Vibrator Addiction?

First-time Good Vibrations customers often ask us whether they’ll become “addicted” to their vibrators. When I do public speaking and talk about toys, people occasionally object to their use (or at least worry aloud) because vibes are seen as “addictive,” and sometimes men express concern about their female partners using vibrators because they worry that women will become “addicted.” (Then, some add, their partners won’t need men any more).

What’s with this fear? Does it have any basis in fact?

I see two related (but separate) misunderstandings going on here. One is that sex and orgasms are themselves addictive — a fear promoted heavily by therapists who specialize in treating “sex addiction.” These people rarely have training as sexologists (not surprisingly, since sexologists as a whole don’t have a whole lot of use for the notion of sex addiction). While people may use sex in negative ways, and some may be compulsive about their behaviors, sex per se is not addictive in the way drugs and alcohol are. When sex-addictionologists treat this dubious “disorder” they all too often rely on sex-negative assumptions. Masturbation can be seen as a sign of sex addiction, for example — the real belief being expressed here is “Sex should only happen between two people in a relationship.” Obviously we at Good Vibes think masturbation is more often a sign of a healthy, pleasure-loving relationship with yourself. Why else would we have dedicated a whole month to it?

The other worry about vibrator “addiction” is probably more widespread. It boils down to “If I use a vibrator to have an orgasm, will I be able to come with my partner?” The fear isn’t of addiction per se, it’s of needing the vibrator too much.

It’s true that people who haven’t been orgasmic with partners often find they can come using a vibrator. But look at it this way: Isn’t it preferable to orgasm than not to orgasm? Women and men who come using vibrators don’t have to forsake all human companionship; they can share their reliably buzzing toy with partners and then everybody can play together. Partners of vibe-orgasmic women and men can help a lot by realizing that there’s no need to be jealous of a plastic gizmo that can’t kiss, help with zippers and suntan lotion, plan for the future, or put its name on the lease. We have relationships for lots more reasons than orgasms, as everyone who has a lover, yet still pleasurably masturbates, can attest.

But there’s more. There’s evidence that using vibrators (or masturbating in other ways) can actually help create nerve pathways in the body — neural pathways that, as they develop, make it easier and easier to orgasm. This was demonstrated in an experiment on female rats who were exposed to vibration. Yes, a scientist in a lab coat held little vibrators to little tiny rat vulvas (now don’t you wish you’d finished that science class in college?), and the rats who got stimulated with vibration displayed more nerve growth than their control group sisters. If lab rats can become more orgasmic through vibration, why not you and I?

Think about all the people — women especially, but plenty of men too — who need to learn to orgasm. Many of these people, once they learn to come with their hands, using a vibrator, or in a comfortable sexual relationship with a partner, become easily and reliably orgasmic. Perhaps some are overcoming cultural conditioning not to touch themselves or to “let go.” But others may simply need to learn how. We’ve all had experiences of learning a skill that required certain movements or particular coordination, like playing ping-pong. Or think of lifting weights — you can lift more and more over time. One of the elements of this development of skill and ability is the growth of nerve pathways. New nerve tissue actually grows, helping a muscle develop or a complex set of movements be performed. The genital area is richly endowed with nerves to begin with, but more can grow over time. This implies that vibrator use can actually help you become more orgasmic, period, because the vibe provides you with a powerful means of erogenous “exercise.”

I’m not suggesting that you ought to get a vibrator if you don’t use one now — if you’re happily orgasmic through other means than vibration, why change what works? I will suggest, though, that you regularly make time for “sexercise,” whether it’s through self-pleasuring or play with a partner. Having regular orgasms maintains the vascularity and neural pathways that keep you in good, orgasmic shape. It can contribute to genital health, especially as you age. It’s good for you!

Thinking of masturbation and vibrator use as exercise is a far cry from looking at it as a possibly dangerous “addiction.” In fact, what underlies these different points of view is a basic divergence in our society’s philosophy of sex. Is sexual energy dangerous and in constant need of control? Or is sexual energy basic to human well-being, a component of our all-over health? As a sexologist, I vote for the latter — but both philosophies obviously affect the way sex is portrayed in this culture, from our parents’ messages to the tone of sex education in the schools to the beliefs that underpin our laws.

So while I encourage you to get your exercise, I also urge you to think about the kinds of messages you’ve received about sex. They, as much as the neural pathways under your skin, affect your sexual potential — your ability to find pleasure and comfort in sex. Exercising your anatomy isn’t enough if you really believe you shouldn’t bring yourself pleasure, that you shouldn’t use a toy to do it, or even that sexual pleasure is itself somehow dangerous or wrong. Fortunately, you can exercise your mind and your belief system, too, examining old messages for unnoticed traces of sex-negativity. Thinking for yourself — why, it can be positively addictive!

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

You may also like...