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Are Sex Toys Safe?

By Matty Silver, Sex Therapist on October 16, 2013 in Other

Photo: New Life Vibrators

Photo: New Life Vibrators

Last year the movie Hysteria, a light-hearted romantic comedy set in London in the 1880s, was showing. The story is about how British physician Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville, played by actor Hugh Dancy, invented the first mechanical vibrator. It is a fun movie and one well worth getting out on DVD.

From the time of Hippocrates to the Victorian area, diagnosis and treatment of women’s problematic ‘hysteria’ was a consistent theme in medical literature. This so-called disorder was diagnosed when women exhibited symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, fluid retention, insomnia and erotic fantasies.

The physicians believed that a woman’s display of mental or emotional distress was a clear indication of her need for sexual release. Genital massage became a standard treatment for hysteria. The objective was to induce ‘hysterical paroxysm’ (better known as orgasm) in the patient. This treatment demanded both manual dexterity and a lot of time, so when this portable vibrator became available the physicians were very pleased with its efficiency, convenience and reliability.

The Science Museum in London has a collection of more than 40 early vibrators that were widely advertised at the time. In 1918, Sears, Roebuck & Company offered a vibrator attachment for a home motor that would also drive a mixer, a churner or a sewing machine. In 1922, the portable vibrators were promoted as ‘delightful companions’.

These days, vibrators and other sex toys are part of many couples’ lives, and we now buy them in unprecedented numbers. They are available in classy adult shops, from online retailers and they’re sometimes sold at Tupperware-style home parties.

The question on many lips is how healthy are these toys?

Devices designed for pleasure may seem harmless, but they can lead to a variety of nasty maladies. The main concern is what they are made of. Many popular erotic toys are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, which release toxins during their manufacture and disposal and are softened with phthalates, a controversial family of chemicals.

Unlike other plastic items that humans use like medical devices or chew-friendly children’s toys, sex toys go largely unregulated and untested. In recent years testing has revealed the potentially serious health impacts of phthalates.

Controversy over the health impact of phthalates has raged for years in Europe and the United States. Several children’s toy makers and sex toy operators in Australia now promote their products as being phthalate-free, and adult store MaXXX Black in Newtown has gone as far as to declare itself “the only store in Australia to be phthalates free; which means all our toys are hypoallergenic and body safe”.

Of course phthalates aren’t the only concern for sex toy users. With increased use comes a greater chance of mishaps. According to several worldwide studies, thousands of people have sustained injuries and needed help retrieving their sex toys, and these numbers only account for people willing to recount to triage nurses their stories of erotic adventures gone wrong; the actual injury rates are likely much higher.

In saying that, Dr Gordian Fulde, the director of Emergency at St Vincent’s Hospital, used to have a Monday column in the Sydney Morning Herald in which he described the sort of accidents that had happened over the weekend. His staff mainly treated patients who were injured when fuelled by alcohol or illegal drugs. At no stage did he ever write about unfortunate lovers who got carried away!