A Sex Therapist on Vibrators, Intimacy, and Pleasure

Photo courtesy of Chantal Convertini

A Sex Therapist on Vibrators, Intimacy, and Pleasure

A Sex Therapist on Vibrators, Intimacy, and Pleasure

We’ll assume you know how to use a vibrator. (And if you don’t, try switching it on and taking it from there.)

But as with anything related to sex, there are always plenty of questions worth asking that go beyond basic mechanics. They’re usually questions that help us better understand our relationship to pleasure, personal roadblocks to intimacy, and communication with a partner—and how to have more satisfying orgasms. It’s the stuff that’s sometimes uncomfortable to discuss in earnest, despite it often being incredibly helpful.

  1. goop Wellness Double-Sided Wand Vibrator goop, $95
    goop Wellness Double-Sided Wand Vibrator goop, $95

So we turned to NYC-based sex therapist Stephen Snyder, MD, the author of Love Worth Making, for some answers about how we can put some of our favorite vibrators to good use.

A Q&A with Stephen Snyder, MD

What kinds of conversations do you tend to have with female clients around masturbation and vibrators?

The main thing I tell clients is: Make sure you’re authentically turned on. We sex therapists are among the only people in the world who don’t much care about orgasms. We’re far more interested in whether you’re genuinely aroused. Not just wet; that’s too low a bar. I mean really aroused—to the point where if the phone rings, you don’t care who’s calling or what they want.

It’s amazing how many women go through the motions of sex during their teen and young adult years without ever knowing what it’s like to feel seriously turned on. So the first priority is to make sure someone knows what strong arousal actually feels like. Sometimes the best way to get that information is with a vibrator, because you don’t have to work so hard at it.

Vibrators work best when they’re coupled with other sources of arousal, like fantasy. I tell clients there are two roads to orgasm. The low road is where you’re not very aroused at all, but with the right friction in just the right place you can maybe squeak out a climax. And then there’s the high road, where arousal builds and builds until it’s like water going over the dam. The intensity of the orgasm is usually proportional to how excited you got along the way. So when you test-drive a new vibrator, take it out on the high road.

Women vary tremendously in how much stimulation they need to climax. It’s what we sex therapists call the orgasm threshold. If you’re someone with a very high orgasm threshold, who needs a massive amount of stimulation to get to a climax, then yeah, maybe you could get there with really rigorous hand technique. But who wants to work that hard? Life is difficult. Sex should be easy. If using a vibrator makes getting to orgasm less of an ordeal, I say go for it. Getting to orgasm shouldn’t feel like climbing Everest without oxygen.

Just remember to bring the appropriate adaptors if you travel internationally.

Do you prescribe masturbation?

Sure, if someone hasn’t had much experience with feeling authentically turned on. If you’re interested in learning more about masturbation, you couldn’t have picked a better time to start—especially now with USB chargers, customizable vibration settings, toys that are much more aesthetically pleasing, and a growing cadre of professional sex-toy reviewers and bloggers.

Science has also now cleared up some misunderstandings about the female orgasm. For instance, we now know that all orgasms come from the clitoris, not the vagina, even during so-called vaginal orgasms. How? Simple. Most of the clitoris is where you can’t see it. The clitoris you can actually see is simply the command center for your inner clitoris, a vast underground arousal system that reaches out to your entire vulva, your vagina, and beyond. So-called vaginal orgasms involve indirect stimulation of the inner clitoris through the walls of the vagina.

Women differ in how much they favor their inner versus outer clitoris. It takes practice to develop your own signature moves. And masturbation is by far the best way to practice.

What are the biggest misconceptions around sex toys that you hear in your practice?

The first misconception is that learning to masturbate with a vibrator will limit your capacity to get off without one. There are women who encounter this problem, but they seem to be the minority. Most women do fine switching back and forth between manual and electric orgasms.

The second misconception is that if you give yourself an orgasm, that’s somehow inferior to receiving one from your partner. That’s just nonsense. Orgasms are orgasms. The only question is how you create the conditions for them to happen.

A lot of straight men have this misconception as well. They think they’re expected to do amazing things to bring women to orgasm. I tell them instead to think of themselves as the rhythm section. Give her a good beat and let her work with it.

How can women strengthen their relationship with their sexual self?

