Several years ago, in one of my undergraduate consumer behavior classes, a group of students decided to study sex differences in browsing behavior at sex shops (as the topic of their semester-long project). This was a fortuitous topic as Montreal is replete with such retail outlets, especially in the downtown area. I don't recall all of the specific findings but I suspect that vibrators constituted perhaps the most common sex item that female consumers checked out whilst in the stores.
Personally, I find it regrettable that a greater number of consumer scholars do not tackle such "sexy" subject matters. It would seem that vibrators fall under the rubric of unmentionable products (Katsanis, 1994), and hence are largely avoided from scientific inquiry (at least by marketing scholars). That said, vibrators constitute a market estimated at one billion dollars in the United States alone (Chiang, 2011). That's a sizable and electrifying figure.
This brings me to the topic of today's post. How prevalent is the use of this particular sex product among female consumers? In a 2009 paper published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Debra Herbenick and her colleagues surveyed 2,056 women, aged 18 to 60 years old and drawn from a representative national sample, about their use of vibrators (if at all). The researchers also sought to link vibrator use to health-conscious behaviors (gynecological exam in the past year; breast and genital self-exams in the past month), and sexual functioning (using the 19-item Female Sexual Functioning Index; FSFI).
Prior to reading the result, do you care to guess the percentage of women who claimed to have used a vibrator? Herbenick and her colleagues cited several studies wherein the figure varied wildly, from 1 percent up to 47.
The researchers found that more than half of the sample women (52.5 percent) reported having used a vibrator in one of three scenarios: masturbating alone, during intercourse, and with a partner as part of foreplay/sexual play. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, women who displayed greater religiosity (attending services) were more likely to have never used a vibrator. Vibrators were used more frequently for clitoral stimulation (83.8 percent of users) and to a lesser extent as an insertive device (64 percent of users).
Women who used vibrators were more likely to engage in each of two out of the three health-conscious behaviors mentioned above (gynecological exam and gynecological self-exam; no differences between users and non-users for breast self-exams).
Women who used vibrators scored higher on the FSFI scale (total score) for two out of the three age groups, namely the 23-44 and 45-60 age groups (but not for the 18-22 age cohort). As the researchers astutely point out, there is a chicken-egg issue with these findings—namely, that it might be the case that vibrator use improves sexual functioning or that women who have better sexual functioning are more likely to be open to incorporate sex toys within their repertoire. The collected data did not permit for establishing a causal explanation.
Negative side effects including numbness, pain, irritation, inflammation/swelling, and tears or cuts were rarely reported. The percentage of women who answered "never" to each of the five latter side effects was respectively: 83.5, 97.0, 90.1, 92, and 98.9. Bottom line: Vibrators are safe.
It would be interesting to explore other relevant correlates of vibrator use among women. For example, I wonder if particular personality traits would correlate with vibrator use. I am already seeing the title of the paper: Which of the Big Five traits predict the use of Mr. Big? Prospective collaborators: I await your email!