The Science of Sex is a column from Broadly exploring the tech behind the complicated and fantastic ways we get off—because sex is sexy, but science is sexier. This week, we learn how to spot potentially dangerous sex toys.
Sex toys have practically become synonymous with female sexual empowerment, and are often seen as tools for facilitating sexual agency. While their existence is largely positive, we shouldn’t always assume our sex toys are just fun toys to get us off. In some cases, poorly-made or hard-to-sterilize toys could even lead to injury and illness.
WHAT LAWS CURRENTLY APPLY TO SEX TOYS?
Contrary to what you might expect, there’s no specific sex toy regulation in the UK. Instead, sex toys fall under a broad range of consumer product safety regulation. Consumer safety expert Dr. Gordon Hayward explains that there aren’t requirements specifically aimed at sex toys, although faulty toys can be recalled by government bodies if someone makes a complaint. Sex toys are largely unregulated in the US, too.
“The US does not have a general, non-electrical, product safety regulation,” Hayward says, explaining that the Food and Drink Administration only regulates devices that have medical or therapeutic uses in treating sexual dysfunction, rather than toys made for pleasure. (An FDA spokesperson confirmed this over email.)
“But there are," he adds, "federal government powers to recall unsafe products.” Because of this lack of specific and detailed regulation, unwitting buyers may end up purchasing unsafe toys made from unknown materials and toxic chemicals.
Sex toy activists and ethical retailers are lobbying companies to only sell toys made from body-safe materials like silicone, which is FDA-approved for uses such as in menstrual cups. Some activists even go into colleges to educate students about sex toy safety, while others call out companies that sell toxic toys online.
But how do you know if your own sex toys are dangerous? We spoke to sex educators, safety campaigners, ethical retailers, and sex writers to find out.
AVOID CHEAP JELLY AND PVC
Cheap sex toys like single-use cock rings and single-use bullet vibrators are often marketed as novelty items, with the majority being made from so-called jelly rubber or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It is impossible to know the exact make-up of these toys, and just how harmful they really are, as most retailers do not break down individual ingredients in product descriptions. What we do know is that they can be harmful to the human body.
Studies have found some jelly and PVC toys contain added toxic chemicals called phthalates, which are added to rubber to make it flexible. Phthalates suck: They can leak out of toys, affecting the hormone balance of your body and your reproductive functions. They've been linked to breast cancer by breast cancer charities, and to asthma by a Norwegian research team.And the fact some variants are banned in the US for use in children’s toys should make you wonder what the hell they’re doing in sex toys at all, given that the US Environmental Protection Agency has designated them a toxic chemical.
“Cheap toys made of materials with unknown composition often saturate the marketplace because of their affordability,” says Savva Panayiotou, co-founder of body-safe and ethical retailer, Peepshow Toys. “There are many horror stories of toys that have literally melted, sweated oils, or given off foul odours. This phenomenon is alarming.”
KNOW THY DILDO
To ensure your sex toys are safe, the first thing to look at is what they’re made from.
“Check whether it’s a porous material—something which bacteria, viruses and fungus can penetrate,” advises Francesca Cross, activist and owner of inclusive online sex shop The Pleasure Garden. "These materials are impossible to sanitise fully. Even if you wash the toy, anything living in the material can re-grow, potentially causing yeast infections and even transmitting STDs if shared by partners.” Jelly toys are particularly difficult to sanitize because they are so porous. British healthcare authorities warn that unsanitized sex toys can pass on STDs like syphilis, herpes, hepatitis, and HIV.
Instead, sex toy activists and ethical retailers recommend buying toys that are deemed body-safe by activists and ethical retailers. “If it’s unclear what material a toy is made out of, stay away,” says Cross. “We only sell toys made from silicone, hard plastics such as ABS plastic, glass, metal, wood and ceramic.”
There seems to be a gray area surrounding sex toys made from elastomer, TPE or TPR, as these materials are phthalate-free, but still porous. Some ethical shops consider these safe enough to sell, but they usually include this information on the product page and recommend partners avoid sharing the toys.
BEWARE EJACULATING SEX MACHINES
Emmeline Peaches, a sex toy reviewer and activist, once had a worrying experience with an thrusting sex machine that claimed it could squirt water.
“It didn’t squirt. I flipped that giant thing upside down and spent ages trying to shake out the pitifully leaking residue,” she tells Broadly. “I never did get all the water out. And the dildos included were made from non-body-safe materials. It wasn’t until I started researching materials that I discovered why my rather toxic toy box reeked of chemicals.”
The retailer that Peaches purchased it from has since pulled the product.
IF A TOY CAN GET LOST INSIDE YOU, IT’S PROBABLY NOT SAFE TO USE
Toys made from unsafe materials often also tend to lack basic safety features. Muscles in the butt naturally clench, so anything you pop up there could get sucked inside if it isn’t specifically designed with anal safety in mind. Respect your butt muscles, unless you want to endure a particularly challenging and embarrassing trip to the emergency room.
“Any anal toy should have a wide handle or flared base which will prevent it from becoming lost [in the anus],” Cross says. “There are toys marketed as beginners butt plugs that have no base and only a ring, which would do absolutely nothing to stop them getting lost!” These rings are often no wider than the toy itself, meaning it could be sucked up inside you along with the plug.
Getting something lost or stuck inside is a very real danger with cheap sex toys. “When I was buying my first ever sex toys, my partner and I picked some plastic love balls which were attached together with a piece of string,” says Girl on the Net, a sex toy activist and Eroticon UK organizer. “It was only halfway through playing with them that we realised the string had snapped. After a short panic, worrying that we'd have to go to A&E, my innovative then-boyfriend performed the delicate job of fishing them out of my vagina with a long-handled teaspoon.”
WHY WE SHOULD CARE ABOUT WHAT’S IN OUR SEX TOYS?
“Without comprehensive education about the materials that are going on or inside our bodies, we can’t make informed decisions about our sexual lives,” says Sarah Brynn Holliday, an activist and queer sex educator. She primarily lobbies for change working as a sex toy consultant. “What I do centers around holding companies to an ethical standard within the industry. I help them become more equitable and feminist in their business practice—which includes centring body-safe sex toys in their product selection. Advocating for safe sex toys is important for consumer education, resisting capitalism, and social justice.”
Holliday also educates students on the dangers of toxic toys by holding workshops at colleges and universities. “I teach on a range of things, including sex toys 101 and sex toys and social justice.” Most recently, she’s taught at a university in Boston. “The queer student organization brought me in as a speaker to educate them about sex toy basics, safety, and ethical—and unethical—companies.”
Since her experience with the thrusting sex machine, Peaches is committed to educating consumers through her reviews. “I let people know that certain products, ingredients, or companies worth avoiding,” she says. “The important thing about activism is to tackle it from all directions. Community empowerment is so important.”
The physical harm these toxic toys cause isn’t the only reason activists are fighting for change. “Sex is a vulnerable area of our lives and many of us are self-critical or quick to judge,” Peaches says. “Should a toy hurt someone, they’re likely to either be turned off adult toys altogether or worse, blame themselves and their body. The former’s a tragedy.”
Finally, it looks like change is happening. “More manufacturers are committing to only use body-safe materials which is a positive thing,” Cross argues. “If we can educate consumers, hopefully they’ll use their spending power to drive even more change.”