One evening during my freshman year of college, one of my high school friends asked to borrow my purple-striped vibrator. He was in a band, and he sent me a text explaining that the band sought a dildo to use as a musical instrument. He knew I owned one and asked if I'd be so generous as to lend it to him.
This was not the first time I had loaned out a sex toy. I'd previously lent another vibrator — my first — to a curious friend, Sandy*. Sandy did not, as I recall, ask to borrow it; instead, I'd urged her to take it. I'd discovered the joys of clitoral orgasms, and drunk with the power of self-pleasure, I was determined for her to experience that same sexual agency.
Over the course of her trial period, my diary entries narrated, with increasing desperation, my acute sense of loss. From March 5, 2003: "Sandy had better bring me my vibrator tomorrow, or else she's never using it again," which was followed by this March 8 entry: "Sandy still hasn't given me my vibrator. Growl." When she finally gave it back, I experienced a palpable sense of relief.
I never fretted over letting others borrow my dildo (until, of course, I became impatient for its particular delights). On the contrary, I was something of a vibrator evangelist. If I was intimate enough to discuss sex with a female friend, I was certainly going to advise them to purchase a vibrator — and by the way, would they like me to accompany them?
At the time, I thought little about what sharing a sex toy meant. I'm certain I washed the vibrator with soap and water, but I must admit that it did not occur to me that sharing it could be anything less than hygienic. Yet I cherished the opportunity it offered to talk about sex with my girlfriends. Sharing a vibrator seemed like an opportunity to understand them in more nuanced and singular ways. It dissolved boundaries between us, cultivating an intimacy both cozy and profound and allowing us to explore new contours of our friendship, which offered all the dazzle of a brave new world.
For some time I assumed it was uncommon to lend and borrow vibrators. I've since discovered I was wrong.
Swapping friendship bracelets for dildos: Many women have shared sex toys with their less experimental or sexually active friends as a way of introducing them to the benefits of self-love — or simply as a symbolic gesture of friendship.
"It began as a joke, because I was horny and didn't have one," explains Carol, 23*. "[My best friend] suggested I borrow hers ... then I ended up actually borrowing [it]. It's quite a bonding thing to do, really, because it makes us closer as friends and gives us an opening to talk about sex and masturbation."
Perhaps it is female sexuality's long history of pathology and suppression, which has long considered desire antithetical to crystalline feminine purity, that makes talking about sex and masturbation a hallmark of female closeness. Anything silenced carries with it a residue of shame and secrecy, and talking openly about it is a sign of unmitigated love and trust.
But that's not to say that unhindered sex talk and vibrator-swapping are inherently markers of intimacy. In fact, some women are more pragmatic about the practice of sharing sex toys with friends, viewing it primarily an economical way to share orgasms.
"When I was in high school, my friends and I would all take turns with a vibrator over our underwear," says Anna*, 25*. The frequency of this practice has dwindled, though she remains willing to help a friend in need. "[In the last couple of years] my friend has used my vibrator over the underwear occasionally," she said. Occasionally, she'll let her friends use it while they're hanging out if they happen to mention they haven't had an orgasm in a while.
To many women, vibrators aren't just sex toys. They are, in a sense, extensions of their bodies and markers of their sexual identities. They're vehicles of self-knowledge. So it seems natural that some women would want to give their friends the same tools that had led to their own sexual empowerment.
"My vibrator was incredibly important in helping me learn my body and what felt good and what I liked ... I can't imagine having sex with someone without knowing yourself at least a little bit," Sophia*, 32, said. "That's what my vibrator was to me — how I knew myself."
Amy*, 25, agreed, saying self-pleasure is to her an act of feminist individuality: "Toys are brilliant and, I believe, an important feminist object ... It was and is a powerful thing to me to be able to have resource to toys whenever I might want them, rather than being reliant on more basic sex (with a partner or alone)."
That said, swapping sex toys isn't for the faint of heart. For some women, the magic of the female orgasm need not be shared, or even discussed. Many of those I queried emphasized that the only person with whom they would share a toy was a sexual partner.
Asserts Rochelle, 29*, Sharing a sex toy "is like sharing a dick, and I am not that good a friend."
She has reason for concern. Even when thoroughly cleaned, sex toys can potentially serve as vehicles for sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, HPV and bacterial vaginosis. A 2014 study from the Indiana University School of Medicine determined that women with HPV may be putting their partners at risk if they share sex toys, in part because cleanliness can be difficult to maintain depending on the toy: While silicone toys are fairly easy to clean, toys made out of "soft jelly materials" have "cracks and crevices" that can entrap particularly tenacious bacteria.
This is all to say that when we share our sex toys, whether with a partner or a friend, we do so at our own risks. But even putting hygiene aside, Jenny, 33*, said sharing toys does not account for the singularity of sexual predilections — what one body enjoys, another might not.
"Every woman's body is so different," she said, "I wouldn't assume what works for me would work for another woman. I'm happy to share what I do and don't like, and make recommendations, but to me toys are very personal."
The sisterhood of the traveling vibrator: Personal boundaries vary widely; one woman might be hesitant to share or even talk about her vibrator, while others are keen to pass theirs around like Ann Brashares' pair of traveling pants. So while sharing a vibrator might be a sign of female intimacy, it's not necessarily synonymous with it. If you're squeamish about the prospect of swapping bodily fluids, know that being open about your sexual desires shouldn't necessarily be conflated with intimacy.
When my friend asked to borrow my vibrator for his gig — in a non-sexual context, granted — I was willing to, because agreeability in this context seemed compliant with the set criteria of a "Cool Girl," alluring in her sexual nonchalance. "Borrow my dildo? Sure, whatever — sounds funny." (It was too: a bass guitarist wielding a purple and white dildo like a bow is, pretty objectively, ridiculous.)
But when I actually saw him with my vibrator, I couldn't help but feel a bit nonplussed, because it no longer felt like my possession. My vibrator had metamorphosed from an object that brought me pleasure to one that made other people laugh. I learned that once you incorporate an object into your physically intimate rituals, the concept of ownership transforms.
And so, many years later, my vibrator — no longer the one with purple and white stripes, may it rest in peace —inspires, if not affection, the pleasure of agency, the potential for self-knowledge. I derive pleasure from the fact that it is mine and only mine (and, occasionally, my sexual partner's).
That said, I'd likely still share it with friends. But I understand why other women would be more hesitant to do so. The erotic exists in privacy, in quiet. It exists in the soft whirr of a vibrator — whether or not you're inclined to climax and tell.
*Names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.