Receiving a huge, floppy pink dildo wrapped in a clear plastic bag is a far cry from the experience I've become accustomed to when buying sex toys, but that's what I got when I decided to spend $100 on a selection of the top-rated sex toys on Amazon.com.
One of the perks of working at Kinkly is that I often receive toys from top sex toy manufacturers and retailers. Companies with a history. A reputation. An address. But when you buy toys on Amazon, I learned, you may not get any of that. You might get a low-quality toy straight from China, you might get a knock-off masquerading as a Magic Wand ... you might even get the real deal. But it won't be easy to tell which one you're getting until the product arrives. After all, Amazon is just the platform that connects a vast and ever-changing web of sex toy retailers, manufacturers and out-right frauds to consumers. And, for the most part, there are very few tools to help consumers differentiate those products or determine where they're coming from.
Best case scenario: You take the gamble and end up with a decent toy at a good price. Worst case? You get something that's poorly made, poorly designed and possibly even unsafe to use. But what bothered me most about my big box of "best-selling" sex toys from Amazon is that I know firsthand there are much better options, both in terms of safety and in terms of pleasure.
The Trouble With Sex Toys on Amazon
Amazon has more than one millions brands, hundreds of millions of products and more than five million marketplace sellers, according to research by Juozas Kaziukenas of Marketplace Pulse. There are no figures available on how many of those products are sex toys, but the site's "sexual wellness" section - although a bit hidden - is chock-full of vibrators and dildos and masturbators. And, at a glance, most of products here aren't made by brands I recognize - or that we'd recommend. To anyone.
The problem is that even if you hit up Amazon having done some research and with a particular brand and toy in mind, you might end up with a fake. This has to do with the way Amazon "commingles" listings from different sellers on the site - and the way it fulfills them. So, suppose that you're a legitimate sex toy retailer selling real-deal, brand-name sex toys and you want to expand your business by offering products on Amazon. As a third party seller, you have two options:
- You fulfill the orders that come through Amazon yourself (you ship directly to the customer.)
- You ship your products to an Amazon warehouse, where they are shelved with every other toy with the same manufacturer barcode. When someone orders a product with this barcode, Amazon fulfills the orders for you with any product from that shelf.
- You ship your products to an Amazon warehouse and pay to have them shelved separately, so that customers who order from you only get the exact products you shipped.
Now, suppose that a consumer is looking for a Magic Wand. This is a very popular sex toy and, as a result, one that is often counterfeited. (The problem is so bad, the Magic Wand's sole importer, Vibratex, has a page on its website dedicated to helping consumers avoid fakes.) If you visit Amazon to buy a Magic Wand, you may be buying a legitimate Magic Wand that a retailer shipped to Amazon, or you could be buying cheap knock off that was also shipped to Amazon and labeled as such. As far as Amazon is concerned, both products are the same (they have the same barcode) and they all go into the same bin in the warehouse unless the seller pays additional fees. The only difference is that the price on the fake is likely to be lower, as is the quality and reliability of the product. The worst part is, these lower priced counterfeit goods can easily out-compete authentic, well-made sex toys on Amazon and at other retailers.
To add to the confusion, Amazon is rife with fake reviews. Many products receive dozens of five-star reviews within hours or days of being listed. These serve to further confuse consumers about what they're getting.
"If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is," says Eddie Romero, director of operations for Vibratex, which has been the sole supplier of the Magic Wand Original for more than 15 years. "The company has been cracking down on counterfeits with the help of legal counsel, but suspect versions of the toy do pop up - not to mention the hundreds of others that, while not exact copies, claim to be the same thing."
Why Amazon Sells So Many Sex Toys
The appeal of shopping for sex toys on Amazon is twofold. One, as we've mentioned, is that there appear to be some good prices on in-demand toys (although, buyer beware). The other is that Amazon is so mainstream that it may make people feel more comfortable about buying sex toys.
"Buying a vibrator can be adventurous enough, so having a private retail experience you are comfortable with can make it easier to buy something that feels uncomfortable to buy," says Alex Fine, CEO of Dame Products. "To see sex toys in the same virtual space as diapers, toothbrushes, that specific eye mask I like, headphones and dog food is pretty cool."
In other words, people may trust Amazon more than they trust a sex toy manufacturer or dedicated sex toy retailer. Having worked with a number of manufacturers and retailers, I think that's a shame. Because while shopping at quality sex toy manufacturers and retailers often means good advice, expertise, discreet shipping, customer service and even product warranties, shopping on Amazon can be like a game of Where's Waldo; there are good sex toys hiding in that sea of cheap knock-offs, but it won't be easy to find them.
