The first time it was suggested to me that I should invest in an adult toy was about six years ago. I had just disclosed my sexual abuse to my then-therapist and she knew I was extremely triggered by sex. Her solution was a version of extreme exposure therapy to help desensitize me to sex, which included reading erotica she suggested, watching “gay porn,” and regular masturbation. What she failed to recognize because she was not a trauma therapist, was that none of this was going to be possible or even safe for me to do until we processed my abuse, something she wasn’t equipped to help me do. Needless to say, all of this resulted in my becoming retraumatized and even more anxious about sex and anything having to do with pleasure. About four years ago my trauma therapist brought up the idea of a sex toy again, only this time it was after over a year of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to process my abuse in conjunction with beginning to work on sensate focus therapy with my husband and reading books about female pleasure like Emily Nagoski’s “Come as You Are.” So it wasn’t exactly out of left field, although I still couldn’t utter the word “masturbation” without barricading myself behind a massive pillow fort. While I wasn’t sure what to look for or how to go about it, I agreed to give it a go. Not knowing what the heck I was doing, I simply bought the first one that popped up on Amazon without putting any thought into it. Honestly, I just wanted to get it over with — like I was checking off a box on my therapy homework for the week. When it arrived it sat in its box for a couple of weeks because I couldn’t bring myself to open it without an overwhelming sense of dread. I finally brought it into therapy with me and we opened it together. We read the instructions, discussed what I was feeling, and I tried to develop a sense of agency over my own pleasure, but I still couldn’t get out of my head enough to allow myself to enjoy it. I dutifully tried, ever the good patient, but hated it. It was awkward, painful, and definitely not pleasurable. I subsequently obtained another toy that a friend of mine assisted me in purchasing that was less intrusive and painful, but still not great. Every time I tried using it, I felt like I was doing something bad or that I was somehow betraying my husband. Honestly, what I really wished I had was some kind of guidebook — a list of do’s and don’ts and recommendations for what to buy, where to buy it, and why — that wouldn’t send me into a flashback or make me feel like some kind of a pervert. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one in this predicament. Since I’ve done all of the legwork so to speak, I figured I’d compile my thoughts on this so that I can help others who might be in the process of this kind of sexual self-discovery. My observations and recommendations come from my unique personal history. I am a heterosexual woman who is married and whose primary abuser was an older male. It is through this lens that I am viewing this, so it may not be relevant to all abuse survivors, but hopefully contains some nuggets that can be universally applicable to those identifying as female. Don’ts: Don’t go to an adult superstore to buy your first toy. Many of these places are really seedy and frankly are geared toward men. There’s so much there that is potentially triggering that you might not be able to rationally focus on finding something suitable. I wanted to escape as fast as I could, and when I finally did, I felt like I needed to bathe my entire body and especially my eyeballs in bleach to wash away how dirty I felt. Don’t ask just anyone for advice. Talking about sex — particularly masturbation — is a taboo topic for many women regardless of whether or not they have experienced any kind of sexual trauma. Society has done a great job of stigmatizing female pleasure to the point that almost all of us feel some degree of shame surrounding the subject. It takes the right person who you can fully trust and who has some awareness of your trauma. I got lucky that I had that friend, but if you don’t, talk to your therapist. They are trained to address this without any kind of judgment and with the openness to discuss every aspect of it with you — or at least they should be. If they aren’t, they might not be the right therapist to guide you through your sexual healing journey. Don’t overdo it the first time. If you’ve never had an adult toy, now is not the time to purchase the largest most expensive one. You have no idea what will actually feel good and it may take a couple of tries to find something that not only does the proverbial trick, but that isn’t physically painful. My abuse led to acute psychosomatic vaginismus. I was so shut down that everything hurt. I had to do some pelvic floor therapy to help slowly relax and loosen things up before I could tolerate any kind of toy. Don’t go on a Google binge to hunt for an adult toy. I promise you the internet is a cesspool of sexually explicit content, and if your abuse involved any kind of pornography, the way mine did, you will trigger yourself to the point that you might dissociate and never want to try again. There are some incredibly dark places on the internet that profit off of violence against women, and even an innocent search like “sex toys” can send you down that abyss of a rabbit hole. Just don’t do it. You’ll thank me. Dos: Learn about your body. Before even thinking about purchasing an adult toy, do a little basic sex education about female reproductive anatomy. I don’t know about you, but I was completely ill-informed, not only as to the basic structure of