Response to Dan Ariely's Duke Sex Toy Study Is Predictably Irrational

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Father Joe Vetter, director of Duke University's Catholic Center, is protesting trial participant accrual for a study being conducted on campus directed by Dr Dan Ariely, the James B Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics in the Fuqua School of Business (story and video). Ariely is also the author of the best-selling book, Predictably Irrational, an engaging, science-based examination of the rational and not-so-rational influences that contribute to decision-making. The new and expanded version of the book ranks #442 on book sales in the United States.

Look for that number to improve after the attention to Professor Ariely this weekend.

So, to what is Father Vetter objecting?

Ariely and his postdoctoral fellow, Dr Janet Schwartz, received IRB approval to recruit female study participants from the Duke campus community to examine the influence of Tupperware-like sex toy parties on sexual attitudes. A recruitment advert had been posted on the university website, as is commonly done for any clinical or social science study, but was pulled yesterday following the objection of Rev Vetter. Correction: Duke VP of Public Affairs Michael Schoenfeld notes in the comments below that the ads were removed after accrual was complete. Indeed, going to reveals that enrollment is closed.

However, here is one of the four ads:

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If I understand his quotes correctly, Vetter believes that studying sex toys somehow condones behavior that threatens relationships:

"It's not fostering relationships, and it seems to me that one of the things that we want young people to do is to figure out how to have deep, intimate friendships and relationships," he said. "I would draw the line at a different place. I don't think that it's a good idea."

Salon writer and editor Tracy Clark-Flory has a superb commentary in response.

I'm not privy to the hypothesis being tested but I suspect that the team is investigating how social norms toward adult products are influenced by groupthink. Ariely has not commented publicly on this story other than to say, rightfully so, that he won't comment so as to not contaminate the results. However, I suspect that it may now be too late.

I'm disappointed in the university for pulling the recruitment ad. (see correction above). Ariely is an amazing academician who Duke was able to recruit from M.I.T. a few years ago. He is very well-known and highly-regarded in diverse academic circles. As judging by his book sales, he is also a successful communicator of his field to general audiences.

I've had the honor of meeting with Dr Ariely following my participation in one of his studies at my favorite local wine merchant, Wine Authorities - my kind of study. Together with his graduate students and a couple of M.I.T. professor colleagues, they were investigating the influence of behavioral and sensory factors on the perception of wine quality. I got to sit for awhile with Dan afterwards and he is every bit as fascinating as you might expect from reading his book: I found him to be the kind of guy who would be a terrific dinner guest with everyone from my family to my students. Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily also spoke of his meeting with Ariely during a visit to Davidson University.

You can see that Ariely is a great ambassador for his field - he gets out and interacts with the public and spends a lot of time communicating the importance of his science in everyday life.

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Ariely does not approach this work lightly. You can read his complete biography here, but he was influenced originally following an accident he had while doing his mandatory service in the Israeli military where he was burned over 70 percent of his body - this 12-page PDF account reveals not only his approach to the science but simply what an excellent writer he is. Ariely began wondering how we make decisions about painful stimuli: is it better to rip off burn dressings quickly and endure intense, acute pain, or to do it slowly and endure prolonged, moderate pain. Should you take breaks between removing individual dressings?

His academic papers listed at his site reveal the breadth of subsequent work he has done. And, yes, he has investigated sex before, both in terms of social norms vs market norms and the influence of arousal state on decision making. One study cited in his book asked questions of young men about sexual behavior and violence at baseline and after being asked to watch pornography on a Saran-wrapped laptop computer.

This YouTube video describes Chapter 5 of Predictably Irrational beginning with the story of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde to demonstrate how two divergent personalities can be present within us.

You can find more videos for each chapter of his book and other demonstrations here.

Dan Ariely is a fascinating man and an admired scholar. A statement of support made in an interview with Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs, is a step in the right direction but the university should take a stronger stance to protect the integrity of its scientific programs.

Oh, and go buy the book.

More like this

Sex Toys are Fun.

