If Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired you to liven up your sex life, take care before shopping for ben-wa balls, vibrators, dildos, and handcuffs. The use of sex toys for men and women has skyrocketed with the popularity of the bondage-heavy novel and film—but so have injuries related to sex toys.
Injury data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) indicates that sex toy injuries are sending about twice as many people to the hospital as they did in 2007—and much of the increase occurred after Fifty Shades of Grey was published in 2011. Between 1995 and 2006, one study found, about 6,800 people were treated for sex toy injuries in the United States. It’s probably fair to guess that the true number might be much higher.
That doesn’t mean you need to cancel the game of “bored housewife and sweaty lawn boy” you’ve been planning. But it’s wise to be aware of the following risks (and how to prevent them):
1. Stuck in you.
About 83 percent of sex toy injuries result from getting something stuck in or on the genitalia, according to reports about the CPSC data. It’s usually a dildo or a vibrator, but doctors and nurses have pulled out a TV remote control, cell phones, and cans of hair spray. A quick tour of the CPSC’s database suggests that most of these incidents involve the rectum rather than the vagina, probably because the cervix acts as a barrier while the rectal muscles can actually pull items further in. To play safe, use a sex toy that has a flared base, or a string that helps retrieve it.
2. Too much of a good thing.
Overusing a device like a vibrator can cause chronic numbness in your sensitive parts. One study by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found that more than half of all women have used a vibrator, and nearly one in five of them have experienced side effects like numbness and pain. Keep the buzz a good one by moving the device around—don’t focus on one spot too long—and changing up the vibration pattern.
3. Putting a ring on it.
The penis, that is. Penis rings are typically worn around the base of the penis and used to prolong an erection (the ring constricts blood flow out of the penis). Injuries from penis rings are relatively rare, accounting for only about 2 percent of sex toy injuries. But they can be particularly unpleasant, and can cause gangrene if they get stuck too tightly for too long. Stay clear-headed if you use one. Avoid drugs, alcohol, and marathon sessions—no more than one to two hours with a penis ring, please.
4. Getting down and dirty—literally.
The Kinsey Institute study found that about 18 percent of women who use vibrators don’t clean them. Ever. That could be problematic if vibrators or other sex toys are shared between partners. A study of women with female partners published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases found that sharing vaginal sex toys increased the risk of vaginal infections. Sex toys could also spread HIV and hepatitis B and C. To be safe, clean all your toys with soap and warm water after each use, or use rubbing alcohol if it’s not waterproof. Check manufacturer instructions for any specifics.
5. Your chemical romance.
The chemicals on and in some sex toys can leach out of the plastic, vinyl, or rubber and into the skin, potentially causing itching and rashes. Many contain phthalates, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen. Silicone and hard plastic are good choices for non-toxic sex toys. You can also check with the Coalition Against Toxic Toys for safe shoppingguidelines and a list of stores dedicated to selling non-toxic toys.
Bottom line: The next time Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele have you feeling frisky, remember that you can be adventurous, naughty, and safe at the same time. Use toys as directed, clean them after each use (especially if you’re sharing them with a partner), and avoid using any toy for too long on one spot.