Despite the increasing popularity of sex toys since the beginning of lockdown for COVID-19 — and concerns about their safety — the Canadian government has yet to regulate those products, something the Liberals demanded when they were in opposition.
Health Canada now says worries about the materials used in mostly cheap toys are overstated. But at least some Canadians continue to be harmed by shoddily made sex toys, as others advocate for the government to do more to protect consumers.
The sex toy industry as a whole, which also produces safe and well-made products, has reported major growth in sales since March – the start of the pandemic. Adam and Eve, a company with stores across North and South America as well as online, reported a 30 per cent growth in sales this March and April compared to last year.
Some vendors that are exclusively online, such as We-Vibe and Womanizer, reported sales of their body safe toys have grown over 200 per cent in April compared to last year, according to the New York Times.
And, in the future, those strong sales will likely continue. According to Research and Markets, the international sex toy market was valued just under US $30 billion in 2019 and has been projected to grow to just under US $53 billion by 2026.
Internationally, the sex toy industry is regulated in two polar opposite ways. A number of countries, such as Saudi Arabia, India, Thailand and Vietnam, ban the purchase and/or possession of sex toys completely. Those found breaking the law can face jail time.
In comparison, countries such as Canada and the United States — excluding the state of Alabama which bans their sale — have not taken any action to regulate the industry.
If Canada were to regulate sex toys, Health Canada would be the department responsible for those rules. That’s because it’ “regulates and approves the use of thousands of products and delivers a range of programs and services in environmental health and protection, and has responsibilities in the areas of problematic substance use, tobacco policy, workplace health and the safe use of consumer products.”
But sex toys are not among those products, even though there is concern about how some of them are made and what they are made from. Of particular concern are phthalates, a chemical used to soften harder plastics and give them a jelly-like consistency. They are also carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic to reproduction and endocrine-disrupting.
As a result of these risks, phthalates are on Canada’s list of toxic substances and, in June 2011, Health Canada restricted the use of such chemicals in children’s toys because “research shows that exposure to even low levels of certain phthalates can affect a child’s development and behaviour,” as the then-Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, put it.
It’s because of reports like these that Shane Orvis — a sexual and mental health consultant who co-owns an online store that specializes in body-safe sex toys — worries about toys that contain or are made with phthalates – which were most notably pointed out in a 2006 report by the Danish Ministry of Environment.
“When [these chemicals] come in contact with a porous membrane like your vagina or your anus, or come in contact with your penis or mouth, they ooze and will be absorbed into these membranes,” says Orvis.
In an email to the Calgary Journal, Health Canada stated it has “determined that the regular use and handling of soft vinyl (PVC) products — such as sex toys — does not constitute a health risk to adults. Any risks identified with phthalates in consumer products occur when it leeches out of soft vinyl during mouthing actions (i.e., sucking or chewing) that last more than three hours a day, on a daily basis.”
“Such behaviour is typical only with small children (those under four years of age), which is why Health Canada closely regulates soft vinyl products, such as teethers, pacifiers, toys and child care articles intended for use by young children.”
Regardless of the safety of the materials some sex toys are made from, sometimes they are made poorly. In a 2013 article about the regulation of those products published in the Berkley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, lawyer Emily Stabile, cited research that “many sex toys contain design or labeling flaws that can lead to injuries.”
For example, “toys with sharp edges can cause cuts and tears. Vibrators or other toys with electrical elements can expose the user to unsafe wiring and shocks.” And “vibrations themselves can cause chronic numbness and pain over time.”
Unfortunately, these negative side effects are something Courtney, whose name has been changed to protect her identity for legal reasons, knows about all too well.
Courtney grew up as a homeless youth and was a teenage mother who had been advised by a counsellor to try to take back ownership of her sexuality after she was the victim of sexual assault.
“After having done some counselling work at that time, I really wanted to intentionally reframe my experience with sexuality and my body and take that (sexual) power back.”
The vibrator wand she purchased was poorly made using cheap materials and the battery acid leaked through the plastic seal.
This resulted in a terrible rash and intense irritation that could have turned into a dangerous situation. The device also shed a metallic coating inside of her the first time she used it.
“What was supposed to be a liberating, self-loving moment actually ended up feeling really horrible.”
“To have that toy be so damaging and so poorly made – it caused me a lot of shame,” Courtney continued.
Courtney is not alone when it comes to the physical and emotional effects of using unsafe sex toys.
Brett Villeneuve had purchased a jelly-based dildo and when it came, he immediately noticed a foul smell coming from it.
“I didn’t have any education about body safe toys or lubes or anything, so I just went off what I thought would be best for me.”
