Can you become addicted to your vibrator?

The answer, it turns out, largely depends on who's asking the question. A sex writer investigates under the covers

Published September 5, 2015 11:30PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Prod-akszyn</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Prod-akszyn via Shutterstock)

This piece originally appeared on DAME.

Dame Magazine No matter how blasé we may think we are about sex toys, one topic repeatedly crops up like a haunting warning from the great frontier of sexual exploration: Can a woman be addicted to her vibrator? The answer, as it turns out, largely depends on who’s asking. Is it a query from a woman who feels dependent on her beloved vibe, or an accusation hurled by a jealous lover?

In a widely cited and reprinted essay by Nicole Michaels at YourTango, she alleges that after testing a slew of vibrators, she got addicted to her Hitachi Magic Wand, the famed plug-in “Cadillac of vibrators.”

I’d orgasm, and find myself overwhelmed with the type of shame I would imagine a Catholic priest might have. I'd tell myself I had to quit or find another vibrator or get into a relationship that left me sexually satisfied but instead, when the urge hit, I’d give the golden wand another ride and go through the same shame spiral again

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She likens her reliance on the toy to her alcohol addiction; both, she writes, made her life unmanageable. I’m not going to argue that someone continue doing something that makes them feel bad about themselves, but there are disturbing implications in Michaels’ piece.

According to Carlyle Jansen, author of masturbation how-to book Sex Yourself and founder/sex coach at Toronto sex toy store Good For Her, the first thing we need to look at is the definition of addiction. She cited Wikipedia’s: “a state characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences.” Compulsive might mean a woman’s repeatedly late to work cause she’s too busy vibing it up, or wants to stay home rather than go out with friends, á la the rabbit vibe episode of Sex and the City, where Charlotte defends herself, saying, “it’s a vibrator; it’s not like it’s crack.”

Jansen says it’s natural to get used to using a toy, like Michaels did, because “nothing simply human can compare to the RPM of most vibrators.” That doesn’t mean she’s “addicted.” Another possible explanation? “It might be that she’d get frustrated when her fingers didn’t get the same response,” explained Jansen. “When we get frustrated or anxious, our bodies shift into ‘fight or flight’ response and the blood flows out and away from the erectile tissue. Without the blood in the area, it becomes harder to orgasm, which leads to more frustration.” Then again, a woman may simply be wired to like that type of stimulation. “Some of us need glasses to see, others need calculators in order to do math. Some of us need a vibrator to orgasm,” said Jansen.

One of the biggest problems with Michaels’ framing is that vibrators are presumed to be “lesser than,” and therefore, somehow shameful to use on a long-term basis. She pits vibrator use against partnered sex, approvingly quoting Dr. Gilda Carle, who told her, “Use of a vibrator is momentarily satisfying. But it doesn’t answer the need for a partner to hold you, converse with you, commiserate with you, and love you.” Of course a vibrator isn’t going to provide the same sort of emotional support as a human being, but that doesn’t mean the two are at odds—or that they can’t be combined. By judging herself harshly, Michaels inhibits herself from fully enjoying her toy.

“There is no hierarchy of pleasure—yet in this article a vibrator-induced solo orgasm is at the bottom and a partner-induced vibrator-free orgasm is at the top,” said sex toy reviewer and blogger Epiphora. “There are no rules for masturbation, [but this] makes it seem like masturbation is only legitimate if you do it with your fingers—and when you're single.” Exactly. It’s almost impossible to extricate how much baggage a woman like Michaels is carrying around about how she gets off. If she’s approaching it from a place of shame that she’s not doing it “right,” it’s natural that it’s going to feel like it’s impeding her life.

According to sex educator JoEllen Notte, the subtext of calling a case like this “vibrator addiction” is problematic. “We worry so much about women becoming addicted to vibrators because of the irrational fear that they might replace men,” Notte said. “[It’s] firmly rooted in the idea that there’s one ‘real’ sex, penis in vagina intercourse, and other means of pleasure are not only lesser, but in this case, wrong.”

On the other hand, women who actively enjoy vibrator use and have no issues with it of their own, may find their habit under attack by those who don’t understand it. Madeline*, a lesbian who’s been using vibrators for over 30 years, says she’s been accused of being a vibrator addict by several lovers. “I was used to having an orgasm before I fell asleep most nights. It was relaxing for me, and allowed me to fantasize about the naughty things I could not share for fear of rejection. One woman was mad that I masturbated at all and another thought I did it instead being with her.” Because of this, she hid her vibrator use, admitting, “It became a dirty little secret. Sometimes it felt like I was cheating. I always made sure they were satisfied so it was not as if the vibrator was in the way. I felt like a child and she was the adult accusing me of some sort of great sin.” But those accusations struck a nerve. “I was ashamed and felt like there was something really wrong with me. Why couldn’t I be sated and have as strong an orgasm with a person as I could with my toys? I must really be screwed up.”

