Can Vibrators Cause "Dead Vagina Syndrome"?

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Sex therapists are often quick to insist that vibrator use is just great for women. However, there's growing anecdotal evidence that vibrators are actually "supernormal stimuli," which cannot be matched by human partners. For some users, this spells a decline in sexual responsiveness and pleasure during intercourse with a partner.

In mid-2018 a search for relevant vibrator research and mainstream press was conducted on the issue of whether vibrator use is reducing subsequent sexual responsiveness during intercourse in some vibrator users. There’s no formal research directly on point (testing the effects of past vibrator use on arousal during toy-free intercourse). The three most visible studies on vibrators were all funded by Church & Dwight, the parent company of Trojan, a company with a major division devoted to the manufacture of sex toys. So interested was this company in the outcomes of the studies that one of its own employees co-authored all 3.

The absence of unbiased, directly-on-point research has produced widely divergent opinions on the Web. For example:

To be clear: none of what you hear about vibrators "desensitizing" anyone comes from ANY sort of scientific study that has shown that, nor from anything we know about human physiology: it's all coming out of ignorance, fear, insecurity and a need to control. http://www.scarleteen.com/article/advice/do_vibrators_cause_a_loss_of_sensitivity

In contrast,

Perhaps you should read all the cries for help from women all over the internet complaining that they have lost sensitivity. Most of the replies from medical professionals seem like nothing more than ignorant speculation. They tell women that the sensation will come back and it's just a temporary problem. Well my sensation was lost years ago and has never come back. Don't tell me that vibrators don't cause damage! https://www.medhelp.org/posts/Sexual-Health/What-evidence-do-you-have-that-vibrators-dont-cause-nerve-damage/show/2465319

As a matter of science, the issue is whether supernormal stimuli like sex toys (and endlessly novel internet porn) can decrease responsiveness during toy-free intercourse in some vibrator users. Multiple anecdotes say they can, and the closest (but still not directly on point) research found 16.5% of female vibrator users reported “numbness,” most of it temporary. Again, that study was funded (and co-authored) by a company with a division devoted to sex toys. (More below)

It’s unsettling that sexologists are not researching this phenomenon directly and objectively. As with internet porn investigations, it would require that (1) users temporarily stop vibrator use and report any changes, or (2) new users with intercourse partners report any changes.

This topic is reminiscent of when researchers on a major academic listserve for sexologists were alerted (more than a decade ago) that young men with ED and loss of attraction to real partners were reversing both after quitting internet porn, and that sexology researchers needed to research internet porn’s effects. “Don’t be silly. That would be like researching unicorns,” one of them said.

This dismissive response came despite the fact that at the same time, Kinsey researchers had recently reported the same phenomenon with respect to streaming porn in bars and bathhouses: The Dual Control Model - The Role Of Sexual Inhibition & Excitation In Sexual Arousal And Behavior (2007). One of the authors was even on the sexology listserve…and said nothing.

In science, there’s nothing as effective as not looking for something if you don’t want to find it, and the same applies here. Sex therapists and their researchers have been recommending sex toys (and internet porn use) without reservation. Alas, this approach doesn’t necessarily serve a “sexual health” mission.

Of course people orgasm more easily and report more arousal with sex aids. In a study called, “Characteristics of vibrator use among women (1996),” “A majority indicated orgasms triggered by vibrator stimulation were more intense than others.” That’s why sex aids are called “sex aids.”

However, to the extent women orgasm more easily with toys (and experience reduced ability to enjoy intercourse during partnered sex), it is evidence that sex toys are actually “supernormal stimuli,” the effects of which can’t be duplicated by a human partner. As such, vibrators may condition users’ sexual response, such that partnered sex becomes less satisfying – and toys increasingly compelling.

People should ideally make the decision to use vibrators based on full knowledge, not a lopsided view.

This phenomenon has an internet nickname: “Dead Vagina Syndrome,” and there has been a big media push to deny its reality. Several different doctors repeating the exact same talking points showed up in the slew of similar "reassuring" articles. Hmmm…

The remainder of this collection is divided into research, anecdotes seen on forums, and articles from the Web on the subject.


 

Research related to vibrators

 

Changes in a woman's sexual experience and expectations following the introduction of electric vibrator assistance.

 (Qualitative)

When researchers polled 19 new vibrator users, "Women spoke a great deal about the change in their arousal and orgasmic response when they began to use the vibrator. ...Significantly, eight women directly stated that they were concerned with becoming dependent on the vibrator. ...Only three women talked specifically about their partnered sex lives being enhanced by a vibrator."

Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use by Women in the United States: Results from a Nationally Representative Study.

NOTE: Funded by parent company of Trojan (Church & Dwight Co.), which has a sex-toy division. Not only that, one of the co-authors was a C&D employee:

Conflict of Interest: Annahita Ghassemi is an employee of Church & Dwight Co., Inc., the entity that funded this research study. 

The other authors were affiliated with either Indiana University or the Kinsey Institute.

Almost 30% of women had experienced genital symptoms from vibrator use. A total of 16.5% (95% CI, 14.3–18.7%) had ever experienced genital numbness, most of it temporary. Full paragraph:

Of the ever users, 71.5% (95% CI, 68.8–74.2%) reported that they had never experienced any of the listed side effects from vibrator use. As shown in Table 5, a total of 16.5% (95% CI, 14.3–18.7%) had ever experienced genital numbness, with 0.5% (95% CI, 0.1–0.9%) reporting that the numbness lasted for a day or longer. Among those reporting numbness, the median severity score was 4.0 (on a 10-point scale). A total of 3.0% (95% CI, 2.0– 4.0%) reported ever having experienced genital pain resulting from vibrator use, with 0.6% (95% CI, 0.1–1.1%) reporting pain lasting for a day or longer. Among those reporting pain, the median severity score was 3.0. A total of 9.9% (95% CI, 8.1–11.7%) of users reported having experienced genital irritation from vibrator use, with 2.6% (95% CI,  1.6–3.6%) reporting irritation lasting for a day or longer. Among those reporting irritation, the median severity score was 4.0. Inflammation/ Swelling was reported by 8.0% of users (95% CI, 6.4–9.6%) with 1.5% (95% CI, 0.8–2.0%) reporting inflammation/swelling for a day or longer. The median severity score for inflammation/swelling was 4.0. A total of 1.1% of users (95% CI, 0.5– 1.7%)  reported experiencing tears or cuts in relation to vibrator use, with a median severity score of 1.0.

The researchers did not ask whether there was decreased responsiveness during intercourse with partner. And they “spun” this possibility as a mere “historical belief”:

“However, given the historical belief that vibrator use may habituate women to particular ways of sexual response (i.e., experiencing orgasm more easily with a vibrator and less so with a partner), future research should consider assessing to what extent women’s sexual response becomes habituated—or, alternatively, enhanced—in relation to vibrator use.”

Characteristics of vibrator use among women

(1996, sample gathered from vibrator purchasers. Not representative: 37% sexual minorities, 54% had exclusively male sexual partners)

Whereas some authors (e.g., Heiman, Lo- Piccolo, & LoPiccolo, 1976; Masters & Johnson, 1986) have encouraged women to use a vibrator to heighten their sexual arousal or to enhance orgasmic capacity, others (e.g., Kaplan, 1974) have been less enthusiastic, fearing that the woman might become too dependent on the vibrator. Kaplan argued that women may become unable to experience orgasm by other means if a vibrator is relied upon too extensively.

…Women experiencing orgasm alone found clitoral vibrator and clitoral-manual stimulation to be most effective, nearly 80% indicating that clitoral stimulation with a vibrator usually or always triggered orgasm.

…Many women (n = 123) described the differences, if any, between the feelings they experienced when an orgasm was stimulated by vibrator use, compared to their feelings when a vibrator was not used. A majority reported orgasms were stronger with a vibrator (see Table 4). Ten women reported that they only experienced orgasm with the use of a vibrator.

…Self-stimulation was more reliable in triggering orgasm than were partnered sexual activities. Most women were also at least moderately satisfied with the frequency or consistency of their orgasmic experience, both alone and with a partner. This is not a sample of women frustrated with their sexual experiences or using a vibrator to compensate for lack of sexual satisfaction by other means, either alone or with a partner.

Data did not suggest vibrator use was having negative effects on sexual functioning and satisfaction without using a vibrator, but no data compared sexual response during intercourse between users and non-users - as entire sample used vibrators, among other masturbation methods and sexual activities.

Clinical and research concerns with vibratory stimulation: a review and pilot study of common stimulation devices

(Tested vibrators mechanically, rather than in-vivo. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the mechanical properties of common sexual stimulation devices.)

