Article By Mark Hay
~ DECEMBER 2021 ~ If you read tabloids or lifestyle magazines, chances are that you’ve heard at least a few horror stories about accidents and injuries linked to sex toy usage: A butt plug gets sucked up into someone’s ass, and firmly lodged in there. A cock ring gets stuck on someone’s penis, cutting off blood flow and causing “penile strangulation.” A sex swing collapses while someone’s on it, tangling them in ropes and/or chains, sending them crashing to the floor, and leaving them banged up.
“Thankfully, these mishaps aren’t very common,” says Lisa Finn, a sex educator affiliated with the toy retail chains Babeland and Good Vibrations. The injuries sex toys cause are also usually fairly mild — think simple nicks, bruises, and skin irritation. Recent analyses of sex toy-related emergency room visits suggest that injuries have been on the rise over the last decade or so. But sexual health experts believe this just reflects fading taboos around sex and toys, which has led to a steady increase in usage, and perhaps a greater willingness to seek medical aid after mishaps.
“We’re more likely to experience embarrassing or awkward moments with sex toys than an actual medical crisis,” argues Casey Tanner, a sex therapist who works with the toy brand LELO.
Still, as the sex educator Martha Tara Lee points out, “any injury to an erogenous zone can be scary, even traumatic.” So, it’s certainly best to be able to avoid toy-related injuries whenever possible — and to be prepared to respond to them if and when they do occur. Fortunately, sex toy and sexual health experts have a ton of advice to offer on both matters. Mashable recently spoke to over a dozen experts on how to prevent or manage sex toy injuries. Here’s what they told us.
The right tool for the job
Many reported “sex toy” injuries don’t actually involve sex toys at all, but instead everyday items repurposed as makeshift toys. “Sure, everyone loves a multi-functional item,” says Amy Boyajian of the sex toy retailer Wild Flower, “but I wouldn’t recommend using a household object as a sex toy,” simply because they’re not made with sexual use in mind. “I’ve heard of penis owners using key rings as cock rings only to be able to get them off once they’re erect,” Boyajian notes. “I’ve heard of people using cooking and cleaning items as lubes only to have them irritate, burn, or go rancid. I’ve heard of folks using a variety of things as dildos and vibrators, only to have them cut, scrape, or pinch them during use,” often in sensitive areas.
Similarly, a fair number of mishaps involving actual sex toys result from people trying to use them for play they weren’t designed to facilitate or enhance. For example, Tanner notes, “folks newer to anal plugs or vibrators often utilize small, lipstick-sized vibrators as penetrative tools.” Yet most such vibes are often designed and promoted for use on external erogenous zones, precisely because they are so small that it’s easy to lose them inside of an orifice. Our anuses especially tend to clench up in a way that can suck objects inwards — and unlike a vaginal canal that ends with a cervix, the anal cavity leads up into the colon and then the intestines. That’s why well-designed anal toys always have a large handle or a flared base: it stops them from getting sucked in. Anything without that design feature risks a not-so-fantastic voyage into your innards. (Most documented toy-related ER visits involve items stuck inside people’s asses and upwards.)
Know they toy; know thyself
However, even people who use a toy on the body part(s) it was intended for can run into issues if they don’t actually know how to use it safely. Notably, wearing cock rings that are too tight, or for more than 30 minutes at a time, will often start to damage penile tissue. Using a toy that’s not waterproof in the bath or shower may lead to electric shocks. “Some toys use strong magnets,” adds Rosara Torrisi, a sex therapist and owner of toy store That Drawer, “so folks with any type of pacemakers should not use them.” Yet people, for lack of knowledge, often do all of this.
“Most pleasure products, especially luxury products, come with incredibly detailed instructions,” Lee points out. “Read them!” Torrisi adds that, if you’re ever confused about how to use a given toy, or about possible complications or restrictions related to your health or anatomy, you should get in touch with the toy maker or retailer. They’ll usually be able to offer you solid information, or at least point you towards medical resources, to best inform you on how to enjoy your toy(s) safely.
But even people who use toys as intended, with full knowledge of how they work, still face some risk of injury — often when they rush into using new toys, or go too hard or fast even with a toy they’ve used in the past. Using a new toy that’s bigger than you’re used to, or an old toy in ways you’re not used to, may abrade or tear sensitive tissue. Tears are especially common during anal play using bigger toys or more speed than a person’s used to, as our asses aren’t self-lubricating, or as elastic and resilient as most vaginas, and the tissue of the anal cavity is especially thin.
“Lubricant can prevent the friction that causes chafing, abrasions, tears, or fissures,” says Finn. But Tanner cautions against relying too heavily on lube if you want to use a bigger toy, or to go faster and harder with a toy than usual. “When using a strap-on, anal plug, or dildo during penetration, too much lube can cause slippage to occur. The toy can then hit up against the vulva or tailbone, potentially bruising sensitive outer layers of skin, such as the labia.”
