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What are sex toys?

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Sex toys — also called adult toys or “marital aids” — are objects people use to have more pleasure during sex or masturbation. Sometimes sex toys can also have medical uses if you have a sexual dysfunction or medical condition. There are many different types of sex toys, and people use them for lots of different reasons.

It’s totally normal to use sex toys, but it’s also totally normal not to — it’s a personal decision, and everyone’s different. As long as you’re using sex toys safely, there’s nothing harmful about it.

Why do people use sex toys?

All kinds of people may choose to use sex toys, for many different reasons. For some, using sex toys is the easiest (or only) way they can have an orgasm — this is especially common for people with vulvas. Sometimes people use sex toys to help them masturbate. People also use sex toys during sex with their partners.

For transgendernonbinary, or gender nonconforming people, certain sex toys may help affirm their gender identity or help relieve gender dysphoria.

Some people with disabilities or limited mobility use sex toys to make it easier to masturbate, have sex, or do sexual activities or positions that would otherwise be harder or not possible for them.

Sex toys can also help treat the symptoms of certain disorders, like erectile dysfunction, genital arousal disorder, hypoactive sexual disorder, and orgasm disorder. And some people find that sex toys help them deal with the sexual side effects of certain medications, health conditions, or menopause — like a low sex drive or decreased sensation in their genitals.

What are the different types of sex toys?

There are thousands of different sex toys out there. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Vibrators (aka vibes, personal massagers) — Objects that vibrate (move continuously/buzz) to stimulate your genitals. It’s very common for people to use vibrators to stimulate their clitoris and other parts of their vulva and vagina. But vibrators can also stimulate the penisscrotum and testiclesnipples, and anus. Vibrators come in all shapes and sizes. Some can go inside a vagina or anus, and others are meant to be used outside the body.
  • Dildos — Objects that go inside a vaginaanus, or mouth. Dildos come in many shapes and sizes, but they’re often shaped like a penis. Some look like realistic penises, and others are more abstract. They can also be slightly curved, to help stimulate your g-spot or prostate. Dildos can be made out of lots of different materials, like silicone, rubber, plastic, metal, or, break-resistant glass.
  • Anal toys — Sex toys made specifically to stimulate and/or go inside your anus. Anal toys include plugs (usually called butt plugs), anal beadsprostate massagers, and dildos with a wide base. You need to use lube to use anal toys safely. And it’s very important that any toy you put in your butt has a flared base (meaning it’s wider at the bottom) or some other way to pull the toy out, so it can’t accidentally slip all the way in. If a sex toy goes all the way inside your butt, it could get stuck and you may have to go to the doctor to get it out.
  • Sleeves (aka masturbation sleeves, penis sleeves, or strokers) — Soft tubes that you put your penis into. Sleeves come in all shapes and sizes, and often have different textures on the inside for more sensation. Some even have vibration or suction. There are also strokers that are specially designed for a larger clitoris or smaller penis, particularly for intersex people or trans men on hormone therapy.
  • Penis rings (aka cock rings, erectile dysfunction rings, or constriction rings) —  rings that go around your scrotum and/or penis. Penis rings slow blood flow out of the penis when it’s erect (hard), which can increase sensation, or make your erection harder and longer-lasting. The safest penis rings are made from soft, flexible materials that you can easily remove, like silicone, rubber, or leather with snaps. Some penis rings have little vibrators on them, to stimulate you and/or your partner. Because penis rings restrict your blood flow, don’t wear one for longer than 10-30 minutes, and take it off right away if you feel any pain or discomfort. And talk to your nurse or doctor before using penis rings if you have a bleeding disorder or are on blood-thinning medicine.
  • Pumps (aka penis pumps, vacuum pumps, or vacuum erection pumps) — Vacuum-like devices that use a hand or battery-powered pump to create suction around your penisclitorisvulva, or nipples. Pumps drive blood flow to the area, which helps increase sensitivity and sensation. Some people also like the feeling of the suction. Penis pumps can help you get an erection, but they won’t make your penis permanently bigger. Some pumps are designed to help treat erectile dysfunction, genital arousal disorder, and orgasm disorder — you can get more information about these pumps from a nurse or doctor, like the ones at your local Planned Parenthood health center. But most of the pumps you buy in sex stores or adult shops are not medical devices, they’re just meant to enhance pleasure during sex and masturbation. Make sure to follow the instructions on the packaging, and don’t pump for longer than the instructions say. And talk to your doctor before using a pump if you have a blood disorder, or are on blood-thinning medication.
  • Ben Wa balls (aka Kegel balls, Kegel trainers, vagina balls, orgasm balls) — Round objects that you put inside your vagina. They can help you do exercises that tone and strengthen your Kegel muscles (aka pelvic floor muscles). Kegel balls are usually weighted so you have to squeeze your vagina to keep them inside your body. Some are hollow with smaller balls inside that roll and bounce when you move, making a jiggling sensation. You don’t need these balls to do Kegel exercises, and not everyone uses them for that purpose — many people just like the way they feel inside their vagina.
  • Packers (aka prosthetics) — objects that look and feel like a realistic penis (usually soft) that create a “bulge” in your underwear or clothes. Some packers also let you pee standing up (called stand-to-pee or STP packers). Many transgenderqueernonbinary, and gender nonconforming people use packers to help affirm or express their gender identity. Like with anyone’s genitals, packers aren’t always sexual or used for sex. But some packers can be worn bent down or sticking up, so they can resemble both a non-erect (soft) penis and an erect (hard) penis, and and can be used for sex.
  • Harnesses (aka straps or strap-on harnesses) — garments that hold a packer, dildo, or other sex toy against your body. Some are worn like underwear or jock straps, and others may go around other parts of your body, like your thigh.

