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updated 11/1/2011 11:52:33 AM ET 2011-11-01T15:52:33

A sex-toy spending spree by pop singer Rihanna made headlines last week for the $1,500 she reportedly spent in a Parisian shop. But it turns out, the star isn't alone in her appreciation of erotic toys.

According to a new national survey of more than 3,000 Americans, most people feel positively about women using vibrators. What's more, the study associated positive beliefs about vibrators, and recent use of them, with high levels of sexual satisfaction and other measures of sexual function.

The survey of men and women ages 18 to 60 is the first to examine beliefs about vibrators, said lead researcher Debra Herbenick, an associate director at Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion. The participants were recruited from an existing research panel and invited to take part in a study about sexual enhancement products in 2008. The 2,056 women and 1,047 men who took the survey online and consented to participate were mostly middle age, white and educated.

Feeling good

Participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with positive beliefs (a vibrator "makes it easier for a woman to have an orgasm," for example, and "is a healthy part of many women's sex lives") and negative beliefs (such as, a vibrator "makes women too dependent on them for pleasure" and "is intimidating to women's partners"). Roughly half of the participants "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with all positive beliefs about vibrators, while fever than 10 percent of participants endorsed negative beliefs.

Women with positive beliefs who had used vibrators in the past 30 days reported higher levels of arousal, lubrication, orgasm and sexual satisfaction, and lower levels of pain during sex, than those with positive beliefs who hadn't used the sex toys as recently.

The researchers are not entirely sure how vibrator use improves sexual function, Herbenick said. Women who feel better about their bodies and sex in general may be more likely to use vibrators, or there could be something specific about vibrator use itself that contributes to better sex. [Related: 5 Myths About Women's Bodies ]

"It's probably a little bit of both," Herbenick told LiveScience. "We know that vibrator use does speed up orgasm, for example, and makes it easier" to orgasm during sexual intercourse if a woman is using a vibrator. Research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also suggests that vibrator use may treat some types of vulvar pain, she added.

A nuanced approach

In 2009, Herbenick used the same data set to report on the prevalence of vibrator use among women and men. She found that 53 percent of women and 45 percent of men had used vibrators in their lifetimes. These two past studies, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, also found an association between vibrator use and positive sexual function.

The new study adds the extra layer of beliefs about vibrator use, revealing a more nuanced understanding of the potential benefits of sex toys. Vibrator use among women who held negative beliefs didn't have the same relationship to boosted sexual function as those who held positive beliefs, for instance.

"It wasn't bad for [sexual function], it just didn't have the same benefits," Herbenick said. "The finding should guide health care providers, who might be reading in journals or hearing at conferences that vibrator use is helpful, to recommend for anything from difficulty with orgasm to low desire, that it's not as simple as telling a woman, 'You should go use a vibrator,'" she explained. "They probably need to provide some education and reassurance that this is a common part of women's sexuality so that women who have never used them before or who have certain ideas about vibrator use can feel more positive about it before actually using them."

One common belief overturned by the study is that men are threatened or intimidated by sex toys. While 37 percent of women agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that vibrators are intimidating to women's partners, 70 percent of men disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement.

Beyond vibrators

Herbenick and her co-authors have also studied vibrator use in the context of partnerships (both heterosexual and homosexual) and specifically among women who have sex with women.

In the partnerships study, based on the same data set as the beliefs study and published last year in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, vibrator use was related to sexual satisfaction particularly when a woman's partner knew she had been using vibrators and felt positively about it.

"This builds on a lot of previous research that has shown that feeling like you can be intimate with your partner — that you can share things with them about your sexual desires and interests — is very important to a couple's sexual life and a woman's sexual satisfaction," Herbenick said.

A similar message about communication came across when Vanessa Schick, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, surveyed 2,192 American and British women who have sex with women. These results, published online Oct. 7 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, showed that women who used vibrators with their female partners were more sexually satisfied than those who used them only when alone or not at all. Interestingly, women who only used vibrators during masturbation were equally and sometimes less satisfied than those who never used vibrators.

Schick speculates that, "Women who enjoy vibrators during masturbation would also potentially enjoy using one with a partner. So, when vibrators are not incorporated into their partnered activities, it is possible that women compare the non-vibrator partnered experiences to their private vibrator use and are less satisfied with the experience as a result."

Herbenick added: "It's not just the vibrator use but being able to share those parts of your sexuality with your partner that matters."

The vibrator beliefs study was published online Sept. 30 in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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