the parts, but had no clue about the importance of the clitoris in female sexual pleasure. The clitoris is more than what can be seen. Only about 1/4 of it is visible. The rest of it extends under the skin and is populated with a network of about 8,000 nerve endings. For reference, this is double that of the penis. And once activated, it can reverberate through 15,000 nerve endings throughout the pelvis. Its only function is pleasure, and yet we seem to think that vaginal penetration is the end all be all for sexual pleasure. In fact, 50-75% of women require clitoral stimulation in order to climax, which is why sexual imagery in the media is so misleading. Try a toy for clitoral stimulation. This leads me to the second do, which is also a kind of do not. Instead of opting for something that looks like a penis designed for vaginal penetration, opt for a toy that is specifically designed for clitoral stimulation. There is no sense in purchasing something that might not be effective and, frankly, it is my personal opinion that toys in the shape of a penis are being marketed for women through the objectifying lens of men. I find them unattractive, uninspiring, and kind of triggering, which means I’d never actually use one. Shop at a female-owned, respectful store. With that in mind, I recommend purchasing something from a company that is female-owned and whose products are specifically designed with women’s anatomy and needs in mind. Dame Products is a company founded by a sexologist and MIT engineer. Its mission statement is to “close the pleasure gap…by shaping paths to shame-free sexual pleasure.” Their site is pleasant to navigate, doesn’t depict women in weirdly contorted positions, and is backed by science. Maude is another female-founded company that has a very high-end spa-like feel to its website. They are particularly focused on inclusivity and diversity and parts of their proceeds are donated to comprehensive sex education programs, which appeals to the advocate in me wanting to bring an end to sexual violence against women. And finally, Lioness takes an innovative scientific approach. Their research and development team is led by women and utilizes the latest in technology — like biofeedback — to learn more about exactly what women are wanting and needing for better orgasms. All three of these websites have a very approachable sensibility to them that doesn’t feel in any way shameful. Choose a toy with multiple settings. As for the exact toy to purchase? While I can’t tell you which one will be THE ONE, I do suggest whichever one you opt for has multiple settings. Everyone has a different body and even for the same body — depending upon your hormones during your menstrual cycle or even into post-menopause — you may be more or less sensitive to stimulation. What might feel pleasurable one day may be excruciatingly painful the next. A toy that can accommodate your physiological changes is a must. Set aside time for your own pleasure — you’re worth it! All of this is fine and well, but if you buy an adult toy and don’t use it, what’s the point? It’s important to make the time for and set the mood for your self-care. My therapist reminds me that this should be as important a part of my physical well-being as brushing my teeth or putting on sunscreen. While I’m not totally sold on that (yet) there is something to be said for some pre-planning. You want to be sure you will not be interrupted and that you can completely relax. It may take some scheduling, but don’t skip it. Don’t just force yourself to do it if you aren’t feeling it, otherwise, you are just retraumatizing yourself and not doing it for pleasure. And finally, don’t go into it with the expectation of an orgasm. The point is to explore your body and to figure out what feels good and if that doesn’t result in orgasm — that’s OK. Putting expectations on yourself is a great way of setting yourself up for feeling like a failure. This should be fun, not stressful. Last but not least, keep working through any tough emotions associated with this with your therapist. Let’s be honest, you aren’t going to buy a sex toy and immediately jump into a regular routine of self-pleasure ending in rapturous orgasms right away. It will take time, maybe a lot of it, just to get used to the idea of it before you ever find it pleasurable. If I’m honest, I still find it weird. I still get uncomfortable and feel some shame about allowing myself to feel pleasure because — like many of us — my body responded the way it was supposed to during my abuse even though it was a terrifying and unwanted experience. Disentangling what our bodies are designed to do with how our memories are processed is a lot of work. To this day, if my therapist asks me how things are going in this department my answer is usually “fine” which then prompts her to dig deeper, knowing that “fine” is code for “I don’t want to talk about it.” I know this is a lot of information about a topic that is incredibly delicate and it may take a bit to absorb it and put it into action. What I hope is that you will be armed with the tools you need to make it a much less stressful experience than mine has been. If you are seeing a therapist, you might want to discuss some of this with them. If you are a therapist who treats survivors of sexual violence with difficulty surrounding sex, I encourage you to incorporate some of this into your conversations with your clients. It might help alleviate some of the stigma and shame more effectively and empower them with the information they need to make an educated decision without the pitfalls and dangers of activating their trauma triggers.