It’s something that everyone talks about, yet somehow isn’t talked about enough. Or rather, isn’t talked about enough in the right way. Sex is an important part of many people’s lives. It can foster intimacy, build trust and just be fun to have.
But all too often, those who decide to engage in sex — be it oral, penetrative, etc. — tend to skip some of the more awkward conversations because, well, they’re awkward. One of those oft-forgotten conversations is the use of sex toys before, during and after sex. I reached out to two knowledgeable women on what they have to say about ending the stigma surrounding using sex toys — especially during sex.
My first conversation was with Gigi Engle, an ACS and certified sexologist, who is the author of the book “All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life.” I spoke with Engle via email on sex, stigmas and toys. It was awesome. Here’s our conversation below.
Alice Murphy: What is the most common stigma/shaming behavior that you see around using sex toys (particularly during sex)? How can we start to dismantle that stigma?
Gigi Engle: Some people are still a little bit scared of sex toys. The idea of ‘needing’ a tool to help bring a partner pleasure can feel like an affront on your sexual abilities. But that is definitely not true. Talking about bringing sex toys into your bedroom might be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Sex toys are not a threat. They aren’t partner replacements. We should bring sex toys into our lives so that we can use them every day, and have open conversations about them. Sex toys are low-key the last bedroom taboo […] As a sex educator, I can assure you that plenty of people are still intimidated by them, however much I stress how important and magnificent they are.
For most women and clit-owning people, external clitoral stimulation is required in order to experience an orgasm. It is not optional. It is not something we’d maybe, kind of enjoy. It is ESSENTIAL.
And that’s why sex toys are kind of magical. Sex toys are designed to bridge the gap that is often formed when we have intercourse. Intercourse provides little (if any) clitoral stimulation. Sex toys are the helping hand we need. When you use a sex toy during partnered play, you can get that extra external stimulation — so that everyone can have an orgasm. That’s the kind of world we all deserve to live in.
AM: Concerning some of the critical topics to cover: aftercare and sanitation, what advice do you have? For students in particular?
GE: You should always read the directions thoroughly before using or cleaning a sex toy to ensure that you’re sanitizing properly and in a way that won’t damage the toy. Warm water and soap usually do the trick, but some people prefer more thorough methods of sanitation. If you’re using silicone toys (be sure they’re medical grade or body-safe only!), you can get a UV pouch to sanitize your toys.
AM: For those who have never used a sex toy (be it during intercourse or not), what advice do you have for them?
GE: Use the toy alone first. You want to get to know your new buddy before you bring it into the bedroom. Once you know exactly how you like using the toy, you can guide a partner to use the toy on you or with you.
AM: Do you have any recommendations for beginners who want to start using sex toys during sex? For more adventurous folk?
GE: I’d suggest going with something simple and small — a pocket vibrator — to start. Maude, SKYN, Dame, and Unbound all have great options that are [at] really reasonable price point[s]. Once you master that, a clit-sucking vibrator is a great choice. Womanizer’s Starlet 2 is great for first-timers and works like a charm.
My second conversation was with Shayna Shor, a Community Health graduate from University of Maryland, and a Certified Health Education Specialist. Shor works at the university’s health center as the Sexual Health Program Assistant. We spoke a few days ago on the niche topic of college students and sex toys.
Right off the bat, I asked Shor what her work at University of Maryland looks like.
“I work to bring all sorts of different services to campus, to our community,” she enthusiastically responds. “So those types of things include STI and HIV testing, free condoms, lube, dental dams — safer sex supplies.” But, that wasn’t nearly all. Shor continues, “We offer a lot of education to the campus community. We have print materials, we have online materials, we offer presentations, we offer workshops. We also offer free birth control and other safer sex consults.”
Frankly, I was a little shocked. Many knew on campus that the health center gave away free condoms and lube on Tuesdays (Shor often womanned the booth), but I had no idea the wealth of opportunities available for educating yourself. But, on to sex toys. I asked Shayna to speak a little bit about sex toys and their stigma — particularly as it related to college students.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is actually something that I was talking with my coworker about last night. Because whenever we do workshops we bring demonstrators with us.” Demonstrators, Shor tells me, is a very professional, sexual education term for dildos. Every time Shor conducts a workshop, tables or gives a presentation, she incorporates them into the demonstration. And that, she tells me, is where the stigma starts. “We can’t even look at a demonstrator without feeling uncomfortable.”
So what about using sex toys during sex? “People think it’s a personal fault,” says Shor. “They think, ‘If I’m not wet enough, or I’m not turned on enough, it’s my fault.’ There can be a lot of blame, and that’s another aspect of stigmatization.”
Shor encourages shifting the perspective on sex toys. She explains that incorporating sex toys into sex is taking an action to enhance sex, to try something new. It’s never about a partner not being “enough,” or that there’s something wrong.
So, how to dismantle this pervasive stigma? “A multi-pronged approach,” suggests Shor. “My educational background is in public health. We can’t just have one solution. We need to have this multi-level approach, because that’s how we live and function in society.”
She tells me that it’s as simple as talking peer-to-peer, having open and honest conversations with your friends. “There’s no reason we can’t talk with our friends openly about things like masturbation, exploring self-pleasure, using toys.” Shor is quick to note, “If you feel like you can’t talk to your partner about these things, that’s a little bit of a red flag.”
Using sex toys during sex doesn’t have to be for everyone, but it should be an option. Both Gigi Engle and Shayna Shor spoke to the harm that a lack of education on sex toys does to both partners. Wanting to use a sex toy should never be the spark for blame or shame. Rather, sex toys provide a chance for partners to have honest conversations about what brings them pleasure and what doesn’t.