Whoops, Sex Toy User Manuals Are Really Ableist

People ask me about disability and sex a lot. Makes sense, given my undeniable gayness and our collective fascination with disabled bodies doing “forbidden” things. In these conversations, I often become an evangelist of sex toys. They’re some of the best and most underrated access tools on the market. The stigma that they’re only necessary if you’re somehow “deficient” in bed sounds a lot to me like when able people call mobility aids “limiting.” Think that one over for more than 10 seconds and you’ll realize the opposite is true. It’s because of my orthotics, not in spite of them, that I can leave the house, go to work, run errands, ride the train, and take a walk if I feel like it. Likewise, toys make having sex about a hundred times less stressful and more fun — because make no mistake, sex in a body like this can stress you out.

Limited dexterity, muscle tightness, fluctuating sensitivity and a heightened startle reflex may sound fun to the kinkier among us, but that’s assuming you enjoy playing with them or can control them at all. Otherwise, they can make sex into a self-policing exercise, kind of like sucking your stomach in to appear thinner. I spent most of my early sexual career overseeing and restraining my body rather than letting it feel. Toys eased that tension by reminding me that one body doesn’t have to do everything. They create more comfortable sensations, allow me to choose my experiences and expand what I’m capable of.

Every sex toy manufacturer should be courting disabled folks as customers — so it pained me to realize that some of them don’t know how to talk about us at all. And they reveal their ignorance in a surprising place: user manuals.

Let’s examine some choice evidence, courtesy of those little booklets you never bother to read.


The Perpetual Child

What they said: “Close supervision is necessary when this product is used near children or persons with disabilities.”
What I wish they’d said: “This is not a children’s toy.” “If you are disabled, you may prefer to use adaptive devices with this toy. Be sure to discuss your access needs with all parties involved. Test the toy on the lowest setting first, and figure out what feels best for your body.”

News flash that I apparently need to keep broadcasting: disabled adults are not children. The fact that these toys aren’t for kids has nothing to do with us or whether or not we’ll enjoy ourselves.

And note that the toys are only “near” us — the implication being that we’d never use them alone, and definitely not on or with another person. News flash round two: lots of disabled people enjoy sex and masturbation. For companies that pride themselves on empowerment and pleasure, these folks sure seem uncomfortable acknowledging that we’re sexual beings. We get enough of that erasure everywhere else, thanks.


The … Not Much Better

What they said: “Close supervision is necessary when this product is used by, on, or near children, invalids, or disabled persons.”
What I wish they’d said: “This is not a children’s toy.” “If you are disabled, chronically ill, or have recently undergone a medical procedure, test the toy on the lowest setting first and figure out what feels best for your body. You can use adaptive devices with this toy. Be sure to discuss your access needs with all parties involved.”

A marginal improvement — thanks for acknowledging that we could use the toys ourselves! — doesn’t count for much once you bring in the word “invalids.” That’s about as outdated as calling queer people “inverts.” Time to move into this century!

“Close supervision” likewise doesn’t feel great; it sounds like we need chaperones. Assistance is one thing, supervision is another.


The Medical Model

What they said: “Persons with deformed spine should consult a doctor before use.”
What I wish they’d said: Anything but that, really.

This one probably got lost in translation, but all the same: the last thing I want to do before using a sex toy is call my doctor about it. We like to assume that doctors have complete dominion over disabled people’s bodies, but putting all the authority in their hands can get complicated. Expertise doesn’t mean they understand how it feels to live in my body. So forgive me if they’re not my preferred advisers here. Remember, too, that vibrators arrived on the market to treat “hysteria” — that misogynistic medical miscue for the ages. When it comes to the finer points of pleasure, especially for women, doctors don’t exactly have a stellar track record. If you’re anything other than able-bodied? Forget it.

Also, pro tip: as someone who’s spent the last 10 years recovering my self-esteem from the grips of spinal surgery, “deformed spine” is just about the worst way you can put it. Yikes.


