Sex & Relationships

The Vibrating 'Cock Ring': A Buzzthrill or Buzzkill?

The vibrating ring is the hot new item in sex shops. Is this a sign that Americans are becoming more comfortable with sex, or just lazier?
"I would love it if a guy pulled out one of those, because then it would show that he's aware of my pleasure. I think it's a considerate gesture," said Kate, a 28-year-old publicist with shoulder-length brunette hair.

Eleanor, 26, a lithe blonde fashion writer, lamented: "They're really hard to turn on once everything gets slippery. We spent a good five minutes trying to turn the thing on before we finally gave up!"

And Harriet, a 31-year-old Southern blonde with bangs who works at the United Nations -- all the names for this piece have been changed -- was elated to share her recent discovery with a friend. "Oh, my God, oh, my God," she shrieked on the street when they met. "Have you ever heard about the vibrating ring? It's a little a ring that goes on the penis and at the top there's a tiny little vibrator and when you're having sex it touches right on your clitoris and it's amaaazing."

Her friend, also 31, who works in fashion, was confused. "You mean a cock ring?"

"No -- it's a little ring and it has a little tiny battery," Harriet explained. The two young women went in search of a sex shop.

They needn't have bothered. Any Duane Reade could have sold them the apparatus -- discreetly packaged to look exactly like a box of condoms, save for the fine print, and openly displayed among the rainbow-colored racks of condoms for sale throughout the city's pharmacies and many grocery stores.

The price of the Trojan brand of vibrating ring -- $9.95 for a box containing one ring and one optional condom thrown in for good measure -- has recently hurled the rascally ring within the orbit of many a New York gal's weekly Duane Reade run, tossed into the basket along with the lip gloss, Crest White Strips, Us Weekly and Vitamin Water. "Oh, that's not a weird product at all," said a friendly employee at the Duane Reade on Broadway and 18th Street, when asked about the vibrating rings. "It's pretty popular as far as I can tell."

Indeed. According to Jim Daniels, vice president of marketing at Trojan Brand Condoms, sales at New York City Duane Reade stores of the Trojan vibrating ring -- the regular, the higher voltage "Extra Intense," the "Duo," the "Magnum," and an "Elexa" model packaged in a more feminine box -- are up 46 percent since 2006. Sales of the product at New York City grocery stores are up 115 percent. (Other condom companies -- LifeStyle, Durex -- also sell their own versions of the vibrating ring.)

Nationwide, according to Trojan, sales of the rings grew 74 percent last year, to 750,000. (Mr. Daniels said he doled out bronze replicas to each member of the development team to commemorate the launch.) Trojan concentrated its initial campaign on Manhattan, and two years later, sales in the city still skew slightly higher than elsewhere in the country.

It should come as no surprise: After Sex and the City, New York women are far less squeamish about laying down cash for some electric bugaloo. Whether the fellas are as eager to drop 10 bucks on a device that is meant to be worn like a cheap bow tie on the base of one's love warrior during the act and serves to increase the female partner's pleasure is an open question. After all, men can get edgy about electricity "down there," even if it's just coming from a small battery. The prospect of jolting one's Jimmy in the process could prove a hurdle to some. And visually, both men and women tend to agree, the product is hardly arousing: a latex ring adorned with one or two tiny, barrel-shaped vibrators, covered in stubby rubber tentacles.

So -- is it a buzzkill, or a buzzthrill?

At a Christmas party on the Upper East Side last December, the aforementioned object of female desire was one of the last gifts left standing in a game of Secret Santa. There it was, next to a mini-bottle of Jägermeister: a vibrating cock ring.

"I had told everyone about how it doesn't work," said Neel, a 24-year-old writer who was at the party and clearly felt the need to stand up for his own, old-fashioned, unvibrating manhood. "I said that there was no effect. It didn't do anything and just made you feel silly."

A young woman nevertheless opened the box and unwrapped one of the little gummy prosthetics. She held it up, turned it on.

Bzzzzzzzzz.

Everyone watched as the mechanical beast writhed about on a table like a wounded moth.

"They seemed intrigued, but slightly disturbed," said Neel of the women in attendance.

Trojan's Mr. Daniels admitted that he and his team were scared of being branded a bunch of pervs. "What we've been very careful to do is make sure the Trojan brand stands for responsible, quality sexual health products," he said. "We're approachable; we tell you like it is. We're not irresponsible, ever. We had to make sure the vibrating ring was consistent with all that brand equity. That's not that easy to do. But we made sure to package the product in a way that was still a Trojan, but discreet."

