How Do I Clean My Sex Toys?

I’ve been meaning to write about how to clean your sex toys FOREVER. But, like many topics I keep meaning to get to, it kept slipping down my list. However, a lovely reader slid into my DMs this week with a question about this very topic. I’m taking it as a sign.

She writes…

Hi Amy,

I know that you should sterilise sex toys after use, and you can do this to silicone dildos and butt plugs (for example) by boiling them in hot water. I’ve bought a pan for dildo sterilising, but do I just… heat them up like I’m boiling potatoes? How do you boil sex toys to sterilise them, plus do you have any tips for storage to keep your toys clean between uses?

I love this question! I think, as a veteran sex geek, I’m making too many assumptions that people will know what I’m talking about when I say “boil your sex toys”. So thank you for reminding me I need to give more specific instructions to ensure my lovely readers are staying safe.

The short answer to your first question is yep. Just put the toys in a big pan of water, bring it to a rolling boil, and keep it bubbling away for 10 – 15 minutes. You can do this with any pure silicone or stainless steel toy, and also with high quality borosilicate (Pyrex) glass toys. Once you’re done, dump the water out, dry your toys thoroughly, and put them away.

Remember: you cannot boil-sterilise any toys with motors. So this method is great for dildos, butt plugs etc., but no good for vibrating toys.

When it comes to toys with motors, check the instructions from the manufacturer. If your toy is waterproof, wipe it down with a body-safe sterile wipe (I buy mine in bulk from a medical supplies store such as Medisave, one pack lasts months) to kill any bacteria, then dunk it in a bowl of warm water and very gentle soap. Wash, rinse it thoroughly, and you’re done. You can also follow this process for waterproof ABS (hard) plastic toys, which also cannot be boiled regardless of whether they have a motor or not.

The other option for waterproof toys with motors is to soak them in a 10% bleach solution (that is, 1 part bleach to 9 parts water) for a few minutes. Be sure to rinse REALLY thoroughly if you do this.

If your toy has a motor and is not waterproof, it’s a little trickier but you can still get it clean. Again, wipe it thoroughly with a medical wipe. Then clean it all over with a damp cloth dunked in clean warm water.

Remember, if your toy has any tricky grooves or ridges or nozzles, bacteria can gather here so take extra care to clean these areas really thoroughly.

As far as storing your toys between uses, there’s a couple of options:

  1. Just throw ’em all in a big bag or box (this is what I do, mostly). That thing about silicone toys melting together in storage? It’s 100% not true. Silicone doesn’t work that way! Check out Dangerous Lilly’s experiment to prove this myth false. If you do this, I recommend giving your toy a quick wipe down before you use it, just to get rid of any dust or lint that may have settled on it.
  2. Get some individual bags for them. Lovehoney do really cute drawstring sex toy bags, or you can probably buy similar from a craft store or online. I have a few of the Lovehoney ones and they keep my toys sparkling clean between uses! (Remember: a lot of higher end toys now come with their own bag or pouch).

For the purposes of safer sex, I always recommend using a barrier if you’re going to share a toy with a non fluid-bonded partner[1] and that toy cannot be boil sterilised or properly washed. My personal policy is barriers on shared vaginal toys unless I am fluid bonded with that partner, and condoms on shared anal toys ALWAYS. It’s a bit less risky for penis toys because the outer skin of the penis isn’t technically a mucus membrane.

Real talk: STI transmission risk through toys is very low, and becomes even more miniscule if you follow the simple tips outlined here. The bigger concern if toys aren’t properly cleaned are thrush, yeast infections and similar complaints rather than STI transmission (though the latter is still possible). I’m a risk-averse person with safer sex so tend towards caution and will recommend the same, but your acceptable risk parameters may vary.

[1] I’m aware that fluid bonding is a controversial term (technically kissing is fluid bonding!). But for the purposes of this post, I’m using it to mean having manual, oral, penetrative or toy sex without a barrier.

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When a Man Can’t Reach Climax

I replied to this question from a lovely reader privately, but he kindly gave me permission to reproduce his question for the column as I suspect there are lots of people who could benefit from this advice. He asks:

Any ideas for a cis guy who can’t reach climax? I experience a loss of sensation due to my ongoing illness and the medication I have to take. Sometimes using a high-powered vibrator like my wife’s Doxy helps, but only occasionally. I still enjoy sex and try not to worry too much about orgasm, but you can understand this is very frustrating. Sometimes I just don’t want to bother. There’s so much information out there about premature ejaculation, but not much about loss of sensation or inability to climax for men.

This is such a great question, and one that is so rarely talked about. As you correctly identified, there’s tonnes of information for cis guys who orgasm too quickly, but very little for those who struggle to get there in the timeframe they’d like… or at all.

First, I’m going to give you the obvious but necessary advice. Try, if possible, to relax and not stress about it. For a lot of people, making climax the express goal of sex or masturbation stresses them out so much that it makes it even MORE difficult to get there. And remember, you can still have loads of sexy fun without orgasm and even without a hard penis.

