clitoris less sensitive to other, less intense stimuli for two main reasons: brief numbness that could result from extended use in a single period, and the body’s getting used to vibrations as a main source of pleasure. However, as with any other routine one falls into naturally throughout life, there’s always opportunity for a shake-up. Different positions, detailed fantasies, other sex toys—the sexual world abounds with various ways to do the body good.
If you’re having trouble achieving orgasm without a vibrator and would like to rely less on it, changing up your sexual routine might yield positive results. Even so, the vibrator may still work best for many women, and that’s perfectly normal and fine.
Say What? is a series created to support or debunk common health myths. If you have a question, please send it to the editor at email@example.com.