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. 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 male masturbation vibrators (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 starting 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.
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.
For instance, how can your healthcare professional know what you like more: bullet toys, wand massagers or suction vibrators – all of these devices target the clitoris but the shape, intensity, and stimulation are totally different.
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.
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 that are easily and widely available best meet that role of an 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. But they’re also narrowing your options at the moment. Should advocates be narrowing options or expanding them? And how does financial compensation complicate the role of an advocate?
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.
Financial Conflict of Interest
Whether they’re giving you free samples of a personal lubricant or selling you a $150 rabbit-style 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 dangerous 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 therapist’s 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.