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Once upon a time, I thought I was far too cool for sex toys—too young and creative to need such props. Vibrators and handcuffs were for the orgasmically challenged or bored housewives trying to “spice things up,” I (incorrectly) assumed. In my naïveté, I thought it was lame to spend my hard-earned dollars on cheesy porn accessories when my partner and I should obviously be able to create more than enough excitement ourselves.
That is, until I got an education. I’d owned a vibrator for years—a cool, cutting-edge thing that looked more like a jump drive than a sexccessory—but I’d rarely used it. Other toys never intrigued me enough to seem worth trying, let alone buying—until my boyfriend dragged me into one of L.A.’s more famous sex shops, Hustler Hollywood, saying he wanted to try something new.
A longtime Dan Savage devotee and dedicated believer in his “GGG policy”—that all partners should be good, giving, and game in bed—I knew it would be lamer of me to snub my boyfriend’s idea than to give it a shot. And with that, we bought a butt plug—“Good for beginners!” promised the overenthusiastic saleswoman—and a pair of handcuffs (“These ones are way uncomfortable; get the velour pair,” she advised).
That night, we tried them out, with a little boozy, stoned buzz to take the edge off. And there was definitely an edge: The “beginner” butt plug hurt like a motherfucker. But once I got over the initial sting, I found it to be a shockingly sexy bonding experience. It was a breakthrough of sorts: We still use those toys (and more) regularly; and I’ll tell any friend who will listen why it’s worth paying a visit to a sex shop, not just to say they did—but to add an extra spark to their sex lives, no matter how hot they might already be.
Not sure where to start? Join the club. Below, I got advice from sexologists and real women alike about seven essential types of sex toys—including what they’re for, how to use them, and insider tips for getting next-level pleasure from each one.
While they might seem almost quaint in comparison to all the vibrating, high-tech, action-packed toys available now, dildos remain a classic that plenty of women and even more men are super into. “I’ve seen people move from secrecy, silence, and shame into an open, cool, and trendy attitude toward sex toys of all kinds, from dildos to anal beads,” says clinical sexologist Marlene Wasserman, DHS. “I like when people stretch their sexual boundaries to leave their comfort zones, which can turn into a wonderful feeling of personal success and newly discovered pleasures—or dislikes. Either way, you’re learning something about your body and your partner.”
If you’re looking for the feeling of penetration that’s closest to a real penis, dildos are the way to go. They come in a variety of shapes, lengths, and widths, so take those into account when you’re shopping (some women may find that slightly curved ones are better at getting them off, since they’ll give your clit and G-spot more direct action), and consider using them both vaginally and anally. “My ex liked to dabble with a dildo—for him, not me!” says Audrey, age 30, of Los Angeles. “I wasn’t that into it; I prefer real D or a vibrator while we’re going at it, but he seemed to like the novelty and forbidden feeling of the dildo.”
Consider butt plugs your introduction to anal play. “Anal toys are popular with women even though they have no prostate or nerves to directly cause orgasm within the anus, they can be a huge mental turn-on,” says Wasserman. “If you’re a beginner, start with a shower and get clean beforehand, and then have your partner stimulate you with his fingers—or tongue, if he’s adventurous—before inserting a plug, vibrator, or beads.” She also suggests using latex gloves or condoms on fingers for cleanliness and anal lube for comfort and glide.
“I’ve found the key to introducing toys, whether anal ones, clamps, or otherwise, is all about expectation-setting and preparation,” says Katie, age 30, of New York City. “I mean, butt plugs are honestly a bit scary looking—even if they’re pastel pink—and if your partner’s only knowledge about using them is from porn, the night probably won’t end well. I like to get in teacher mode to walk them through how it feels for me as we’re doing it. And it never hurts to get comfortable with the toy solo beforehand, to explore how your body reacts.”
Attaching these guys to your nips hurts—but it’s supposed to. So much of BDSM play is about the hurts-so-good kind of pain that can be a super-hot sensation for many people, if for no reason other than the fact that it’s so different from what we feel on an everyday basis.
Says Sarah, 27, of London, “It’s when my boyfriend takes the clamps off that it hurts the most—and I love it. The blood comes racing back into my nipples after being cut off, and it feels incredible. But don’t leave them on for too long, or you can cut off circulation to your nipples!” Many clamps come with fancy features like adjustable pressure, a vibrating option, and waterproof coating, but Sarah says she’s heard that clothespins can be just as effective, if you don’t want to buy real ones.
These should be your go-to sex toy, for solo and couple’s play, says Wasserman. “I suggest that women have a variety of vibrators—different shapes, sizes, and types of stimulators to match their mood and whatever sensation they’re looking for at that moment. Sometimes you might want a big, vibrating dildo that you can thrust at your own tempo, and other times you might want to use a vibrating butt plug.” Don’t worry that using a vibrator regularly will overstimulate your clit or mess with your ability to come with a good, old-fashioned penis—“that’s a myth,” says Wasserman. “It’s women’s responsibility to find what does it for them and be sexually vulnerable. Sex toys tend to predictably bring women to orgasm, so go ahead and use them!”
“My boyfriend and I had a perfectly good sex life, but bringing my vibrator into the mix stepped things up a notch,” says Amy, 29, of New York City. “Sometimes it takes me a really long time to come from regular sex, whereas that’s rarely the case for him. When we don’t have the time or energy for an hours-long sesh, the vibrator comes to the rescue by getting me off faster and with less work on both our parts.”
Handcuffs are more about the mental and emotional turn-on than the physical sensation, says Wasserman. “It can be very arousing to discuss the scene you’ll set up and get the necessary consent,” she says. “It’s fabulous fantasy play and gaining more popularity because of recent exposure and normalization in the media.”
Just be careful—if you’re going for a super-authentic prisoner fantasy that involves real metal cuffs, they can hurt. “Soft, cushy ones are a must,” says Jen, 30, of Rutland, Vermont. “I love feeling a little out of control when my partner cuffs me up—especially when every other part of my life requires effort and attention.”
For women who have a tough time coming from other sex toys (or partners, even) a vibrator that focuses purely on stimulating the most sensitive part of your vagina could be the silver bullet. Wasserman is a big fan of women advocating for their clits. “Distressingly, men don’t spend enough time on clitoral play, and women remain silent about their clitoral needs,” she says. “Use your clitoral massager while being thrusted; use it afterward when you’re swollen and he’s fallen asleep; let him or her see you using it so it becomes a couple activity,” she suggests.
“I used to think I wasn’t able to orgasm, because nothing seemed to work on my clit,” says Emily, 30, of Boston. “A clitoral stimulator—which I now own several of—changed that. They rock my world every time, and the rest of my sex toy collection goes pretty much unused now.” Sold yet?
Slightly different from butt plugs in that they insert one individual bead at a time, rather than smoothly and gradually like a plug, anal beads provide a pop feeling with each larger size that goes in. And while any sort of anal toy and play will help prep you for actual anal sex, butt plugs might be a bit more similar to how that will feel.
“I’ve used both plugs and beads, and I like both, but I think it’s more important to invest in a high-quality set of beads if that’s what you’re into,” says Alyssa, age 26, of New York City. “The last thing you want is a cheap pair of beads breaking when they’re inside you! Oh, and with either one, make sure to use a ton of lube, otherwise it’ll be more pain than pleasure.” Good to know.
Originally published June 2016. Updated September 2017.