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Cory Silverberg

Why Government Regulation of Sex Toys Is a Bad Idea

By January 6, 2010

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Just before the holidays a Canadian Liberal Minister of Parliament called on the federal government to consider regulating the sex toy industry in Canada. I was happy to see the topic of sex toys get some attention, but after reading her letter and the subsequent coverage of the issue in the media I feel that the potential negative impact of government regulation of sex toys would far outweigh the positive impact. Here's why.

What Sex Toys Should Be Regulated?

In order to regulate sex toys first one needs to define the product category for proposed regulation. What qualifies as a sex toy? Currently in the U.S. sex toys are defined legally in some states (often as devices intended for genital stimulation). But they don't exist as a defined category by health regulators. The same is true for many other countries where the term "sex toys" won't be found in legal or regulatory documentation.

Even among sex toy retailers and manufacturers terms like dildo, vibrator, penis ring, butt plug can mean very different things. Is a sex toy defined by how it's intended use? How it's commonly used? Is a sex toy defined by who uses it or what kinds of bodies it gets used on? There is no generally agreed upon taxonomy of sex toys. There isn't even an organization or body (public or private) that would be in a position to develop such a taxonomy.

Developing such a taxonomy is not a bad idea. I'm not sure it's necessary or will benefit end users of sex toys much, but bringing a group of people together who represent different interests and relationships to the sex toy industry for a thoughtful discussion and debate actually sounds kind of exciting.

But until we're there, I'm certainly not comfortable with a government deciding what is and isn't a sex toy, and regulating the products they think are while ignoring the products they decide aren't.

Who Would Regulate Sex Toys?

First of all, it's worth questioning whether any government agency should be regulating sex toys. Most governments already have laws and policy regulating the sales of consumer goods, covering who is liable for what, and outlining what, if any, remedies a consumer has if they purchase any product that ends up harming them in some way. Do sex toys require special regulation? Do people need extra protection because the item they are buying is for sexual pleasure? In the most recent case of a Canadian Minister calling for regulation, she quite rightly points out that governments shouldn't shy away from topics like sexuality simply because they may be uncomfortable with them. But neither should governments over-regulate because they believe sex to be an area of heightened concern (at least not without arguing their case).

But if they were to win that argument, and governments began regulating the sale of sex toys, the question becomes who in the government would this fall to, and how would it be done. Sex toys are not medical devices.

It's ironic that the call for regulation would come from sex shops that identify as politically or sexually progressive. Suggesting that a sex toy should be treated the same as a medical device is in fact a regressive move. It would surely benefit large multi-national corporations who could begin to make huge profits from a new category of medical products, but the further medicalization of sexual pleasure via the regulation of what we might call sexual pleasure devices, would in no way benefit individuals interested in experiencing sexual pleasure.

From a regulatory perspective then, would a sex toy be more like a candy bar or a tampon? Would it be more like an over the counter pain medication or a prescription drug? Once the government begins to control something, and once big business orients itself to profiting from that control, it's incredibly difficult to turn back the clock.

Moral Regulation vs. Safety Regulation

Perhaps my greatest concern around the idea of government regulation of sex toys is the wafer thin line between regulation that's grounded in moral objections and regulation that's based on genuine safety risk. In truth this isn't a line at all. In the U.S. we have seen time and again moral regulation introduced under the guise of safety. Two recent examples from the Bush years are the politically/morally-motivated delay in increasing access to Emergency Contraception, and the changes in regulations regarding condom packaging. Even if sex toy regulation is being introduced by politicians who see nothing wrong with using sex toys, once they fall under government purview there is little to stop politicians who are morally opposed to their use from trying to restrict access to sex toys via legal regulation.

Of course all of this is terribly premature. There's no good research on sex toy safety. We need a body of evidence to guide any discussion of how safe or unsafe sex toys are. And that shouldn't come from sex toy manufacturers or environmental activists alone (although I would hope that both camps would be involved in some way). There is plenty of research being conducted all the time on the health impact of consumer products, and it is high time that sex toys be included in that research.

But until that happens I believe that simply educating consumers on the potential risks and benefits of different sex toy materials, giving them the information and tools they need to keep themselves safe, is a much wiser and more sustainable plan for reducing potential risk, than handing over our sex toys to a group of politicians and bureaucrats who many not know what to do with them.

Related - Are Sex Toys Safe? ; Dangerous Sex Toys ; Phthalates in Sex Toys ; Greenpeace UK Urges Ban on Toxic Sex Toys.

Comments
January 6, 2010 at 9:56 am
(1) Rina Valan says:

You are right on target! The last thing we need is the government to stick their nose in our intimate and personal lives under the pretense of trying to keep us safe. Where would it start, and more importantly, where or when would it end? Education is the key and the cornerstone of what we do as a company (home parties). Thank you addressing this potential snafu and for continually helping to educate us all.