[From Abstract] Seven vibrators used for sexual stimulation were tested using a piezoelectric accelerometer mounted on their housing to quantify frequency, displacement, and acceleration of each. Vibratory frequency ranged from 43 to 148 Hz, displacement from 37 to 783 μm, and acceleration from 18 to 311 m/s2. The range suggests vibrators used in laboratory studies could greatly increase their stimulation, while some devices actually may decrease sexual sensitivity temporarily. An in vivo study could characterize patterns of use that could maximize sexual arousal while mitigating potential loss of sensitivity.

[From paper] Clients may report concerns about vibrators becoming a sexual ‘‘crutch’’ or decreasing their sensitivity (Heiman & LoPiccolo, 1988). Some of these fears appear partially justified. Short-term adaptations do occur to vibratory stimulation, such that stimulation 15 seconds after a constant vibratory stimulus cannot be discriminated as well as prior to the vibratory stimulation (Tommerdahl et al., 2005). However, vibrators may be no different than manual stimulation in decreasing subsequent sensitivity. [ß Given a silly statement like this, one has to ask who Team Prause serves….]

Anxious and avoidant attachment, vibrator use, anal sex, and impaired vaginal orgasm.

(Mildly interesting, but not on point)

RESULTS:

Anxious attachment was associated with lesser vaginal orgasm consistency, but with higher frequency of vibrator and anal sex orgasms. Avoidant attachment was associated with higher frequency of vibrator orgasms. Neither anxious nor avoidant attachment was associated with lifetime number of penile-vaginal intercourse partners.

Determinants of female sexual orgasms

(2016 - not a vibrator study, but recent and interesting)

... [In women] There has been a continuous declining trend regarding the age of first orgasm in masturbation, but not regarding the age of the first orgasm in intercourse. Nowadays, half of women have had their first orgasm in masturbation at least 5 years prior their first orgasm in intercourse. They have had more time to practice their sexual pleasure via masturbation before their first intercourse, but that has not helped them to achieve an orgasm any younger during intercourse. This result diverges from expectations. (emphasis supplied)

There are even some findings that masturbation is associated with poorer relationship quality, greater risk of female sexual arousal disorder, impaired sexual satisfaction, impaired orgasm (especially vaginal orgasm) and with other adverse processes (Brody, 2007). In this study, female relationship quality was not associated to masturbation frequency but general sexual satisfaction was lower among women who masturbated actively.

Women's vibrator use in sexual partnerships: results from a nationally representative survey in the United States.

This paper (which preceded the more recent one just above) was also funded by the company that owns Trojan (with a sex-toy division) and was co-authored by an employee of that company. It did not directly compare intercourse responsiveness among vibrator users with intercourse responsiveness among non-vibrator users.

Even so, on the "satisfaction subscale" of the FSFI (“Female Sexual Function Index”) questionnaire, satisfaction was higher in the "never users" among hetero and bi women. Does this suggest that there may be a problem that is being covered up by the methodology used in this industry-sponsored study?

Vibrator use among heterosexual men varies by partnership status: results from a nationally representative study in the United States.

Study on men, so not relevant to the “dead vagina syndrome.” This study was also funded by Trojan’s parent company, and co-authored by Indiana University’s Herbenick (Kinsey).


 

Anecdotes from the Web

[More anecdotes can be found below in the section following this one.]

First woman: "My biggest problem was using vibration to get off and it destroying my sensitivity. Tossed my vibrator out completely. Unfortunately I had to get rid of everything in the house that vibrates because I kept trying to find a replacement. Goodbye Sonic-Care face-cleaning tool. Sex is much better. There is no question. My clitoris was basically dead to anything not battery operated."

Second woman: "Hopefully a dry spell from myself will get me more interested in dating. 18-year old women should not be confined to their rooms with porn and toys. I'd like to graduate from high school with a dry hand."

Third woman: "I read hentai quite a bit and masturbate almost every day. I need to quit. I've noticeably lost sensitivity in my clitoris from my vibrator."

Another woman: Vibrator-use can absolutely desensitize a woman. I started using one in college, thinking I was a modern, sexually empowered woman, and couldn't believe how effectively it got the job done. It worked TOO well. Within a month, I could no longer orgasm with my boyfriend, and a few months after that, I couldn't even do it with my own hand any longer. The vibrator went in the trash and my responsiveness came back some weeks later. Even now, a decade later, I still sometimes miss the intense stimulation. However, I definitely do not miss having the sexual responsiveness of a rock.

I've stayed away from Internet porn for the same reason. It's too stimulating, and I know I would quickly get hooked. I tried masturbating to it once. I literally came in less than one minute (not at all like real life!) because the stimulation was so intense. Real-life sex will never be able to measure up to that. Perhaps I am the exception, but I know myself well. If I started regularly using Internet porn, I would end up as one of those people who can no longer get turned on without it. No thanks. I'll keep my sex-life organic.

