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Heather Corinna replies:
I have heard two different stories; one, that using a vibrator can do no harm, and two, that using a vibrator can do worlds of harm! I have heard that using one will desensitize the area and make sex with a real person totally unenjoyable and dissatisfying. Which theory is true?
Vibrators cannot "desensitize" anyone in any permanent way. There have never been any findings through sound research which have shown that vibrators or other vigorous stimulation of the clitoris do anyone harm or change anyone's anatomy or sexual response permanently.
Sure, they can kind of numb you out for a little bit -- from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the intensity of your vibe -- right after using them, in the same way that your butt might feel a bit numb for a few hours after a long bike or scooter ride, or your hands might feel numb after clapping them vigorously for a while. Heck, a long session of vaginal intercourse between two partners locked in a very tight missionary or plow position can put a lot of very direct and intense stimulation on some women's clitorises, leaving them feeling numb for a bit, too, and giving a man oral sex for a long time tends to numb out a person's jaw, but we don't hear anyone trying to scare women away from any of that. Go figure.
But all those effects, like the same one might experience from a vibrator, are very temporary, not permanent.
Obviously, if you use a vibrator with a frayed cord, or use an electrical vibrator underwater, you could end up with nerve damage due to electrical shock. As well, with any kind of singular sexual activity we make a daily habit of -- be that vibrator use, vaginal intercourse or oral sex -- if we get used to only reaching orgasm one way, it can be a bit tougher to reach orgasm in different ways. But that's easily remedied by just keeping things varied: mix up what you do alone and with partners, and there's no issue at all.
Cory Silverberg cites a 1996 study which found that, "of the women who regularly used a vibrator for masturbation, half were also masturbating in other ways, without the vibrator. While a majority of women did report that their orgasms felt stronger with a vibrator, less than 10% of the women who said so reported that they could only have an orgasm with a vibrator." (And that's unsurprising: vibrators are a stronger stimulus than many other ways of genital stimulation, and some women simply need strong clitoral stimulus to reach orgasm. Those women probably needed that BEFORE they ever used a vibrator.)
Where on earth did anyone even get the idea vibrators COULD cause damage? The same place people got the idea that masturbation would make you blind, when it all comes down to it.
There are a lot of people very threatened by women using vibrators -- almost ten years ago, I covered a story about how the Alabama legislature was so threatened they even banned them, and they still remain banned there, though there is no similar ban on, say, firearms or pornography. Believe me: if anyone had ever found any solid evidence that they did harm or nerve damage, we'd have heard all about it by now. As of right now, the FDA still okays them as therapeutic devices for many issues -- and primarily for women who aren't able to reach orgasm otherwise -- and we have had vibrators around in common use for over 100 years now. Back in the late 19th century, psychotherapists and doctors used to prescribe them for women with anxiety disorders, as a point of fact, indirectly recognizing that orgasm helps people to relax, and that for most women, orgasm through genital sex is usually about the clitoris (which has more sensory nerve endings in it than any part of the male or female anatomy) not the vagina.
Honestly, this oooh-scary-vibrators stuff primarily comes from people who are afraid of women's use of vibrators or feel insecure because of them; or who very much want to find SOME reason why a majority of women don't orgasm from intercourse alone that isn't the harder truth about that (being that our physiology is the limitation there, and that's not changeable). Men use vibrators, too: studies on vibrator use have found results between genders to show that of those who use them, it's not that far from equal. One study found that 33% of women versus 20% of male used the, and another found that 24% of women and 21% of men did. Yet, in all my years of working in sex advice, while the questions about vibrator damage to women never end, I don't think I've been asked the same of male use even once. Why would we be so concerned about something causing damage to women but have no concern about the same possible damage to men? Some studies have also found that women in relationships use them more than single women do, and that conservative, married women use them more than their single or liberal counterparts, which may be one more cause for all the big to-do: those women are often under more cultural pressure and expectation to be getting all of their pleasure from their male partners.
In other words, much of that sentiment derives from notions about how women's sexuality should ONLY be what men would prefer it to be, what men enjoy doing with female partners, or what can be done to women with the male body (that's men as a class: there are plenty of far more enlightened individual men). It's about enabling certain systems of gender-based power, or what people who feel that sex should be only about intercourse (and not because it's what most people enjoy most, but because it protects some traditional ideas about sexuality, masculinity, heteronormativity and culture) would like it to be.
