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Posts Tagged ‘vibrators’

A recent report in The Journal of Sexual Medicine caught my eye. “Vibrators and Other Sex Toys Are Commonly Recommended to Patients, but Does Size Matter? Dimensions of Commonly Sold Products” is the title. First, I was happy to see that the authors are furthering the discussion about health care providers telling patients about “vibrators and other sex toys” (and, full disclosure, my article in OBG Management is footnoted as among the voices encouraging physicians to consider what they offer women through their practices).

Beyond that encouragement, the researchers compiled dimensions of vibrators and dildos, noting that not every source provides accurate or complete information. The conclusions they reached were that while the size of products varied, the dimensions, overall, “approximated mean penile dimensions.” They further suggested that further familiarity with the product category among clinicians, which is never a bad idea.

Since I’ve been recommending vibrators to women (and men) for some time, I’ve got some practical observations to share, for both patients and clinicians.

First, don’t do anything that hurts. Really.

The corollary to that is that you get to decide what hurts and what feels good. There are no “shoulds.” That’s true even if someone has a chart of dimensions and predictions.

I find that women like vibrators that can be inserted into the vagina for three reasons:

  • They like the feeling of fullness (and for them a dildo is also effective)
  • They like direct stimulation of the G-spot (which, as we’ve said before, has a mystique all its own)
  • While they don’t specifically think of the G-spot, they like the internal stimulation

Their favorite toys are as varied as the women themselves, and dimensions are only one part of that equation. Materials, pulse patterns, and vibration strength also count. Sexual partners and history can have an influence, as can progression of menopause, which can mean narrowing and shortening of the vagina. Over time, women may want a shorter, narrower vibrator, quite possibly with a stronger motor for more intense sensations.

But, again: Using a vibrator should feel good. If a vibrator is too large to comfortably insert, don’t insert it—or wait until you’re more fully aroused before you try again. And regardless of “insertable length,” don’t feel like there’s anyone but you who decides how deep to go.

And if insertion doesn’t sound good or feel good, remember there are a number of vibrators designed to stimulate the clitoris, which is where the nerve endings are concentrated that 70 percent of us need for orgasm.

So if your health care provider is still studying up, don’t be discouraged. Women have more than 100 years of experience using their own judgment with vibrators and pleasure, and you can do the same.

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Recently, I joined with two colleagues to produce a “continuing medical education” unit for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Our topic was “Vibrators and Other Devices in Gynecologic Practices” (if you’re a health care practitioner, you can investigate the CME offer here).

I was joined by Mary Jo Rapini, a sex psychotherapist and long-time friend of MiddlesexMD, and Debra Wickman, a gynecologist who teaches at the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix. We talked about a 2009 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine that says that 52.5 percent of women have used a vibrator; that led us to talk about the roughly half who have not.

A number of myths might get in their way, and we hope we made some progress in busting them.

Myth #1: Vibrators are for people whose relationships are in trouble. Based on what the three of us have seen, the opposite is true. As Mary Jo explains, “Vibrators are for couples who want to explore, who want to try new things, who want to play and have fun in their sex life.” Couples who share that desire are typically interested, trusting, and care about each other.

Myth #2: Vibrators make it hard to have an orgasm any other way. I’m happy to debunk this one with a medical reality: As the muscles involved in orgasm grow stronger, orgasm becomes easier and more intense. Vibrators are good at stimulating—and they don’t get tired or fumble, as we sometimes do as we lose a little strength and dexterity. Staying sexually active with a vibrator will increase your responsiveness to manual stimulation—that’s just the way we work.

Myth #3: There’s something sinful about a vibrator. Again, it’s Mary Jo who addresses this most directly. She’s had a number of conversations with faith leaders on her patients’ behalf, when religious concerns weighed on their minds. The ministers she’s talked to are invariably in favor of keeping marriages strong, and maintaining physical intimacy is a natural part of those relationships.

Myth #4: Vibrators are only for self-stimulation. Vibrators are good for self-stimulation, and that’s a good option for women who want to maintain their sexual health when they’re without a partner. But they’re also part of intimacy for couples. They’re especially good for couples who see a need to slow down and spend more time in foreplay. Which, now that I think about it, could be any of us who’ve achieved midlife!

