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First academic survey to report on sex toy use

March 18th, 2006

Dr Petra

You might be surprised to discover a new study is claiming to be the first to have examined the use of sex toys. After all there’s been lots of coverage in the media about sex toys, and certainly figures about their sales, popularity, and customer preference. Surely this can’t be the first piece of sex research to cover sex toy use?

It’s probably the first large scale, academic survey that’s covered this question. That’s because most other analysis of sex toys have been promotional exercises by manufacturers and sex toy sales outlets.

Which makes it rather unreliable. Certainly I heard from journalists in the early part of this year telling me about ‘new trends’ in sex toys that hadn’t yet gone on sale, or journalists working on sex features who’ve read fabulous product reviews written by sex stores or individuals selling toys. And all this comes with a conflict of interest. Those with a product to promote are naturally going to speak of it in glowing terms, and claim it’s top of the range in terms of customer satisfaction and sales.

Where there have been customer reviews of products these have been for the most part created by and for manufacturers or stores. There have been few independent tests of sex toys, and most sex research has not included questions concerning sex toys in relation to sexual attitudes behaviour.

Until now.

An epidemiological study by researchers from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health included questions about sex toy use within a standard sexual survey.

27% of the 1114 of the sexually active participants questioned reported using a sex toy. Those participants were also more likely to report having multiple sexual partners or having non-monogamous relationships. Media reports have characterised this group as being more at risk of acquiring and transmitting sexually transmitted infections, but I think this requires further investigation. Those who are involved in non-monogamous relationships or have multiple partners may be aware of safer sex issues and ensure they only have sex using a condom. In such cases their risk of catching or transmitting STIs would be lower than in participants who do not practice safer sex but who form more traditional relationships. The researchers would not have been able to ascertain from a telephone survey the STI rate in participants, but may have been able to identify safer sex practices and perhaps clarify their findings.

People who have a more open view of sex, or who’re interested in alternative sexual practices may admit to sexual behaviour that could seem problematic but may not be so. They may also be more confident to admit to sexual attitudes, behaviours or feelings that others have but will not disclose.

This study correlated sex toy use with non-monogamous relationships/multiple sexual partners. Some might interpret this incorrectly as those who use sex toys are ‘more promiscuous’ than those who do not. Or equate sex toy use with risky sexual practices. In fact the research simply could have shown that those who’re open about sex may admit to a wider range of sexual behaviours and we must be careful not to negatively label participants.

If those who were admitting to multiple partners also admitted to not using condoms and having acquired sexually transmitted infections in the past we could conclude there was a problem. If, however, participants had multiple partners, but always used a condom and had never had an STI, then it is wrong to imply such participants are risk-takers or judge them negatively.

Either way, the admission of using a sex toy was far more likely to be an indicator of participant’s willingness to disclose on their sex life rather than a predictor of their sexual behaviour. Further research would need to be conducted to check this, but I’m not sure I’d agree with the tone set by the media coverage of this research that suggests those who use sex toys are on the rocky road to casual unprotected sex and STIs.

The study involved a random telephone survey of Seattle residents between 2003-2004. This is interesting as apart from being one of the first studies to ask about sex toy use, it highlights major cultural differences in sex research.

In the US, cold-calling and telephone surveys are common. In the UK ethics committees take a very dim view of this approach to research and rarely approve it. Particularly when it comes to sex. That’s not to say commercial companies don’t do this, but ethical sex research in the UK wouldn’t take this approach. I simply wouldn’t be allowed to call someone out of the blue and ask them about whether they’d use a sex toy or had they had multiple sexual partners. The reason is obvious – such an approach could cause offence, nuisance and distress. Only those who hadn’t opted to screen such calls would be eligible for contact, and even then only those who didn’t mind a complete stranger asking them about their sex lives would answer.

Which could further explain the results from this Seattle phone survey (and the high range of sex toy use reported). After all you’re bound to get different results and higher reports of sexual activity from people who aren’t amongst those who slam the phone down when the caller says ‘Hi! I’d like to ask you a few questions about your sex life’.

That said, it seems future surveys of sexual functioning, behaviour and attitudes will need to include questions about sex toy use.

We’ll have to think carefully about what this means. ‘Sex toy’ could represent a wide range of products from dildos to butt plugs to strap-ons or vibrators. Participants would either need to define toys used, or researchers will need to ask them to pick from a list. The opportunity to indicate use of more than one toy would also be necessary. Whether toys are used alone or during sex with a partner (or both) would need clarification, as would pleasure gained from using said products. How their use compares with other sexual practices would also need explaining (e.g. are toys used more or less than other sexual activities, and does the use of a sex toy significantly add to the likelihood of orgasm?).

However asking about sex toys is a sensitive issue, even if increasingly larger population are admitting to their use. Some participants may find questions about sex toys offensive or irrelevant and that may put them off participating in a sex survey. It also only fits in communities or cultures where sex toy use is acceptable and widespread.

Whatever happens this study is interesting in terms of the ethical questions it raises about how it was conducted, analysed and reported. It also indicates how future sex research does need to include questions about sex toys in order to assess how sex toy use fits with wider sexual behaviour.

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