Diving headfirst and full-tilt into the world of BDSM toys is also liable to earn folks a few rope burns or nicks and cuts, especially if they’re using toys meant to inflict pleasurable pain or even injuries, Finn points out. Overusing a suction device, like a clitoral, nipple, or penis pump, can also lead to bruising, or even burst blood vessels in very sensitive body parts, Lee adds.
“If you’re unfamiliar with a sex toy, get to know how it functions and the correct way to use it before you put it in or on your body,” Boyajian recommends. “Never surprise someone with a sex toy in the bedroom, especially without consent,” they added. It may seem like a good way to spice up your sex life, but it’s really a fast track to confusion and potentially mishaps and injury.
“Start slow and soft, then slowly build up over time, as you explore your limits,” adds Finn. “If you’re exploring toys with a partner, communicate throughout and have a safe word in place.”
“With anal toys especially, one solution is to train to safely, and comfortably, use larger sized toys,” a representative from retailer Peepshow Toys suggested. “Start small. Work up gradually.”
Tanner adds that alcohol and drug use may increase the risk of sex toy mishaps or injuries overall — at least in part because these substances can cloud our judgment, or limit our ability to recall and put into practice what we know about our own bodies or a given toy. So, it’s often a good idea to experiment with new toys, either alone or with a partner, while stone-cold sober.
Get dirty, but stay clean
Although good sex is often messy and exploratory, sexual health experts stress that if we want to avoid complications we all need to be fastidious about our toys. Moving a toy from an anus to a vagina to a mouth without cleaning it thoroughly in between each use is a good way of transferring bacteria, fungi, and more all around your body. Sharing a toy with a partner with whom you’d usually use barrier protection also poses a risk of sexually transmitted infection transmission. And just throwing a toy to the floor after usage and failing to properly clean it may allow germs or irritants to build up on it, increasing the risk of irritation or infection the next time you use it on sensitive tissue, or around an abrasion or tear.
Improper cleaning and storage also risks damaging a toy. That’s potentially a bummer from a purely economic standpoint; ideally, you want to get as much literal bang out of your bucks as possible. But it also creates a risk of, for example, a tiny crack or chip forming in a wood, stone, or glass toy, which may end up causing abrasions, cuts, or pinches during later usage. (Some toy materials are incompatible with certain types of lube as well. So, always make sure you know what kind of lube you’re using and what your toy’s made of to avoid device degradation woes.)
“Toys should be washed with warm soap and water” after every usage, Torrisi says. “Usually, hand soap is fine.” However, again, always read your toy’s instructions to check what works best for it. Some companies make their own quick-and-easy, bespoke-to-the-toy wipes or washes.
It’s easy to forget to clean your toys if, say, you only use them at the start of partnered sex, put them to the side, and then get wrapped up in the rest of your experience. Or if you masturbate with a toy just before falling asleep. If you struggle with this — or just with motivation to clean in general — Tanner recommends putting a condom over your toy before usage, if its shape allows that, then simply stripping it off afterwards. You may be able to figure out similar solutions for non-phallic toys — perhaps through the cunning use of the chronically neglected dental dam.
No matter how thoroughly you wash them, some toys — especially those made of cheap jelly-like materials — are so porous that it’s nigh on impossible to get all the germs and grime out of them.
Common, cheap toy materials may also contain irritants — as do many ill-conceived lubes, oils, or other items. Far too many toys even use known toxins like phthalates, an additive that gives rubber and rubberlike materials more flexibility, but that’s banned in children’s toys in many nations due to its clear health risks. There is not a lot of robust or reliable research on the short- or long-term effects of using iffy-to-outright toxic materials in sex toys, Natasha Marie of the sex toy company MysteryVibe points out. So, while people have anecdotally attempted to connect dubious toy materials to any number of health issues, it’s hard to make categorical statements about risks. But Felicity of the body safe toy focused site Phallophile Reviews notes that she often hears people complain that toys made with clearly toxic materials cause itching or burning. (Felicity only uses her first name when she writes about sex toys in public venues.)
To avoid any potential risks, most experts recommend people only buy toys made with known body-safe materials, like ABS plastic, ceramics, medical-grade stainless steel, pure silicone, Pyrex, stone, or wood. Most of these are also non-porous — an added safety bonus. Felicity notes that toys made of these materials are far easier to find now than they were even five years ago.
However, even though reputable sex toy makers are far more conscious of material safety issues than they were in the past, and oversight bodies have started to create safety standards for the field, the adult products industry is still largely unregulated. The U.S. government notably does not really police the use of terms like “body-safe” or “phthalate-free.” It will only crack down on a company over safety issues if enough people report adverse effects — a tall order when people may not connect a health issue to toy materials, or feel comfortable logging a health claim with a federal agency. And it doesn’t require toy makers to clearly and consistently list their materials. So, consumers may have a hard time finding toys that they can be sure are actually body-safe.
