We take it for granted that our hair dryers won't send us to the emergency room and our toothbrushes won't make us go numb. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about sex toys.
It's entirely possible that someone's favorite cyclotron vibrator can shell-shock nerves, penis rings might lead to a grievous case of penile gangrene or those little vibrating beads could slip upstream and become tragicomically lost in bodily cavities while still in the "on" position.
Not only is it possible, it happens. Yet the same manufacturers go on making the same poorly designed sex toys, and people go on using them in the same poorly informed ways. Education and regulatory oversight are in short supply.
Plus, there's the whole "Who, me?" issue.
"If somebody has an unsafe hair dryer, they aren't going to hesitate to call an attorney and sue about it," says Zach Biesanz, a class action litigation attorney in New York City and author of a 2007 paper, "Dildos, Artificial Vaginas and Phthalates: How Toxic Sex Toys Illustrate a Broader Problem for Consumer Protection," published in Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice. "Nobody is embarrassed about using a hair dryer."
Not so for sexual-enhancement devices, which in several states are deemed "obscene devices" and banned from sale (although possessing them is perfectly legal).
Embarrassed or not, we're still buying them at unprecedented numbers. Devices that were previously available only from a doctor or shady "adult movie" store can now be found from well-known manufacturers at online retailers, in-home Tupperware-style parties, and in big-box stores. Condom-makers Durex, Trojan and LifeStyles all make personal vibrators. Even Walmart now sells penis rings. In North America alone sex toys are a $500-million-per-year industry—and growing.
But with increased use comes increased mishaps. An estimated 6,800 people showed up in U.S. hospitals between 1995 and 2006 with a sex toy emergency, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy—most often, people in their 30s who needed help retrieving their vibrator or dildo. In 2007 alone about 900 people had injuries severe enough that they were admitted to the hospital to remove a foreign body from their rectums.
These numbers only include people willing to recount to triage nurses their stories of erotic adventures gone awry; actual injury rates are likely much higher. And since 1998 even the published numbers have been steadily rising, the 2009 study found—perhaps not coincidentally after the "Rabbit" vibrator-homage episode of Sex and the City first aired.
In June 2010 two urology residents at University of California, San Francisco, alarmed at the number of preventable sex toy calamities they were treating, published an article in The Journal of Sexual Medicine to call physicians' attention to the issue.
"I don't know that the country is ready to address sex toys in a mature fashion, to make them something that's regulated," says Alan Shindel, co-author of the article and now an assistant professor of urology at the University of California, Davis.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates medical device safety, yet most sex toy manufacturers make no medical claims for their products and often add "for novelty use only" disclaimers to dodge responsibility for erotic mishaps.
Even at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees many everyday products, sex toys are lumped in with acupressure balls and wooden back-scratchers under "massage devices or vibrators," making sex-toy-specific statistics hard to find. There are no CPSC reports on sexual device safety, and specific product information is not publicly released.
Starting March 11, disgruntled sex toy users at least gained access to an empowering new outlet: a searchable public database for all kinds of products at SaferProducts.gov, run by the CPSC. Consumers are able to share tales of harm (or potential harm) from their dangerous sex gadgets. They can browse other consumers' experiences and read manufacturers' rebuttals.