Photo courtesy of Dr Mary Jane Minkin.
In the late 19th century, doctors used vibrators to treat women suffering from "hysteria", a fake medical condition that was actually a sexist way of saying, “This lady is very nervous, and she can only be healed by a giant phallic-shaped device.” Thankfully, by the the early 20th century, women were choosing to use vibrators, and in 1952 the American Psychiatric Association stopped seeing hysteria as a medical condition – which is why it initially seems odd that Dr Mary Jane Minkin, a leading Yale University obstetrician and gynaecologist, is prescribing vibrators to Yale Cancer Clinic's cancer patients to help increase their blood flow, give them a great sex life and combat menopause's side effects.
Once I spoke to Dr Minkin, it became clear that these prescriptions are helping women lead happier lives. Because the vibrator industry is unregulated, Dr Minkin doesn't recommend plastic vibrators sold at the mall as novelty items or neon pink dildos that dye panties pink if they're kept in an underwear drawer – she prescribes We-Vibe, a vibrator that is BPA and phthalate free, made out of silicone and can be charged through a USB cable. Impressed with Dr Minkin's outlook on sex toys, I contacted her this week to discuss her groundbreaking work, removing the stigma associated with sex and why younger patients are more willing to use vibrators than old ladies.
VICE: When did you begin recommending vibrators to patients?
Dr Mary Jane Minkin: We've been talking about it for a while, but we actually started a few months ago. One of my interests over the last few years has been dealing with cancer patients. At the Yale Cancer Clinic, I have a special programme for the survivors of gynecological cancers, and then we branched out, and after the past few years we've been asked to help take care of cancer survivors of all different types of cancers, and we want to keep their issues with sexuality in good shape and have them enjoying their lives, which is our goal. We basically get women who come to our oncology clinic and give them surveys about their satisfaction with their sex life, and then we have them use vibrators. Not every patient in the clinic is participating, but we have a number who are – we certainly seem to have patients who seem happy, so we are happy with that.
What are the medical benefits of vibrator therapy?
One of the problems that women have is menopause. If we all live long enough, we're going to go through menopause – our ovaries don't last forever. Oestrogen protects the vagina, and when oestrogen levels go down, which is what menopause is about, a significant number of women experience dryness in their vagina and decreased comfort with intercourse – that's a problem. We don't want people being uncomfortable. We want people to be comfortable when they enjoy sex. One of the goals of a menopause physician should be making people have happy vaginas.
One of the ways we know that we can increase vaginal moisture is to increase blood flow to the pelvis. That is one of the ways that oestrogen works; oestrogen increases healthy blood flow. Unfortunately, oestrogen therapy has been the main treatment – things like lubricants and moisturisers – and they work for a lot of people, but some people need a little more than that. For those people, natural oestrogen has certainly been the main stage of therapy. Part of the reason we've got into the vibrator aspect is the oncology folks really don't like us using even a tiny bit of oestrogen in the vagina. How do we help those ladies? We don't want to write them off and say, “Okay, well you can't have sex, too bad. I can't give you oestrogen, and that's your problem.” So there are other ways to increase blood flow – hence increasing natural oestrogen – and vibrator therapy is one of them.
Photo courtesy of We-Vibe.
Is vibrator therapy's goal to give a patient an orgasm?
I'm all for people having orgasms, but by simply increasing pelvic blood flow with vibrator therapy, you don't have to have an orgasm – it's stimulus. The vibrator can increase pelvic blood flow and that will increase moisture and decrease discomfort. So the orgasm is a very magical thing, but from the medical and therapeutic viewpoint, if we can increase pelvic blood flow and moisture, which will then increase hormones, we're in favour of that.
But if an orgasm does occur, that must be a nice benefit to vibrator therapy. Are there health benefits to orgasms?
Absolutely. Orgasms will help with blood flow as part of releasing oestrogen, and if you are in a relationship, having an orgasm helps people feel better about their partner. It helps people relax. We like people to be relaxed and less stressed – that is a good thing.
Is it possible to use a vibrator too often?
That is a good question. Actually, a prominent person, Dr Ruth, has spoken on this. I had the privilege of working with her on a few occasions, and one thing she says is that if people totally depend on vibrators, they may need more intense stimulation from a partner.
Often women do need more intense stimulation than men to have an orgasm.
I want to reassure readers that there are many women who, without clitoral stimulation, cannot have an orgasm. Garden variety intercourse won't cut it, so nobody should feel bizarre because they need clitoral stimulation. That's normal, that's common.
Have you dealt with any backlash from colleagues or patients because you recommend vibrator therapy?
Most people have been pretty accepting. In general, young folks tend to be more accepting than the older generations. Vibrators have been around for years, and we think they are terrific, but I like to take them out of the closet. Sex isn't dirty, but some people still think that way. I think that people need to realise that sex can have medical implications as well.
Follow Sophie on Twitter: @TheBowieCat
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