While shopping at quality sex toy manufacturers and retailers often means good advice, expertise, discreet shipping, customer service and even product warranties, shopping on Amazon can be like a game of Where's Waldo; there are good sex toys hiding in that sea of cheap Chinese knock-offs, but it won't be easy to find them.
What was in the box?
About that dick I received. It was listed as a Louviva Realistic Dildo with Suction cup. The included instruction manual said it was called "Beau" and that it was made of "medical grade PVC." I did a little research on that material and while it does appear to be legit when it comes to medical tubing, I can't find a single instance where it's used in relation to a decent quality sex toy. Plus, PVC often includes plasticizers, which may contain phthalates. If the "medical grade" bit threw you off, you should know that this is a product that could leach dangerous chemicals into your body, and could even cause chemical burns on your genitals. Even if you dodge that bullet, PVC is still porous, which mean it can't be sterilized and could harbor bacteria.
But then again, the product spec sheet for this toy also says that it's "modeled on a real dildo of men" and that "it is a perfect thingy."
I fiddled around with this toy in my kitchen and took some pictures. I wasn't about to use it, but I did adhere it to my fridge for kicks. It left an oily ring I've never been able to remove. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Leaching of oils is a hallmark of sex toys made of unsafe, unstable materials.
In addition to that horrible dildo, I also received a G-spot vibrator, an anal trainer kit, a masturbator and a vibrating cock ring, all from Amazon's Best Sellers page. There are some good toys from reputable brands on this page too ... or at least what I think are good toys from reputable brands, but it's a pretty mixed bag.
The anal trainer kit I received came in - you guessed it - a plastic bag, only this one was elegantly sealed in black packing tape. It included three sizes of anal plugs and, honestly, they don't seem half bad. They don't have an odor and they feel like real silicone. But I'm also a little weirded out. If these don't have any packaging, where did they come from? Are they knock-offs? Were they stolen? Could they have been used by someone else?
The kit also came packaged with, if you know anything about anal play, a totally inadequate packet of off-brand lube. This intrigued me too. The packaging says the lube is made in Thailand. Is that where these anal plugs come from too? I flip the packet over and check out the ingredients. Glycerin, water ... and phenonip. I learn that it's an ingredient used to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria in personal care products - and that it's well-known as a potent skin irritant that may have other potential health risks. In other words, it's not the kind of thing you want to put up your butt.
The Louviva G-Spot Vibrator was the other notable toy I picked up here. Whoever made this toy put some effort into copying the packaging of many other luxury sex toys but, trust me, it won't fool anyone. Toy came in a black box with gold lettering, and the images on the box seem to indicate that it's won some sort of award, which I very much doubt. There are other tells as well. The box boasts that the toy is waterproof; the instructions say "do not soak." The toy requires two AA batteries; the instructions say - in bold font and capital letters - to avoid storing the toy with the batteries inside. This is a common recommendation for battery-powered toys, but the urgent nature of the request on this toy makes me think it's about more than just making sure that my batteries (which were not included, by the way) last longer.
The toy is also labeled as a G-spot vibrator, although it's actually a rabbit vibe. That said, the floppy clitoral arm doesn't have its own motor, so ... I guess it's just there for show. That said, when I turn the toy on, the vibrations are actually fairly strong, if buzzy. Assuming it doesn't blow up in your hand before you orgasm, this toy could actually bring someone some pleasure. Of course, I don't recommend it. The motor makes a terrible whine and the way it's put together suggests it wouldn't last long - and may not even survive a splash in the sink.
Want the real deal? Check out the Top 10 Rabbit Vibrators You Should Know
Assuming it doesn't blow up in your hand before you orgasm, this toy could actually bring someone some pleasure.
I also received a masturbator that looked like the worst version of a fake Fleshlight you could ever imagine and a cock ring from a company called IMO that looks, well, pretty decent. But at this point, I'm so jaded I can't even believe it could be anything but junk.
How All This Cheap Stuff Hurts the Sex Toy Industry - and Consumers
If you don't know much about the sex toy industry, you may not be aware of how much it's changed over the past 10 years or so. Sex toys are becoming more mainstream and, as a result, consumers are no longer ashamed to demand high-quality, body-safe toys for their money. The products being released today have more R&D behind them than ever. Companies are fine-tuning motors and shapes, but they are also amping up the entire experience for consumers by hiring sex educators, providing sex education and getting really involved at the consumer level.