If you’re among those who haven’t tried a vibrator, I support your right to decide for yourself. Here’s hoping, though, that none of these myths is what’s standing in your way.

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I have a lot of conversations with women about sex, given my line of work. And, because of that little pink “Ask Dr. Barb” button on our website, I get some cryptic emails, too. Sometimes I have to read between the lines, both in person and online, to understand what the situation—and therefore the question—might be.

One recent email referred to male partners who were not especially “gifted.” As I think about it, I suspect that my correspondent was wondering about her own orgasm—or her failure to experience it. That’s not the topic we corresponded about, since she went on to ask a different question, but because I’m sure that woman is not alone, let me lay it out here.

In spite of the passionate scenes we see in movies, most of us—70 percent—don’t experience orgasm during intercourse without additional stimulation. For most of us, it’s the clitoris that’s the key to orgasm, and most positions for intercourse just don’t provide enough stimulation. There are other sources of stimulation that can lead to orgasm—some of us have very sensitive nipples, for example, and some of us have found success with the G-spot.

It’s rare for a partner, whether “gifted” or not, to be psychic; and most women I know would prefer that their partner not be too widely experienced in the varieties of women’s responses. And that’s why I encourage women to know their own bodies, exploring either on their own or in the presence of their partners (many of whom find the experience quite erotic, by the way). Vibrators have proven to be very effective in clitoral stimulation; adding internal stimulation is helpful for about a third of us.

When you find what works for you, you can give your partner some suggestions, which will be much appreciated. (If, by the way, you’re wondering whether you’ve experienced an orgasm, keep exploring. You’ll know when you have.)

Ninety-six percent of us can experience orgasm. Be assured of that and relax. Being focused on that goal can inhibit your ability to achieve it. And let’s affirm one more time that sex can be pleasurable without orgasm, too, for the intimacy you share with your partner, for the feeling of wholeness and power it gives you.

Another email exchange—with a woman who experienced her first orgasm at 70—confirms that it’s never too late.

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You mention a variety of things that play a role, all coinciding with the change in hormone levels that comes with menopause, which you’ll reach in a few more months (the milestone is one year without menstruation).

The Vagifem that’s been prescribed for you should be having some positive effect with vaginal dryness; it should not interfere with orgasm. Vagifem is a very, very low dose of estrogen, delivered directly to the vagina and surrounding tissues. This is partial compensation for the estrogen delivered through the whole body when ovaries are intact and functioning.

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant), which you mention taking, can be a barrier to orgasm. If you’ve taken them for a while and only recently have had issues, it could be that the combination of the SSRIs and the lower hormone levels of menopause is now problematic. There is limited evidence that Viagra can help women on SSRIs experience orgasm. It’s not just estrogen that declines with menopause: Testosterone also declines. You might talk to your health care provider about testosterone therapy; among my patients, many who trial testosterone note sexual benefits, usually describing more sexual thoughts, more receptivity (a patient recently told me she’s “more easily coerced”!), and more accessible orgasms.

You also said that vibrator use has become ineffective for orgasm. Among midlife women, I find that the specific vibrator really counts. There is a definite range of vibration intensity, and as our bodies change, that can make all the difference. Lelo has just doubled the “motor strength” of two of their already powerful (and MiddlesexMD favorites) vibrators for the Gigi2 and Liv2.

Best of luck! My work with women every day says it’s worth exploring your options. (And, to take the pressure off, remember that intimacy without orgasm is still intimacy!)

To ask your own question, use the pink “Ask Dr. Barb” button top and center on our website. You’ll receive a confidential reply via email, and your question may be used as the basis for a Q&A post here on our blog. 

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As we saw in the last post, vibrators were developed by doctors in the late 1800s to replace the “pelvic finger massage” they routinely administered to female patients. The massage was intended to relieve symptoms of “hysteria” or “neurasthenia,” such as anxiety, sleeplessness, and general malaise. Done successfully, it induced a “hysterical paroxysm,” which offered temporary relief to patients. By some estimates, over 75 percent of women suffered from these symptoms.

By the early 1900s, small electric vibrators had a comfy niche in middle-class homes right on the shelf between the toaster and the electric iron. At the time, they were perceived as medical devices that had nothing to do with sex.

