When Lisa and Dan considered starting a used sex toys website, most of their friends had a one-word reaction: “Ew.”
“Is this an icky and yucky idea? Or is it actually savvy and smart?” Dan recalled thinking.
Lisa and Dan, who are both web designers (and requested to remain pseudonymous to protect their privacy), had the idea to start a sex toy resale business when a friend went on a decluttering spree and found about $400 worth of high-end sex toys he no longer used. He couldn’t find anywhere to recycle or resell them, so he asked Lisa and Dan if they could develop a website to offload his many used toys. They looked into the market to see if similar businesses existed, and found only reseller Facebook groups and the subreddit r/usedsextoys, both marketplaces where transactions are unregulated. They realized if they created a site with secure payments and quality control, they could fill a niche.
They founded Squeaky Clean Toys in 2021, as a way for more people to exchange toys they no longer use. Before anyone can resell any toys, whether it’s a tentacle dildo, rabbit vibrator, puppy tail buttplug, or Autoblow machine, they require sellers to clean their used toys with a three-step cleaning method: washing with soap and water, sanitizing with alcohol, and sterilizing by boiling, bleaching or using UV-C. Customers must also post pictures of the process.
They sell everything from Cuttlefish of Cthulhu dildos to eight foot tall inflatable cartoon love dolls. Squeaky Clean gets about 83,000 page views a month, and nearly three-quarters of visitors are between 18 and 44 years old, they said.
Before starting their company, Squeaky Clean Toys, Dan and Lisa had to answer their own question: Are used sex toys “yucky”? Will they give you STIs? After some research, including consulting with an infectious disease expert, they found their answer: It depends on what the toy is made of. While toys made from thermoplastic elastomer, or TPE, can carry infections even after cleaning, studies show that there’s only a minimal risk of catching an STI from a used, sterilized sex toy if it is made of a non-porous material like silicone and is properly sanitized. One Indiana University study showed that HPV can live on sex toys for over 24 hours even after they’ve been cleaned — but in the study, the porous toys posed more risk, and those sex toys were cleaned with commercial sex toy cleaner, instead of Squeak Clean’s multi-step sterilization process.
If the sex toy arrives visibly unsterilized, the consumer can send it back at no charge. This rarely happens, Dan said, because of the strict requirements they’ve put in place for sellers.
Much of what people buy on their marketplace has never seen the inside of another person, Lisa said. “A lot of the items on the marketplace are just really the machinery,” she said, referring to sex machines, like Sybians, which have dildo attachments that are interchangeable. Buyers can get the expensive machines from Squeaky Clean and then buy new dildo attachments, Lisa said.
Why would anyone purchase a dildo that has been in another person’s ass or vagina, when they could get a new one for $20? Partly because if you want a high-quality sex toy, you have to shell out $100 to $1,000. “There are a lot of buyers out there who can’t afford those,” Lisa said.
For most people who purchase used sex toys, it comes down to cost. A high quality sex toy can cost between $100 and $1,000–and they get more expensive from there. The moderator of r/usedsextoys, who lives in Australia, told Motherboard that the shipping alone for fantasy sex toys from the Bad Dragon company to where they live in Australia is $80, so it’s more affordable to buy used toys from fellow Aussies. Another used toy enthusiast, Max Ocampo, who collects Bad Dragon toys (he has 21, that he calls his babies), says price is his main concern, too. He’s not worried about sanitization: He has a “dildo pot” that he fills with water to boil his toys.
Even though their niche is used toys, 10 percent of the toys for sale on Squeaky Clean are from sellers who claim they’ve never been used. The majority are only used one or two times, Dan said. Sellers range from people hawking their wedding gifts, to a non-profit organization unloading sex toys that were donated for a family-friendly event.
What drove the business was also a larger goal: sustainability. People were buying vibrators, using them once, realizing that they won’t work for their bodies, and throwing them away.
“Over half of the population owns sex toys, can you imagine the mountain of these [sex toys] that aren’t being used?” Lisa said. “We’re only doing a tiny thing here. But when you feel you could do something, why not?”
The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t report on the amount of sex-toy waste in the U.S., nor do academics study it. Vibrators usually produce plastic and electronic waste, both of which the U.S. has way too much of. The U.S. produced about seven million metric tons of electronic waste in 2019 and 51 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2021.
Nirapum Aich, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that when it comes to e-waste recycling, “We always talk about TVs and other things that are typically discussed in regular life, but nobody talks about sex toys.”
Hypothetically, a customer should be able to recycle their vibrators and sex machines. “For the recyclers, it doesn’t really matter [if it] is a sex toy or another electronic. For them it’s about the component parts,” Aich said. He thinks people might be uncomfortable recycling vibrators because dropping items off at an e-waste recycling collection location typically requires an in-person visit.
Only about 20 or 25 percent of the e-waste at recycling centers actually gets recycled, he said. “Other [e-waste] gets illegally exported to low-income countries,” Aich said, where workers break down the components and sometimes are exposed to dangerous heavy metals. The biggest trend in plastics reuse now is upcycling, Aich said, where discarded plastic is turned into a more valuable product, such as the shoes made from Doc Johnson’s defective sex toys.
Squeaky Clean hasn’t turned a profit yet, but sales have increased since they began the business one-and-a-half years ago. “We’ll always be a niche market,” Dan said.
But used sex toy marketplaces don’t appear to be going away. “Just to be able to buy something that will make your life better, maybe for five minutes in one day, really means a lot to people,” Ocampo said.
A version of this article originally appeared here on vice.com