Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/14/2021
Sex toys and devices make a lot of claims about their effects on erectile dysfunction, but how much of it is based on science?
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably considered buying something out of a shop or off the internet as a solution to some performance issues — all to avoid an awkward conversation with your healthcare provider.
Sex toys may have some limited benefits when it comes to treating ED, but they’re far less proven than other medical treatments. Could they benefit you? The answer isn’t quite as simple as yes or no.
Before we get into the science of whether toys and devices can help in the treatment of erectile dysfunction, it’s important to understand what erectile dysfunction actually is.
If you’re reading this, you may be less than impressed with your unit’s recent performance. There’s no reason to be embarrassed. ED is a fairly common condition, affecting an estimated 30 million to 50 million men nationwide.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines erectile dysfunction as a condition in which you are unable “to get or keep an erection firm enough for satisfactory sexual intercourse.”
That means that the partial, incomplete erections you may have from time to time can also be a sign of ED.
In context though, the bigger question is the frequency of this issue. Does it happen once a month after a night of heavy drinking? You might just need to knock off the heavy booze. Does it happen a few times a month? That’s when you should look into treatment.
Erections are the result of two primary processes: increased bloodflow to the penis’s blood vessels, and the trapping of that blood in the penis in two long champers called the corpora cavernosa.
When something or someone turns you on, you enter the “arousal” state. Your brain sends chemical signals to your body to dilate the blood vessels in the penis, allowing blood to flow in. The blood becomes trapped in the corpora cavernosa, keeping you erect. And you’re off to the races.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, if you don’t have erectile dysfunction.
People who do have erectile dysfunction have a breakdown in normal function in one of these areas: either the blood flow doesn’t increase, or the blood doesn’t become trapped in the penis adequately to achieve an erection.
There are medications and lifestyle changes that healthcare providers may recommend for treating ED. Medications like Viagra or generic Viagra and Cialis are PDE5 inhibitors, which work to keep blood vessels dilated.
Lifestyle changes can also increase erectile function. Because ED can be caused by other problems, it can actually be regarded as a symptom of some other conditions.
There are many factors that can cause erectile dysfunction.
They include: heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, anxiety, illicit drug use, excessive alcohol use, and performance anxiety to name a few.
With a series of other treatments for erectile dysfunction, you may be wondering why someone would even want a toy or tool in place of a pill.
Well, pills can have side effects, and depending on the particular treatment, some medications aren’t recommended when using other medications.
ED pills can have adverse side effects when paired with blood pressure medications, including beta blockers, and pre existing heart conditions can make for increased risks when you start using PDE5 inhibitors.
On the surface, toys and devices present a less-invasive, non-prescription option for in-the-moment ED treatment. And it can be less embarrassing to acquire them than to get your hands on a prescription. You don’t need to talk to a health care provider to get a cock ring.
But while there is anecdotal evidence to suggest some benefits to toys, they are far from proven. Let’s examine a few of the most popular device types, and what they claim to do.
A penis sleeve is a hollow, penis-shaped sex toy that’s worn over your penis during sex.
Penis sleeves come in a diverse variety of shapes, sizes and types.
Some are sized realistically and are designed primarily to make sex more pleasurable for you and your partner if you find it difficult to stay hard during penetrative sex.
The idea is that your partner’s vagina, anus — wherever this is going — gets something more firm and girthy, and you both get an enhanced, textured space for added pleasure.
They can also add vibration, texture — anything to make your penis better for your partner, help you have a better experience.
When it comes to scientific effectiveness, there’s only a small amount of research available on the effectiveness of penis sleeves, but some of that research shows promise for ED treatment.
One scientific review published in 2017 mentioned penis sleeves as an option for men with erectile dysfunction who’d like to have penetrative sex. But there’s a caveat about its effectiveness, which can vary greatly based on factors such as its fit, shape and thickness.
Another scientific review from 2019 stated that penis sleeves and similar devices allow for the preservation of penetrative sex for men with erectile dysfunction, but that research is scant as external prosthesis have “been slow to gain acceptance in the scientific community.”
Cock rings operate on a similar methodology to penis sleeves, in that they are a tool worn to enhance sexual pleasure during intercourse. Essentially, it’s a ring-shaped device you wear around the base of your penis.
Cock rings can incorporate a variety of pleasure-enhancing devices, such as butt plugs, dildos and harnesses, and they’re available in a variety of sizes.
Cock rings work by applying pressure to the area near the base of your penis. This slows down the flow of blood out of the penis, which may help you to maintain an erection and stay hard for longer during sexual activity.
But while they may be effective in keeping the blood in, they’re in no way a treatment for initial blood flow issues that may be keeping you from getting an erection in the first place.
Because a cock ring must be in your possession at the time of sexual activity, and has to be washed, etc., it’s not really a more convenient option than medications. Still it can be effective in some instances.
Male vibrators are just what they sound like: vibrator toys designed for or to include male pleasure.
Using vibrators on bed have some efficacy in certain areas of sexual dysfunction. For instance, they can help men with spinal cord injuries ejaculate.
When used in conjunction with a penis sleeve, they can provide added stimulation for both partners, and enhanced pleasure is of course an added benefit to just about anything in the sexual aid arena.
But unfortunately that’s where the science stops. There aren’t any conclusive studies showing that vibrators can improve sexual function or act as a solution for erectile dysfunction.
Luckily, they have very few potential side effects — you’re not going to leave a vibrator on so long that it can cause permanent damage like a cock ring might.
And since vibrators can be enjoyable for vaginas, clitorises, pensises, anuses and everything in between, it may be an added bedroom benefit, even if it’s not addressing the core erectile problem. You can learn more about using a couples vibrator in the bedroom in our guide.
There are other tools in the enhancement space with limited or no scientific backing. Penis pumps and extenders, for instance, have shown promise in making erections larger and, when paired with a cock ring, can extend them for longer than you might otherwise be able to stay hard on your own.
The problem again, though, is that neither device solves the initial problem of dilation and blood vessel engorgement. You can’t make an erection bigger if you don’t, you know, have an erection.
The field of devices shows plenty of promise for increased pleasure and assistance to function, and further studies may reveal some effective key components in a holistic treatment of ED.
But until further studies are done and some results start to pile up, they’re just not where you should be butting your faith — or your penis.
And while a device you can buy off of Amazon in discreet packaging may have enough curb appeal to take the place of medical treatment, the best first step in treating ED isn’t to click checkout and select same day shipping — it’s to consult a healthcare professional.
A healthcare professional will be able to address not just the problem of unreliable erections, but help you identify the larger causes, which can be physical, nutritional, or psychological.
Consulting a healthcare provider is the right first move, even if you’re self conscious about ED. After all, up to 50 million men in the U.S. might be in the same boat right now.
And those ED symptoms could be part of a bigger problem like heart disease or diabetes, which might just be hindering your sex life today, but could potentially shorten it without treatment.
We’re not trying to scare you, but consulting a healthcare professional is the best way to make sure you and your member function well and healthily for a long time to come.