Turn-on? Or Creep-out?

A male reader wrote to me recently. He’s “turned on” at the thought of his wife using a vibrator and wants to incorporate it into their sex life. The problem is that his wife is “creeped out” at the thought and won’t consider it.

This dilemma presents several issues that I think can be instructive to explore.

The first issue has to do with respect. We’re all at different points with regard to what turns us on and our openness to new approaches. Trying something new takes a willingness to explore and be vulnerable—and that can’t be forced, especially in intimate relationships. Otherwise, rather than feeling close and connected, your lovemaking will feel tense and coerced. Respecting boundaries is fundamental to a loving relationship.

That said, it’s also important to keep an open mind about what pleases your partner. Grownups do all kinds of things in bed, and as long as it’s safe, consensual, and pleasurable for both partners, there’s no right or wrong. The willingness to try something new, especially if it’s a “turn on” to your partner, is a loving act. And, who knows, you might like it, too.

When you encounter resistance from your partner to an idea or suggestion, you need to take a step back. Maybe discuss exactly what turns her off about, say, using a vibrator. Maybe she’d be more receptive to something smaller and less intrusive. Maybe she needs to try it alone first.

On the other hand, you could also talk about what your partner finds arousing. What has she always wanted to try? What are her fantasies? Try a trade-off. You do something for your partner, then switch roles.

There are some very good reasons to use a vibrator. They help us maintain vaginal health and boost blood circulation. They give us the strong, consistent stimulation we may need to reach orgasm. Using a vibrator, either alone or as a couple, isn’t “creepy” by most standards, and it isn’t particularly unusual. In fact, studies consistently show that introducing new things to your sexual routine in the form of toys, sex aids, or places and positions is helpful in maintaining a healthy sexual relationship.

If you’re at an impasse, you might consider continuing the discussion with a sex therapist, who can provide perspective and suggestions for moving forward in a loving way. But the bottom line is that you need to respect your partner’s boundaries, communicate about your desires and fantasy as well as your fears, keep an open mind, and be willing to incorporate new things into your sex regimen.

Dr. Krychman’s “Meet Your Vibrator”

In the course of our conversation about vibrators, I asked MiddlesexMD medical advisor Dr. Michael Krychman how he recommends that his patients begin to use a vibrator. Here’s what he says:

“Get to know your vibrator. Take it out of the package and learn how it works, how to charge it or what kind of batteries it takes. When it’s charged, play with the buttons, turn it on and off. How many speeds and settings does it have? Wash your vibrator well before using it; use warm water with a mild soap and rinse it well so that no residual soap remains. If it isn’t waterproof, be careful not to get any water near the battery case. Check for sharp edges or seams.

“Start on your own. Even if you’re planning to use your vibrator with a partner, it’s a good idea to check it out by yourself first. You’ll feel less self-conscious and you can really concentrate on how it feels. Make sure you have enough time and privacy. If you have roommates, children, thin walls, or nosy neighbors, turn on some music, shut the blinds, and use blankets and comforters to mute the sound.

“Play with the lights turned on. Not everyone is comfortable with this suggestion, but I think playing with a vibrator with the lights on can be very educational and useful. You can discover specific places on your body that are rich with nerve endings and ready for enjoyment and stimulation. You can use this information yourself and share with a lover when you’re ready.

“Turn the vibrator off before you turn it on. Get comfortable with the feel of the vibrator on your body. Run it along your body without even turning it on. Notice how it feels. Press it firmly against your skin; press it onto you body and massage your muscles. If the vibrator is made of a hard material this will probably feel nice. If the vibrator is a soft rubber and doesn’t feel smooth against your skin, try it on top of your clothing. This isn’t meant to give you an orgasm, but it’s a gentle and non-threatening way to introduce your body to the vibrator.

“Move your vibrator from the outside in. Once you turn it on, start by touching the vibrator to your body; this will help you understand the vibration sensation. Even though vibrators are used mostly around the vulva and clitoris, get a feel for the vibration all over your body, including touching the breasts and other areas that feel good. Slowly move to the more sensitive parts of your body.

“Don’t be in a rush: Explore every part of your body. Vibrators never get tired, and they let you explore every inch of your body for sexual pleasure. Many women find that one side or one part of their clitoris responds to vibration more than another. Don’t rush: Leaving a vibrator in place can allow it to establish sensation connections that previously weren’t there. Adjust the speed, pressure, and angle of the vibrator. Most vibrators have multiple speed settings; always start on low and work your way up. Experiment with applying different pressure. You may enjoy a lot of deep pressure with clitoral stimulation.

“Most women use vibrators for external stimulation, but as long as your vibrator is safe for it, there’s no reason not to try penetration. While far more nerve endings are outside the vagina than inside, lots of women enjoy penetration with a vibrator. A vibrator that is safe for penetration will be smooth, have no rough edges, and won’t absorb bodily fluids. Again, start slow and get yourself aroused by using the vibrator externally first.