A guy: I had a girlfriend who said that there was a period in her life where she got really into using her vibrator. But she found herself completely unable to orgasm with partners because she had become so desensitized. She quit the vibrator, and I think she said it took her about 6 months to get back to normal.

Another guy (not on vibrators, but relevant to any supernormal sexual stimulus): 1 out of 3 women my age are watching pornography. I remember I used to think it was so cool if a cute girl watches porn. But seriously, this is really, really bad—not good—for me and for people in general. I definitely don't want my future wife's brain to be desensitized by porn, so her life and my lovemaking skills seem boring and bland. Jeez this is awful. It's sad to see how bad technology has screwed with our brains.


 

Excerpts from a sampling of mainstream articles

Most of these articles concluded that there was “no real issue” from vibrator use, generally relying on the industry-funded research above, which didn’t ask the key questions, or on the study (mentioined earlier) which included no human subjects. Not one of the articles found on this subject pointed out that the Indiana studies the authors generally relied upon were industry-funded and co-authored by an industry-employee.

The items below don’t prove anything substantive, but they do show that this issue is apparently common enough that many articles are written on this decreased-responsiveness phenomenon. Given the sameness of their talking points and lack of investigative rigor, some of these may be “placed” by the same industry that funded the Indiana studies.

Is Your Vibrator Ruining Your Sex Life?

“I’m breaking up with my vibrator,” my friend Kate,* 35, quietly informed me over lattes last week. “I love it, obviously, but my boyfriend thinks it makes me less responsive to, you know, him.” I wasn’t surprised by her confession. My therapist had recently asked me to try taking a vi-break of my own after I’d told her I had a hard time reaching orgasm without my trusty Hitachi Magic Wand….

Caroline realized she’d become nearly incapable of orgasm — from oral sex, manual stimulation, or intercourse — without her battery-operated buddy. “It made me almost embarrassed how resistant my body had become to everything but intense high-speed [vibrations],” she says. “Jon would try going down on me or using his hands, but it would take forever. Eventually we would both give up, and I’d turn back to the vibrator.”

Should You Be Worried About “Dead Vagina Syndrome”?

1. DVS is said to be caused by using your vibrator too much. Dead vagina syndrome refers to using your vibrator too much, causing your vagina to lose sensitivity. Lots of stories about this condition have spread, which might’ve made you worry about how often you turn to Mr. Buzz to get off.

2. How does DVS happen, anyway? OK, so how dead vagina syndrome is said to occur is that you use your vibrator so much that you lose clitoral and vaginal stimulation. It gets worse—by depending on your vibrator too regularly, you actually end up being unable to orgasm in any other way, like with a partner during sex. If you carry on using your vibrator, you’ll end up with a vagina that can’t get any pleasure. Hence, it’s dead. …

Are Vibrators Addictive or Numbing? Our Sex Therapist Has Your Answer

Sex therapist advice

What you need to know about dead vagina syndrome

But is dead vagina syndrome actually a real thing? Or is it a myth used to put women off solo sexual pleasure?

If you didn’t know, dead vagina syndrome refers to a massive decrease in vaginal sensitivity following use of vibrators.

The theory goes that if you use a vibrator ‘too much’, you’ll essentially build up a tolerance to clitoral and vaginal stimulation, making you unable to orgasm through any other means. If you continue to use your vibrator, say dead vagina theorists, your vagina will desensitise to that sensation, too, meaning your vagina will be totally dead and resistant to any kind of pleasure.

Sounds scary, right? And it kind of makes sense. Keep using one method of getting off and perhaps you will find it trickier to orgasm from other means.

But do not fear, vagina pals. …

Quora responses: Can overusing a vibrator cause damage to the clitoris? Nerve damage or otherwise?

 

Is your vibrator ruining your orgasm? (The Daily Dot)

Sex toys are great. But like anything else, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. And some women have reported that after using their vibrators for a prolonged amount of time, their vaginas have become desensitized to most other forms of stimulation, to the point where nothing short of a jackhammer to the clitoris will get them to orgasm.

… Nonetheless, some women still ardently believe that vibrators have desensitized them. In a piece for Cosmo, writer Lauren Bans described developing “Dead Vagina Syndrome,” “or as the professionals surely call it, DVS,” after years of vibrator use. 

