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Cory Silverberg

Doing It Decent - Doctors Selling Sex Toys

By April 7, 2010

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Once a month Doing It Decent considers the ethics of a sexual situation from our readers. Grappling with a touchy sexual ethics issue? Send an email to sexuality.guide@about.com. All questions will be posted anonymously with identifying information removed.

This week's question: Do I want to buy a vibrator from my doctor?

I read about this gynecologist who is selling sex toys to his patients. There's something about it that icks me out. I don't think I'd want my doctor to know about my masturbation habits, and is it even ethical?

Thanks for the question, and the link. I hadn't heard about this particular doctor, so I can't speak to his situation, but as sex toys are gradually re-branded as sexual health devices I have been getting more ethical questions related to sex toys. Yours is an important and basic ethical question; what role should health care professionals play in the sales and promotion of sex toys?

Like you, I feel an ick factor here. But maybe for different reasons. I don't mind my doctor knowing about my masturbation habits (and of course sex toys can be used for partner and solo sex). My ick factor comes from the sense that the professionals who are already selling sex toys don't know enough about what they're talking about. It comes from a lack of consideration of the very question you're asking. Is it ethical?

We shouldn't think of ethics as the domain of professionals alone, but it's worth noting that most professions have ethical guidelines that can be easily found online and consulted. I did this as I thought through your question, and it's where I would recommend staring your own thinking, if you want to explore your icky feelings further.

But what is ethical is much more than what is written down, and there are some common ethical considerations that should be taken into account when we talk about health care professionals selling sex toys. Here are a few that I think are most relevant.

Competency and Training
To practice ethically means a professional provides only information and services they are competent to provide. This means they've been educated and trained, and in plain language that they know what they're talking about and how to talk about it. When a health care professional offers to sell you sex toys, the question is, how much do they know? How much do they know not only about the particular devices, but about sex toys in general. Are they familiar with the research, and where the research lacks? Where did they get their education and training?

In my experience most professionals learn about sex toys from retailers, manufacturers, and distributors. This isn't education, this is sales information. Talking to a sex toy manufacturer or retailer about sex toys and health is like talking to a car manufacturer or dealer about auto safety. They're going to give you some information, but it's skewed to a certain perspective and position; one that does not, can not, have your best interests in mind.

Professional as Advocate
Professional are sometimes described in ethics guidelines as an advocate for the patient/client. They are there to help you navigate information and options. Does selling you products which are easily and widely available best meet that role of advocate? Would you be better served if they helped you understand your options and gave you tools to make your own informed decisions? It's impossible for a professional to offer the same range of products and prices that you as an individual consumer have access to. By carrying a selection of products they may feel like they're doing you a favor by weeding out the "bad" products. This may or may not be true (see Competency and Training above). But they're also narrowing your options in the moment. Should advocates be narrowing options or expanding them? And how does financial compensation complicate the role of advocate?

Financial Conflict of Interest
Whether they're giving you free samples of lubricant or selling you a $150 vibrator, the professional should disclose the financial relationship they have with their supplier. There is an increasing awareness of the role that the pharmaceutical industry plays in how health information is framed and conveyed. Sex toys don't carry the same potentially negative side effects as medications, but a parallel can, and should, be drawn when it comes to financial conflict of interest. Are you paying the same, less, or more, for something in your doctor or therapists office as you would when you purchase online, or in a sex shop? You have a right to know about the nature of the relationship between your health care provider and the sex toy company they are working with, and the professional has an obligation to make that information available to you.

Power Dynamics
Professional codes of ethics call on the professional to be mindful of power dynamics in a relationship. To what extent is a patient/client response influenced by the relationship. How might you respond to your doctor recommending a particular sex toy as opposed to a sales clerk recommending it? If it's a product that is just out of your price range, are you more or less likely to buy it anyway if it's your physician telling me it may help?

These are just a few of the ethical questions that each professional needs to answer for themselves. They are also worth thinking about for all of us who are patients and clients. On the one hand it's encouraging to see sexual pleasure being addressed inside the medical system. On the other, how does that framework change the very discussion and characterization of sexual pleasure? These are questions that have a much greater impact on us as patients than us as providers. So we'd better think about it for ourselves.

Not knowing the particular doctor mentioned in this article I can't speak to their situation. But I can say that I know several relatively high profile sexual health professionals who sell sex toys in ways that I find both unprofessional and at least a little unethical. As sex toys become more legitimated as health products perhaps we'll see more public and professional discussion of these issues. For now it's a little Wild West out there, and until the dust settles, it's not clear that regular folks are going to benefit from this new way of buying sex toys.

Got a question of sexual ethics?

Previously - Buying Sex Toys for Teens ; Cyber Faking It ; Is Public Sex Ethical? ; If They Don't Ask, Do You Tell? ; Loud Sex in the House ; Herpes, When Do I Tell?

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Comments
April 7, 2010 at 8:43 am
(1) Mom says:

I definitely agree with the conflict of interest and the financial issues. I just don’t think a gynocologist should be promoting one or the other. Giving advise as to what to look for? Yes, if they are schooled well enough in that (which I also agree with) but selling them I think is definitely a conflict.