“There are just two things I caution women about: First, make sure you’re using the right lubricant with a vibrator. Silicone-based lubricants will degrade silicone vibrators. And if you’re sharing your vibrator outside of a monogamous relationship, put a condom on it.”

Sounds like good advice! And getting acquainted with a vibrator yourself will help you introduce it to your partner, too--which I'll focus on in our next post.

The Fifth Component of Great Sex: Exploration and Fun

A while ago, we began exploring the qualities of great sex that were identified in a study published in The Canadian Journal of Sexuality. These qualities were gleaned from interviews with 20 sex therapists and with 44 ordinary people who identified themselves as having experienced great sex. From that material, the researchers gleaned eight characteristics that popped up repeatedly. The list was surprising. Rather than sexual acrobatics or obscure paraphernalia, the list included qualities like connection and authenticity—which would tend to make any relationship great.

One of the qualities we haven’t yet discussed is the willingness to experiment with your partner. Respondents referred to great sex as an “adventure” and a “discovery process” in which they learned new things about themselves and their partners. In the study, however, this quality was often described in a playful, lighthearted context.

Anything we do repeatedly for a long time tends to become routine. We trot along the same worn dog path in which every bump and bend is familiar. After a while, any routine activity, sex included, can become a bore and then maybe a chore. That’s why here at MiddlesexMD, we often prescribe a healthy dose of novelty to spice up the routine—a change of position, place, or props, especially for partners who have been together for a long time.

But great sex goes beyond trying new toys. These respondents seemed to revel in the joyful aspect of experimentation, of trying new things together. Exploring new dimensions of sex wasn’t a test they passed or failed; it wasn’t medicine they took because it was good for them; it didn’t involve one partner trying to “sell” the other on something new. The outcome didn’t matter; how they looked didn’t matter. What mattered was that both partners were engaged in the adventure and were having a good time doing it. Often, too, the exploration uncovered new qualities about the relationship or themselves.

Playfulness has to be genuine, and this joyful experimentation probably also requires another aspect of great sex that the researchers identified: extraordinary communication. But whatever the quality of our communication or spirit of adventure, it’s always possible—and helpful—to be open to new things, to be willing to relinquish the safety of routine and even boredom, and to step into new territory, even if it involves some risk and some energy. And if playing together also contributes to a great sex life, well then, game on.

Disincentives: Sex Is Boring

“I can tell you the movements he’s going to make step-by-step. He can get me off, but it’s sex. It’s not making love.”

--quoted by Marta Meana, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “When Feeling Desire Is Not Enough: Investigating Disincentives to Sex”

If I had a nickel for every woman with this complaint, I could retire tomorrow. According to Dr. Meana and others who study female sexuality, boredom is the second biggest disincentive to sex in married women. But of all the sexual challenges, this one is the most fun—because the cure requires creativity, lightheartedness, and the willingness to play.

No matter how red-hot the passion once was, over time it’s bound to cool to glowing embers. Left unattended for years, however, that flame will begin looking more like gray ash. Doctors and counselors—and your girlfriends—all have recipes for bringing the romance back into your relationship. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but here are some suggestions I’ve gathered from various sources that look like fun to me. I would, however, encourage you to take the initiative in this endeavor to reinvigorate your sex life. It’s too easy to take a passive “hurry up and get it over” attitude. You’re half the partnership, so you bear some of the responsibility for your love life. You can be more forthcoming with what feels good to you and what you’d like to try. I’m betting that your partner will be pleasantly surprised and willing to try.
  1. Spend time together doing nonsexual things. For women “it's not what happens in the bedroom—their desire arises when they are interacting with their partner, just touching, talking, when they go on a hike or a picnic, that starts to get them sexually interested,” said Patricia Koch, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biobehavioral Health & Women's Studies at Pennsylvania State University in a recent article. The first step, then, in rekindling the flame is to become romantically reconnected outside the bedroom.
  2. Try self-stimulation. This may sound counterintuitive, but the idea is to “get your head in the game,” not to create a substitute for sex as a couple. Sometimes masturbation can reignite that spark of sexual interest that leaves you wanting more.
  3. Talk about what you like and what you want to try. As a more mature woman, you know what you want; you’re more confident in asking for it. Maybe your partner has some idea to try as well.
  4. Break the mold. No doubt, routine is boring. New places, positions, accessories, and techniques are an antidote to routine. Check out our website for suggestions or this list of romantic movies. Read an erotic book together. You’re only limited by your imagination.
  5. Keep it light. This should be a fun exploration, not a do-or-die ordeal. The goal is to expand your sexual repertoire as a couple, to pleasure each other, to reconnect both sexually and emotionally. You aren’t trying to become sexual athletes or to experience orgasm every time.
So—boring sex? Not to be glib, but what a great problem to have. Its solution lies at least fifty percent in your hands.