There are so many different kinds of sex toys and ways to use them that figuring out where to start can feel a little overwhelming. Going to a sex toy shop and asking someone who works there about different products can be a great way to learn more about sex toys and what might work well for you. You can also just try something that seems interesting and go from there. Or you may decide sex toys aren’t for you, and that’s totally OK too. The point is that there are lots of options for different bodies and different kinds of sex — so no matter who you are or what kinds of sex you have, sex toys can be an option for you.

How do I use sex toys safely?

Sharing sex toys with other people can spread STDs — if someone who has an STD uses a sex toy, the body fluids on that toy can spread the infection to the next person who uses that toy. So if you’re using a sex toy with a partner, it’s important to take steps to help prevent STDs.

Wash your sex toys with mild soap and water after you use them, and before they touch another person’s genitals. Putting condoms on sex toys can help keep them clean and prevent the spread of STDs. Just make sure you change condoms before the toy touches another person’s genitals.

If you’re using a sex toy in your anus, make sure you use lots of lube. The anus doesn’t lubricate itself (get wet) the way a vagina does, so putting something in your butt without adding lube can be painful, uncomfortable, and even unsafe. And never put a sex toy that’s been in an anus into a vagina without washing it or changing the condom first. If germs from your anus get into your vagina, it can lead to vaginitis.

It’s also important to make sure that any sex toy you use in your anus has a wide base or some other way to keep it from going all the way in. If a sex toy goes so far into your anus that you can’t reach it, you may need to see a nurse or doctor to get it out. (You can’t lose a sex toy in your vagina because your cervix blocks the end of it.)

Don’t use silicone lube with silicone sex toys (unless you put condoms on them) — silicone lube can react with the solid silicone in your toy and damage it. Water-based lube is a safe bet to use with any sex toy (and any condom).

If you’re putting a sex toy inside your body (mouth, vagina, or anus), it’s best to use one made of a body-safe, non-porous material — like 100% silicone (not silicone blends), hard plastic, stainless steel, aluminum, and break-resistant glass. Toys made from non-porous materials don’t absorb germs and are easier to keep clean.

Sex toys made from materials that may be porous — like silicone blends, jelly rubber, PVC, vinyl, TPR, TPE, elastomer, or other rubbery plastics —  can absorb germs that can lead to infections, even if you always wash your toy. But you can always use a condom on your toy to help it stay clean and keep any possible germs on it out of your body.

For the best way to clean and care for your sex toy, read the directions that came with it or ask the staff at your local sex toy store.

It’s always best to use sex toys that are specifically made to be sex toys, especially if you’re putting them inside your body. DIY sex toys might not be safe, especially if they can break, have rough, sharp, or loose parts, or are made of materials that are unsanitary or can cause a reaction.

Where can I buy sex toys?

You can buy sex toys at specialty stores, usually called sex shops, sex stores, or adult stores. Depending on the policy of the store, you may have to be over a certain age (like 16 or 18) to shop there. Some pharmacies, drug stores, or large retail stores sell a small variety of the more common sex toys, like vibrators.

Many sex stores and sex toy brands have websites where you can buy products online (they usually mail them in plain packaging for privacy). To make sure your sex toy is really the brand and material you think it is, it’s best to buy from trusted stores or websites that have detailed information about their products.

Some sex stores are specially geared towards certain customers, like women or the LGBTQ community. Feminist and some LGBTQ-centered sex stores often have a large variety of products for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and staff who provide a more comfortable, affirming, and knowledgeable experience for women, femmes, and LGBTQ people.

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