Sex toys are becoming more mainstream than ever, conveniently located next to the condoms and lube in stores like CVS and Target. Vibrators are among the most popularly-used sex toys, with the industry raking in an estimated $15 billion each year. But as adult toy technology evolves, how do we strike a balance between bedroom fun and dangerous replacements for human affection?

Sex Toys For Her...And Him

The first electromechanical vibrator, introduced in 1883, was intended to treat “female hysteria.” Previously, physicians defined the condition as a mental disorder — only attributable to women — with symptoms including nervousness, hallucinations, emotional outbursts, and various sexual urges. Since women suffering from female hysteria were unable to reduce stress through vaginal intercourse, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville developed the vibrator to provide women with private clitoral stimulation at home.

Many years later, female hysteria would be a thing of the past, and vibrators would become as we know them today. In 1954, the first electrical vibrator that didn’t require a user’s manual was invented. By 2010, LifeStyles released their “A:muse Personal Pleasure Manager,” which featured five different rhythms of vibration for women.

The evolution of the vibrator and other sex toys suggests people want to take their sexual experiences beyond just skin to skin contact. In a 1996 study, researchers surveyed a group of Swedish women, aged 18 to 74, on their health and sexuality. A total of 19 percent of the respondents reported they had used a sex toy themselves, and 15 percent had done so with a partner. Meanwhile, sex toy use was more common among younger women, ages 25 to 34, by 30 percent.

Since the ‘90s, vibrators have become more frequently used by both men and women. Their easier accessibility has led to widespread use over the years. A 2009 study found more than half of women and about half of all men, between ages 19 and 60, have used a vibrator. One in four women had used one in the past month compared to 10 percent of men. Moreover, while vibrators are commonly seen as women’s items, researchers found 17 percent of men used them during masturbation.

Dildos in different colors
Dildos in different colors. Christina Xu, CC BY-SA 2.0

Vibrator use can help raise sexual health awareness, especially as it relates to aspects of sexual function, including desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, pain, and over function. In the study, the buzzing devices even encouraged women to get gynecologic exams and perform genital self-examination. Male study participants also benefitted from the vibrators, using them in health-promoting behaviors, including testicular self-exams.

The Rabbit Hole of Vibrators

Vibrators can be a surefire way to have an orgasm, but the dependency on this stimulation can have physical and mental repercussions.

Remember the Sex in the City episode where Samantha introduced Charlotte to the Rabbit Pearl? The episode showed Charlotte choosing her vibrator over things like dinners and lunches with friends. Dr. Justine Shuey, a sexologist and sexuality educator in Philadelphia, Pa., told Medical Daily that vibrators may be problematic if they become a daily habit.

“Someone might get used to a certain type of stimulation making it more difficult to orgasm in other ways because they train themselves to orgasm in one particular way,” Shuey said.

The orgasms you experience with a sex toy are different from the warmth and sensual touch of an actual partner. The body may become so seduced by the high-speed simulation of a vibrator that it desensitizes from other, more conventional forms of arousal. However, it’s not the sex toys that become addictive, but the pleasure derived from them. Once you find a special technique that gets you off, you will not want to stop it. BOB, the “battery operated boyfriend,” becomes a substitute for the real thing.

It goes without saying, but relying solely on sex toys is not a good thing. Quick pleasures are no substitute for physical and emotional connection. And extending our reliance on technology could break social bonds in more than just friendships, it can harm our romantic relationships as well.

Don’t Damage The Good Stuff

Adam Goodson, a sexpert at White Tiger Tantra in San Diego, Calif., takes a rather extreme stance on sex toys, advising women not to use vibrators because of the physiological damage it can cause the genitals.

“Vibrators can cause severe nerve damage and can deaden the nerves and the tissues of a woman’s vagina. This makes sexual climax more difficult or requiring more time for the woman to climax. It also causes abrasions and knotted tissues inside of the women,” Goodson told Medical Daily .

Moreover, extra precaution should be taken when using sex toys because they’re sold as novelty items and are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA only examines them if they fall under the category of medical devices, such as therapeutic massagers and vibrators. Otherwise, the majority of vibrators and other sex toys go without proper inspection.

Though they probably should, sex toy manufacturers don’t always list what they put in their items. The materials in the toy are of importance and should be evaluated based on porosity (how porous or absorbent the material is) and chemical composition. For example, the more porous a material is, the more susceptible it is for bacteria to thrive and reproduce. Phthalates, a class of chemical plasticizers added to the plastic used in sex toys, like PVC, have been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as possible human carcinogens, and lead to neurological and reproductive issues.

Mannequins in sex shop
Mannequins in sex shop. Eric Huybrechts, CC BY-SA 2.0

With sex, there’s always the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), especially if we’re using unhygienic sex toys. It’s possible to transmit an STI if either one partner uses an item right after the other, or if it’s being used back and forth between anal and vaginal/anal sex without proper cleaning.

The Future Of Sex Toys: Risky Business

Despite the lack of FDA regulations and possible health risks, sex toys are evolving to becoming more life-sized and interactive. In a project called "Realbotix,” creator Matt McMullen has attempted to develop animate, life-size sex dolls that can talk dirty to you. These dolls can be customized from their body type and skin, hair, and eye color, and more recently, custom-ordered toes. McMullen also plans to focus on artificial intelligence to develop a robotic head that can blink and open and close its mouth.

The idea of having sex with an inanimate object is an unconventional concept, but when companies like McMullen’s are selling silicone, life-sized dolls for between $5,000 and $10,000, a niche market is definitely interested. Plus, according to a recent poll, one in five people would actually have sex with a robot, if given the chance, regardless of its human characteristics.

Goodson believes to each their own, but he emphasizes that when two or more people come together and even climax together in a honest, loving, authentic way with sensuality, that’s where the most rewarding experiences of intimacy are made and felt.

“Having sexual behaviors with a doll or even a robot as I am sure is on its way, (but) will never replace the connection of two spirits climaxing together,” he said.

Sex toys have evolved from simplistic gadgets of pleasure to hi-tech, life-like devices that for many, have unknowingly desensitized the human touch, and distorted the essence of sex. This can soon turn into a 50 shades of gray scenario when sex toys become the integral part, and not just a component of sex. This can threaten human-to-human intimate relationships, and potentially replace them with inanimate objects.

Balance is key, especially when it comes to sex.

“Intimacy is so much more than just sex. People need emotional connections as well as physical stimulation,” said Shuey.