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Using sex toys can be a liberating experience for women. With so many options for self-pleasure, it’s easy for a novice to get overwhelmed. Our resident sex therapist takes a peek under the covers and offers a helpful guide on buying adult toys.

Written by Erin Riedel, LCSW | Illustration by Branden Barker

A recent survey found that 82% of women in the US own at least one sex toy. If you’re content as a member of the 18% who are toyless, good for you! But if you have mixed feelings about the idea of owning a sex toy, curious about what to buy, or just don’t know where to start, in the spirit of giving here’s my gift to you: the lowdown on selecting a little something to leave under the tree – or under the covers – for yourself this holiday season.  

Melanie McDermott, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, says that while women may feel empowered in many areas of their lives, they can experience shame around the idea of buying and/or using sex toys. Melanie says “one of the most common reasons is growing up in a religious environment that shames sex or women’s bodies.” Women can also experience shame if they’ve been raised with the belief that sex is only for reproduction. “The huge implication is that you shouldn’t feel pleasure from sex,” notes Melanie. “That sends a message to women that they should feel shameful if they derive pleasure from anything sexual.”  

For some women, the reluctance to use sex toys might have more to do with their partner’s attitudes than their own. “Some women may not experience support from a partner to explore sex toys,” says Melanie. “This is typically due to lack of education and/or an insecurity that the partner feels about their ability to please their partner sexually. The partner might say things like, ‘You’ll want to replace me’ or ‘I’m not good enough to please you.’ Addressing those insecurities and exploring the toys together could be a remedy for that.” 

If you’ve made it this far in life without feeling the need to try a sex toy, you may wonder why you should bother. According to Melanie, the answer is simple: “There are things that some toys can do that humans just can’t!” Powered sex toys can provide stimulation at speeds and intensities that are often impossible for humans to replicate, and they tend to perform with far more endurance. Women who struggle to reach orgasm with a partner or with manual masturbation may find that a sex toy is capable of taking them all the way. There are also plenty of non-powered toys, such as dildos and butt plugs, that can add variety to both masturbation and partnered sex with new sizes, shapes, and textures. 

Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to shop, the next big question is “Where?” Fortunately, we live in a new millennium and have options for sex toy shopping that go far beyond seedy adult stores. But just because you can order cheap sex toys from websites like Amazon and Wish, that doesn’t mean that you should. You’re more likely to have a satisfying experience if you search out a retailer that specializes in women’s sexual pleasure and health.  

“Stores like Good Vibrations, our sibling store Babeland, and also other smaller women-owned/queer-friendly/sex-positive companies are clearly different from some of the ‘marketplace’ venues like Amazon,” says Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen, PhD. “Our products are curated and chosen. We do not sell just anything; we maintain safety standards. And we have knowledge about sexuality and our customer base.” 

Shopping with a specialty sex toy retailer has several benefits — you have access to trained staff who can guide you toward toys that are right for you, you’re protected from counterfeit or poor-quality toys, and you can be assured that the toys are safe. Safety might not be an obvious concern when it comes to sex toys, but it’s worth considering. Particularly with toys that will be inserted, you’ll want to avoid anything that contain phthalates; these are chemicals that are used to make plastics more durable and flexible, and they’ve also been shown to cause health problems. You’ll also want to avoid toys that are made of porous materials, which are harder to clean and can harbor bacteria. Buying sex toys from a reputable retailer will help you avoid products that might be harmful. 

Sex toys are also available in innumerable combinations of materials, colors, shapes, and functions so it may be difficult to know where to start. Dr. Queen advises to think about what you want to do and experience, as well as what you already like. “Wanting to learn to orgasm often involves a clitoral vibe. Those who love vaginal penetration might want a vibrator, or simply a dildo,” she says. “There are toys for exploring the G-spot (generally firm and curved), super-portable toys, products that help with physical issues like Kegel exercise and dilation, and kinky toys for bondage or impact play.” In addition to knowledgeable salespeople, online reviews can be a great way to learn about other people’s experiences with specific products. 

Below are a few affordable suggestions for the novice or experienced toy connoisseur to consider: 

  • The Original Magic Wand, $69.95. This is the OG vibrator, providing a powerful, rumbly vibration that some may find too intense. Those who love it, really love it. 
  • Satisfyer Pro 2+, $69.95. This air pulse vibrator stimulates the clitoris without directly touching it. With controls that allow for a wide range of intensity, this is a great starter vibe. 
  • Babeland Buzz Vibe, $8. This adorable three-speed bullet vibe is battery-powered, waterproof, and discreet. 
  • Colours Pleasure Plugs – Mini Plug, $17. If you’re curious about anal play, this plug is a good place to start. It’s small, made of easy-to-clean silicone, and it has the all-important flared base that keeps anal toys from getting lost inside. 
  • Gläs Slimline G-Spot Glass Dildo, $28.99. This handcrafted glass dildo has a curved, bulbous tip that’s perfect for stimulating your G-spot. Glass dildos are ideal for temperature play (you can freeze it or gently warm it) and are easy to clean.

Erin Riedel, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice who specializes in working with sexual minorities.