April 7, 2010 at 9:53 am
(2) Cory says:

Agreed that there is a conflict, but could it be resolved? Is there any way that you think physicians, or other health care professionals, could sell sex toys directly to the people they work with? And does it matter what kind of professional it is? So, for example, I know there are lots of sex educators who also sell sex toys. Is that a conflict, and is it the same conflict? No answers, just questions.

April 7, 2010 at 1:17 pm
(3) polly says:

I guess I’m very confused here. This statement:

‘But I can say that I know several relatively high profile sexual health professionals who sell sex toys in ways that I find both unprofessional and at least a little unethical.”

Can you elaborate? How do you feel about doctors prescribing penis pumps?

Also, if the public is being mislead by retailers, manufacturers and distributors, and it’s too “icky” getting them from your doctor…what are you proposing?

April 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm
(4) juan says:

Thanks Polly, because I felt that I was reading a priest sermon. Judgmental mind. Your doctor should be a good person to talk to about sex toys. On a daily basis we have to deal with misleading, so, get informed, talk to friends, research online, etc, etc. Finally, why do we have to keep talking about sex as a taboo issue (icky!!!!)?

April 7, 2010 at 5:56 pm
(5) Trina Read says:

Great answer Cory, with one exception. A large number of people only feel comfortable speaking about sex with their health care professional. I believe it’s far better for a gyny to have a sex-positive approach to help treat. If, as you suggest, that gyny was to refer them to an appropriate website or sex shop, chances are that would be the end of the conversation–and the end of that person having a sex toy as an option.

Health care professionals selling sex toys isn’t a perfect model but it’s much better than nothing being done to help someone. (And, for the record, a gyny generally knows far more than the minimum wage workers in sex shops.)

April 7, 2010 at 10:19 pm
(6) Cory says:

@Polly, thanks for asking. I’ll give you the highest profile example, which is a psychologist who claims to have designed a sex toy which she didn’t, and then goes on national TV and says, I quote, that it is guaranteed to give you an orgasm. This is a silly and trite thing to say, and if anyone actually thinks a sex toy can guarantee an orgasm, well, they’re mistaken.

To clarify what I was trying to say, what I’m uncomfortable with is anyone working in a way that feels unethical, and by that I mostly mean people who are working without thinking through their responsibilities. As for what I’m proposing; it’s just more conversations and critical thought!

April 8, 2010 at 1:05 pm
(7) polly says:

Cory, thx for the reply. That makes very good sense and I agree. Sex toys and the industry can sometimes have that “infomercial” feel which is a major turn off. Blatant lying isn’t going to gain anyone repeat customers or trust. It’s hard enough with the crap materials that companies continue to promote as safe. Education first, pleasure a very close second!

April 16, 2010 at 5:12 pm
(8) Jake says:

My wife and I are in the “retailer” category, owning our own adult retail store. Though we personally take issue with by being lumped into the “sales info” only category, we understand and it doesn’t apply to the matter at hand.

This discussion itself suggests the need for a rough ethical code regarding medical prescription fo sexually related devices. I’d imagine it might look like this:
-Ethical: Patient exhibits physical detriments to enjoying a healthy and happy sex life. Ex: “Doc, my clitoris has lost feeling” “Ok, maybe a vibrator would help”
-Unethical: Patient doesn’t exhibit physical sexual stops. Ex: “Doc, my husband doesn’t turn me on and sex is unenjoyable”. If patient requests, make a referral to the proper therapist or counselor
-Ethical: Prescribing a vibrator through properly vetted channels.
-Unethical: Prescribing a vibe directly only from company “x” because they financially benefit
-Ethical: The doc or the vetted purchasing channel adheres to medical standards and the contact areas of the vibrator are constructed of accepted bodysafe materials.
-Unethical: Indiscriminate buying from either the individual or distribution channel

Perhaps part of the problem is again our society. Our medical professionals have moved beyond trying to cure “hysteria” in women, but the pervasive discomfort in discussion sexual matters still exists in everyday America. I would hope that as comfort levels rise, both patients and doctors alike would expect to carry on open dialogues. Furthermore, that they might expect prescriptions to occur and are ok with that.

We already have helped people referred from local clinics. We’ve reached out to a local gyno to see if there is a connection we can establish to help us both out. Nothing has come of that so far, but we sincerely hope that clinics and sales outlets have a tighter relationship in the future. Then, for the sake of our customers, we can refer to the doc with apparent health and medical concerns… and they to us for vibes, lubes, etc.

Lastly, the industry itself continues to evolve. Materials, designs, venues, and information advance as consumers demand improvements. It’s not all the way there yet. We still encounter many shoddily made products, misleading information, and some blatant “snake oil”. We’ve spotted so-called experts pimping wares for companies, regardless of what it is. And yes, we’ve seen the vanity brands that don’t carry any additional design, quality, or effectiveness guaranteee than any other product out there. The point is, the Wild West is rapidly becoming not so wild. The less desirable aspects will find less corners and haze to hide in.

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