Secondly, if you haven’t already, please talk to your doctor. I don’t know what medication you’re on, but anorgasmia and difficulty orgasming is a hugely common and problematic side effect of many medications, including common antidepressants such as SSRIs. (Ask me how I know!) Sadly, many medical professionals don’t take sexual side effects seriously. But sex is an important part of life for many people, doctors need to take these side effects seriously. There may not be another medical solution, depending on the specifics and what your condition is. But it’s an avenue worth exploring if you haven’t already.

Third, I’m going to make a couple of toy suggestions for you. You mentioned using the Doxy wand can sometimes bring you to orgasm. How are you using it? If you’re just pressing it against your cock, that’s awesome for a lot of men but you might also wish to try using an attachment. My partner absolutely loves the Hummer. The advantage of an attachment like this is that it transmits the vibrations all over the penis, rather than concentrating them in the one spot where the toy is sitting.

I also highly recommend you check out the Pulse by Hot Octopuss. Unlike the Doxy, this “guybrator” is actually not a vibrator at all. It uses PulsePlate technology, an oscillating mechanism based on proven medical research. It’s the same medical technology that is used to help men with spinal cord injuries to ejaculate. It can be used on either a flaccid or erect penis. Tests have shown that it can induce climax even while the penis is flaccid! Of course, no toy is perfect for everyone, but given that this one was based on devices designed for those with little or no sensation, I think there’s a very real possibility it will be a great option for you.

This sounds like a really frustrating situation for you. I really hope some of this advice is helpful. I also really hope that seeking further medical advice specifically around the sexual side effects of your medication gives you some answers.

Today’s advice column is kindly supported by Hot Octopuss. Using any of the affiliate links in this post to purchase toys sends a small commission my way and helps support my writing and sex education work.  

Respectful Flirting for Queer Women

A female reader writes:

“Hey Amy,

I like girls but am very nervous about flirting, in part because they’re so cute my brain melts, and in part because I want to be polite and respectful. What are your tips on approaching cute humans in public places (cafes, bookshops, etc.) in a respectful way, to tell them their shirt is nerdy and cool, and to maybe indicate I want to start flirting with them?”

Oof. My dear reader, if I knew the definitive answer to this one, I’d date a lot more girls. But I will do my best, writing from the perspective of a woman who likes women and is maybe open to being flirted with by them.

A cool thing I learned about flirting a long time ago, which has always served me well, is to consider treating it as an end in and of itself. Flirting is a joyful activity as long as both parties are fully on board with it, and it does not necessarily need to lead to sex/a date/a relationship in order to be “successful”. This mindset will both help to guard you against crushing disappointment if that cutie you’re chatting to turns out to not be interested in taking things further, and helps to prevent you coming across as “creepy” or having an “agenda”.

To approach or not to approach?

When it comes to deciding whether to approach someone in public, it’s important to look for visual clues as to whether they may be open to being approached or not. If they’ve got headphones in, for example, or are hiding away in a corner behind a book or laptop, they’re probably either super busy or wanting to be left alone. Body language and general demeanor are important too. Does she look sad, stressed out, pissed off? That person is unlikely to be in the mood to chat. But someone who seems chilled out, happy or content is more likely to be open to meeting new people.

What to say?

A good way to approach someone and gauge if they’re interested in chatting to you is to offer an opener that they can either pick up and run with, or answer quickly then get back to whatever they were doing.

“I love your shirt! Where did you get it?” is a great one, especially if they’re wearing something that reflects a shared interest. You can also substitute “shirt” for bag, item of jewellery, shoes, cute notebook, etc. etc. Anything that clearly reflects an interest or personality trait. The key is to be genuine in your compliment. That way, if she’s not interested she can say thanks and you’ll have made someone smile. If she is open to more conversation, you’ve got a perfect first thing to talk about.

“Oh, I love [Author Name]” is also a good one if, say, you’re browsing the bookstore and see a cutie checking out one of your favourites.

Then, if she seems open and receptive, you can maybe tell her your name and ask hers, and see if you can get a conversation going. Ask if she wants to sit with you, or if she’s up for company at her table or would prefer to be alone. If you’re scared of backing her into a situation where she feels unable to say no, try the ball-in-her-court approach: “I’ve got to go meet my friend, but I’m [Name] on Facebook if you fancy looking me up. I’d love to get coffee and geek out over [shared interest] with you sometime”.

The “is she even into girls?” problem

Of course, you can’t usually tell by looking at someone if they’re queer or interested in your gender. There’s no easy way around this unless they “flag” in some way. Many people prefer not to be openly queer until they know they’re in a safe space to do so. This is particularly true in small or conservative communities.

There’s not a super easy way around it. Often, you’ll find out if someone is queer or available in the course of conversation and getting to know them. But one way to show that you’re a safe person to be open around is to flag queer in public, however subtly or overtly you’re comfortable with. This also makes it more likely that other queer folks who think you’re cute will approach YOU! Consider a rainbow bracelet, a “queer” or F/F symbol pin badge, a pride flag necklace, a risque phone case, or an LGBTQ/sex-positive tee.

