Navigating a Sea of Sex Toys: A Cordial Introduction

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There are an awful lot of sex toys out there, and a lot of them look more likely to tune your carburetor than to get your rocks off! Here's a quick guide.

sex toys rainbow

Photo: Mike@UnmissableJapan.com (Flickr); Burke Denning (Photoshop)

Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of sex toys!

The entire body is a complex of erogenous zones, and there is a sex toy out there to stimulate every inch of it. But getting acquainted with the wild and diverse family of sex toys can be an overwhelming and daunting task, especially on one’s own. That’s why I’ve written this quick little guide–to help readers unfamiliar with adult devices get a foothold in an industry that is saturated in innovative (and sometimes confusing) designs.

So, when you think about sex toys, I find it easiest to categorize them according to their intended use. This gives us three stimulation categories: Internal stimulators, external stimulators, and dual stimulators (those which simultaneously stimulate areas on both inside and the outside of the body).

Any toy falling into one of these three stimulation categories can then be further typified as vibrating or non-vibrating (at least in the mainstream market).  These three stimulation categories and two vibration categories can be mixed and matched to create six categories that can be used to classify and describe just about any toy you’ll find on the market today:

  • Vibrating internal stimulators
  • Non-vibrating internal stimulators
  • Vibrating external stimulators
  • Non-vibrating external stimulators
  • Vibrating dual stimulators
  • Non-vibrating dual stimulators

(Yes, I admit that this system is biased against other types of stimulators, such as electro-stimulators, but that’s for the advanced class). Now let’s look at these categories a little closer:

Stimulation categories

  • Internal stimulators are toys that are meant to be inserted into orifices such as the vagina, anus, or even the mouth. These toys may be thrusting (e.g. a dildo) or stationary (e.g. an anal plug), and may or may not have vibrating components.
  • External stimulators are toys that stay on the outside of the body and are applied to external erogenous zones such as the breasts, testicles, penile shaft, anal opening…or any other part of the body, really.  External stimulators include both vibrating and non-vibrating models, and include less traditionally recognized toys for non-genital stimulation, such as handcuffs, blindfolds, and Wartenberg wheels.
  • Dual stimulators are toys that simultaneously provide internal and external stimulation. They come in a variety of different shapes and designs, but they always have both penetrating component(s), as well as component(s) which remain on the outside of the body. Dual stimulators most often include vibrating toys (e.g. a rabbit-style vibrating stimulator), but may also be non-vibrating (e.g. a curved prostate stimulator).

Vibration Categories:

  • Vibrating stimulators are a catch-all category for any internal, external or dual stimulators that vibrate. Employing one or more vibrating motors, vibrating stimulators may have single or multiple speeds, and may also vibrate in a variety of pulsation patterns and rhythms, depending on the model.
  • Non-vibrating stimulators are a catch-all category for any internal, external or dual stimulators that do not vibrate. This is perhaps the broadest category of sex toy, including many of the external BDSM toys. Impact toys (e.g. whips, floggers), shibari rope, ball gags, electrical stimulators and clamps are all included in this category. Additionally, many internal stimulators are non-vibrating, such as dildos and anal plugs.

And there you go, my friends–now you have the language to identify, describe, or at least begin to wrap your head around most sex toys you may come across (even the truly bizarre ones!).

But I’ve only discussed just a few of the most common types you’ll see today; there’s a whole wide world of creative toys and machines in stores and being built by enterprising individuals around the world. Eden Fantasys is an excellent resource with listings of a wide variety of toys for men, women, and gender play.

Go and explore–with taxonomy on your side!

To read more, please see the Toys and Enhancements resource page, and stay tuned for more on sex toy health and safety coming soon here on Kinsey Confidential!

Burke Denning is an MPH student at Indiana University, and is currently interning at the Kinsey Institute. Her studies are centered around the promotion of holistic sexual health and education that seeks to improve quality of life, and expands beyond the prevention and treatment of disease, dysfunction and unintended pregnancy. She is also a former adult retail (sex toy store) clerk, and lectures at IU on the topics of sex toy typology, safety, and regulation.

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