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Doing It Decent – Buying Sex Toys for Teens

The Ethics of Sex in Everyday Life

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Updated February 17, 2010

Once a month Doing It Decent considers the ethics of a sexual situation from our readers. Grappling with a touchy sexual ethics issue? Send me an email and be sure to put DID in the subject line. All questions will be posted anonymously with identifying information removed.

Buying Sex Toys for Teens

I watched the episode of Oprah where she had a doctor on who recommended buying vibrators for your teenager. I have several vibrators myself and I had never thought about it before, but I have a teenage daughter and would have no problem getting her one. But I'm not sure what she'd think about it. Also, I’m divorced and I know my ex would completely disapprove. I could really use your advice.

My parents never bought me a vibrator. But I remember when I saw my first vibrator. It was tucked between the headboard and mattress of my parents king size bed. It was one of those old school coil style massagers that didn't look sexual at all. Yet somehow, as soon as I flipped the switch I knew what it was for. I also remember the first time I discovered their stash of porn magazines, and when I first discovered that some of the books on their shelves were full of stories of people having sex (just looking at the spines they all looked the same - boring). My father was a sex therapist and my mother was a librarian, so I may not have had the most typical of sexual upbringings, but I often think about those moments of discovery and as an adult I easily identify them as part of my sexual development.

It's hard to know how that process would have been different if my parents had taken me shopping for porn magazines, or handed me a vibrator for my 14th birthday. I think it's safe to say that these parental choices might have resulted in awkwardness, but probably wouldn't have damaged me too badly.

I offer this alternative narrative not to suggest that you should or shouldn't buy your teenage daughter a vibrator, but simply to point out that the path of least resistance isn't always the way to go; and that sexual development happens in many ways.

Before I respond to your two-pronged question, and because this is a column about sexual ethics, it behooves me to point out that the Oprah episode of which you speak, an episode I've only seen clips from but have been directed to dozens of times by readers, is itself an example of questionable ethics. Not on Oprah's part, but on the part of the guest, Jennifer Berman. Berman is a psychologist and an Oprah regular. She also shills for one of the big sex toy companies. Her branded products are of passable but not exceptional quality. From several, equally interesting vantage points, appearing on a television program as a sexual health professional and pushing your own sex toys isn't the most ethical of things to do. That's for another column.

Back to your question. I'd have to say the first part, whether or not you should by your teenager a vibrator isn't, in and of itself, an ethical question. The fact that you're not sure how your daughter will react suggests to me that your first step should be to ask her. Actually your first step might be to broach the subject. Have you ever talked about sex toys before? You might want to check in to see if it's okay if you ask her about it and then start with more general questions (does she know about them? do her and her friends ever talk about them? does she know anyone who has ever tried a sex toy?) Unless you talk about sex all the time, approaching her with "how would you feel if I bought you a vibrator?" might be jarring. Remember that every conversation you have about sex is an opportunity for learning (for both of you!) and it's also a chance to model respectful boundaries about sex.

Ethically speaking, the second part of your question is where it's at. What you're asking is whether or not it's ethical to do something that you know clearly conflicts with the values of someone you are co-parenting with? In this case you believe that to raise a sexually healthy daughter you should buy her a vibrator, so how much should you take into account the values of a co-parent?

Before I dive in, I want to remind us both that asking whether this is ethical may be very different from asking whether it's smart or prudent or wise. There are many situations where our actions would be better guided by the latter questions than the former.

What I want to ask in this situation is where do your ethical duties lie. And who are you responsible to, or responsible for? It's a perfect example of how complicated and tangled things get when we become families. One way to approach this question is to think about who in this situation you have an ethical obligation to, and what those obligations are. Let's make a list.

Keep reading...who do you answer to when it comes to raising sexually healthy teens?

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