“I used it a couple of times and it was very uncomfortable, something didn’t seem right every time I used it. It would burn or hurt and it was very uncomfortable,” says Villeneuve.
He ended up throwing the toy away but before he did, he noticed small parts of his dildo missing.
“It looked like if you took a pair of clippers to it, like small chunks out of the [jelly],” he explained.
Over the next few days, Villeneuve began to notice an unusual pain around his anus and, after using the washroom, he noticed bits of the dildo were coming out.
Both Courtney and Villeneuve felt that their negative experiences produced a lot of shame for them and that the industry itself carries a lot of negative connotations surrounding the use of such products.
“People are so ashamed of themselves and their bodies,” Villeneuve explained. “Educating ourselves and learning how to love ourselves is the best way to start talking about it.”
Kate Sloan is an online advocate for sex-positive environments who created an online blog called Girly Juice to have these conversations.
“I have the belief that sexual shame takes up a lot of mental and emotional energy for a lot of people,” says Sloan, whose site reviews sex toys and tries to break down the negative stigmas around sex.
“There is a much lower amount of people reporting (their negative experiences with sex toys) because they tend to think there’s something wrong with themselves or they might be embarrassed to admit that they used a sex toy so it just creates this silence,” Sloan said.
“Sexuality is a very core part of humanity and if we can make that into a less shame filled experience I think we will have a lot more to offer the world and the people in our lives.”
Asking for change
Despite the shame surrounding the industry, some have tried to take action to regulate the industry in Canada in the past.
Among them is Kim Sedgwick, who co-owned Red Tent Sisters, a sex toy shop in Toronto, with her sister Amy.
When Sedgwick was opening the boxes of tester products she began noticing unusual things about them.
“Some of the time when we were opening the boxes I would turn to my sister and say that it smelled awful, like that new car smell. It was so nauseating,” explained Sedgwick.
That smell resulted in looking into the risks associated with the phthalates in some sex toys and eventually writing to Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who is also a medical doctor, about that problem.
“We were really looking for someone who could be a spokesperson in a way that we couldn’t because unfortunately there is still a stigma around sex toys and the fact that we were two sex toy shop owners, a lot of people found it really easy to dismiss us and dismiss the importance of it,” she says.
“We felt like we needed someone to speak on our behalf, someone that had that credibility.”
“It started by just inviting her to our store and we gave her a little tour and explained what our mission and passion was and asked if it was something she would be willing to endorse given her background and interest in health and it kind of went from there,” Sedgwick explained.
Afterward, Bennett, who was the Liberal’s health critic and is now the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, wrote a letter to then Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, asking for the government to regulate sex toys.
At the time Bennett stated, “No one questions these chemicals are hazardous. However, they are still found in many sex toys, and because these toys can be sold as ‘novelties’ — which suggests they aren’t intended for actual use — they aren’t subject to regulation or testing.”
Bennett’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the Calgary Journal.
Since Bennett made that statement, no changes have been made to the regulation of sex toys or the chemicals being put in them in Canada.
Sedgwick says she knows the government has many issues it needs to address. But she’s still “disappointed” at the lack of action.
“There are lots of other products that are regulated and there is someone that’s in charge of making sure that happens so it’s unfortunate that no one’s taken this up.”
Nor is she alone in feeling that way. Alexa Forigo, who co-owns the Sensual Intimate Wellness online store with Orvis, says, “Sex toys are one of those things that really fly under the radar or aren’t discussed seriously.”
“To create a regulation system for sex toys, that means we have to acknowledge that they’re more mainstream than others would like to believe, and that won’t be happening any time soon.”
That said, Health Canada stated it is aware the “International Organization for Standardization is working on the development of an international safety standard, and Health Canada will consider the recommended safety requirements in any future risk management approach.”
This means that design and safety requirements will be created, and possibly implemented, for all toys that come in contact with genitals and the anus.
Until that happens, Canadian consumers are responsible for keeping themselves safe from unsafe sex toys.
Forigo says that there are certain features that an unsafe sex toy will have that you should look for before purchasing a toy.
“(Unsafe toys) will always smell like a pool toy because of those unbonding agents that are leaking out. They also easily catch on fire because those (chemicals) are very flammable, whereas a medical-grade toy will singe a little bit but it will rub right off,” she explains.
She also warned that toys that are a jelly-like substance, see-through, have sparkles or have any visible seams on the product should be avoided.
“No one is going out into the world buying a sex toy and thinking ‘this could possibly give me cancer’ but they should be because that is the world we’re living in. People need to be asking those questions and they need to be making sure manufacturers are being held accountable.”
A previous version of this story included an incorrect spelling of Brett Villeneuve’s name. We apologize for the error.