Sex toys and the human desire to self-pleasure are ancient, dating back to the Ice Age’s stone dildos. Those led to the Victorian-era ivory toys, which paved the way for today’s silicone and plastic gadgets. Today, sex toys are less taboo than ever in the United States, and the market is growing fast. Nearly half of all men and over half of heterosexual women have used a sex toy.
However, no one should assume that using sex toys in America is safe.
Alarming, unseen trends pervade the sex toy industry, says Lisa Lawless, a Vermont psychotherapist and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Science & Art in Sexuality. An advocate for body-safe sex toys in the U.S., she organized a study in 2014 to determine how clean and safe sex toys on the market actually are. What she found was a lapse in product manufacturing that was exceptionally disgusting.
“We went to different retailers, we went to Amazon and other sites, and we bought products,” explains Lawless, who also owns the Vermont adult novelty store and education center Holistic Wisdom, to Inverse. “We found some of them had traces of lint that was from clothing, some had bodily fluids on them, and some even had pubic hairs. We were like, ‘This is truly disturbing.’”
Lawless’ discovery, part of the Safe Sexual Products Campaign, points to a pervasive national problem: This $15 billion industry has some of the most unregulated safety standards in the country, at both the state and federal level. When it comes to buying sex toys, the burden of determining whether companies are honest about toxic materials, harmful design flaws, and misleading packaging falls solely on the consumer.
The reason sex toys are so poorly regulated is because their manufacturers take advantage of a simple labeling loophole that categorizes the vast majority of sex toys as “novelty items,” which, unlike medical devices or foods, aren’t subject to mandated testing. This allows manufacturers to skirt all medical regulations and freely sell untested products.
Currently, one of the only agencies that overlooks the industry is the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which oversees the sale of sex toys but does not mandate any form of testing. The Food and Drug Administration has regulatory control over three specific vibrators, but only because they are classified as obstetrical and gynecological therapeutic medical devices. The rest of the market is a wild west for sex toys, and no legislation is currently being proposed to address this problem.
While not all sex toys pose a medical threat, the problem is that consumers have no way of knowing which ones are unsafe. The CPSC’s testing covers functionality but not health guidelines. When you purchase a chair, you can presume that the commission has rigorously tested its utility, meaning you probably won’t fall as soon as you sit on it. But when you buy a vibrating dildo, you can only hope that it’ll screw you in the way that you want.
A number of researchers have called attention to the actual health hazards that can result from using these untested and unregulated sex toys. “For a product that roughly half of the American population will use during their lives that can cause serious injury or even death if used incorrectly, this situation presents a dangerous deficiency in the regulatory scheme,” wrote whistleblower attorney Emily Stabile in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law, & Justice in 2013. Another legal paper, published in 2007 in Law & Inequality, called out the federal government for failing “to protect consumers from toxic sex toys.”
One of the most concerning health issues is the risk of being exposed to toxic plastics. Sex toys made with a jelly plastic may contain compounds increasing flexibility and durability called phthalates, which can then leach out, pass through the skin, and enter the body. Their effects on human health have not been studied in depth, but animal research from the National Academy of Sciences has given scientists pause: Male animals exposed to phthalates have shown a greater risk of infertility, decreased sperm count, undescended testes, and malformed penises. Congress has permanently banned three types of phthalates in any amount greater than 0.1 percent in children’s toys, but the same can’t be said for sex toys.
Taking into account the way sex toys are used, which may accelerate “the migration rate of [phthalates] from the products into the body,” as one researcher wrote in Law & Inequality in 2007, makes for a very precarious situation indeed.
There’s also a concern that viruses and bacteria could get trapped in certain materials used to make sex toys. Just because some products are labeled phthalate-free, Lawless says, “doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with them.” Porous materials are better at holding onto bacteria, which can cause urinary tract infections if consumers don’t properly keep their products clean. This is especially problematic if, as Lawless says, used sex toys are being repackaged and resold.
Sarah Sloane, a sexuality and relationships educator, concurs. In a conversation about sex dolls with Inverse, she said that because viruses can hide in porous toys, “a basic cleaning may not be sufficient.” When it comes to health, nonporous toys are the way to go because bacteria doesn’t have anywhere to hide.
Fortunately, the industry has seen improvements in safety over the past two decades.
“I started in the industry about 17 years ago, and at that time it was really the wild west in regard to whether or not phthalates were in the products,” says Lawless. “There were only a handful of companies that were aware of these issues and making body-safe products.”
Many of the changes are the result of the increased involvement of women in the sex toy industry. In particular, the popularity of the “party industry” — gatherings where women purchase and discuss sex toys — triggered a campaign to find out what exactly those toys were made of. Today, says Lawless, an influential group of female-identifying bloggers continues the movement by pressuring manufacturers to be explicit about the contents of their products.
For now, however, the onus is on consumers to figure out what’s safe. The easy accessibility of the Amazon and eBay sex toy market has made that more difficult in recent years, and not just because it’s harder to verify what goes into international products. Local sex toy distributors and manufacturers can’t compete with the prices offered by these online services, leading manufacturers to move production overseas, where they can’t always be sure of what’s actually being put into the item.
“There are now really cheap knock-offs based on established products available on Amazon,” says Lawless. “The products are being directly sold to consumers, and consumers have no idea whether they are made with quality materials or how long they’ll last.” Her only advice for people looking to buy a sex toy is to do research and look for well-known name brands. At least those, she says, “are based in the U.S. and do have liability here if they are making false claims about a product.”
The most realistic first step in solving America’s sex toy problem is increasing public awareness that the problem exists in the first place. Having those discussions, in turn, requires surmounting cultural taboos about sex toys, which still persist. Americans are spending more money than ever on their sex lives and are talking about it in private, but most of them aren’t discussing what their toys are made of or where they came from. Less than four years ago, sex toys were still banned in certain states for being obscene.
The ironic thing about the sex toy industry is that they are “over-regulated legally and under-regulated for safety,” as Kierstyn Smith of the National Women’s Health Network put it in 2015. As a result of national prudishness, regulatory double standards have emerged for a product that should be evaluated for exactly what it is — a product. Sure, you’re guaranteed to have a good time, but you shouldn’t have to stress over whether or not you’ll jeopardize your health in the process.