Rose Afriyie: Shopping for sex toys

BY ROSE AFRIYIE

Published October 14, 2009

Last month, one of my sorority sisters was getting married. For the first time in my life, I was stumped about what to buy as a wedding gift. I knew my sister's sizes for shoes and lingerie, book preferences, favorite foods and biographic details — the whole nine yards. But now that I wasn’t just buying for her, the whole twosome bit was throwing me for a loop.

House appliances were overdone. Money and gift cards weren’t personal enough. So, I did what any sorority girl would do when faced with this situation: I headed to the nearest sex toy store.

It’s a beautiful thing to attend a university where safe, affordable sex toys are sold right off campus. One of Ann Arbor’s best-kept secrets is that the Safe Sex Store (S3) on South University is a hub for sorority girls who sometimes travel in pairs to buy their big, little, dean, pledge, sands, soror or sister tokens of affection to get her vibe on. The thing is, I wasn’t the run-of-the mill customer. I had spent my past summer doing evidence-based research and one of the topics I covered was sex toys and lubricant.

Because of this research, I knew that according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, a majority of women — 53 percent — had used a vibrator. Additionally, I knew that men were also getting in on it — 91 percent of men and 81 percent of women who used a vibrator used it with a partner. And this couldn’t help but bring a smile to my face as I walked past penis-shaped baking tins and breast-shaped kegs. According to the study, those who used sex toys had higher rates of sexual pleasure and better sexual health than non-users. Women who used toys found it easier to naturally lubricate and men had higher erectile functioning.

As I eyed the goods, I was immediately impressed: All toys were phthalate-free. While research on phthalates is still ongoing, researchers have linked these plastic-softening chemicals to negative health outcomes. S3 offered affordable silicone vibrators and dildos, ranging in price from $20 to $140. The deal with silicone, and glass for that matter, is that it is one of the few toy material types that can be thoroughly cleaned. Other materials such as jelly rubber, polyvinyl chlorides, elastomer — and anything else that smells like a shower curtain — is porous. This means it retains bacteria, no matter how much antibacterial soap you use to clean it. That’s not to say all rubber toys should be hurled to the nearest landfill. It just means that porous toys should be used with a condom to ensure one doesn’t get an infection.

The collection of male sex toys had also grown since my last visit. From disposable masturbator toys, male masturbation sleeves and vibrating cock rings priced $5 to $30, men have some great options for self-love or a pleasurable exchange.

But because I believe that sex is a holistic act, I wasn’t just going to fill my shopping cart with a vibrator and cock ring and call it a day. I was interested in the adult sex education books. It was nice to see books donning pictures of African-American couples that taught erotic massage and Kama Sutra positions that weren’t just for contortionists. I offered a silent prayer of thanks for all the authors that dedicated gallons of ink to how-to books for going down on a woman.

After that, I was on my way to the lube counter. Lube is a safe sex essential. Many will attest to the miraculous powers of saliva, but it only lasts so long. I scanned labels to secure some glycerin and paraben free lube. While studies are still inconclusive, parabens have been linked to cancer. Glycerin, on the other hand, creates an environment in the vadge that is friendly to yeast infections. I didn’t want my friend to have any unwanted guests during their honeymoon period, so I was thrilled to see lube that met all the health requirements and still left a film on my fingertips an hour later. With healthy lube, toys for him and her and books galore, my mission was accomplished.

A few weeks later, I went back to thank the storeowner of S3, University alum and educator Beth Karmeisool, and to get some insights for this column. I asked her what toys students come in for the most, and how one knows when a toy is right.

“I sell a lot of Jack Rabbits and cock rings, but it’s not about what other people buy,” she said. “I keep products that are fresh and hot based on design, material and customer feedback. It’s all about meeting people at their comfort level.”

I glanced around the room at my peers. Sorority women held fetish fantasy kits and condoms. Average Joes clung to their lube proudly. Couples searched through condoms branded with the word “ecstasy.” And I thought to myself, this is what sexual literacy looks like.

Rose Afriyie can be reached at sariyie@umich.edu.