Science and Sex Toys

Science! Better living through chemistry! It’s the story of the 20th century. As a sexologist I’m pretty familiar with the ways our pals in the lab coats study and impact sexuality — in fact every discipline in the social and hard sciences (except maybe astronomy) seems to have a stake in sex.

We see the same thing at Good Vibrations. When condom use soared as doctors began to realize HIV was a sexually transmitted disease, so did the number of companies manufacturing water-based lubricants. When the folks at PolyVinylChloride Research and Development figured out you could make more than sewer pipes and fetish clothes from the versatile molecule, PVC jelly dildos were not far behind. Indeed, if disabled chemist Gosnell Duncan had not looked for a suitable material to make dildos for his wife, Good Vibrations — and the world — might have been forever deprived of the wonderful silicone toys made by his company Scorpio (and a handful of other quality-conscious cottage industries he inspired, like Vixen, at www.vixencreations.com, and Dills 4 Does).

It’s been the same since Research and Development in Stone Age times. A few years ago I saw a display of what were almost certainly prehistoric dildos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the museum called them “tent pegs.” More recently, the U.S. patent office’s files show that sex widgets are just as popular among inventors as better mousetraps. Just check out Hoag Levin’s fun new book American Sex Machines for a guided tour of some of these.

Relevant research topic or no, however, sex science rarely gets the support it needs from conservative funding sources. And industry’s lab-coated folks don’t always have the information about sexual response and anatomy they need to develop the best products. What’s a responsible sex store to do? Test products ourselves, ask educated questions, and press inventors and manufacturers to take these questions just as seriously as we do, that’s what.

Case in point: we were recently offered a silicone-based sexual lubricant. We were interested because most of the condom-compatible lubes we carry are glycerine- and water-based, and some people find glycerine irritating. As far as we know, all lubed condoms already use the silicone-based stuff, and the lubricant which comes with Reality, the “female” condom, does too.

But our testers (of whom I was one) thought the lube felt quite oily. Silicone oil doesn’t harm latex, so it’s fine to use with condoms — but many women have trouble using oils as lubricants because the oil clings to the inside of the vagina and doesn’t flush out as readily as water-based lubes do. The vagina naturally flushes itself out with secretions, but oils take longer to be removed. Sometimes the result is bacterial growth and infection. We’re certainly not interested in selling a product whose use might present this kind of problem for our customers.

So we asked the manufacturers about it. Their answer, essentially, was, “Gee, we hadn’t thought about that.”

Now, we don’t have a chemist on staff. We hope our manufacturers will have one, or at least know the right questions to ask. But this experience left us flummoxed. Steering between the Scylla of our customers’ health and well-being and the Charybdis of purveyors’ lack of knowledge is tricky indeed. We certainly wish we had an in-house lab — but GV’s not quite that big yet.

Of course, maybe you have an in-house lab! Certainly our customer base must include trained professionals in lab coats — or at least knowledgeable specialists whom we could consult when the tricky questions come up. If this describes you, Ms. or Mr. Science, and you’d like to be on our list of consultants, please drop us an e-mail at customerservice@goodvibes.com and let us know your area/s of expertise. We’d love your help in doing our bit for science and sex information (not to mention good customer service).

And while we’re at it, don’t forget to think up a fantasy plaything or two for the “Sex Toys We Wish Existed” contest, an event that’s part of our 20th anniversary celebration. American Sex Machines author Hoag Levin will be one of our distinguished judges, as will Nina Hartley — who has a nursing background and puts it to good use in her popular series of how-to tapes. Look in our catalog for her recent offerings on oral sex, anal sex, and swinging. Adult toy industry pros will round out the panel of experts, who will award a $500 grand prize to the winner.

Send us a sketch or detailed description of your wished-for toy by September 1, 1997. We’ll display a selection of entries on the walls of our stores this fall. [Contest has long been closed. -ed]

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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.

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