The porn industry, however, was not so easily deluded. In the late 1920s, early porn films embraced the gadget for its own version of “doctor.” In this context, the “hysterical paroxysm” looked unmistakably like (gasp!) an orgasm. Once that connection was made, the veneer of the vibrator as a nonsexual treatment for a medical condition became uncomfortably hard to sustain, and the vibrator quietly disappeared from respectable society and doctors’ offices.

It became so utterly invisible, in fact, that in the 1970s only 1 percent of women had ever used one, according to the Hite Report, a famous study of female sexuality. “This was perhaps unsurprising, given that most vibrators by then were modeled on a very male notion of what a woman would want–a supersized phallus–replicating, in other words, the very anatomy whose shortcomings had precipitated the invention in the first place,” writes Decca Aitkenhead, in the Guardian.

At the heart of the matter was that:

  • At the time, women (of a certain social class) were simultaneously idealized and condescended to. They weren’t supposed to be sexual, to want sex, or to enjoy it.
  • The only “real” sex was penis-in-vagina penetration until the male reached orgasm.
  • If this didn’t satisfy a woman, the fault was hers. She was either defective, frigid, or “out of sorts” (in Victorian parlance).

Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of the Orgasm, the seminal work tracing the history of the vibrator, commented in an article in the Daily Beast, “In effect, doctors inherited the job of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody else wanted. The vibrator inherited the job when they got tired of it, too.”

That many women were not completely (or at all) satisfied by ordinary coitus was a source of confusion, frustration, and threat to some men. According to the Hite Report, most women can reach clitoral orgasm through masturbation. But the idea of women masturbating was also extremely threatening.

“I have read debates between doctors over whether women should be allowed to ride bicycles or whether the pleasure they might induce from the seat made it an unacceptable moral hazard,” writes Erik Loomis in “The Strange, Fascinating History of the Vibrator.”

Lest you think that we’ve evolved beyond these repressive and delusional ideas and that female sexuality is more acceptable today, think of the recent diatribe against a college student who spoke in favor of requiring health insurers to provide contraception. Or the statements alluding to “legitimate rape,” or the suggestion that a woman can’t get pregnant because her body “will shut the whole thing down.”

Have we really come all that far, Baby?

In any case, the discredited vibrator slunk back into view in the 1960s, first as a kinky sex toy and then as a symbol of women’s sexual liberation by feminists.

In a major national study of sexual behavior conducted in 2009, of over 2,000 women surveyed, 52.5 said they had used a vibrator.

If nothing else, the peculiar story of the vibrator should help us recognize how strongly we are influenced by cultural messages. A vibrator is not a medical device nor is it some unsavory symbol of sexual deficiency. For those of us who need extra stimulation to keep our sexual parts lubricated and functional, it’s just one important tool.

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Just released on September 21, Hysteria is a light comedy about a dark and silly time. So touchy is its topic, in fact, that it took the producer, who is a woman, about ten years to find a studio willing to back the project. So unnerving is the topic that the author of the book on which the movie is based, who is also a woman, lost her job as an assistant professor when it was published.

Hysteria, the movie, and the book, titled The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines, explore the modern history of the vibrator. And a surprising story it is. The movie, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy, approaches the topic with a comedic touch. It is described by Movieline.com as “spirited, a jaunty trifle that’s low on eroticism but high on cartoony coquettishness.”

But beneath the silliness—because, really, how else can this be portrayed?—lies the basically true story of the invention of the vibrator. The unnerving truth may be that the paternalistic and harebrained notions that led to the invention of the vibrator continue to entangle themselves in our “modern” cultural psyche. The movie, but more insistently the book, raises some instructive and faintly unsavory questions about embedded cultural expectations regarding women and sex.

First, we’ll look at the vibrator story, and then, in a future post, we’ll explore the cultural attitudes lurking beneath.

If you’ve ever read novels from the late 1800s—the Victorian period in England—such as those by Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters or Edith Wharton in New York, you may have noticed a certain… reticence… a naiveté, an innocence about sexual matters. “Making love” in these novels refers to the most innocuous verbal expressions of admiration. Respectable women were corseted, cosseted, and shielded from turbulence of any sort. The preoccupation of a young woman was to attract a suitable match, and having done so, she was to run an efficient household and be an asset to her husband. Little was heard of her henceforth.

Having read many of these novels, I’ve often wondered how children were ever conceived.