But it's not just men spreading this fear and misinformation. Plenty of women feel very insecure about their sexual responses and like something must have been damaged if they can't reach orgasm through vaginal intercourse (even though we know the reason for that is based on how our genitals are designed, and too, can also be about not-so-awesome interpersonal dynamics with intercourse for some couples). Through much of history, women have been culturally and interpersonally pressured to reach orgasm or massively enjoy something that we just aren't really designed to get a big whoop from all by itself, and told something is wrong with us when our bodies don't behave and respond as others would like them to. It can seem easier if you're feeling deficient to have something external to blame rather than to accept that men and women often just don't get the biggest thrill from the same things based on nothing but how our bodies are, especially if it's really important to you or someone else that we DO enjoy the same things the same way.
Historically, we've had similar myths about masturbation -- you'll go blind, grow hair on your palms, become infertile or unhealthy -- have gone on for an age, and plenty of people believed them -- some even still do -- in large part because of a cultural ethos that wants men and women alike to privilege heteronormativity and sex as duty or domination over pleasure. People being able to experience sexual pleasure without a partner seriously scares the bejeezus out of some people.
You'll note that while cosmetic genital surgery does pose actual risks of nerve damage, and can remove parts where some sensory nerve endings lie, we don't usually hear the same sort of hysteria about that because it better fits a lot of cultural ideals about the ways people want to frame and file women's sexuality to fit a mold that isn't about our own sexuality or sexual pleasure at all. Heck, circumcision to men causes a loss of sensitivity, and yet it still remains a popular practice in spite of medical advice and evidence that it is unnecessary and can do that harm. We have things we KNOW for a fact can or do cause bonafide and permanent damage to sensitivity, but because they serve certain agendas better than vibrator use or masturbation does, we don't hear the same kind of hysteria.
This 'desensitizing" stuff is also a knee-jerk response to women who simply prefer a vibrator to other kinds of sex when it comes to their physical response, or enjoy the addition of a vibrator to other kinds of sex. However, if you think that through, it'll become pretty obvious that women who feel that way -- or women who have found that they can only orgasm with a vibrator -- did not come to feel that way through vibrator use. In other words, women who need or enjoy very strong clitoral stimulus would not somehow have been satisfied without it: they just would not have known what they were missing. To draw an analogy for you, if my palate is such that I prefer spicier foods, but I never get to taste them, I may not know what I'm missing and feel satisfied enough with other foods. But that won't change the fact that if and when I DO finally taste spicy foods, I'll discover a peak in my palate, a favorite I didn't know I had before.
To be clear: none of what you hear about vibrators "desensitizing" anyone comes from ANY sort of scientific study that has shown that, nor from anything we know about human physiology: it's all coming out of ignorance, fear, insecurity and a need to control.
It's okay to like a vibrator best, or the orgasms you experience from a vibrator best: plenty of men like masturbation best when it comes to the physical, or the orgasms they have through their own hands best. Some people even enjoy masturbation best physically AND emotionally, and that's okay, too: a person can be perfectly healthy without a sexual partner, physically and emotionally, if that's what they prefer. It's also okay to enjoy masturbation a lot: part of the freakout here is that women are supposed to save all of their sexual life for a male partner, which is an obviously profound double standard (while masturbation scare tactics have existed for everyone, male masturbation is still usually seen as far more acceptable and compulsory), compounded by the fact that a lot of women only or primarily have the kinds of sex their male partners like best, which often don't stimulate our most sensitive parts.
We don't have to draw a big line in the sand between vibrator use and partnered sex, either. Not only can we bring our preferences and helps TO partnered sex -- we can use vibrators with a "real person," after all, loads of couples incorporate sex toys into their partnered sex, and not just for a female partner, either -- partnered sex also has other things going on with it. We don't do things back to a vibrator, or bring the pleasure of two to the table when we're using something alone.
In the case that you need a personal example from someone -- and can deal with a little TMI -- I'm turning 38 this year. Not only have I (and male and female partners of mine) been using vibrators regularly since the 80's, I even had a stint where I reviewed sex toys as a gig for a while, so I was likely using them more than most folks do. And lo, I still also have all kinds of fantastic sex with partners with and without vibrators and it's never gotten any less pleasurable for me, nor have I lost any sensitivity. Heck, I've used static electricity machines for sexual play and it hasn't changed anything for me as far as my sensitivity goes.
If you want some more expert opinions on this, check out more experts on the topic online like Go Ask Alice, The Kinsey Institute, Dan Savage or Cory Silverberg. You might also want to snag a copy of the book "The Technology of Orgasm" by Rachel Maines.
Here are a few more links for you to round this all out: