Sexuality is a hugely important, and very under discussed, part of being a cancer survivor. That’s true for both men and women. Talking about sexual needs, and issues, is one part of the battle. We also thought that the SurvivorNet Community would benefit from a specific guide to the products and technology which can make a difference to positive sexuality and sexual healing.
So we consulted an expert. Sera Bonds is an activist and humanitarian committed to raising awareness about better options for reproductive healthcare and sexual healing (more about Sera is below).Read More
For Sera, the answer to this question is simple.
“I have two sons,” says Sera. “I want them to have access to feminist, pro-sex and pro-pleasure information about their own sexualities, just as I did mine.”
Seems fairly straight forward, right? But for cancer patients, navigating the unfamiliar sexual landscape of post-treatment bodies can be overwhelming. It comes as no surprise that dipping a toe into the pool of sextech is intimidating for any adult, given our culture’s unfamiliarity with our own bodies. In a recent study of 1,000 women, 44 percent were unable to label the vagina on a medical illustration of the female reproductive system. In a smaller study of U.S. college students, a shocking 80 percent of men and 62 percent of women were unable to label the vagina correctly.
Coupled with many common sexual side effects of cancer treatment (painful pelvic scar tissue, decreased sensation, erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, meshing of the vaginal canal and more), choosing the right sex accessories for your body can seem downright impossible. But with the right tools, the benefit of sex accessories to survivors can be astronomical.
“I think what sex toys and sextech offer is a reimaging of how we are sexual,” says Sera. “For folks who’ve gone through cancer treatment, there is trauma, fear and a very real change in the biology of how their bodies function. This can all be processed through the newness that toys and tech offer.”
The Best Products for Survivors
Not all tools are created equal. Here’s your guide to the sex products you need (and want) as a survivor.
Dilators. Due to pelvic tissue scarring and meshing of the vaginal canal, the length of the vaginal canal may actually shorten during cancer treatment, causing painful penetrative sex. If penetrative sex is important part of your bedroom routine, dilators are your friend. Dilators come in a variety of shapes, sizes and rigidity for different needs. By using as much lubrication as necessary (we’ll get to lubrication shortly), users can insert the dilator while tensing and relaxing the kegel muscles. As use of the dilator becomes more and more comfortable, users can increase the size of the dilator, working up to partnered penetrative sex. CalExoctic, a manufacturer of adult toys, created a full line of toys specifically for survivors of breast cancer including a set of dilators (bonus: a portion of the proceeds benefits Living Beyond Breast Cancer).
Lubricant. But wait! Lube is commonplace! Wrong. Despite taking up residency in nightstands everywhere, lube is an often-neglected sexual accessory that makes penetrative sex more confortable and pleasurable for all parties involved. Unfortunately, many people with vaginas feel that if they have to use lubricant, they have failed as a sexual partner. In one survey of adult women, 73 percent of participants said they experienced discomfort due to vaginal dryness during penetration, but only 34 percent said they would use lube. For cancer survivors who experience vaginal dryness, the shame increases. It’s time to destigmatize lubricant and make use of all sexual tools at our disposal, shame-free. When choosing a lubricant, stay away from perfumes, artificial coloring, flavors and spermicide that may irritate sensitive genital tissue and opt for a water-based gel.
Male vibrators. Despite the common misconception, vibrators are not exclusively for women (nor does enjoying them diminish your masculinity). Indeed vibrators can improve nerve function in the genitals by increasing blood flow to the penis, minimizing shrinkage of soft genital tissue. Viberect (the only vibrator that is FDA-approved to treat erectile dysfunction) is designed specifically for male cancer survivors to induce arousal before activity. The vibrating penile ring, which sits at the base of the penis and can be used for partnered or solo play, is another popular choice for male stimulation designed for longer-lasting erections and more powerful orgasms.
Vaginal and clitoral vibrators. Unfortunately, less research has been dedicated to the study of sexual recovery for female cancer survivors. However, the principles that apply to erectile recovery likely also apply to reducing vaginal tissue shrinkage and regaining sensitivity to the genitals through blood flow. This increased blood flow may also help to maintain and increase the elasticity of the vaginal canal and promote self lubrication. To increase sensitivity, opt for an external vibrator as opposed to a penis-shaped vibrator that’s intended to be inserted into the vagina.
Pleasure ring. For many cancer survivors, all the lubricant in the world doesn’t change the fact that deep penetration is just no longer on the menu. But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon penetrative sex altogether (if that’s a form of intimacy you crave). The Pleasure Ring sits on the base of the penis and is designed to contain penetrative sex to a range that is comfortable and pleasurable for those who experience pain from deep penetration.
Penis sleeves. Penis sleeves simulate penetrative sex when the “real thing” is not an option. The sleeve fits around the penis and mimics the feeling of vaginal penetration through texture and lubrication. Sleeves are a great tool for those who have lost manual dexterity due to cancer treatment and find manual masturbation challenging.
Looking to spice things up? As the founder of a sex-positive sex shop, Sera has some straight forward advice for that, too.
“Start with the things that look safe to you. You, and only you, get to define that. Move on from there, and just don’t overthink it!”
Many survivors derive sexual freedom from power play. If you suffer from fatigue during sex, allowing your partner to assume a more dominant role may allow you to relax and refocus on your own pleasure, not a performance of pleasure. Conversely, assuming a more dominant role yourself may empower you with the knowledge that you control the sensations you experience and the depth of penetration (of course, in any consensual sexual encounter, you always have the control).
The Kinkiest Tool of All?
For cancer survivors, changes to your body and sexuality can feel like a loss. It’s perfectly normal (and sometimes necessary) to mourn the sexual activity that once brought you joy but is no longer accessible. But what if you reimagined these changes, not as a loss, but as a fulfilling and exciting new chapter in your sex life? Toys and sextech provide the opportunity to get more creative than you ever have before. All you have to do is communicate. Never be afraid to tell your partner what does and doesn’t feel good. Be bold about sharing your fears, but also your fantasies and desires. Now is the time.
In the words of Sera:
“Check your judgements, biases and fears at the door and imagine a new pathway towards pleasure for yourself. It’s yours for the taking!”
More information about Sera Bonds: A community organizing background led her to work on sexual reproductive health projects in over twenty countries spanning North America, Africa, Asia, Central America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, having raised over 20 million dollars for programs reaching over three million women. She is the founder of a leading feminist global aid organization, Circle of Health International, a global social justice advocacy platform, ActivateUs, and an online feminist sex shop, Control Room (which she’s still cooking up).