The medical uses of dildos and vibrators.

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Oct. 4 2007 6:52 PM

A Sex Toy a Day Keeps the Doctor Away?

The medical uses of dildos and vibrators.

The Rabbit.
Is this a medical device?

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court declined to hear a nine-year-old case challenging Alabama's ban on the sale of sex toys. The state law prohibits the distribution of "any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for anything of pecuniary value." The law, though, does make exceptions for "a bona fide medical, scientific, educational, legislative, judicial, or law enforcement purpose." What medical purposes do sex toys serve?

Strengthening muscles, for one thing. Women who suffer from incontinence or a prolapsed uterus can exercise their pubococcygeal muscles—not to mention have more satisfying orgasms—by doing Kegels. Those muscles get an even better workout if you use weighted barbells, balls, and spring-loaded devices. Men with prostate disorders might use a dildo to massage themselves and drain the built-up fluid. (Some doctors, however, believe this can be dangerous, especially if the patient has an acute bacterial infection or prostate cancer.) Some health professionals also believe that woman can hasten recovery from surgeries like Caesarean sections with the help of sex aides, which increase blood flow.

While sex toys are often used recreationally, they can also improve sexual function for people with certain medical conditions. Diabetes and multiple sclerosis, for instance, affect nerve transmission, which can dull sexual sensation. People taking medications for high blood pressure and depression can also suffer side effects that limit sexual response. And women who undergo hormonal changes during menopause or who suffer nerve damage after surgery sometimes find their clitorises to be less sensitive; a sex toy might be necessary to increase arousal.

For men, doctors might recommend a penis pump, though it's possible to buy one without a prescription. For women, there are devices like the Eros, which is basically a pump for the clitoris. The handheld device features a small cup that pulses and sucks to enhance blood flow to the clitoris; more blood flow in the area increases arousal, which in turn helps the body lubricate itself and makes sex more pleasurable.

Vibrators were invented as medical equipment for treating female hysteria and other pelvic disorders. For much more detail, see Slate's slide show on the history of the vibrator.

So, is selling a sex toy always illegal in Alabama? Probably not, since the statute focuses on how a device is designed and marketed. Something that's used as a vibrator but isn't marketed for erotic play might be legit. The Hitachi Magic Wand, for instance, is often billed as a personal massager rather than a vibrator.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Richard Carroll of Northwestern University Medical Schoo;, Joy Davidson, author of Fearless Sex; Mike Fees of Fees & Burges;, Lisa Lawless of the National Association for Sexual Awareness and Empowerment; Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm; and Rachel Venning of Toys in Babeland.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.