As a certified sex educator, I get a lot of questions about sex toys. Like, a lot, a lot. For now, let’s distill my inbox’s most prominent sex toy–related inquiry: “There are so many different kinds of sex toys. How do I know which one I want? And what are the differences? Are there any? What am I doing? Help me!”
The thing is, when it comes to sex toys (and sex education in general, if I’m being honest), there just isn’t a lot of good, trustworthy information out there. Why? There are a lot of reasons, mostly to do with shame. There are countless problems with sexual shame and our society’s fraught relationship with it, but sex toys can be especially confusing. If you want a vibrator and you buy a dildo, you’re going to be disappointed. If you buy a vibrator that isn’t made for anal play and use it for anal penetration? You could wind up in the emergency room.
What’s more, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate sex-toy materials in the U.S. This means that companies can make sex toys out of whatever the hell they want with very little consequence. Read: Companies can make sex toys that go in your body out of materials that aren’t safe for your body—such as jelly or low-grade rubber.
Don’t worry: We have all the information you need so you can go forth on your sex-toy journey prepared and armed with information. Because you deserve to know what’s making you orgasm.
Vulva Toys: Dildos vs. Vibrators
What’s the confusion? The shape. The classic dildo and rabbit vibrators (of Sex and the City fame and still the most popular sex toy for vulva owners) both have a long, phallic shape. They look relatively similar and are both made for penetration, so they are often mixed up.
Let’s break them down:
Dildos: A dildo is a long, cylindrical sex toy that, in its most basic form, looks like a penis. Luckily, there are now so many different shapes, sizes, and colors that the scary penis-centric image of the dildo has transformed. People still buy real-dick-looking dildos, but you have options. The notable thing about dildos is that they don’t vibrate. “A dildo is a phallic-shaped object that can be inserted into an orifice,” Kenneth Play, an international educator and sex hacker, tells TheBody. And, sometimes, they are curved to reach the G-spot area.
Vibrators: What makes a vibrator? You guessed it—they vibrate. Vibrators are, in my opinion, the most nuanced and complex category of sex toys because there are a zillion different shapes and sizes. They are designed for either external or internal use (or both), depending on their shape and size.
It’s important to note that while a vulva/vagina toy might be designed for external or internal use, you can experiment and use them for one or the other, or both. The vagina is a closed-off canal. Your toys won’t get lost, I promise!
Who doesn’t love a good subcategory, amiright? Let’s break them down (again).
External vibrators (bullets, finger vibes): These toys are used for external stimulation of the clitoris. “Both bullet and finger vibrators are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand,” erotic educator Taylor Sparks tells TheBody. “The ones called bullet vibrators tend to be shaped like ... bullets or at least are cylindrical in shape. Finger vibrators are similar to bullet vibes but have a loop so that you can slip it on your finger and it becomes an extension of your own hand. You can find them both at varying speeds and intensities.”
Internal vibrators (G-spot wands): Internal vibrators have the same “phallic,” cylindrical length of a dildo, only they vibrate. What’s more, they are usually shaped with a curved head, designed to reach the G-spot area. “Some vulva owners like the feeling of the vibrations on their G-spots, while others may enjoy it being rubbed back and forth or round and round. So a G-spot vibrator can be used to stimulate this area on or off,” says Sparks, who is the founder of Organic Loven, the largest Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)–owned online intimacy shop.
Dual vibrators (rabbits, dual wands): As mentioned, the rabbit is the most popular form of vibrator to this day, thanks to Samantha Jones. Dual vibrators combine clitoral and G-spot stimulation for a full, internally and externally stimulating experience. They have a vibrating, cylindrical base and an attached, external head designed to reach the glans clitoris. Some vulva owners love them, some don’t. Get curious and experiment.
Anal Toys: Anal Beads vs. Anal Dildos vs. Anal Plugs
Anal toys are in their own special category for one big reason: safety. The anus has two rings: the outside ring (the one you can flex when you tighten your butthole) and an inner ring, which we cannot control. The inner ring has truly astonishing sucking power—it can take toys right up and away. Anal toys are specifically designed to avoid this pitfall: They have a flared base, designed to act as a stopper.
All forms of butt toys come in both vibrating and non-vibrating versions. Read the toy’s description before you purchase.
Let’s break them down:
Anal plugs: Anal plugs look like, well, plugs. Butt plugs have a flared base. Never, ever put anything up your bum that doesn’t have a flared base. From this article to God’s ears. “They tend to be tear-shaped with a wide base to keep them from being ‘sucked up’ into the anal canal. They come [in] vibrating and non-vibrating [models] and in many materials—silicone, glass, and even wood,” Sparks explains.
Anal dildos: Anal dildos are usually best paired with a strap-on for pegging. They fit into a harness (such as the cloth harness from SpareParts) and can be used for anal sex. They look very similar to classic dildos—only they have a flared base. Start with smaller anal dildos before moving up to bigger sizes. Communicate with your partner and let them know if anything feels uncomfortable.
Anal beads: “Anal beads come in a string of beads, like on a bracelet,” Play tells us. The idea is to insert the beads, one at a time, to stimulate the nerve-rich anal opening. When you’re about to orgasm, you (or a partner) can remove the anal beads one at a time. This can increase your sensation. Play notes that you should always choose anal beads that come with a flared bottom, so you don’t lose them up your bum.
I cannot stress this enough: FLARED BASES FOR BUMS ONLY.
Penis Toys: C*ckrings, Masturbation Sleeves, etc.
Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention toys designed for penises. Penis toys are important to understand before using them, but they come with fewer risks. You’re not going to lose a penis ring up your urethra the way one might lose a non-anal dildo up a tight sphincter.
Let’s break them down:
C-rings: C*ckrings are rings that go around the base of the penis to restrict blood flow. This can help with greater control over climax, longer erections, and more intense orgasms. Be sure that the c-ring you’re using is made of body-safe or medical-grade silicone. Use a reliable, water-based lubricant to help with friction. Do not exceed 20 minutes when using one, as this can cause injury.
Masturbation sleeves: Masturbation sleeves are exactly what the name says: A sleeve for masturbation. Its most rudimentary model might be familiar: the Fleshlight. The Fleshlight is designed to look like a vagina or anus. It has a bad reputation as being seedy and weird, but I chalk this up to our culture’s shame around sex. Men and all penis owners have every right to pleasure and orgasms, too. Plus, you don’t need to get a grimy-looking toy anymore. Sex-toy company Tenga has taken the lead in creating masturbation sleeves that are truly works of art. Party on!
Vibrators: Vibrators are made for vulvas, but they can be used for penises too! They are versatile—so long as you’re keeping them away from your anus. Try using a wand vibrator on the head of your penis and see how it feels. Don’t forget lube!