Most couples get bored with their sex lives at some point in their relationships. Sex toys add a bit of zest to the relationship and keep things from getting dull.
Using a sex toy together can bring you closer; sharing new experiences together can be very intimate.

I didn't try using a sex toy until I was 28. Although I've always been open-minded, fairly sexual and comfortable with my body, I'd never gotten around to actually buying one, for a lot of stupid reasons. I was embarrassed; the only time I'd been to sex shops was with other girlfriends and there was no way I was going to buy a vibrator in front of someone I knew. None of my friends had ever mentioned masturbation, which was the only reason I could think of to try a sex toy, so I certainly wasn't comfortable talking about it with them. Only sluts used sex toys, right? Or girls whose boyfriends just weren't doing it for them? Besides, how would I even know what to buy? Even though I kind of wanted one, my laziness, fears and indecision kept me vibrator-free.

Then I met Sean Kyle Ruffin. Just a regular guy from Las Vegas, Sean was confused by the fact that I didn't have a vibrator. "What do you use to masturbate?" he asked, flooring me with his casual use of that naughty word. I mumbled something about letting my fingers do the walking, and then changed the subject. On our next date, he showed up with a pretty little gift for me: my very first vibrator. It wasn't fancy - just a plain silver rocket vibe - but it was all mine. I couldn't wait to use it and see what it would feel like. As it turned out, I didn't have to wait at all. Sean and I used it together that very night. Now, I'm a convert with a whole treasure box of different sex toys. Sure, I use them when I masturbate (I can even use the word now!), but Sean and I use them together on a regular basis. Sex toys spice up our love life and add a little adventure to the bedroom. After all, it's been almost two years ... we wouldn't want to get bored!

Does the first part of this story sound familiar? I know so many people who have been dying to try sex toys, but have been too embarrassed to do anything about it. I've also heard from lots of people who already enjoy sex toys and would like to use them with their partners, but have been too reluctant to bring their toys to the bedroom for fear of offending their loved ones. And I'm sure there are others out there who have tried to share a favorite toy with a partner, but were unprepared for the negative reactions they may have received. Whatever the case, it is possible to introduce sex toys into your relationship. In fact, we recommend it!

Sex Toys Feel Good.There's no disputing that orgasms feel good. Sex toys help you have better, stronger, longer orgasms, which is always a good thing.
Sex Toys are Fun. Most couples get bored with their sex lives at some point in their relationships. Sex toys add a bit of zest to the relationship and keep things from getting dull. Using a sex toy together can bring you closer; sharing new experiences together can be very intimate.

Sex Toys Make Sex Better. Many women have difficulty achieving orgasms unless they receive clitoral stimulation, which can be difficult to manage during intercourse. Also, many men have trouble sustaining their erections as long as they would like. Sex toys can help in both of those situations. They can also enhance a perfectly good lovemaking session, adding just enough "oomph" to turn a great experience into an outstanding one.

While we think those arguments are compelling enough to convince most people, the reality is probably quite different. As much as we'd all like to think of ourselves as liberal, open-minded and adventurous people, everyone can be a little squeamish about new things. Your partner might need some convincing. While we hope Sam's approach - bring it home and plunk it down - works as well for your partner as it did for me, it's best to discuss your partner's feelings about sex toys before springing anything new on them.

Lies, myths and misconceptions about sex toys abound. Needless to say, most of them aren't true. However, you should always treat your lover's concerns seriously - especially when it comes to sex. Be prepared to deal with just about anything, including feelings of inadequacy, emotional discomfort and ignorance. You probably won't know your lover's sex toy reservations until you talk to him or her, but you can anticipate a few responses to some common attitudes about sex toys.

Sex toys are for perverts, weirdoes, sluts or freaks.
All kinds of people use sex toys, including people most would consider perfectly normal. Yes, perverts, weirdoes, sluts and freaks use sex toys, but so do doctors, lawyers, housewives, teachers, accountants, bus drivers, secretaries ... and just about anyone else you can think of. Using a sex toy doesn't make you "weird." It just makes you have an orgasm! If your partner has this fear, suggest that he or she talk to his or her friends about it, or do some Internet research on the subject. Your lover might be surprised by how common sex toy usage can be.

