Hannah, a graduate student at KU, began using a vibrator as an undergraduate student in Iowa. She was hesitant at first, so she took a friend with her to a sex shop.
“I did and my life was changed,” she says.
Hannah discovered a whole new part of herself. She found that a vibrator gave her more than just orgasms: it gave her confidence and autonomy.
Sex experts and therapists say we should all be using sex toys — no matter our gender, sexual orientation, age or relationship status. But sex toys can be intimidating. They come in all sorts of forms, colors, speeds and sizes (like, who really needs a crystal encrusted vibrator?). According to an anonymous survey, University of Kansas students are curious about what these toys can do for their sex lives. Still, they're reluctant to get started.
A Brief History of Sex Toys
Humans were carving long phallic-shaped tools thousands of years ago. Some archaeologists suspect they were used to sharpen other tools, but I like to think cavewomen and cavemen were more in tune with their sexuality. Over time, they were made and sold for pleasure, but they were masked as other things.
“Many millennia later, objects clearly designed as sex toys are still veiled behind euphemistic and tongue-in-cheek marketing,” writes The Cut's Katie Haeney.
In Haeney’s article, The 30,000-Year History of the Sex Toy, she interviews Hallie Lieberman, Ph.D. about the long and detailed history of sex toys.
“Early sex toy distributors got around the [obscenity] law by selling their wares as ‘novelty items’ or, in some cases, ‘marital aids,’” Heaney writes.
Sex toys used to be advertised everywhere, but over time, they became more taboo. Their “marital aid” disguises didn’t pass anymore, and they were advertised less, shoved into bedside table drawers and hidden away. According to Lieberman, the more sex toys were advertised, the more people saw them as a symbol for female liberation, and the more they were concealed.
If digital media is any indication, sex toys are more accepted today. Think of Sex and the City, when Charlotte spends days inside with her Rabbit vibrator. Or Grace & Frankie, in which the two main characters — both seniors — begin a vibrator business for women with arthritis (you go, girls).
If older women can talk about sex toys, masturbation and sex on television, why are young college kids so afraid to talk about it?
What Students Think
College students have a reputation for being sex-crazed deviants, but for most of them, acting on sexual urges and discussing them are two very different things. The feminist movement has helped some women on campus regain their voices and sexual liberation, but societal stigma keeps many women from opening up. Men — for the most part — are also uneasy about divulging private matters about their sexual experiences.
When it comes to sex toys, students seem to be fairly inexperienced. In an anonymous survey completed by 88 KU students, 67% said they had never used sex toys with a partner, and 58% had never used a sex toy alone. Despite the lack of knowledge and experience among these students, more than half of them revealed they had a positive opinion of sex toys. Not surprisingly, 67 of those respondents identified as female, and most of them had great things to say about sex toys.
“I haven’t used sex toys before, but I imagine it would improve/enhance my sexual experiences and am very open to using them in the future.”
“They take things to the next level!”
“They're fun! Sex toys are fun! Sex is fun!”
Most of the negative responses addressed the stigma attached to sex toys, the expense or, in the case of one respondent, the cleaning process: “When I’m done I want to enjoy the time not clean another thing in my house.”
Hannah, the KU grad student, is an advocate for sex toys and self-exploration. She's the friend who'll convince other women to buy a new toy as a way to normalize female sexuality.
“I try to be as open about it and to talk with my friends about it because I think that helps erase the taboo,” she says.
Men, on the other hand, expressed less eagerness to try new sexy paraphernalia.
“They seem ‘dirty’ and give me the impression that you may not be ‘enough’ for each other to be satisfied. I know that's not necessarily a good reason to be against them but that is my first thought.”
“They are not necessary if you have a significant other.”
“They are fake but does come in handy when you need some extra fun.”
Still, there are outliers. Matthew, a 24-year-old from Lake Forest, California, said he likes sex toys and what they can do for his partner.
“Started first with a vibrator with a partner, and I liked it because as a young man who watched a decent amount of porn, I was pretty surprised when my partner didn’t immediately have an orgasm when I clumsily stuck it in," he says. "So, I feel like the vibrator helped us both enjoy the experience more,”
Matthew started using sex toys when he was 18. Since then, he has experimented with different kinds of toys, both with his sexual partners and by himself. He believes sex toys improve sexual interactions by taking off some of the pressure men can experience.
“A lot of times people claim that men don’t care about women’s orgasms but a big part of stress for men during sex is about the woman’s orgasms, worrying about if they are going to finish or if we are going to finish too early,” Matthew says. “You can focus more on just being in the moment while you let the machine do some of the work.”
What the Experts Think
News flash: sex therapists and human sexuality experts are huge advocates for sex toys. They believe everyone should try sex toys — especially when it comes to solo sex — no matter your gender or level of experience.
“There’s an enormous range of things out there, and there’s an enormous range of why people use sex toys, why they use vibrators, why they use dildos, why they use erotica — whatever flips their switch,” says Dr. Dennis Dailey, professor emeritus at the University and a sex therapist.
Like most other human sexuality experts, he says everyone is a sexual being, and you don’t need a partner to explore that. Dailey tells his patients and students that sex toys aren’t reserved for people in relationships; single people can use them too.
“They can very easily incorporate sex toys in their sexual experience as an enrichment experience in the same way that a couple would,” he says.
Jenny Mckee, program manager of the Health Education Resource Office and a health and human sexuality lecturer, agrees with Dailey.
“The first thing that I tell someone is that regardless of whether or not you’re currently sexually active, just like you have a personality, you have a sexuality,” she says. “It’s not a replacement, it’s like makeup. It’s like salt. Salt makes your food taste brighter, makes those flavors come out a bit more. That’s what a sex toy is supposed to do.”
Mckee says she's observed that students are interested in sex toys, especially students who identify as female. Experts encourage women to try sex toys because they have a much harder time achieving orgasm than men. A study done by Debby Herbenick, a research fellow and sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute, surveyed over 1,055 women about their orgasms.
“While 18.4 percent of women reported that intercourse alone was sufficient for orgasm, 36.6 percent reported clitoral stimulation was necessary for orgasm during intercourse, and an additional 36 percent indicated that, while clitoral stimulation was not needed, their orgasms feel better if their clitoris is stimulated during intercourse.”
To most women, this information may seem obvious. But to men and women who have only ever tried sex one way, it can be revolutionary. Men and women are built differently, so expecting a woman to get off by sticking the same thing inside her the same way every time won’t get the job done.
Sex toys are also versatile — it's not just about enhancing pleasure. Quin Eggesiecker-Mack, a sex therapist in Kansas City, says some people use sex toys to prevent discomfort.
“Some devices, such as vibrators, are helpful for those who need a greater level of stimulation, whereas buffers are awesome for folks who have a low cervix and penetration can be painful,” she says. (Buffers are rings put around the base of the penis to stop it from penetrating too deeply.)
Trying out sex toys is about wanting to understand your partner. Dailey says men need to come to terms with their own shortcomings so that they can perform the way their partner needs them to.
“No male penis or tongue can outdo a vibrator. I’m sorry,” Dailey says.
Sex toys are machines designed for one thing: making people orgasm. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that sex toys — although mechanical and “fake” — can do things we humans can’t. Jenny McKee said it best:
“The best carpenters use power tools.”