"It's a fine line, but we know that line well," Mr. Daniels added.

And so -- after all the concept groups, focus groups, guinea pig couples -- in August 2005, the first Trojan vibrating ring was given a slow, gentle rollout; except in Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Colorado and Virginia, where sex toys are illegal in all-purpose pharmacies.

The Duo model -- which offers a second vibrating barrel on the bottom side of the ring, ostensibly to give your boys their due -- came later.

"We released the original first," said Mr. Daniels. "That's because people are just trying vibrating rings for the first time. They want to walk before they run." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper: "We thought Duo would be only a niche player, but it's our second-biggest seller."

Retailers followed suit. CVS pharmacies crowned sexual-enhancement products the wave of the future, quadrupling the amount of shelf space devoted to the category.

If New Yorkers are grabbing for the ring, what does that say about the state of lovemaking in our fair town? Have women simply, finally, given up on New York men's ability to get the job done? Or is it the women who are in a hurry -- squeezing in sex between the last Vinyasa Yoga class and Gossip Girl?

"I think they only recently got mainstreamized," said a banker type wearing a crisp gingham shirt at a midtown sushi bar the other night. "Maybe it says something bad about society. People just can't do it themselves." This man of the world was no stranger to sexual-enhancement products: "There's always the electric toothbrush, for when you're on the road" he said.

"Yes, my girlfriends have tried them and they highly recommend them," said Kate, who first encountered them at a Valentine's Day girls'-night-out several years ago. Back then, they had to buy them at a sex shop.

"I think it's just the fact that it vibrates around your clitoris," she said, adding, as did several other women, that she sees the ring not as a novelty but as insurance. "I only tend to have orgasms with people I've been dating for a long time. And even then it's only 70 or 80 percent of the time."

"I think in New York there is a general acceptance that sex is better if you have some kind of help, whether it's lube or the right condom, the minty condom or whatever," said another 20-something city girl, who asked to be known as Penelope. "Women are pretty liberated about that. As you get older, you get more savvy about what you need to make it pleasurable for yourself.

"I also think the idea of a vibrating ring is a lazy idea, because it presupposes that you can get a girl off with something that is attached to your penis," she continued. "It's not even like the guy is holding your vibrator or doing anything artful on his own. It's the ultimate lazy way to give a girl an outer orgasm when you are having sex."

A 31-year-old music producer we'll call Michelle said her ex-boyfriend stopped buying his condoms at Rite-Aid because they didn't sell the rings. He was hooked.

"I found the ring to be very arousing and it does the trick -- but I'm not that into it," Michelle said. "You know, it's kind of silly, you have to put it on right, adjust it, turn it on, read the instructions -- it's not that sexy."

"Those things are terrible!" said a young professional whose real first name is Dudley. "Not that I am a stallion or anything, but they don't last long enough! And then it just stops, and it is awkward. Kind of like losing your hard-on or something."

Dudley brings up a key point: The battery inside the wee buzz bomb runs out after about 20 minutes. Which makes each vibrating ring good for one pop. And so if a couple became dependent on the rings, they could be looking at, say, an extra 60 bucks a week -- and this when we may be heading for a recession! (Pricier models, sold under brand names such as Screaming O's, offer replaceable batteries.)

In any case, Michelle attributed the spread of the rings to New York's obsession with commercialism. "In New York people are just into products," she said. "People just want to say, 'I've got this for this and this for that.' People are just into buying stuff."

Claire Cavanah, who co-owns the popular downtown sex shop Babeland, argues that the mass marketing of vibrating rings represents progress of a more personal kind.

"These are not novelties," she said. "What we're seeing is that Americans are more comfortable with sex, that women are sexual agents, they want their pleasure, and they do something like 70 percent of the shopping. It's just good business to put the vibrators on the shelf."

"Right now we sell 15 different vibrating cock rings," she noted, "everything from the disposable Trojan Elexa to the deluxe Betty Jo, which has two vibrators, is made of silicone and has variable speeds, and sells for $55. There's also the Screaming O, which is somewhere in between the Elexa and the Betty Jo."

Bruce Weiss, who is Trojan's chief sexual-enhancement designer, said the vibrating rings are only the start. "I can tell you that we will definitely be expanding our vibration platform," he said.
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