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Good Vibrations: U.S. Consumer Web Site Aims to Enhance Sex Toy Safety

Education and regulatory oversight for sex enhancement devices are in short supply. A new searchable database of consumers' product reports could be a valuable resource
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Wknight94 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

"Sex toys are out there, they're being used, and for that reason it would be nice to have some kind of oversight," Shindel says. "But for the time being, people have to take charge and say, 'I'm not going to rely on a government agency to make sure the thing is safe for me. I'm going to learn about it myself.'"

Sexual chemistry
Perhaps the most obvious safe-sex-toy discussion starts with the question, "Exactly what chemicals am I exposing my nether regions to?" Sex toys come in a variety of materials—plastic, rubber, glass, wood and various combinations thereof. Glass just seems silly (although, in fact, what's used is supposedly shatterproof). But "safe" isn't always easy to define.

One possible villain: phthalates, a group of controversial plastic-softeners on California's Proposition 65 list of toxic chemicals, which has been linked with cancer, neurological and reproductive issues. In 2006 Greenpeace organizations in the Netherlands and U.K. called for the European Union to ban phthalates in sex toys.

Some shops, including Good Vibrations in San Francisco and Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, have stopped carrying products with phthalates. Others, such as Babeland in Seattle, have started providing customers with information about products' materials and alternatives.

Yet research conducted by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency suggests a less-alarming story. Its experiments—involving simulated saliva, sweat and vaginal lubrication—found that using sex toys with phthalates was deemed to pose no excessive health risk, as long as use was limited to no more than one hour a day. (Pregnant and breast-feeding women were safe up to 15 minutes a week.) The study found other potentially toxic chemicals (such as cadmium and trimethyltin chloride) in a random selection of sex toys, but here also the exposure was too low to be dangerous.

Still, the easiest way to protect users from leaching chemicals (or just general dirt and germs) is to put a condom over the dildo or vibrator, experts say. Beyond that, choose lubricants wisely: In the Danish study, the leaching of chemicals was 100 times slower (and therefore less harmful) when used with water-based lubricants compared with oil-based ones.

Playing well
As any parent knows, a toy is only as safe as the crazy things its owner tries to do with it. Since many sexual devices do not come with instructions, here is some information to keep in mind:

Insertables: Losing one's grip is the biggest concern with internal devices. Vaginal toys cannot go too far astray, thanks to women's bumper-top cervix. But they can be difficult to retrieve, and can poke and tear tissue while lost. Best to use blunt, penis-shaped objects with a flared base, says gynecologist Leah Millheiser, director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford University.

Anal objects, however, can easily get lost. During orgasm, powerful rectal muscles contract and can suck an object up and up, potentially obstructing the colon. A toy might be harmlessly flushed out, but it might also perforate tissue, leading to bleeding or infection. Use toys with a flared base or a string, Shindel says. Apply lots of lubricant, and choose toys designed for anal use because sharp ridges on vaginal dildos can tear more sensitive anal tissue. Hemorrhoid sufferers should be extra careful.

Size does matter: Gargantuan dildos might seem a fun idea but can tear delicate skin at the entrance to the vagina or anus, especially when enthusiastically inserted. In those moist environments wounds heal slowly, inviting re-injury or infection, Millheiser says.

External vibrators: These are not usually an emergency room affair, but unsafe clitoral stimulation is common. A 2009 Indiana University study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 53 percent of all women have used a vibrator, and 18 percent of those have had numbness, pain and other side effects. Known in the occupational-safety world as "vibratory strain injury," these problems may at first merely frustrate but can develop into chronic conditions.

To avoid vibrator fatigue, don't pay the clitoris too much direct attention, says Miriam Graham, a physical therapist in Rockville, Md., specializing in sexual issues. It's easy for the pudendal nerve (genitalia’s uplink to the brain) to be overwhelmed by constant vibration in such a small area and shut down.

Nerves like variety. One monotonous vibration—like hearing someone hum a single note endlessly—can tire them out quickly. Choose a vibrator with intensity settings and switch around, Graham says. Some devices even come with a repertoire of vibratory patterns that will keep nerves awake for longer.

And put up a barrier. After all, jackhammer workers use thick gloves to diffuse vibrations and prevent hand injury; vibrator users can put a sheet or underwear between the vibrator and clitoris as a barrier for protection, Graham says.

Penis rings: These account for only about 2 percent of sex toy ER visits, but when things go wrong, they can go really wrong, with rescue treatments sometimes involving firefighting equipment and partial amputation. Yet penile constriction devices (aka cock rings) can be safe if used correctly, Shindel says.

These rings are placed at the base of the penis and trap blood in the shaft during arousal, theoretically resulting in a firmer, longer lasting erection. The problem: tight rings trap too much blood, making them difficult to remove from the penis after ejaculation due to continued engorgement. In severe cases a lack of oxygen (medical term: "penile strangulation") can lead to blackened skin, gangrene or a urethral fistula, in which urine is diverted out into the penis through another passage.

Counterintuitively, soft rings—made of rubber or leather, for instance—can lead to more severe injuries, Shindel says, because it is tempting to fasten them too tightly. Trapped metal rings demand more heavy-machinery rescue techniques, but traumatic complications are usually milder. Also, tucking the scrotum as well as the shaft inside a ring seems to relieve compression on the penis and reduce injuries.

Leave them on for no more than one or two hours, Shindel says. Avoid drugs and alcohol: Many ER visits involve men who passed out after ejaculation only to wake up after it was too late. Men with diabetes or those taking blood thinners or aspirin should be extra careful.

Finally, know how to clean and store your toys. In the Indiana University study 14 percent of women admitted to never cleaning their vibrators—ever. Good sex shops will provide detailed information about sex toy materials and care—although explaining away the dildo in your dishwasher is left up to you.

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