Sex Toy Story

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By: Dr. Justin Lehmiller

Sex toys have become incredibly popular in recent years. Just consider this: national U.S. survey data reveal that 52.5% of women and 44.8% of men report having used a vibrator during sexual activity at least once before [1,2]! Although some people only use vibrators by themselves (e.g., during masturbation), others share sex toys with their partners. In order to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual health experts have long encouraged people to clean vibrators and other sex toys thoroughly before and after sharing them. To date, however, no one has ever studied the soundness of this advice—that is, does cleaning a shared sex toy between uses really make it safe? According to newly published research, not as safe as you might think [3].

In this study, 20 women aged 18-29 who reported having previously had both male and female sex partners were each given two brand new vibrators to use while they masturbated (I know--it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!). Each vibrator had a different design and was made of a different material. Here’s the description from the paper:

“Vibrator 1 was a typical ‘Rabbit’-styled vibrator, in that it included a vibrating shaft for vaginal insertion and an arm for clitoral vibration, each composed of a soft jelly based thermoplastic elastomer material. Vibrator 2 was smooth surfaced, composed of a soft silicone material.”

The women were instructed to use the vibrators inside their vaginas on separate occasions spaced at least one day apart. After using each vibrator, the women were asked to clean it using water as well as a commercially available sex toy cleaner that was provided with their sex toy kit.

What the researchers wanted to do was test whether one specific STI, the human papilloma virus (HPV), was present on the vibrators after being used by infected women. They chose to look at HPV because it is among the most prevalent STIs out there. To that end, all women were asked to submit a vaginal swab in order to test their HPV infection status. In addition, the women were asked to take swabs from different parts of the sex toys both immediately after use, right after cleaning, and 1 day after cleaning.

Of the women who provided vaginal swabs, 75% tested positive for HPV. The swabs from these women’s vibrators were then tested for presence of the virus. For both types of vibrators, HPV was detected on the majority of samples (more than two-thirds) immediately after use. Among the samples collected right after cleaning, HPV was less likely to be detected, but it still showed up about half of the time on the shaft of both the Rabbit-style (56% of samples) and silicone vibrators (44% of samples).

Perhaps most surprising is the finding that 24 hours after cleaning, HPV was still detected on 40% of the samples collected from the shaft of the Rabbit-style vibrator! In contrast, it wasn’t detected at all on the silicone vibrator the following day.

These results tell us that HPV certainly has the potential to be transmitted via shared sex toys. It is probably safe to conclude that the greatest risk would be when partners share sex toys during the same sexual event without cleansing it; however, it appears that there is still the potential to spread HPV even after cleaning and even if the same toy is used individually by two different people on different days.

The results also suggest that some types of sex toys may pose more STI transmission risk than others. In particular, toys made of a thermoplastic material may be riskier to share than toys made of silicone due to differences in how effectively they can be cleaned. More research is warranted before drawing firm conclusions about this, though.

Make no mistake--cleaning sex toys before sharing them with others is certainly still an advisable practice; however, these findings tell us that people should be more cautious when sharing sex toys. If sex toys are going to be shared, it is likely that using condoms or other barriers in conjunction with cleaning would offer the most protection.

[1] Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S., Dodge, B., Ghassemi, A., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2009). Prevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by women in the United States: Results from a nationally representative study. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6, 1857-1866.

[2] Reece, M., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S. A., Dodge, B., Ghassemi, A., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2009). Prevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by men in the United States. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6, 1867-1874.

[3] Anderson, T. A., Schick, V., Herbenick, D., Dodge, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (in press). A study of human papillomavirus on vaginally inserted sex toys, before and after cleaning, among women who have sex with women and men. Sexually Transmitted Infections.