Many slapdash sex toys are also poorly designed, notes Epiphora, another veteran reviewer. (Epiphora uses her adopted mononym when she writes about or speaks on sex toys and related issues.) “Some have shapes, movements, or types of stimulation that simply hurt,” she explains. “I’ve heard of cheap suction toys latching onto the skin and never letting go. Not ideal for a product used directly on some of the most sensitive parts of the body.” Others are just so shoddily built that they fall apart rapidly, or their motors overheat while charging, or while in use, sometimes towards disastrous ends. “We’ve heard of this causing burns in-use, or explosions or fires when charging,” says Finn.
In theory, consumers should be able to check product descriptions and independent reviews to make sure that a given toy meets their safe materials, design, and craftsmanship standards, then just go out and buy it. However, knock-off products are unfortunately common on major retail platforms — lookalike but inferior and often less safe versions of popular toys sold for a slight discount. Most retailers do not accept toy returns; if you buy a cheap, crappy toy, you’re often stuck with that loss. So, in practice it’s just as important to find a retailer who you trust to vet their toys as it is to find a specific toy type or brand that works for your body, needs, and safety concerns. Then, stick with that reliable retailer as long as they continue to maintain your trust through quality.
In case of emergency
Even if you try to follow all of the advice in this guide, you may still fumble your way into a sex toy accident or mishap. If you do, don’t beat yourself up over it. Accidents are just a part of any realm of human existence. So sayeth the law of large numbers, and of inevitable human error.
If you start to notice that something feels off when using a toy, for any reason, Megan Fleming, a sexual health expert who works with the toy retail giant Lovehoney, suggests viewing that as a yellow light. Slow down and assess the situation; see if you can make an adjustment. But if you start to feel any unexpected pain, then she says “that’s a red light, and you want to stop immediately.”
“Don’t try to push through discomfort, or an injury, for the sake of finishing play,” stresses Finn, whether it’s a solo session or a partnered romp. “You can just make any issue worse.”
If, after stopping whatever you’re doing, you find that you’ve just sustained a small, external injury, like a nick on the penis or the vulva, then the health experts Mashable spoke to all say you should just treat it like any other simple wound: Wash it with unscented soap and water, ice it if needed, the just allow it to heal. “For internal injuries, consult a doctor to ensure that any measures you’re taking are safe for your body,” cautions Finn. Fleming adds that you should avoid inserting anything into your anus or vagina until that internal injury is fully healed as well.
If you experience burning or irritation, then Epiphora suggests “taking a shower ASAP and rinsing the inflamed area with water.” If you were using the toy near your urethra, try to pee to flush it out. Allow the area to breathe. “Finally,” she added, get rid of “the offending toy.”
“If a toy gets stuck in the vaginal canal, don’t panic,” says Alexandra Fine, the founder of the toy company Dame. “You should be able to get it out if you sit and squeeze.” Fleming adds that it helps to wait a few minutes before trying, to let the engorgement that flows with arousal subside. Epiphora notes that, similarly, if you’ve got a toy stuck just a little ways up your rectum, you can often “relax, breathe deeply, and focus on pushing it out, as if having a bowel movement.”
“For stuck penis rings, the trick is to reduce the swelling so that you can get it off,” says Lisa Lawless of Holistic Wellness, a sexual health education platform and retailer. “Elevate it while laying with a pillow under your rear. Have the heart lower than the penis. Using a cold pack on it, soaking in a warm bath to relax the tissue, and using a lubricant may also assist you.”
But if you can’t get a toy out of your rectum or vagina, or a ring off of your penis, with moderate and reasonable effort, then don’t try to force it — don’t go fishing for the lost toy with other implements, or try to cut away the ring yourself. You may just end up pushing an item further inside of yourself, or causing lacerations to your already struggling penis, making things much worse.
In these events, or if you’re feeling notable and sustained pain or discomfort, you should go to a doctor ASAP. Sure, this may feel embarrassing, Boyajian acknowledges, but medical experts have truly seen it all and will usually treat your injury matter-of-factly. Even if you get a shitty doctor who shames you for your sexual choices, it’s still usually better to deal with that in the moment than sit on an injury, allowing it to worsen.
If you’re deeply concerned about getting shamed during a sexual health emergency, then Torrisi suggests planning ahead: Start vetting doctors in your area now for their sex positivity and sexual health issue experience levels. Talk to friends, check reviews, do whatever you can. Then, if and when you sustain a toy injury in the future, and you don’t need emergency services, you can go straight to them or someone they trust.
It’s also important, when dealing with an injury, great or small, to keep things in perspective. Don’t let one mishap or bad experience sour you on toys forever; you’ll close yourself off to a world of potential pleasure and exploratory fun just to avoid a relatively rare and usually minor eventuality. It may help, Boyajian suggests, in moments of pain, fear, or frustration following an accident, to “remind yourself that this will probably make for a funny story in the future!”
A version of this article originally appeared here on mashable.com