Stories about sex toy injuries can sound a lot like urban legends. Most of us have heard a story about a story from someone who knew this person whose uncle had a thing happen with a sex toy.
Maybe you clicked on a headline like ”Woman Injured in Sex Toy Power Tool Encounter” or “stumbled” across one of the many websites devoted to anal sex toy emergencies. And if that’s all you know about sex toy injuries, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re either an oddity and something you needn’t worry about.
But from a sexual health perspective, sex toy injuries are of great interest, whether they are rare or not. They’re interesting because, with very few exceptions, sex toy injuries are easily preventable.
Such injuries are interesting too in the way that they highlight how not talking about sex can have many unpleasant consequences. Thankfully researchers have begun to take up the topic and slowly a useful body of research is developing on sex toy injuries.
In 2009 Russell Griffin and Gerald McGwin from the University of Alabama School of Public Health published the first-ever population-based survey of sex toy injuries in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. To get data Griffin and McGwin tapped into an existing reporting system in emergency rooms that tracks injuries involving consumer products.
They looked at all reports involving sex toys (if you’re curious, the consumer product code for “massagers and vibrators” is 1610) and divided the reports up by type of toy and type of injury. Wisely the researchers narrowed their study by considering only injuries caused by consumer products intended for sexual stimulation (what they call “sexual stimulation devices” or SSD).
So the study doesn’t involve an accidentally misplaced potato, screwdriver, or hairbrush.
Between 1995 and 2006 the researchers found:
- 6799 people aged 20 and up were treated in U.S. emergency departments for sex toy injuries
- There was an overall doubling of the number of injuries, from 2.41 per million in 1995 to 5.46 per million in 2006
- Men had higher injury rates than women, and rates were highest for people between 30-39
- 74% of injuries involved an insertable vibrator, 13% involved dildos, 2% rings, and 11% other,
- 78% of injuries were anorectal, 18% vaginal/penile, and 4% other
There are limitations to this data and the researchers point out that these numbers are likely an underestimate of the actual number of sex toy injuries. But they are an excellent starting point. It’s worrying to note that the most common injuries involve vibrators and the anorectal area.
Because vibrators have motors that can easily overheat, they represent a greater danger if they slip completely into the body with batteries in them. Even a vibrator that is switched off could switch on once in the body.
A second study examining how common vibrator use is among women in the U.S. included a few questions about vibrator related injuries or pain. Of the over 2,000 women who participated in the study who said they used a vibrator:
- 71.5% of women never experienced any side effects
- 16% reported numbness
- 10% reported irritation
- 8% reported swelling
- 3% reported pain
- 1% reported tears or cuts
In all cases, those who reported negative side effects judged them to be relatively short-lived and minor in severity.
Neither study looked at whether the sex toy injuries were solely the result of improper use or due to a manufacturing defect. The sex toy industry remains a largely unregulated one and one of the many benefits of research like this is that it can spark a conversation in both public and private sectors about who should be responsible for sex toy safety.
Considering how many people use sex toys, both studies suggest that sex toy injuries are relatively rare. But since research also suggests that sex toy use is on the rise, it’s worth wondering whether more sex toy users will mean more sex toy injuries, and what can we do to reduce the number of injuries without stigmatizing the activity itself.
Research like this goes a long way to combat the less factual dangerous sex toy scares and general sex toy myths that persist.
- Griffin, R. & McGwin, G. Jr. “Sexual Stimulation Device-Related Injuries” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy Vol. 35, No. 4, 253-261.
- Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S.A., et. al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use by Women in the United States: Results from a Nationally Representative Study” Journal of Sexual Medicine Early View, Date: June 2009. Accessed June 1, 2009.
- Reece, M., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S.A., et. al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use by Men in the United States” Journal of Sexual Medicine Early View, Date: May 2009. Accessed May 31, 2009.