When we give a toy to ourselves or others, we’re not just giving that person a piece of silicon—we’re also inviting them into a conversation with their body, their pleasure, and with us.So before you press “purchase” on that sleek bullet vibe or colorful cock ring, take a moment to reflect on what you’d like that conversation to be—and, most importantly, what your lover or friend wants to receive. With thoughtfulness and communication, gifting a sex toy can be a consensual, sensual, surprising, and relationship-deepening experience for both of you.
Consensual And SurprisingAs with all things sexual, gifting someone a sex toy requires affirmative consent. But for many of us, part of the fun of gift-giving is the element of surprise. While this may seem like a contradiction, it’s actually totally possible to receive an enthusiastically consensual surprise. The key is making sure you and the gift receiver are already engaged in an ongoing, affirming sexual conversation. Carolanne Marcantonio has witnessed hundreds of partners engaged in just that kind of conversation. A licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist based in New York City, she spent the early years of her career as an educator at Babeland. On the sales floor, it was easy to spot where partnered folks were on their sexual journeys. “A lot of times, what I’d see is there was one person who was really open and eager, and one person who was more apprehensive,” Marcantonio says. Sexual eagerness is awesome, but to explore with a partner, you both need to be on board. If you’re about to purchase your lover a sexy new vibe, take a moment to do a simple gut check. How do you think they’ll feel about it? “If your gut’s like, ‘My partner’s going to be pissed,’ there do need to be some conversations beforehand,” Marcantonio says. Well before you buy that butt plug, talking about sex should be an active and normal part of your relationship. “Good sex comes from good communication,” says Marcantonio. Building that mutual comfort—so you already have a sense of your partner’s no’s, yes’s, and “want to try’s”—will only add to the anticipation of a sexy gift. “You can still be surprised and still have these conversations.”
Give From Abundance, Not Perceived LackSex toy marketing can sometimes frame our sexualities or pleasure as problems to be solved. As a colleague of mine put it, “Valentine’s Day: when straight men buy their wives and girlfriends vibrators to ‘fix’ their sex lives.” The idea that an object can heal a dynamic between two people is a consequence of capitalism. “We live in a culture where we want quick fixes, and more and more we want instant gratification. ‘I will buy this, it will fix it, so I don’t have to learn,’” says Marcantonio. But learning—about yourself and others—is precisely the point of using toys. Marcantonio encourages clients to shift from deficit-based thinking, in which we consider our bodies problems to be fixed, to affirmative thinking, in which we joyfully seek to learn more about our pleasure. If you find yourself wanting to buy a sex toy for a partner in order to “fix” what you perceive to be a deficit in your sex life, slow down. Ask your partner—and yourself—curious questions, and actually listen to the answers. “It takes the time it takes. You’ve got to have patience. You’ve got to talk,” Marcantonio says. What we perceive as a sexual “problem” may actually be a result of a lack of education, particularly around the pleasure of people with ovaries and/or vulvas. “If you’re coming into this thinking a sex toy will fix it, or make you function the way you ‘should’—be able to orgasm just from penetration, be able to orgasm quickly—then that’s not an understanding of normal sexual function,” says Marcantonio
Toys can, of course, be a wonderful way to explore arousal. But they’re a tool to help us discover more—not a substitute for emotional engagement.Rather than whipping out your credit card (or dildo), first focus on getting to know your partner sexually. “I love the idea of going on a sex date, which is a date not where you have sex but you talk about sex,” says Marcantonio. “You talk about the things you’re interested in, that you’ve already tried, that you want to try.” As part of your sex date, try going to a sex toy store together, or browsing together online, without any pressure to buy. If you see your lover longingly linger over a particularly pretty dildo or powerful rabbit, you know what they’re getting for Valentine’s Day.