So I was amazed to discover that these same respectable Victorian women were prescribed a very unusual medical procedure by their doctors to alleviate emotional afflictions, which were diagnosed generally as “hysteria” or “neurasthenia.” Symptoms ranged from anxiety and nervousness to headache and sleeping difficulty to abdominal “heaviness.”

A procedure that seemed to temporarily relieve these symptoms was known as a “pelvic finger massage,” typically administered by those very proper doctors. The goal of this treatment was to induce a “hysterical paroxysm.”

So—to put it in contemporary terms—doctors were masturbating their female patients to orgasm in order to relieve the sexual (and other) frustrations that women in this era commonly experienced. And this in a culture that viewed a glimpse of ankle as risqué.

“It’s very difficult to imagine that 100 years ago women didn’t have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor’s office to get masturbated,” said Gyllenhaal in an interview with the UK’s Guardian.

At the time, however, the procedure wasn’t thought to be sexual. In fact, doctors considered it routine, tedious, and boring.

“Annoyed doctors complained that it took women forever to achieve this relief,” writes Eric Loomis in “The Strange, Fascinating History of the Vibrator.” Yet, since repeat business was virtually assured, doctors weren’t complaining about the steady income.

So, they invented a machine to do it for them. Thus the vibrator was born.

Early models ranged from comic to frightening. A steam-powered vibrator called the Manipulator, invented by an American doctor in 1869, required the patient to lie on a table with a cutout at the business end. A moving rod was powered by the steam engine in another room.

Lack of mobility was a problem with this contraption—a doctor was committed to a large, stationary object that consumed two rooms. And if the engine was coal-powered, who did the shoveling?

The next model was electric, and the battery only weighed 40 pounds. This was developed by Dr. J. Mortimer Granville, our erstwhile hero in the movie Hysteria. So it was that the vibrator predated the invention of the vacuum cleaner or the electric iron by over a decade. I ask you, where are our priorities, ladies?

Despite their size and lack of attention to attractive design, the things worked. From over an hour of manual manipulation, a woman could now reach “paroxysm” in five minutes.

But progress marches on, and by the turn of the last century, more domestic households had electricity, and vibrators had become small, portable, and widely available. Reputable magazines and catalogs sold them alongside the toaster and the eggbeater. A woman could buy a “massager” for what a few visits to the doctor cost, and thus the medical profession lost its cash cow.

Advertisements in magazines like Women’s Home Companion, Sears & Roebuck, and Good Housekeeping promised that “all the pleasures of youth… will throb within you” and “it can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand and for as long a period as may be desired.”

It beggars the imagination to believe that no one through all these decades considered that massaging a woman’s genitals had anything to do with sex. And in fact, the Guardian article states, “Despite the lack of evidence to suggest otherwise, it seems unlikely [that women really did not know what they were buying]–and the manufacturers surely knew what they were selling.”

This level of schizophrenia is the vexing conundrum at the heart of the vibrator phenomenon.

In a future post, we’ll explore the more recent history of the vibrator and the questions suggested by this massive blind spot.

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From what you describe, you sound like a typical patient of mine! About 4 percent of women never can have an orgasm. “Orgasmic dysfunction,” or difficulty with orgasm, is reported in 9 to 27 percent of women. Sixty to 80 percent of us cannot have an orgasm with intercourse only; we need more direct stimulation, whether manual or “battery powered.”

There are lots of reasons for “dysfunction,” including neurological disorders, post-surgical complications, endocrine or medical disorders, side effects of medications or drugs; most often the reason is sociologic or psychologic, which includes everything from unsuitable stimulation, poor relationships or communication, history of sexual trauma, and more.

And as we grow older, vascular and hormonal changes don’t make orgasm any easier.

If the vibrator you’re using isn’t quite doing the job, you might trade up to a more powerful model. We’ve chosen the vibrators we offer at MiddlesexMD (most rechargeable instead of battery-powered) in part because they have stronger motors, which equals stronger vibrations and more sensation. Take your time and focus on arousal as well as the “end game.” Even if you’re not experiencing dryness, a lubricant can encourage more touch and playfulness. Warming lubricants or oils can also increase sensation.

Perhaps the most difficult advice to follow: While orgasm is quite lovely (and good for our health!), making it a required outcome of intimacy can make it more difficult to achieve. The more you can focus in the moment, on each sensation and touch, the lower the obstacles!

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