Various personal massagers for sale on the shelves at a Duane Reade drugstore in New York, April 12, 2011. For years, vibrators were bought quietly in sex shops or bought online, arriving in discreet, unmarked packages, but now you can find them advertised on MTV and boldly displayed at Duane Reade, Walgreens and other mainstream drugstores. (Tina Fineberg/The New York Times)

Vibrators create buzz at local drugstores

The Walgreens store on Highway 12 and Mission Boulevard in Santa Rosa offers aspirin, heel inserts and a number of other elixirs and devices that make a person feel better.

Add vibrators to that list.

Walgreens and other major retailers are now stocking vibrators on their shelves, signaling a major change in attitude about a device that used to be the exclusive domain of adult stores.

The devices are euphemistically labeled "intimate" or "personal" massagers and packaged discreetly so as not to offend some sensibilities.

But make no mistake, the Trojan Tri-Phoria, A:Muse Personal Pleasure Massager by LifeStyles and the Allure, by Durex, are exactly what people suspect them to be. And the fact they are being sold at the corner pharmacy is being touted as a milestone in the nation's collective approach to sex.

"I think it's great news," said Diane Gleim, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa whose practice includes treatment for sexual dysfunction. "It means more everyday people have access to such things if they are curious about them."

Like most sexual aids, vibrators have a controversial history in America, viewed alternately as objects of pleasure or smut. Seven states, mostly along the nation's Bible Belt, still ban sales of the devices.

But a 2008 study that was the first to survey a nationally representative sample of Americans on the subject found that over half of adult women had used vibrators, and nearly half of men.

The study was funded by Church & Dwight Co., which owns the Trojan brand, in conjunction with the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University.

Michael Reece, the center director, said the study confirmed what researchers had long suspected: that a vast number of Americans either had used vibrators or approved of their use.

Reece credits the Baby Boom generation for bringing the vibrator out into the open. "For decades, there have been lots of underground groups promoting these products and teaching women how to use them," he said.

Reece said the selling of these devices in mainstream stores "is a major shift in the role retailers are playing in promoting healthy sex."

Vivika Vergara, a Walgreens spokeswoman, said the Tri-Phoria became available in nearly 6,000 Walgreens and Duane Reade stores in March. The A:Muse hit the market in January and the Allure, in 2008.

"Many consumers may feel more secure purchasing this type of product from a trusted, health-focused retailer," Vergara said.

Bruce Tetreault, group product manager for Trojan's sexual health products, said the company's evolution into what he called the "vibration" market began five years ago.

Tetreault said the company strives to package these products in an understated way that still grabs attention. "We recognize that this might be a challenge for some retailers," he said.

The vibrators at the Highway 12 Walgreens are behind a locked glass partition. A sign instructs customers to ask for help if they want to purchase one.

Vergara said store managers decided to put the items under lock and key because people had been stealing them. Not all stores take that measure, she said.

Experts say the manner in which vibrators are marketed and sold also reflects continuing unease about the products and their intended use.

"There's still a &‘tee-hee' factor when these types of items are in front of people's faces," Gleim said.

Gleim, who has prescribed vibrators as part of her psychology practice, predicted that people will become more comfortable with the devices being sold at their corner pharmacy.

"In my work, you'd be surprised how many people have vibrators in their goodie drawers," she said. "It's not something that's talked about. People don't say, &‘I bought a vibrator today.'"

"But there was a similar thing with condoms years ago," she said.

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