Doing It Decent: Buying Sex Toys for Teens

The Ethics of Sex in Everyday Life

Sales woman in a sex store
Frank Egel/Stock4B/Getty Images

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.

Whose Ethics?

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.

Where to Begin

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 with your teenager 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?

This is a question of ethics.

  It raises other questions, like: 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.

Ethical Obligations in a Family

For starters, you have a responsibility to yourself. Your ethical duty is to parent in a way that matches your ethics and values. Sacrificing either, without explicitly explaining why you are doing so, doesn't do yourself or your daughter any good. So if you believe it's best to buy your daughter a vibrator, and you've squared this with yourself, it seems perfectly ethical. But there's more.

You clearly have an ethical obligation as a parent to your daughter. I would argue that your ethical duty as a parent extends beyond trying to minimize harm and includes a duty to create, as best you can, the conditions for growth. While buying your daughter a vibrator hardly seems like a necessary condition for growth, it can easily be understood to be one of many ways of helping her explore her sexuality in a safe environment. So thumbs up again.

On the other hand, your obligation to your daughter requires you to think not only of what you want for her, but how your actions may impact her negatively. For example, by doing something you know contradicts the values of another parent, are you putting her in a situation where she is colluding with you against that other parent? This may not be the case, but you're still the adult in this situation and you need to consider this before going forward. It isn't a reason not to buy your teenager a vibrator, but thinking on it might help you figure out what else you want to say to her beyond "don't forget to take the batteries out when it's not in use".

There is also the question of an ethical obligation to a co-parent. What, if any responsibility do you have to someone you are co-parenting with?

If there has never been any relationship between you, your daughter and your ex, then this point is moot. But if there ever was a relationship then there always will be one. Whether you're in regular or sporadic contact, whether there is a romantic connection or not, there's still a relationship there. And where there is any relationship, regardless of depth or quality, there are ethical considerations.

I would suggest that the depth of the co-parenting agreement should in part guide how much or little you need to take their position into account. Do you regularly talk about parenting? Do you usually try to stick together on rules or values, or do you each present your own style? There isn't a right or wrong answer here, but it may be that you need to consider your ex's values more than you would like to. It doesn't mean your actions need to be guided by their values or wishes, just that you can articulate how your actions fit or don't fit, and why you chose to take them.

Buying a sex toy for your teenage daughter because you want her to feel empowered and have a good understanding of her own sexual response may be a great idea. If doing this contradicts a co-parents values, it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. But it may mean that this is an opportunity to talk to your teenager about sexual values. It may present an opportunity to explore how there are very few sexual rights and wrongs, but there are infinite ways of experiencing a sexual situation or sexual decision. These lessons are arguably as important for her to learn as those that we all learn from our first vibrator.