Tucked away in New York's Lower East Side, among a jumble of old tenement buildings crisscrossed with iron fire escapes, is a boutique called Toys in Babeland. The storefront doesn't scream "sex shop" to passers-by, but it's a famous emporium of sexual aids.
There I met the store's co-owner, Claire Cavanah, to learn about sexual lubricants. Having opened Toys in Babeland in 1993, she's had nearly a decade of experience selling and using the stuff. Bottles and tubes of various lubes stand in rows on a counter, color-coded according to their properties: water-based or silicone-based, gloppy like hair gel, slick like saliva, or silky like lotion.
Silicone-based lubes, Cavanah says, tend to be her customers' favorites. They stay wet for a long time, which is good for extended intercourse. "According to the manufacturer, it will stay wet for 10 years in the lab," she says. But silicone-based lubes may not be the best choice for people using sex toys made of silicone. Cavanah and others who sell them recommend silicone dildos and vibrators over those made of rubber because they're easier to clean. The surface has fewer tiny pores that could trap germs. But she says customers have reported that silicone lubes, over time, seem to react with the silicone toy and make its surface feel tacky, in effect ruining it.
A brand of water-based lube called Eros could be a good stand-in for those who like silicone products and also value their toys. "The water-based Eros really does feel a lot like silicone," Cavanah says. One advantage of water-based lubes, of which there are many other brands, is that they're water-soluble, so they wash away easily. But they dry up faster than silicone-based ones do. Also, Cavanah says female customers have complained that water-based lubes containing glycerin seem to promote vaginal yeast infections -- the idea being that glycerin, a sugar, feeds the yeast naturally present in the vagina. This notion has spread widely around the Internet, but there's scant scientific evidence to support it.
Consistency is another consideration in choosing a lube. The desired consistency depends partly on what you intend to do with it. "The thicker ones are better for anal sex," Cavanah says. Rectal tissue is more fragile than vaginal tissue. A thick lube reduces friction and abrasion more than a thin one does. Besides that, there aren't any rules about consistency. "I think thick lube is great all around," Cavanah says. But try rubbing a dollop between your fingers to get a sense of the consistency, and choose whatever feels best to you.
Not for Sex
Toys in Babeland doesn't carry any oil-based lubes. In fact, the massage oils they sell are kept on the opposite side of the store from the lubes, so as not to confuse anyone. For many years, health officials have discouraged people from using oil-based lubes because oils break down latex rubber, causing condoms to fail. Only silicone- and water-based lubes are safe to use with latex condoms. What's more, there's not much point in using skin lotion, petroleum jelly, or cooking oils when so many products are made specifically for sex. Oil is awfully messy, and it's really not meant to be put in someone's vagina or rectum.
One other important warning applies to sex lubes: Avoid anything that contains the spermacide nonoxynol-9. CDC spokeswoman Jessica Frickey writes in an email, "It boils down to this: Studies have shown that N-9 can cause genital lesions and damage to the rectal lining, providing a possible entry point for HIV and other [sexually transmitted diseases]."
Of course, not everyone lives near a sex shop, and some folks wouldn't venture into one if they did. But most drug store chains and mom-and-pop pharmacies carry the water-based lubricants K-Y jelly and AstroGlide. Cavanah says that of the two, AstroGlide is the best choice. "That is far better than the K-Y jelly their mother in law has in the cabinet," she says. K-Y is meant for clinical uses, like inserting a rectal thermometer. It doesn't stay slippery for as long those designed for sex do.
Sex lubes are also easy to find on the Internet. Toys in Babeland has an online shop (babeland.com), as does another prominent sex boutique, Good Vibrations (goodvibes.com), based in San Francisco. The two enterprises don't share ownership, but they're partners in the same mission. Unlike seedy "adult entertainment" establishments that also sell lube, they promote positive attitudes about sex, with an emphasis on women's sexual health and pleasure. A quick Web search will pull up a number of other e-stores that sell lube, too.
Learn to Love Lube
You may wonder why you should go out of your way to get sex lube. If you're not having anal sex, shouldn't a woman's natural lubrication be enough? Not always. Many people, especially men, think that if they want to use lube, they are not properly turned on. But a woman can be burning with desire and still not have enough natural lubrication to make things go smoothly. "We're not always wet on cue," Cavanah says. Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, smoking, antidepressants, and antihistamines can cause vaginal dryness. Many women also have less lubrication after menopause.
Even when there's no shortage of moisture, there's nothing wrong with extra wetness. A dab of lube applied inside a condom, up at the tip, can be great for guys, too. It feels more like you're not wearing one.
"It's hard to introduce any kind of product into sex," Cavanah says, including lube. People tend to think that great sex has to be like the stylized, multi-orgasmic love scenes in Hollywood blockbusters. But real sex isn't choreographed. You may need to rummage around in the dresser drawer for a condom, or go to the bathroom first, and so on. Likewise, it may be necessary, or preferable, to lube up first. Given that (hopefully) no one's watching, you can relax about your performance and just have fun.