The Other Kind of Treasure Chest: Sex Toy Piracy and What It Means for You

As a writer, I would be very upset if someone distributed my work without my knowledge or consent and disrupted by ability to make a living with my craft, which is why I generally oppose piracy. That’s just one layer of the effects of piracy, though. There are so many more layers when you consider types of piracy that mess with the things you use on or in your body. I am talking, of course, about the recent reports of companies pirating high end sex toys.

As reported on Jezebel, co-founder of anti-piracy group Porn Guardian Peter Phinney has released statements regarding the pirating of high-end sex toys. Apparently instances of knock-off brand-name toys being sold at bargain basement prices has been on the increase as of late. According XBiz article, Phinney states:

“When we looked into some examples, we found that sometimes a well known and carefully built brand name was being used to sell merchandise that was made offshore with inferior components and packaging, but sold as first quality.”

Troubling news indeed! Let’s break down all the reasons this is terrible, shall we?


“Inferior Components” and Toxic Materials

While the use of “inferior components” is certainly troubling, let’s not pretend there’s great regulation on sex toy production in the U.S., either. According to Daily Dot coverage, Phinney also says

“Forgive me for being blunt, but would you be interested in sticking electroshock cables up your ass or onto your privates if you knew they were made in China from sub-standard components and not UL listed for safety?”

While Daily Dot says that overseas manufacturers of sex toys are less regulated than U.S. manufacturers, that is factually incorrect. The FDA does not regulate sex toys and the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) only kinda does. From Vice’s coverage last year:

Before explaining the CPSC’s regulatory process, Filip confirmed that sex toys are indeed on their list of regulated products. Filip explained the regulatory process like this: “We look for a pattern of defect, a hazard out there that is, in fact, hurting people. If we see a pattern of defect, then we negotiate some sort of recall with a company.” When asked what constitutes a pattern of defect, though, Filip said there’s no hard and fast delineation. “Every situation is different — there is no ‘number-of-reports’ threshold. When a death is attributed to a product, an in-depth investigation is more likely. We have situations in which one report resulted in a recall and other situations in which there have been several reports, but no recall has taken place.” In other words, the CPSC bases their regulations on aftermarket complaints, but that’s where their formalized system ends. Filip told me that between 2010 and 2012 the CPSC estimated an average of 2,100 annual emergency room visits resultant from sex toy injuries. These toys are currently left to the industry to voluntarily regulate, and that industry hasn’t exactly rallied around the cause.

So if you look at the back of packaging on many toys, you’ll see a “for novelty use only, do not insert” blah blah blah warning on something that is clearly meant to be an insertion toy. Why? Because the company doesn’t want to be legally responsible when they poison your orifice. And the CPSC estimates an average of 2,100 sex-toy-related emergency room visits per year. So please forgive me if I don’t get all alarmed about the offshore production — sex toys aren’t properly regulated, regardless of where they are produced. And plus! It’s not even where you made that counts, it’s where you buy and sell them. Our very own Queer Engineer Laura says:

“It doesn’t really matter where something is made — it matters where you buy it. Enforcement of various regulations happens towards the end of the chain, at ports of entry or at retail. Does that make sense? Like if, hypothetically, you made a big batch of vibrators at a factory and half of them had faulty wiring, you could still sell all of them by sending the faulty ones to a country where they don’t regulate. Nobody is going to come to the factory and stop you right there.”


Piracy Leads To Decreased Sales Of Legit Brands

While I think the “offshore” portion of this statement is a bit off-base as a code word for “naturally inferior” or “naturally less regulated,” it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not the offshore part that dictates the poor materials — it’s the fact that these toys are designed to lowball brands who have worked really hard at producing toys that don’t hurt you. The mere fact that the sex toy industry is kind of like the wild west means that companies producing quality toys like Lelo, Fun Factory, Tantus and more are doing so at their cost. They are using the good, medical grade materials and making sure their electrical components don’t set your genitalia on fire all because they care about your crotch parts. And it drives their cost up, meaning that a company using body-safe, high quality ish isn’t gonna be able to compete (price-wise) with companies who are cutting corners. That’s bad enough.

But then factor in that these are knockoffs, meaning they’re using branding and logos and names that aren’t theirs. And they’re making consumers think that they’re just getting a good deal on the good stuff, when that kind of “good deal” isn’t possible for the body-safe, quality companies to match. So customers, even those who normally research toys to make sure they’re safe before buying, are giving business to companies producing unsafe toys rather than companies producing safe ones — over time, if left unchecked, this kind of trickery and douchebaggery could lead to the good toys actually increasing in price, thus widening the gap of who can and cannot afford them. Or it could lead to financial woes severe enough that the safe toys won’t exist at all.

