When you buy any electric item for your household, it's subject to a host of regulations to ensure its safety. Your toaster, cell phone and flat-screen TV all conform to very specific standards about energy usage, balance, accessibility, or that just generally make it harder to hurt yourself with the device. So, why doesn't that apply to sex toys? Government regulations about sex toys have more to do with keeping them out of your hands than with making them safe for use. Crazy, isn't it?
Taking Sex Toy Safety Into Your Own Hands
In Alabama, it is unlawful to buy or own any device created "primarily for the stimulation of human genitals." No word on whether that includes multitaskers like the Hitachi Magic Wand, which is also awesome for a sore neck or back. In Texas, selling a vibrator to an undercover cop may result in having to register as a sex offender. That's unimaginable! Yet, there are no laws in place to protect consumers from potentially dangerous sex toys. According to the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, nearly 7,000 people made trips to emergency rooms in the United States due to mishaps with sex toys within a 10-year period. In a single year (2007), roughly 900 people were admitted to hospitals for the purpose of removing a device or item from their rectums. Surely an ounce of prevention is in order here? (Sex educator Ducky Doolittle says that item is often a Sharpie marker.)
Should Sex Toys Be Regulated?
The high numbers of injury-by-sex-toy lead Alan Shindel, assistant professor of urology at the University of California, Davis, to co-author an article imploring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to pay closer attention to sex toy product safety. He found that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had basically no data on the safety of various sexual enhancement devices, and that there are no laws defining the characteristics a sex toy must have (or must avoid). Shindel says, "Sex toys are out there, they're being used…and it would be nice to have some kind of oversight." He continued, sadly, "I don't know that the country is ready to address sex toys in a mature fashion, to make them something that's regulated."
He's right about that. His article went live in 2011; and here we are in 2015 without any real guidelines covering the wide world of vibrators, dildos, sex dolls, and various other masturbation aids. The only consumer advocacy government website that addresses sex toys is SaferProducts.gov. This site supposedly covers recall and danger information on sex toys currently being sold in the US. Yet, a search for "sex toys" yields exactly one hit. So, what's a savvy, sex-toy-loving consumer to do?
Taking Sex Toy Safety Into Your Own Hands
Be your own advocate. Responsible sex toy use means that responsibility for buying and using sex toys safely falls squarely on the user. It's incumbent on us to make sure we know about which toys to buy, and how to use, clean, and store them safely. We also need to know how to find the right tool for the job, so to speak, and to know what chemicals to avoid, which toys can be used with lube, with a partner, and more. It's a tall order. Here are a few general points to get you started:
- "Novelty" toys belong on a shelf, and not in your body. Any toy that appears to be manufactured for looks is best avoided. This goes double for toys designed for anal play—that Donald Trump butt plug is for display only!
- Anything with sharp edges, rough patches, or tiny moving parts is right out.
- Anal toys should have a ring or wide, flared base for safe removal.
- The safest sex toys are made from non-porous material. Glass and silicone are safer and easier to keep clean than rubber, plastics, or anything with phthalates. Other safe materials include stainless steel, latex, and abs plastic (a non-phthalate plastic - like what good drink bottles are made of).
- "Phthalates" is a funny sounding word for the chemical used to make "jelly" or "soft skin" sex toys. These chemical cause toys to degrade, give off chemical gas, or even melt oils over time, and can cause numbness, pain, headaches, and cramps for user. Ew. Any toy with that "new car smell" probably has phthalates, and is best avoided.
- Even if you use condoms with your sex toys you should know that mold, bacteria, fungus, and other decidedly non-sexy things can take up residence there. Clean your toys carefully, and get rid of the ones with seams, pores and other areas where bacteria can take up residence.
- Whenever a sex toy gives off a strange or chemical odor, becomes sticky between uses, or oozes anything at all, it is time to throw it away. Yes, even if it was very expensive and you like it a lot. It's a great excuse to buy a new toy. You deserve it!
- Unless you know the company well and are completely confident in them, insertable or penetration-intensive toys marked "for novelty use only" are no friend to your body. Pro-tip: If you wouldn't put it in your mouth, you shouldn't insert it anywhere else.
- Not sure which companies are reputable? Do your research! Sex toy reviewers can provide great insight into toy quality as well.
- A sex toy is an investment in your body, your relationship, and your sexual health. This is no time to cheap out. Invest in a medical grade product that meets your needs. Remember, safety first!
Sex toy shopping may seem frivolous, or even funny. Just keep in mind that there's nothing hilarious about making a trip to an emergency room to explain an embarrassing mishap to a couple of total strangers. Invest in quality toys, then treat them well. Clean them regularly, and use condoms when appropriate. Then, you can proceed with confidence toward years of happy solo, couple, or even group play. Yay!
Wednesday Lee Friday is an eclectic writer of fact and fiction. She has worked as a reptile wrangler, phone sex operator, radio personality, concierge, editor, fast food manager, horror novelist, and she owns a soap shop. She prefers jobs that let her sleep during the day. Everybody knows all the best art and literature happen at night! Wednesday's work has appeared in Women's Health Interactive, Alternet, Screen Rant, The Roots of Loneliness Project and Authority Magazine.