Sex toys are just for masturbation.
While sex toys are commonly used for solo sex, many couples enjoy using sex toys together, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your relationship - quite the opposite. Usually the kinds of people who are comfortable trying new things together are open-minded, intimate, comfortable and trusting. Using a sex toy together is a good way to reaffirm the strength of your relationship. If your lover has this concern, try giving him or her a book on using sex toys to add excitement to your partnership. There's lots of them!

Your partner will feel inadequate if you start using a sex toy.
Many people express concern that bringing a sex toy into their relationship will hurt their partner's feelings. It's understandable: a huge, vibrating penis that brings you to climax every time? Who wouldn't be jealous? Seriously, a sex toy can give you an orgasm, but it can't cuddle with you afterwards. Sex toys will never replace live humans. If your lover has this fear, be sensitive and stroke his or her ego a little bit. As with most relationship issues, good communication can go a long way to solving the problem.

Using sex toys can be physically dangerous.
Absolutely untrue! In fact, sex toys can have very positive effects on your sexual health. For example, menopausal women can use dildos to maintain vaginal tone, staving off incontinence and other sexual health issues. Many doctors and therapists recommend sex toys to women who have trouble reaching orgasm. And finally, a healthy relationship with your body is beneficial to your overall health. Using sex toys heightens your awareness of your body and its functions, making you more alert to abnormalities such as bumps, lumps or abrasions. If your partner is worried about physical dangers, sit down and surf the Net together. Any sexual or general health site can assuage his or her fears.

If you use sex toys too much, you won't have an orgasm with your partner.
We hear that one all the time! Yes, the earthshaking orgasms produced by a vibrator can be psychologically addictive, but they don't take the place of a real person. Think about it: most people have been using their hands to masturbate since they were young, yet they usually prefer partner sex to solo sex, don't they? If your partner is afraid you'll replace him or her with your battery-powered pal, promise him or her that you'll keep your sex life varied: try different positions, new toys, role playing and fantasy, both in partner sex and solo sex. Boredom and repetition often cause bed death.

If your relationship is solid, there's no reason why you should need a sex toy.
As we've already suggested, using a sex toy with your lover can actually strengthen your relationship. You need to have a certain amount of closeness to share this intimate new experience together. Using a sex toy can be a good affirmation of that closeness. If your lover doesn't think you need a sex toy to brighten up your sex life, assure him or her that you don't need a sex toy either, you'd just like to try one. Again, your local bookstore has many books on sexual intimacy. Your lover might be persuaded by one.

Buying sex toys can be really embarrassing.
We agree, which is one of the reasons we've created this nifty, anonymous place to buy them! Seriously, if you aren't comfortable going to a sex shop and picking out a dildo, you have lots of other options. You and your partner can order from a catalog or a website ... may we suggest for both you and your partner's sex toy needs?

If you've addressed each of these misconceptions with your partner and he or she is still apprehensive about using a sex toy with you, take it slow, be patient and think creatively. Don't press the issue or you might get an incontrovertible "no"! Flatter your partner, show him or her how much you enjoy his or her body, and make the most of your sexual time together. It's possible he or she isn't ready for that level of intimacy yet, but with time and effort, your lover might change his or her mind. Let your partner watch you masturbate with a sex toy. It may cause some giggles at first, but it might also break the ice and relieve your embarrassed partner of any squeamish thoughts about sex toys. You might also try buying a book or watching a video together - your partner might be embarrassed to admit he or she doesn't know how sex toys work; "instructional" materials can often alleviate your partners functional concerns. We also recommend attending or hosting a sex toy party with your partner. For a nominal fee, many stores will send representatives to your party site to demonstrate and explain a selection of toys for you and your guests ... think Tupperware party with a different kind of plastic product. These parties can be a fun, painless way to introduce sex toys into your life - especially if there's alcohol involved!

