A closer look at the sex toy
When adults reach for a toy, it mostly happens in secret. But love toys are part of everyday life for a lot of people. Sex therapist Dania Schiftan outlines the pros and cons.
Here at Galaxus, we sold seven and a half times as many love toys in 2020 as we did just five years ago. Sales in our shop doubled from 2019 to 2020 alone. Interest in adult toys is growing. Reaching into the nightstand drawer is becoming routine for many. But open conversations about vibrators, masturbators and the like are still rare. And the feeling of shame surrounding buying condoms or tampons is still all too real. How should we change our behaviour where love toys are concerned?
«People think of lust, arousal and sex as very intimate topics, so they rarely talk about them openly,» explains sex therapist Dania Schiftan. Dania talks interested patients through the pros and cons of love toys as part of her practice. «It's important to me that people know the potential of using toys, but also the risks.» Especially as experts report an increase in the popularity of sex toys in recent years.
From unsavoury gadget to everyday item
According to Schiftan, it's thanks to erotic shops that sex toys have become more accessible to the general public. «Beate Uhse, Germany's first sex shop, was one of the first to make its shops more visually appealing.» Far from the typical risqué interior that prompts you to look sheepishly over your shoulder as you walk in. The result has been reduced inhibitions about visiting shops like these, especially for women. Other shops have followed suit, with new (online) erotic shops like Amorana, Amorelie and Eis arriving on the scene. «You can even find small vibrators on supermarket shelves now,» adds Schiftan. Toys aren't being hidden anymore, and better, easier access to them is partly down to the e-commerce market. «At the same time, the media is promoting open discussions. This development makes people feel that they can use toys and that there's nothing wrong with it.»
Toys have undergone a visual makeover too. If you scroll through different providers' online offering, abstract designs seem standard. A vibrator is very rarely an anatomically correct likeness of a penis. «Designers create toys which are visibly different to our bodies. This departure makes it easier for toys to become part of people's everyday lives.» According to Schiftan, experimenting with design can be great. It means that a lot of creativity and variety has gone into the toy to «camouflage» it. Like an apparent lipstick hiding a vibrator that can fit in your handbag. «On the other hand, this development reminds us of our boundaries. Namely that a sex toy has to be neutral, playful, smooth and not look anatomical before we can bring ourselves to use it.»
Easy access and abstract designs are developments that have been particularly beneficial for female sexuality. «Sex toys like vibrators have become an everyday item for many women. Men, however, are inexperienced in this area and rarely reach for a masturbator.» This is also reflected in sales figures. In 2020, Galaxus sold almost twice as many vibrators as masturbators. Why is that?
Masturbation as emancipation
According to Schiftan, the majority of women who use their toys for masturbation gain new, positive experiences. «Toys are effective, which makes it easier for women to reach climax.» This helps women to get out of a «deficit model», as Schiftan calls it. «Women who don't feel all that much during sex with a partner can build their self-confidence by experimenting with toys. They learn that there is actually something that stimulates them, so they can enjoy their sexuality too.»
The sex therapist explains that masturbation – with or without a toy – can generally be considered a kind of emancipation. This is associated with thoughts such as «I'm doing this for me now» or «I'm allowed this». It's a form of self-love. What's more, sex toys are anything but affordable. The average price of all vibrators bought in our shop last year was 95 francs. «So people want to consider a purchase and make a conscious decision to invest in themselves. This means that women give their toy value and an established place in their lives,» explains Schiftan.
«Isn't it cheating?»
Men and women alike find that they reach climax faster, more reliably and more easily alone. But this doesn't mean that their partner is doing something wrong when they're together. However, people who use toys often find their partners asking questions like «am I not good enough?» «For these people, using toys amounts to a personal shortcoming. They see the toy as something that could replace them and their apparent lack of skill.»
Masturbation and using sex toys don't generally have anything to do with a partner. «We know from research that masturbation respresents a standalone form of sexuality. So, seeing it as cheating or a shortcoming is completely unfounded.» In fact, it's the opposite. Toys represent playful variation and expanding your sexual possibilities. Both alone and with a partner. «What you learn from masturbation can also help to add to your repertoire as a couple.»
Schiftan recommends that men who have got used to masturbating by stimulating their penis with fast rubbing movements at high pressure try masturbators – commonly known as «pocket pussies». «These men often find it difficult to achieve the same level of stimulation with a partner. Simply put: the vagina or anus feels too wide or moist compared to a hand. Masturbators feel more like a vagina and can help to train certain movements.» The device can then help men to learn how to use their body rather than their hand. «Physically, it's a completely different experience.»
The element of surprise
On an emotional level, Schiftan tells us, toys offer people security. Firstly because they know that they're a reliable source of pleasure and secondly because they make them feel less alone. «Compared to your own hand, toys provide an 'external' component that makes for an exciting element of surprise. If you're just using your hand, your brain already has all the information before you've even moved,» Schiftan explains.
Despite their benefits, Schiftan stresses: «toys should be fun and should under no circumstances be seen as compulsory. Even if they're recommended by therapists.» She adds that the growing popularity of sex toys can put pressure on people to feel that they have to try them to avoid being considered prudish.
You can't compare human and machine. «No penis can vibrate as intensely and no hand can move fast enough to create the same sensation as a technical device. The nerves in the clitoris are very responsive to strong vibrations. If a woman is used to a high level of stimulation, it doesn't transfer to sex with a partner – at least not without a vibrator.» If the toy is dispensed with, women can quickly feel excluded or disadvantaged. It's a kind of addiction.
Safe is safe
Correct handling is also fundamental. «At the end of the day, these are still technical devices that have to be used according to the instructions.» That means: only using toys as they're designed to be used, buying high-quality products that comply with safety standards and regular, material-specific maintenance and cleaning. «Anal toys, for example, should really only be inserted up to the stopper, not so that they disappear into the body completely. Woman also frequently tell me that they leave their vibrator in their vagina overnight. This completely overloads the system and should not be done under any circumstances. Too much pressure under arousal can also result in injury.»
In the end, toys are what you make of them. You can view them as a chance to experiment, an extension of your sex life and a change of perspective, as long as you feel comfortable and don't forget to prioritise your own safety.
This is the fifth article in a series on sexuality with Dania Schiftan. If you have any questions or points you want us to cover in the coming articles, let me know by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or in the comments below.
For the last 13 years, Dania Schiftan has been working as a sexologist and psychotherapist from her own practice in Zurich. You can find out more about Dania and her job in this interview:
All other articles in this series are here:
These articles might also interest you