If you think sex toys are only for the adventurous, think again. Their use is more common than most people realize.
According to a new study by the University’s School of Public Health, one in four people report using a sex toy in the last four weeks and more than one in ten report using drugs to enhance a sexual experience.
The study linked the use of sex toys and drugs with an increased likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and syphilis.
“The use of sexual enrichment aids is what we call a risk marker,” said Epidemiology Prof. Betsy Foxman, the study’s lead author. “People who tended to use them frequently tended to engage in other risky behaviors, indicating a possible correlation, but not a causal link, between sex toy use and risky behavior.”
This research, which sampled Seattle-area residents aged 18 to 39, is among the first to address the use of sexual enrichment aids in a randomly-selected subset of the population.
The most commonly reported drug used to enhance sex was alcohol, followed by marijuana and ecstasy. The researchers also found that people who used sex toys such as dildos, vibrators and beads were more likely to use pleasure-enhancing drugs, and vice-versa.
The study also found that individuals with two or more sex partners in the last 12 months or 15 or more sex partners in their lifetime are more likely to use sex toys and pleasure-enhancing drugs. Married couples currently living with their spouses were least likely to have used sexual enrichment aids in the last month.
Foxman said the proportion of respondents who indicated they used sex toys and drugs to enhance sexual experience was higher than she initially expected.
At the Safe Sex Store on South University Avenue, condoms, lubricants and adult toys are the most popular items purchased by customers – the majority of whom are students, said Erica Karmeisool, who manages the business’s Internet sales and website.
The local shop, commonly referred to as S3, also sponsors “home parties” for small groups similar to the home sale process used during Tupperware parties. One of the shop’s most popular services, these parties offer attendants the opportunity to learn about and purchase the store’s best-selling products, including sex toys and games.
Beth Karmeisool, S3’s owner and founder, said although some association may exist between sexual products and drugs and risky behavior, it is important to recognize the positive role sex toys can have for people’s sexual health.
“Adult products are an absolute wonderful form of safe sex and exploration,” she said. “A person can remain abstinent but still be a sexual being and release sexual tension.”
The store also conducts seminars to educate students about disease, contraception and sexual health.
For the most part, sexually themed research projects at the University have encountered little resistance over the years, said Marvin Parnes, associate vice president for research.
But in the last few years, some people have worried whether the federal government would alter its approach to financial support of such research.
“Local conservatives raised questions about whether federal funds should be used for this type of research, of whether it was important or appropriate,” Parnes said. “People have raised that issue, but so far it really hasn’t proven to be a problem.”
The University’s Institute for Social Research recently released a study investigating human sexuality.
The study, conducted by visiting research scientist Norman Brown, explored the extent to which men and women lie about their number of sexual partners and details of their sexual histories.
ISR spokeswoman Diane Swanbrow said the majority of the institute’s funding comes from federal agencies. These agencies base funding decisions in part on the relevance of the proposed research to public health concerns and on scientific research as a whole.
Swanbrow said neither the University nor ISR provided Brown with any financial support because the study was done in collaboration with several of his colleagues across the country. However, she also said there is a long history of valid scientific research, especially in the fields of psychology and public health, on aspects of human sexual behavior.
“This study is not an exception to that tradition of research,” Swanbrow said. “I don’t think there is anything unusual about it.”
Foxman said the School of Public Health has researched sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS and sexual behavior for more than 30 years. As with ISR, most of the school’s research is funded by federal bodies, namely the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Sexual health is an important component of all health,” Foxman said. “What we show in this study is that these are common behaviors and public health officials need to know about them – the issue needs to be de-sensationalized. These things should be included in discussions of sexual health and sex education.”