The Liability Waiver

What they said: “This appliance is not intended for use by persons with reduced physical, sensory, or mental capabilities, or lack of experience and knowledge, unless they have been given supervision or instruction… by a person responsible for their safety.”
What I wish they’d said: “Disabled users may require some assistance with this toy. Be sure to discuss your access needs with all parties involved.”

I get it, sex toy manufacturers: you have to cover your litigation bases. But it’s demoralizing to only hear your body type discussed in boilerplate legalese. It’s like being hired somewhere and, once HR realizes you’re disabled, getting a half-hour lecture on exactly when you’re allowed to sue (true story, It Happened to Me).

Disabled people aren’t living, breathing liabilities. We deserve more than a cursory mention in the WARNING section.


So why does all of this matter? Who cares if something as dry as a user manual isn’t all-bodies-inclusive? Keep in mind that in addition to safety instructions, these booklets give companies one last chance to drive home their brand. Some of them straight up read like romance novels: “Covered in smooth, soft, 100% body safe silicone, [this toy] is sensual from your first touch, gliding across your skin. Subtle enough to tease and caress during foreplay, yet powerful enough for all over body massage — you can even cradle [it] in your hand, and use your fingertips to massage for a lighter touch.” If you can put that much effort into your copy writing, you can do better by disabled folks. Make us part of the conversation if there’s something specific we should know. Devote even just half a page to how we can adapt the toy and use it safely. Give us better guidance than “don’t use this, it’s not for you.”  Make sure we know you see us.

We deserve the same intentional messaging as all of your other users — because if we don’t get it, that sends another kind of message altogether.


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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

Carrie has written 75 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. who tf writes these manuals? like, why use “Close supervision is necessary when this product is used by, on, or near children, invalids, or disabled persons” when they could use something like what Carrie wrote? then they’d avoid:

    -associating children with people with disabilities
    -use of the word invalids
    -the creepy idea of someone “supervising” a person with a disability who is just trying to get their groove on
    -the idea that someone might use a sex toy on a child and that that merits “close supervision”

    super fucked up that so many of the companies seem to invest effort in flowery phrases to sell the device and don’t even look at what they’re saying when it comes to this. yeesh!

  2. Alas, user manuals aren’t usually written by copywriters — usually some combination of engineers/corporate lawyers — but that’s no excuse for them to be really disgustingly ableist. There should be some guidance in place for whoever does end up writing them. (Although even that might not help with the bad-google-translate situations.)

    I wish companies would hire *actual writers* for everything they publish. It makes a difference. Because as a copywriter, this is exactly the sort of awful, alienating copy I do my best to prevent.

    (And also, yay sex toys.)

  3. Carrie, I adore your writing. All of it. This included. You realise that most of this is just copy pasted from other documents, though, right? It’s a disclaimer. It ought to be less ridiculous, but everything from my computer to my hairdryer to my fridge comes with similar-identical warnings. Makes me very cross, but at least isn’t sex toy specific. Oh yay, another widespread issue…

  4. From talking to a few industry folks who’ve been around for a long ass time, I discovered that many of the more restrictive manuals were worded this way by lawyers to avoid a lawsuit, after the first sex-toy lawsuit happened decades ago. And then the newbie companies have copied the old-school companies because “if it works for them, it’ll work for us”. Plus the liability insurance for sex toy manufacturers is incredibly high cost. If they take on the liability of recommending a particular way to use it and a person sues them they could lose their liability insurance completely (in addition to being sued).

    I even wonder if some parts of this may be like a game a Telephone combined with “lost in translation”, where something that started out half-reasonable has been translated to Chinese and back and over time blown out of proportion?

    The largest companies don’t really care what we think and their lawyers are going to leave it as is. I’ve seen some smaller companies care, and even make changes when a number of reviewers have called them out on their ableist language.

    As a not-fully-able-bodied person I find these manuals’ wording offensive. As someone who has been told the ridiculous things that have to go on behind the scenes in sex toy manufacturing I understand that these warnings aren’t going anywhere. It’s not fair, though; one company told me that it’s either this or their product wouldn’t be insured (i.e. sold) at all.

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