January 6, 2010 at 6:41 pm
(2) La says:

Why don’t they just regulate what material sex toys are made of like they do with regular toys? Then i would be fine with it, because we could avoid toxic sex toys. For any other reason i am puzzled as to why they would regulate sex toys at all?
Frankly i know a lot of creative people and to them i swear EVERYTHING is a sex toy. hee-hee.

January 6, 2010 at 7:56 pm
(3) Cory says:

La, this is another, equally interesting way of approaching the issue. How are sex toys like other consumer products? And which products would they use as a guide for regulation? The fact is that I appreciate (even expect) my government to be keeping track of the basic safety of consumer goods. I feel like I’m extra worried about the government regulating a product that is tied to both sexual pleasure and sexual identity. But I maybe I shouldn’t be. Or maybe I should be equally worried about them regulating anything.

January 7, 2010 at 1:41 pm
(4) Pooh says:

Actually, regardless of purpose anything that is used in penetration be it oral, vaginal, anal, auricular, ocular, nasal, penile or intradermal should be regulated as such.

Certainly, if an object is going to be inserted into the body, it should be safe to do so. If laws make it illegal to make a product to do that, then every product gets produced with a “wink” as a personal shoulder massager, for external use only Since such a product will actually be used internally, it needs to be made to the same “specifications” as enema nozzle or tampon insertion tool, or even a diva cup.

There are regulations on materials used and methods, both chemical and otherwise that are in place to make these types of devices safe. They should apply to all devices that will be working their ways into the same places, and for the same reasons.

January 7, 2010 at 4:07 pm
(5) Cory says:

I’m inclined to agree with you, but am worried that products designed for sexual pleasure will in fact be treated differently than products designed for “sexual health” (put in quotes because in fact sexual pleasure is part of sexual health, but few governments legislate in a way that shows an understanding of that). I think the minister’s letter is really to your point, which is that we shouldn’t ignore harm just because we might be uncomfortable with sex, but I think it shows a lack of understanding of the larger context which, down the road, could be very problematic. There’s no easy answer here, and I really just want people to keep talking about this, like you have. Thanks for your comments!

January 7, 2010 at 6:24 pm
(6) Joysquirt says:

I agree with LA above. The government’s ONLY regulation should SAFETY accountability. As in mandating that manufacturers use non-toxic materials. Maybe some of you hate people in the adult industry, but it has long been a concern because some of us HAVE to use toys continually in our profession. But what about the countless other consumers! The toy mfrs think they get out of it by labeling their toys “novelty”, but adult toys should have the exact same precautions regarding toxidity as in any other “toy”. This would make it easier to enact and less opposition to make it a realistic law.

January 8, 2010 at 10:30 am
(7) Pooh says:

Again safety would be my concern. It would simply require a “redefinition.” The idea is that if you are differentiating between a medical and a leisure device, because presumably you want to regulate the use of the leisure device. What I am saying is simply define devices that are “designed in such a way that they are either intended to be inserted into a human orifice or could by size, shape and or design be reasonably assumed to be inserted into a human orifice” be regulated as such. If it is still illegal to manufacture and/or distribute a sex toy, then that is a different issue. However, if the device you manufacture can be potentially inserted into a body orifice it should meet the same standards as a catheter, tampon, diva cup, enema, pierced body jewelry. Or it would have to be labeled with some kind of warning such as “Do not insert in mouth or rectum.” or “Contains phtalates” or “Has sharp seems that may injure mucus membranes on contact” or “Is pourus, avoid contact with bodily fluids”

In actuality, any item that would fit in a baby’s mouth should bear these warnings anyway. “Keep out of reach of children, not intended as a teething device.”

I don’t know, it just seems that there is a middle ground to protect us from bad things (disreputable manufactures) in general.

January 24, 2010 at 11:42 am
(8) Reasonable Man says:

These uptight control freaks should be barred from interfering in others’ pleasure and pursuits.
We are adults and are able to make our own decisions.
That said, I agree with some of you who said that the components which go into their manufacture should be regulated.
However, if they regulate lead out of them as in paint, will we be in danger of not having lead in our pencils?
Ahh, puns are wunnerful.

January 31, 2010 at 10:28 pm
(9) MFromIL says:

(My comment disappeared). Anthing being used in intimate body areas needs regulation, for sanitary reasons. I’ve seen sales people put their unwashed hands all over these things. With Hep B, HPV, MRSA at an all time high, there should be more secure packaging.

We regulate all kinds of products used in intimate areas, for sanitation. Why not these?

September 22, 2013 at 12:16 am
(10) FunLove says:

Safety is something we should all take upon ourselves and not leave to government. Because if we regulated away everything that posed some kind of danger we would live very plain lives indeed.

Also, regulation is a slippery slope and once we start regulating toys, how regulated do they get?

However, I still think it would be nice if we could regulate what gets sold as a “sex toy” and anything sold under that term require strict warnings relating to sexual use, such as those mentioned by Pooh.

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