Walk into a sex toy shop and you’ll find an array of colorful dildos, butt plugs, and vibrators. In the sex shop of tomorrow, you might be greeted by sex robots with warm genitals. But whether you use a toy now or screw an eerily realistic robot in the future, the same rules apply: use protection and clean up after.
Sex robots, no matter how sophisticated they might become as the technology advances, are still toys at the end of the day. They’re the next generation of sex dolls, which often use the same materials, including silicone and latex, as other sex toys. So to investigate if these robots will spread STIs, it’s best to take a look at how sex toys fit into this public health concern.
Sex toys are a $15 billion industry, and toys of all types exist to turn wet dreams into reality: sleek silicone butt plugs, shiny metal vibrators, jelly dildos that almost feel like the real thing, and more. But what the toy is made of, how it’s used, and how it’s cleaned can affect the risk of contracting STIs.
To get an STI from a sex toy, the toy must be shared. According to Sex and Relationships Educator Sarah Sloane, some toys are more likely to spread STIs than others.
“If the material of the sex toy is porous, a virus can hide in it,” Sloane tells Inverse. “A basic cleaning may not be sufficient. Even with a nonporous toy, if it’s used on someone else, it can also transmit STIs. Nonporous toys don’t have anywhere for the bacteria to hide, so the only way they would be transmitted was if there wasn’t cleaning.”
Nonporous materials include pure silicone, stainless steel, glass, ceramic, and medical grade plastic. Meanwhile, porous materials include elastomers, jelly toys, latex, vinyl, rubber, and other materials that may feel more realistic.
Vaginal and seminal fluid can also transmit STIs like HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. Blood and sharing anal toys can spread Hepatitis B and HIV. Hepatitis is a major risk, as it can survive longer outside the body.
If you plan to use a sex toy with a partner, it’s better to use non-porous toys, which are easier to clean. Porous toys are cheaper but more likely to retain STIs, even after you clean them. If you use a porous toy, don’t share it, or if you do, make sure to put a condom on it or use a dental dam.
“There are many toys that are absolutely ideal for folks to share with their partners,” Sloane says. “Putting a barrier on it is an added level of ‘OK, I’m sure this doesn’t have anything on it that I can get exposed to.’”
Sexuality Educator and Therapist Elizabeth Boskey says another mistake that can lead to STIs is if two or more people are sharing a sex toy between different body parts like the vagina, mouth, or rectum.
That’s why it’s important to clean toys after use. You can clean them with soap and water and soak them, or use antiviral or antibacterial cleaner. With silicone, metal, and glass toys, you can boil them for sanitation.
When sex robots start becoming more prevalent, users will need a way to easily clean them. It’s likely robots will be built with replaceable liners or interchangeable parts. And like current toys, the material sex robots are made of can affect the risk of STIs.
“Look at the quality of the material it’s made of and how it’s being used and make sure something that touches multiple body parts can be cleaned or has a barrier on it,” Sloane says. “If you’re going to get something custom tailored to you and something you want, I would think putting a priority on high-quality material is really important.”
Although sex robots are years away from becoming commonplace, sex toys now are already getting smarter. There are vibrators programmed to help achieve orgasms in multiple ways and extremely realistic VR porn. There’s teledildonics, a burgeoning technology that allows people to have remote sex with (and even blow) a long distance partner via the internet. In the future, sex robots might even gain some sort of consciousness.
“I think the biggest philosophical question is, if you’re talking robots, as they get more and more advanced in terms of learning and autonomy, will there be a question about consent?” Boskey says. “I don’t know the answer. I think that will be an interesting question as we move forward in artificial intelligence.”