But most infuriating? Counterfeit products dupe customers into paying money for something they think is safe, and it’s not. Customers with less money to spend on sex toys purchase the less expensive, less safe toys and once again, those without a ton of money are getting the shaft here. And not the good kind of shaft. Take out any impact it has on companies/corporations/brands, it still means that actual human people are putting unsafe material on or in their bodies. And they have no idea because it’s disguised as a normally reputable brand that uses safe materials. And that’s just not fucking cool.


eBay Helps, Amazon Doesn’t

Luckily, Phinney has a whole group of super-hero-esque Piracy Avengers (about 35 real humans looking at possible counterfeits over 17 different timezones) working to chip away at the pirate economy. Porn Guardian just launched the Product Piracy Pilot, a subscription program for brands and companies looking to remove knockoffs of their toys from the market. While eBay will remove a product within hours of reporting it as counterfeit, Amazon is more difficult to work with. From the XBiz Coverage:

“Amazon’s copyright department takes the position that they’re a retail platform only,” Phinney said. “They don’t want to get involved in disputes between manufacturers and sellers, even if it revolves around copyright issues.”

When you consider how large a market share Amazon has of, well, all products everywhere for everything, that’s kinda terrifying. That means at least one retail giant isn’t interested in solving the problem at all.


What Can You Do?

I mean, the answer here is obvious: don’t buy knockoffs. But with some of the knockoffs being quite convincing, what’s a queermo to do practically. Here are a few suggestions:

If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not true. When you see something that looks like it’s too good a deal, go to the manufacturer’s website and take a look at their suggested price. If it’s way off, you’re either looking at a knockoff or a store violating their wholesale terms. Neither one is a good thing. Don’t buy that toy!

Shop at places that care about your orifices. The good news about this being a largely unregulated industry (if there is any good news about that) is that it’s relatively easy to spot toy shops that aren’t going to sell you counterfeits — remember, they’re doing it at a cost to themselves; they’re generally staffed by people who really care and will tell you like it is. The founder of Smitten Kitten started the Coalition Against Toxic Toys, for instance, and guarantees on their front page “no rubbish here.” Babeland is staffed entirely by educators who will personally tell you with their actual mouths that what they are selling you is 100% on the up and up (and safe for you) — same with Good Vibrations!

If you’re shopping on a budget, don’t cut corners on this one. There are a million ways to buy sex toys on a budget other than supporting counterfeiters. We’ve even got a guide for that!

Feature image via Shutterstock.


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aeosworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 529 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. As someone whose job includes creating documents for FDA submissions, I’m trying to figure out what FDA regulation of sex toys would look like. Safety and efficacy? Would you need to provide trial data showing a higher rate of orgasms compared to predicate products? XD

    Although there definitely should be some body checking into the materials used in toys.

    • I’ve been pondering this too. Minimally, I’d think responsible regulation would look similar to CPSIA: regular testing for lead, phthalates, and physical/mechanical hazards at third party labs. Also maybe some requirements on endocrine disrupters, and a mandate that the materials list for each toy be available to the public?

      Implementation would be expensive, though, both on the enforcement side and for manufacturers unused to testing. Wouldn’t really help with the piracy issue.

      • Implementation would be very, very expensive, I agree. Also deciding which materials are dangerous enough to be tested for – even the dangers of phthalates and BPA are a bit controversial in the medical device community (although most companies worth their salt these days avoid them if only due to the bad press).

        I wonder if an industry body is the answer, if only as a stopgap?

        Another thought – you wouldn’t want sex toys classed as medical devices, guys, because good luck getting anything novel approved ever. :P

  2. Now I’m freaking out. I bought a sex toy on amazon last week. It was cheaper, I just thought that amazon didn’t let people sell knock offs. What do I do? How will I be able to tell if it is a knock off?

    And for the record,mid be happy to pay full price, it’s just that so many sites charge so much postage to Australia. I couldn’t find this particular item locally.

    Fuck. This is my special engagement sexy present for my honey. It has to be perfect. :/

  3. This is an instance of yet another troubling usage of the word “piracy”. The word “piracy”, at one point, referred to robbery on the high seas, generally accompanied by murder and enslavement. However, it has been co-opted first by the media establishment to refer to peer-to-peer sharing, and then by anyone else who wants to vilify nearly any economic phenomenon which could fit the name. The correct term for “sex toy piracy” is, in fact, “competition”.

  4. TRUE LIFE: I PURCHASED A PIRATED DILDO

    I had finally saved up to buy my first “real adult” sex toy, which I assumed was going to change my life: the Laid Stone Dildo. But they were sold out on Babeland, so I decided to go with Amazon. The toy wasn’t even cheaper and everything seemed legit, so I didn’t really think twice. When it arrived EVERYTHING WAS WRONG. Thankfully, I had researched the hell out of this sex toy and knew exactly what the packaging, shape, engraving, weight, etc. was supposed to be. What arrived was some kind of bowling ball material stick in a clearly reused box. But still I was super weirded out and confused – WHO IS MANUFACTURING FRAUDULENT STONE DILDOS?! I felt a little crazy when I first contacted Amazon costumer service and the retailer directly. The retailer was incredibly creepy in the correspondence (using a winky smiley when asking me to send a photo of the toy) and wrote this long, clearly forged email “from the manufacturer” explaining why the toy was different than expected. It was all gross.

    Thankfully, Amazon refunded my money pretty instantly and just told me to keep the weird knock-off, but they did not do ANYTHING to suggest they were going to report the retailer or take any action to prevent this.

    Also thankfully, I brought this dildo to a pirate themed party in order to have it inspected by some knowledgable friends, resulting in this photo of me DRESSED AS A PIRATE with my PIRATED DILDO after falling down the stairs and spilling some raisins.


    (photo by Lucia)

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