“After years of essentially power-exfoliating my lady part, I found that coming any other way required a level of concentration on par with taking the SATs,” Bans wrote. “It was exhausting. Fingers paled in comparison. I barely felt a tongue. I was scared I had vibrated my nerves dead forever.”

… TLDR: “Dead Vagina Syndrome” from excessive vibrator usage is probably a myth. But scientists don’t know for sure, because nobody’s done specific tests to find out.

Only Orgasming With Strong Vibrators? 8 Steps To Regaining Sensitivity

A: … Lots of women report having to increase the intensity level of their vibrators, or having to keep “upgrading” their vibrators to more powerful models.

… Unfortunately, there haven’t been any conclusive studies that have shown whether or not an actual physiological dependence can develop, but many women report that frequent vibrator usage makes it harder to reach orgasm in other ways (like through manual masturbation or oral sex).

What evidence do you have that vibrators don't cause nerve damage?

Another woman asked if there is any evidence that the clitoris could be desensitised with a vibrator. You said 'not that I have heard of'. Do you think that there is no evidence because it's just a subject that hasn't been studied, or has been a study and the results showed that it was not possible?

Perhaps you should read all the cries for help from women all over the internet complaining that they have lost sensitivity. Most of the replies from medical professionals seem like nothing more than ignorant speculation. They tell women that the sensation will come back and it's just a temporary problem.

Well my sensation was lost years ago and has never come back. Don't tell me that vibrators don't cause damage! This kind of ignorant advice is putting other women at risk of the same problem and delaying the search for how vibrators actually cause damage and how the problem can be cured. I feel like I've had a clitoral circumcision and NO it's not all in my mind.

Vibrator damaged nerve endings

I am 40 and bought and used a vibrator for the first time and I see now that when my husband tries to touch me and arouse me it feels good but i can not orgasim. I stopped using the vibrator. Could it have damaged my nerve endings? I would rather be able to feel there with his touch... What can I do to get feelings back in that area. I was using one of thoes hitatchi wands

How Sex Toys Impact Relationships: Do they always increase satisfaction?

 

Is "Dead Vagina Syndrome" a Real Thing?

[This one relies on a researcher to debunk “Dead Vagina Syndrome,” but it links to a paper that just tested vibration strength in a lab…no actual subjects]

You might've heard the term "Dead Vagina Syndrome" thrown around online, or at least heard the idea behind it: that using your vibrator too much will desensitize your vagina. Does this claim have any scientific basis, though? Or is it just another myth to freak people out about masturbation?

Luckily, neuroscientist and sexual psychophysiologist Nicole Prause, Ph.D., who has studied the effects of vibrators, says there's no data to back up claims about Dead Vagina Syndrome.

Can using a vibrator damage your nerves? 

Let’s start with basic anatomy. The dorsal branch of the pudendal nerve is responsible for sensation to the clitoris and penis, respectively. Men and women have receptors which sense vibration, pressure, temperature, and other sensations like heat/cold.

Here’s a fun fact though! The clitoris and penis have different types of receptors. The clitoris has receptors which are more sensitive to  vibrations between 5 and 15 Hz while the penis is more sensitive to a higher frequency (250Hz). Maybe there’s a difference between the ideal vibrations for men and women??  So far there isn’t research on this.

We do know that there’s a natural and temporary decrease in sensitivity to vibration. This also occurs with touch. All it means is that after a while, you are going to have to change the input (i.e. vibrations) in some way to continue to have the same effect. You can accomplish this by switching speeds, intensity, types of vibrations, or simply taking some time away from the vibrator.

When it comes to Jean’s question I have to say this: After a thorough search of different databases, I could not find a single article about vibrators causing nerve damage. Now just because there isn’t a published article out there does not mean that this has never or could never happen. I would say that physiologically it isn’t out of the question. For example, we know that people who work with jack-hammers all day are at a greater risk of developing nerve and arm problems. I supposed that if you were to use a high-intensity vibrator for hours on end, for many days in a row then yes, you could probably cause some irritation or damage to the nerve.

Comments

Thank you so much for this,

Thank you so much for this, Marnia. It is reassuring to see others' experience and the research. Sex/porn/orgasm is such a sacred cow (attempting to date is so challenging because people lose their minds when their sexual mindlocks are challenged). I have a history with sexual assault and am (still) hoping to find a karezza open minded partner. I bought myself a vibrator a few years' back in hope of exploring my sexuality in a safe experimental way, but I couldn't really enjoy it (definitely overstimulating). I am so glad that I have not devoted effort to it now.