She says it was a “long, hard road” toward accepting that vibrators have their own purpose in her life, both for relaxation and to placate her extremely high sex drive, especially in her current marriage, where she and her wife have vastly differing needs for sex. After her extensive healing process that involved, “a total change in the way I thought about myself,” Madeline now simply accepts her vibrator use as an innate part of herself, one she won’t let anyone try to talk her out of. “I don’t know other people’s situations but for me, it’s just one of those things like having curly hair and blue eyes and being a lesbian. It just is.”

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For someone on the receiving end of a guilt trip about vibrator use, Jamye Waxman, author of Getting Off: A Woman’s Guide to Masturbation, suggests meeting them halfway. Don’t give in to the guilt, but see if the two of you can join forces. “If the partner says, ‘You never let me get you off in other ways,’ well, then let the partner try to get you off,” said Waxman. “It may take a lot longer to get there, but the orgasm is the end result and this is about the journey. So, figure out ways you can take the journey with your partner, without making them feel like it’s them or the vibrator.” Madeline’s advice to a woman being told she loves her vibrator a bit too much by a lover? “Reassure them they are doing nothing wrong, you just like or need more and you love toy play.”

It’s also important to remember that while the toy may be the fastest, most surefire route to getting what you want in bed, as sex toy blogger Kara_Sutra points out, they aren’t mere “replacements” for people. Just as “orgasm equality” is more complicated than a simple “one orgasm for you, one orgasm for me,” we also have to recognize that a human being may have a steeper sexual learning curve than a sex toy, which only has one purpose. Sutra notes, “[O]ur lovers are not mind readers, we cannot expect them to know what we need to get off. If you can’t orgasm with your partner it’s your responsibility to teach them how to get you there. It’s not an excuse or reason to ditch them for a vibe.”

Misplaced expectations actually seem to be at the heart of Michaels’ issues. “Men, who came with baggage and occasional bad moods and far less of a guarantee of sexual pleasure than my plug-in, began to seem not terribly necessary,” she writes of her time prioritizing her toy. Again, of course a toy isn’t going to have bad moods—and there’s nothing wrong with wanting some no-strings-attached (and maybe even no talking involved) solo pleasure. But it’s not fair to expect human beings to simply shut up and go to work the way a toy will.

So, even if it’s not an “addiction,” can extended vibrator use be a problem for women? Maybe. It’s a problem if the woman wants to get off in other ways and can’t seem to, such as the caller to Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast podcast who’d been using that beloved Magic Wand since her teen years, or Clutch writer Arielle Loren, who “broke up” with her vibrator in order to maximize other types of sensation. But is it in and of itself a problem? Not necessarily. That’s something every woman will have to sort out for herself, based on her own comfort level.

Jansen wants women to know that it’s not just “using a vibrator” that may be the issue, but how it’s used. She writes in Sex Yourself, “When you find that special spot with your vibrator, it’s so tempting to stay there. [A]fter all if it feels good, why put it anywhere else? Well, here’s why: Repetition can numb your senses. For instance, if a friend or partner rubs your arm in the same way for more than a minute, the amazing sensation you felt at first quickly fades into the background.”

The good news? There’s very likely a fix. Jansen writes, “If you leave your vibrator in one spot for long, your nerve endings will stop responding. But as long as you continue to move it—even slightly—your body will stay sensitive to pleasure. Plus, rhythmic back-and-forth, up-and-down, or in-and-out motions are helpful when it comes to achieving orgasm.”

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However, changing masturbation habits is not always such a simple process. Sandra Daugherty, host of the podcast Sex Nerd Sandra, found herself at a crossroads. She was totally comfortable using toys with partners as well as during masturbation but she felt something was missing. “I used a Magic Wand for a long, long time and I thought I couldn’t orgasm any other way. That was my jam. I thought I had permanently destroyed my nerve endings; I would try with my hand or rubbing up against things. I thought I was broken and there was no going back.”

To combat this, she committed herself to finding new ways to come. “I started using my hand while using a vibrator, either in tandem or on top of each other. I would turn down the speed on my vibrator with my partner. I slowly started to get accustomed to other sensations on those nerve endings. It took a while and some sexual denial; I had to not use a vibrator a little bit. I was able to get all my sensitivity back.”

Though the process took six months, it was completely worth it for Daugherty. “I felt like a superhero. It was like seeing the world in two colors and then seeing all the colors.” While she says it was a “necessary step” for her, and helped her discover she actually prefers manual orgasms to toy-induced ones, she cautions that we shouldn’t be so quick to tell women to lay off their toys. “If it’s keeping you from connecting with other people, that’s one thing, but if it’s keeping the other person from connecting with you, that’s their problem.”

*Name has been changed.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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