Plus, consumers are getting smarter. We now know that some materials aren't safe enough to put into our orifices. We know that sexual pleasure - including any devices used to achieve it - isn't weird or shameful, it's a part of being human. And we know that many companies out there have been stepping up and putting in the hard work to make beautiful, safe, well-designed pleasure products for people. In other words, there's a lot more that's different about these toys compared to their cheap Amazon knock-offs than meets the eye - including the companies behind them.
Many companies out there have put in the hard work to make beautiful, safe, well-designed pleasure products for people. There's a lot more that's different about these toys compared to their cheap Amazon knock-offs than meets the eye - including the companies behind them.
These are manufacturers who stand behind their products. Who offer warranties and refunds for defective items. Or, in the case of retailers, have expert in-house staff who can help you select the right toy, or direct you toward online education about what might meet your needs.
Some manufacturers will even go out of their way to help people who've been sucked into counterfeit versions of their product.
"When fielding these calls, consumers are grateful that we take the time to ensure their units are either authentic or counterfeit," Romero told us. "This extra care really does help strengthen the relationships between the consumer and the Magic Wand brand."
In other words, real manufacturers and retailers are out there. They have faces and names and phone numbers. They've put in the work, and they have a reputation to maintain. And, at bottom, many of them are sex toy experts and enthusiasts themselves, people who actually care about the quality and safety of their products - and about the consumers who use them.
Amazon and Sex Toys - Our Run-In With Counterfeiting
As we were working on this piece, an Amazon story of our own began to develop; someone is selling sex toys and lube on Amazon under the name Kinkly. Now, we don't make sex toys (or lube) and we don't plan to. It just isn't our business. Plus, we know and support so many other awesome companies who are already getting it right. You wouldn't know it by checking out the Amazon listings, though. Note that the maker of the toy is explicitly listed as "Kinkly."
Apparently, a lot of the people who these and other "Kinkly" products on Amazon were fooled; we have received a number of emails from people saying that these products broke after a few uses or wouldn't hold a charge. And, in the case of the lube, that it caused irritation.
The worst part is that over here at Kinkly, we are so spoiled when it comes to sexual health products. We have had the opportunity to handle and test and learn about some of the top toys on the market, which makes it even harder to hear from people who paid good money for toys that just aren't worth buying, even for $20. That's 20 bucks they could put toward a high-quality toy. Something that will perform well, last a long time and whose materials they can trust. Just take our word for it: Good quality toys are worth saving up for.
We know that the counterfeits circulating on Amazon can be damaging to brands, but these particular products really brought it home for us. They made the problem personal. We can only imagine that a lot of other manufacturers and retailers feel the same way when consumers reach out after purchasing fakes. These people have a product that doesn't work and may not even be safe. And there's very little we can do about it. Except, of course, do everything we can to teach them about other options.
After all we've said, it would be easy to just pan Amazon altogether. To tell you not to go there. And while we definitely recommend finding manufacturers and retailers that you trust - whether local or online - Amazon has long been a place where people could buy sex toys that were hard to find anywhere else. In some cases, it still is.
So, here's what we always tell people about buying sex toys, on Amazon or elsewhere: do your research (we are talking about something you will be applying to your genitals, after all.) When it comes to sex toys on Amazon, the biggest tell that you're dealing with a low-quality product is probably the price. If the retail price online for the toy you're shopping for is $80 and you're seeing one for $20 on Amazon, it's probably too good to be true. But then again, if you're going to be paying $80 to help ensure you get the toy of your dreams anyway, why not buy it from a sex toy retailer or directly from the manufacturer?
The best sex toys are sold by companies who are in the business of delivering high quality toys to consumers, and they tend to deliver more than just a product - they deliver all the things that should come with it. They don't have to hide behind Amazon for legitimacy. They are legitimate. They have a presence, a face, a reputation, a reliable way for customers to reach them. Many even include warranties on their products. That's because these companies are doing their best to make quality goods and they want to make sure that's exactly what you get. There are good retailers on Amazon, but many others just use fake reviews (and even fake names!) to coax you out of $20 in exchange for what turns out to be a sad, potentially toxic dildo wrapped in a plastic bag.
You Can Do Better
The bottom line is that if you can't find any information about a toy's manufacturer, it probably isn't a toy worth buying. There are so many amazing sex toys (and companies!) out there! If you're in the market, you owe it to yourself to get a product that's safe, one that's made by a manufacturer who actually cares about your pleasure and your health, and one that will deliver the goods for years to come. They don't come cheap (although there are more lower priced, higher quality toys than ever) but they are worth your time and money. After all, when you buy a sex toy, you are essentially buying into the idea that you deserve pleasure. Don't you want to make sure you actually get it?