Your sexual self is the part of yourself you experience when you’re feeling genuinely turned on. I like to think of the sexual self as being like a small child: It doesn’t much care what the rest of the world thinks it should do. Your sexual self is also narcissistic. It wants to be told it’s the most important thing in the world. When you’re really sexually aroused, you may feel very close to your partner, but you don’t want to hear all about how their day went. You want them to treat you like the most magnificent thing in the universe.

What’s essential for nurturing your sexual self is to cultivate good habits of mindfulness—which, as you may know, is just a word for what happens mentally when you pay attention to the present moment, with as little judgment as possible. That last item—as little judgment as possible—tends to be a huge stumbling block. We tend to judge ourselves a lot.

Some of the most exciting work in sex therapy today concerns using mindfulness to get out of your own way, so that your sexual mind can do what it naturally knows how to do. That makes sense, since the principal ingredients of mindfulness—attention, the present moment, and lack of judgment—are also important ingredients for good sex. Most of the original sex therapy techniques from the 1960s were actually mindfulness techniques, but the term hadn’t become that popular yet. It wasn’t until a decade or so ago, when my colleague Lori Brotto in Vancouver started teaching mindfulness to women with sexual concerns, that the missing puzzle pieces of mindfulness and sex finally got put together right. 

What’s the best way to get comfortable using a vibrator in bed with a partner?

Many heterosexual women find it hard to get comfortable using a vibrator in the presence of a lover. But most men find this kind of thing intensely erotic to watch.

I tell this to women in my office all the time, but they have a hard time believing me. Maybe that’s because most women don’t get turned on by watching a man masturbate. So it’s a stretch for them to imagine how this might be erotic for him. I’ll sometimes ask a woman to bring her partner in so he can testify to the truth of what I’m saying.

The really good way to use a vibrator in bed with your partner is to take the vibrator in your own hands, like you would if you were alone. Don’t worry about them feeling left out. Give them something to do, if that makes you feel more comfortable—like stroking your hair or kissing your neck. Unless of course that gets to be too distracting. In which case just tell them to stop.

If you’re still feeling shy, you might try what we sex therapists call the motorcycle position, where you’re semirecumbent and your partner sits behind you, holding on and enjoying the ride. You might work up to facing each other and looking deeply into each other’s eyes as you get off.

How do you introduce something new, sexually, with a partner you’ve been with for a while?

Tell them you want to tell them a secret—something you’ve always wanted to try, that you think will turn you on a lot. Chances are they’ll be thrilled that you think they’re worthy of being the first to try it with you. In bed, we’re all narcissistic. We like being told we’re special.

Sex with a new partner can be very exciting, of course. Thrill of the new, and all that. But it can sometimes be a bit like taking the quick bus tour of a foreign capital. You get to see the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and all the other beautiful sights. But hang around a bit longer, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see the places they don’t show the tourists. Tell your partner you’ve decided they’re worthy of seeing the places you don’t show the tourists.

By the way, a great way to introduce your partner to a new sex toy is to take them shopping for it with you. I tell people to think of it as foreplay.

Can a vibrator or sex toy be a tool for strengthening intimacy?

Very much so. But you have to understand intimacy in a different way.

Most people start off as a couple with the idea that you should be validating each other all the time. Taking care of each other’s needs. But eventually that gets exhausting. Eventually you realize you’re each responsible for your own needs—or at least for advocating for them. In the long run, a relationship works best when each of you advocates for what you want.

Same thing with sex. It works best when each of you takes responsibility for your own sexual desires. Deciding that you’ll enjoy partner sex more with a vibrator is just another expression of this principle.

Passion is selfish. I always ask my clients, “What’s more erotic: a lover who wants to give you the best sex in the world or a lover who wants to enjoy themselves deeply with you, because when they’re with you, they’re so deeply turned on?” Most people choose the latter.

Erotic generosity can be wonderful, too, of course. But erotic selfishness can produce a far deeper feeling of connection than erotic generosity. Obviously, you can’t be so ruthless in pursuit of your own pleasure that you ignore your partner completely. But a little bit of ruthlessness can be very sexy if you do it right.

Adapted from Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship by Stephen Snyder, MD, copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Stephen Snyder, MD, is an AASECT-certified sex and relationship therapist in full-time private practice in New York City. He’s an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and hosts the Relationship Doctor podcast on Macmillan Publisher’s QDT Network. Love Worth Making is Snyder’s first book—drawn from his thirty-plus years of experience helping over 1,500 individuals and couples find greater sexual fulfillment in relationships.

We hope you enjoy the book recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page.