The sex toy industry finally has a set of quality standards to go by, thanks to years of effort from toy makers themselves.
Until now, all of those jewel-toned silicone dicks, buttplugs, and fucksleeves existed in something of a regulatory wild west: sex toy manufacturers have been able to use a labeling loophole to categorize their products as "novelty items." This exempts them from testing and safety protocols that sectors like food, medical, and transportation are subject to; what you do with your Quiet Muscle Percussion Back Neck Head Massager for Athletes after it arrives in your home is your choice, after all. Some products, especially those with rechargeable batteries, have to pass safety regulations, but this is the first time an official standard has been set that focuses on topics like material and design.
For the first time, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)—an independent, non-governmental group that sets safety standards for many industries—introduced standards for the quality of sex toys. Now, if it's meant to go inside or around your genitals, and the manufacturer wants to stand out in terms of quality and safety, it will have to meet certain requirements to get ISO certification.
"ISO 3533: Sex toys — Design and safety requirements for products in direct contact with genitalia, the anus, or both" outlines design requirements for things like buttplugs, vibrators, dildos, and anything that's "intended for sexual stimulation or to enhance sexual pleasure," according to the standard. It excludes, however, lubes, oils, gels, sprays, and foods.
The push for a sex toy standard began with Dr. Martin Dahlberg, a Swedish surgeon at Stockholm South General Hospital in 2018; Dahlberg realized he was spending more and more time retrieving stuff out of people's buttholes, and conducted a study where he found that in about 40 percent of cases where patients came to the hospital in with something stuck up there, it was a sex toy. He then started drafting a proposal with a team, to eventually send to the ISO.
“We are working and fighting to be taken seriously as any other consumer electronics industry, and part of that is having standards and legal regulations”
In 2019, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the U.S. member body of the International Standards Organization, called for comments on a proposal for new standards for design and safety requirements for sex toys.
"This standard is a first step to make sure that all products out there are safe to use, especially from a material point of view," Johanna Rief, director of public relations and Head of Sexual Empowerment at sex toy company We-Vibe, told Motherboard. We-Vibe helped fund and inform the development of ISO 3533. "Have you ever bought and opened a sex toy that was smelling bad and artificial? In general, that isn't a sign of high-quality material," Rief said. "These products are cheaply produced and shouldn't come near any genitals or mucous membranes." ISO standards could also help consumers who are overwhelmed with options when buying a new toy, to choose one that meets these requirements.
Some of the requirements to meet this standard include:
- Making sure plugs, beads, and things that go up the butthole can't stay up there, or could be retrieved by a medical professional if needed
- That things like chastity cages and cock rings can be removed with pliers or other common household tools in an emergency—no power tools needed
- Toys with heating elements must never exceed 118 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature that would cause a first-degree burn)
- Anything going around or in any holes or genitals should be "smooth and be free from burrs and sharp edges."
There are also rules around packaging, "biocompatible" materials, cleaning instructions, and risk assessment protocols that manufacturers must follow if they want to meet these new standards.
ISO standards are voluntary, so it's not like thousands of "massagers" are about to disappear from Amazon overnight. But having ISO standards lends legitimacy to the industry, and meeting them could be an important selling point for indie sex toy manufacturers, especially. Market analysts have valued the sex toy industry at nearly $34 billion in 2020, with a jump in growth spurred by COVID-19 lockdowns—some estimate that it will reach more than $36.1 billion by 2027. Despite being a massive industry, makers have struggled to be taken seriously.
"This industry was always seen as small and irrelevant and therefore, no one made the effort to work on official standards," Rief said. Official standards can help legitimize and professionalize the industry, she said, especially for independent makers who already put a lot of time and attention into the quality of their toys.
"We are working and fighting to be taken seriously as any other consumer electronics industry, and part of that is having standards and legal regulations," Rief said. "Symbolically, the certification means recognition. But more importantly, it means that the quality of sex toys across the market will now improve to the standards that we and several other players already been setting for years."