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Don’t toss out your favorite toy just yet.
This article contains sexually explicit material.
Sex toys are great. But like anything else, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. And some women have reported that after using their vibrators for a prolonged amount of time, their vaginas have become desensitized to most other forms of stimulation, to the point where nothing short of a jackhammer to the clitoris will get them to orgasm.
To many women who have spent years masturbating with vibrators, the possibility of permanently “losing” one’s orgasm sounds ridiculous. But as anyone who’s seen the episode of Sex and the City in which Samantha lost her orgasm knows, the concern is very real—and very frightening.
So can women actually experience decreased sexual sensitivity from excessive vibrator usage, or is this just yet another dangerous myth about the female anatomy? In honor of National Masturbation Month, we decided to look into the research and find out.
Debby Herbenick, a sexual health educator as the University of Indiana (who also helped us demystify the “yogasm”) and her team conducted a survey of more than 2,000 American men and women to learn more about their vibrator use.
Slightly over half of American women have used a vibrator at least once, but most (53.7 percent) of those women have never used it during solo masturbation. Vibrator users also tended to be younger, better educated, and more sexually and ethnically diverse than women who had never used vibrators.
Herbenick and her team found that vibrator usage was linked to greater sexual function in measures of arousal, desire, lubrication, and yes, orgasm. Yet levels of satisfaction were similar across all age groups except for women between the ages of 45 and 60, who reported being more sexually satisfied than women of the same age who never used a vibrator.
The team also looked at several “side effects” of vibrator use, including numbness. Of all the vibrator users, 71.5 percent said they had never experienced any side effects from using a vibrator.
By contrast, 16.5 percent of respondents said they experienced genital numbness after using a vibrator. But for the vast majority of those women, the numbness went away within a day.
“It’s possible that vibrator use does change sensitivity, but it’s also possible that receiving oral sex or having vaginal intercourse changes sensitivity, too!” Herbenick wrote in an email to the Daily Dot. In other words, why are we so worried about vibrators desensitizing us, when we don’t seem concerned about plain old sex doing the same?
“It’s possible that vibrator use does change sensitivity, but it’s also possible that receiving oral sex or having vaginal intercourse changes sensitivity, too!”
Additionally, women don’t just use jackhammer-type vibrators on the highest-intensity settings to get themselves off. They use different types of toys with varying degrees of intensity and pressure. In studying this phenomenon, researchers would also have to account for those variables to see what type of impact, if any, vibrators have on sexual sensitivity.
Nonetheless, some women still ardently believe that vibrators have desensitized them. In a piece for Cosmo, writer Lauren Bans described developing “Dead Vagina Syndrome,” “or as the professionals surely call it, DVS,” after years of vibrator use.
“After years of essentially power-exfoliating my lady part, I found that coming any other way required a level of concentration on par with taking the SATs,” Bans wrote. “It was exhausting. Fingers paled in comparison. I barely felt a tongue. I was scared I had vibrated my nerves dead forever.”
Assuming it’s possible to “vibrate [your] nerves dead forever,” pinpointing the cause would still be a challenge. First, you would have to figure out what “normal” genital sensitivity is and where it comes from. Nerves in the vulva and vagina allow for sensation in the genitals, but those nerves play many different roles. Some are sensitive to pain, and others to pressure. Testing for sensitivity in each of those nerves would be complicated, to say the least.
The brain may also be playing a role in determining genital sensitivity. Rather than simply receiving signals from the genitals that suggest feelings of pleasure and stimulation, the brain itself may be behind some of the intensity of the pleasure sensation as well. And if a woman has heard it may be possible for vibrators to reduce sensation, then the placebo effect may lead her to unconsciously feel less sensation when she’s not using her vibrator.
Without specifically testing for genital desensitization after vibrator use, scientists can’t say for sure whether or not it’s a real thing, and if so, what’s causing it.
TLDR: “Dead Vagina Syndrome” from excessive vibrator usage is probably a myth. But scientists don’t know for sure, because nobody’s done specific tests to find out. In fact, researchers have only begun to scratch the surface of the effects of vibrating toys on the female anatomy.
Even if scientists did find out vibrators made your vagina about as sensitive as a rock, “genital sensation is not predictive of sexual response or function,” Herbenick said. Many things can cause a decrease in sensation, including (but not limited to) menopause, breast-feeding, hormonal birth control and hysterectomy, Herbenick said.
But even if women do experience a slight decrease in genital sensation over time, women can and do have fulfilling sex lives—with orgasms aplenty.
“It may be useful for us all to ask ourselves why there are myths or ideas that vibrators cause a loss in sensation or that people can get ‘addicted’ to it, but we don’t ask the same thing about our fingers or intercourse or oral sex. What is it about masturbation—and especially toy use—that has some taboo lingering with it?” Herbenick said.
Photo via Lianne Viau/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Cynthia McKelvey covered the health and science for the Daily Dot until 2017. She earned a graduate degree in science communication from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014. Her work has appeared in Gizmodo, Scientific American Mind, and Mic.com.