Sex & Relationships

Are Counterfeit Sex Toys a Danger to Your Health?

Counterfeit sex toys have become a problem on popular e-commerce sites.

Photo Credit: Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock

If quality really is worth the price, it’s hard to explain away the amount of knockoffs lining our shelves, both in stores and at home. While we all know to watch out for counterfeit items like purses or jewelry, there’s another market that’s fallen victim to the trend, and it’s one that happens to have direct contact with our genitals.

Counterfeit sex toys are now a problem, namely on popular e-commerce sites like eBay and Amazon, and consumers may end up paying for it in more ways than one. While products like watches, footwear and DVDs still top the list of most pirated counterfeited products in the America, sex toys aren’t too far behind. 

“You’ll see many products that mimic [our] appearance,” says Steve Thompson, chief marketing officer of luxury sex toy brand Lelo. And though paying for a fake is insult enough, another problem exists, and it revolves around safety.

While no safety standards currently exist for the sex toy industry, many companies say they have adopted a code of ethics surrounding the products they put out to market. Counterfeiters, however, aren’t likely to follow suit. 

“We are among the leading lobbyists for change and ensure every aspect of our designs is signed off in advance by leading testing bodies such SGS and Intertek,” Thompson told AlterNet. 

According to a report put together by the Daily Dot, bootleggers are known to dodge production standards by using cheap materials in place of the safety-approved options out there. Melamine has been found in a number of products. While the chemical has been approved by the FDA for manufacturing purposes, it is not recommended for human consumption. And though there are no “direct human studies on the effect of melamine,” the World Health Organization reports that the chemical has been known to cause bladder stones in animal tests. “When combined with cyanuric acid, which may also be present in melamine powder, melamine can form crystals that can give rise to kidney stones.”

Lelo, on the other hand, only offers products made of medical-grade silicone and ABS-plastic. “Both are non-porous, phthalate-free materials that can be cleaned to stop the spread of bacteria,” says Thompson.

Back in 2007, Good Vibrations became the first multi-channel retail company to discontinue products containing phthalates, which the FDA has listed as a “probable human carcinogen.” In studies, phthalates have been found to cause cancer in rats when administered in high doses. Lower doses have also been known to cause serious problems in genital and fetal development. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger signed a bill banning phthalates from children’s toys, which may leave seem folks thinking, if it’s not good for children, it might not be good for the genitals, either.

Unfortunately, that last bit hasn’t been examined. “The effects of repeated contact with mucus membranes have not been studied. We don't know if it's a concern. Yet,” says Peter Phinney, co-founder of Porn Guardian, an anti-piracy company. A few years back, the company started scanning e-commerce sites like eBay and Amazon for bootlegged adult DVDs and noticed a large amount of sex toys offered for 50 to 90 percent off the manufacturer’s suggested retail. “We began to hear from some manufacturers that they were receiving returns on merchandise (dissatisfied customers asking for refunds or replacements) and they found the merchandise was not what they were manufacturing and selling even though in many cases the packaging was almost identical,” Phinney told AlterNet in an email. Such cases, he says, are “amazingly common.” 

Phinney has since partnered with the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association for the pornography and adult entertainment industry, to identify the counterfeit merchandise out there and remove it. 

According to Phinney, counterfeiters regularly attend trade shows to photograph new products to knock off. And then they do it again, and again.

“There are no inspections at all for counterfeit products, of course," Phinney says. "Since these items come into contact with people's most intimate and sensitive body parts, we believe that's pretty important." 

And customers aren’t the only ones who are potentially being hurt. “As profits for legitimate manufacturers decline, they have less money to invest in [research and development] and less incentive to push the envelope with new products,” says Phinney. “So bootlegging and counterfeit are unhealthy for the industry overall. What also begins to happen as profits dip and there is less money spent on goods, legitimate companies are incentivized to copy one another rather than innovate.

According to a 2016 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the global counterfeit business—in its entirety—is worth as much as $461 billion.

How do you guard against buying a counterfeit? If you see something that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sex toy enthusiasts would be advised to do their homework when shopping online. Because in an unregulated world, the best defense is knowing what's out there. “Until the inevitable happens and the regulatory bodies start paying more attention, the only choice is to continue educating, which starts with breaking down the taboos surrounding sex toys,” says Lelo's Thompson. “When people are comfortable talking about sex and sex toys, there are more conversations about what materials to look for and you see more transparency about which companies are selling unsafe products.”

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture. 

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