Once you are able to bring the toy into the relationship, remember a few basic common sense tips.

Start slow. Save the double dong or strap-on dildo for future encounters. Try a nice, simple rocket vibrator. Once your sweetie is used to the vibe, you can trade up.
Be gentle. Your partner may like it on the rough side, but hold back a little the first few times you play with toys. There's plenty of time to accelerate!
Talk to your partner. He or she may have agreed to use the toy, but that doesn't mean your lover is 100% comfortable with the idea. Talk your way through the experience. Ask your partner if what you are doing together feels good. If it doesn't, try something else.
Use Lubrication. Sex toys need lots of lube to slip and slide the way they should. The last thing your girlfriend needs to worry about is whether she's wet enough to enjoy herself. Similarly, you don't want to risk injury to male or female partners by inserting something into a dry orifice. Keep a bottle of lube handy and use it.
Be flexible. The toy you've selected might turn out to be totally wrong for your sexual personalities. That's okay. Put it aside and try something different.
Be patient. Your partner may agree to play with the toy, and then change his or her mind midway through the experience. That's his or her prerogative. Be patient and try again another time. It might take awhile, but it will be worth the wait.
The important thing to remember is that your relationship is a partnership, which implies that both of you are in this together. You make the decision together; you select the toy together. If your lover feels as though he or she can trust you, things will go much better for you and your toy. Sharing the experience goes a long way to promoting that trust.

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One point of clarification: the ad was "pulled" when the number of participants in the study reached the limit set by the researchers, as is standard practice for any study advertised on the website. The implication that it was done in response to pressure or publicity is untrue.

By Michael Schoenfeld (not verified) on 06 Nov 2009 #permalink

Yes, I stand corrected, Mr Schoenfeld - I just realized that study accrual had closed when I clicked on the URL to enroll.

Many thanks for reading and being on top of this story. I'm glad to see that you are supporting the academic integrity of Professor Ariely and his team.

So happy to see support for Dan Ariely and his work here. I was a graduate student at UNC alongside him and participated in one of his pain perception studies. He is absolutely brilliant, very persistent, and, as you note, a very fascinating man. I am not surprised to now see his name in lights!

Shorter version: celibate man angry other people are having fun.

Lets see if I have this right...

Esteemed Professor invites female students to a sexual fetish party in the name of Science... and Research!

Of experiments that will not die, this one must certainly be found a college classic. You can never have enough data...

By Bill James (not verified) on 06 Nov 2009 #permalink

Good ol' Father Joe probably protests sex toy studies by day, whilst ____ his altar boys by night.

By hahaohwow (not verified) on 06 Nov 2009 #permalink

I see an excellent NCAA-licensing opportunity: collegiate-branded sex toys!

The "Blue Devil"

The Final Four

The Krzyzewski (although that one sounds like an electric razor or a race car)

By Blue Devil Sex… (not verified) on 07 Nov 2009 #permalink

So the question is, was the fact that the study accrual was closed prevent Father Vetter from stopping it (as there was nothing to stop any more), or is he really just presenting his opinion? It's not clear if he was just speaking out -- which I think should be his right. (I think it makes him look pretty ridiculous, but so what?) Or did he try to take action but learned of the study too late to do so?

I love the way Dr. Ariely approaches topics that others do not even stop to think about. These are the deeply entrenched stereotypes. The ones that are so accepted, that few people would even consider that there is more than one way to view the subject. There are not enough people like Dr. Ariely.

This should not be viewed as a sex toy study, but as a study of behavior and decision making. Coincidentally, there are sex toys involved.

PS It has been a while since Predictably Irrational. Is another book on the way?

I agree with Rogue Medic and what he says. We have so many different influences in life that small things seem to go missed and it is great when people take the time to exmine them.

I agree that this should be seen as a behavior and decision making study rather than worrying about sex toys being involved.