Other ways to meet people

It’s probably also a really good idea, if you don’t already, to try to join some activities where people like you will congregate. Is there a feminist book club, a queer women’s social, an LGBTQ+ film group, a board game geeks’ night, anywhere near where you live? Go along and make friends, not with the specific intent of getting a date, but with the intent of meeting other people who share your interests and making friends. One of these people could be the next love of your life! Or they could invite you to a party, where one of their friends will turn out to be the cutie your heart desires.

In these environments, you’ve got a huge advantage over just meeting people in public. Everyone is, presumably, there to socialise and meet others to a certain extent. Not to mention you’ve got a ready-made thing to talk about! If you’re nervous, “I’m new, how long have you been coming?” is a fine opening gambit.

Most importantly: give yourself credit

Meeting people is hard. Saying hi to someone in public is even harder. This is all amplified by a thousand when you’re a queer person trying to get by in a heterocentric world. So if you say hi to someone cute, congratulate yourself! Maybe you’ll get knocked back, maybe you’ll make a friend, maybe you’ll get a date. The result isn’t the only point. The point is you put yourself out there. Confidence, coupled with a healthy respect for other people’s boundaries and comfort, is sexy as hell. So go you!

Want me to answer YOUR question? Email me, DM me on Twitter, or comment on this post.

When Should You Start Getting STI Tests?

A reader writes:

“Hi Amy! I have a possibly-stupid question about sexual health testing: I’m quite new to having any kind of sex, and have never had penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. What point should you start getting tested? I obviously want to practice safer sex, but should I get tested now or does it not matter so much until I start having penetrative sex?”

We had a bit of back-and-forth discussion and then they followed up with a second question:

“To complicate things a bit, I’ve also learned that I have vaginismus. I’m planning to go to the GP about this, but it made me realise that I have zero idea what would happen when getting a tested for STIs! I assume this would involves things going into my vagina?”

First: on when to test

My view is that anyone who is having any kind of sex with other people should be getting tested regularly, whether that sex is penetrative or not.

Different activities carry different transmission rates: very broadly speaking, anal sex is riskier than vaginal sex, which is riskier than oral sex, which is riskier than hand sex or toy sharing. However, any sexual activity with another person does carry a level of transmission risk, including (in the case of HSV/herpes and HPV) any skin-to-skin contact.

Please don’t take this as intended to scare you, dear reader. Forewarned is forearmed.  Knowing the facts means you can take steps to look after your own and your partners’ sexual health.

What barriers and safer sex methods you use is entirely up to you. Personally, I use condoms for PIV sex, anal sex, and shared toys (unless they’re pure silicone and without a motor, which can be boil-sterilised.) I don’t often use barriers for oral, though there have been exveptions. Your level of acceptable risk may be different, and that’s completely fine.

A good rule of thumb is to let the most risk-averse person set the level of precautions (e.g. “I don’t insist on barriers for oral but I’ll happily use one if a partner wants to”). And of course, whatever protective methods you ultimately decide to use or not use, it’s vital that this goes hand-in-hand with an open and honest conversation about testing practices and sexual history with your partner(s).

For more info on how to have this conversation, check out Reid Mihalko’s Safer Sex Elevator Speech.

Finally, this bears saying over and over again: Most STIs aren’t that scary, and the majority can be cured with a simple course of antibiotics if they’re caught early. A huge percentage of the population carries either HSV-1 or HSV-2, and the majority will never have an outbreak and may never know they’re carrying it. Even HIV, which many regard as the worst of the worst, is completely manageable these days and those diagnosed can live a full and normal life.

Knowing your status is your first and best weapon in protecting yourself, so please start getting tested as soon as you start having sex with other people.

Now, on to the second question: what actually happens when you go for a test?

It slightly depends on the clinic.

I’ve been going for STI testing regularly since 2009. Back then there tended to be a full, clothes-off-feet-up-in-stirrups examination by a nurse. But that hasn’t been the case for years. And as someone who has moved around a lot, I’ve been to quite a few different clinics.

Every clinic I’ve been to in the last 6+ years has asked for either a urine sample or a self-swab, the latter being more common. This is a tiny tiny thing that you put in your vagina for a few seconds, swirl around and then pop into a sterile container and give to the clinic nurse. You do this in private, either behind a curtain in the consulting room or in the bathroom.

If you’re having anal or oral sex, they should do rectal and throat swabs too, though I sometimes have to prompt the practitioner to do this.

They’ll also do a blood test, which is to screen for blood-borne infections such as syphilis and HIV.

The most important bit is to speak to the nurse/practitioner on the day about any concerns you have, including your vaginismus. The swab things are really tiny (much much smaller than even the smallest tampon), but if anything going into your vagina is a no-go for you, they should offer you another option such as a urine test wherever possible. STI testing shouldn’t have to be painful or uncomfortable.

At some point during the test, they’ll ask you some questions about your sexual history, especially your most recent partners. Some of the questions might seem weird or irrelevant, but it’s important to answer them honestly. A good healthcare practitioner shouldn’t make you feel judged for whatever you tell them, and if they do, you’re within your rights to gently push back or even ask to see somebody else.

After that, you usually wait around two weeks for your results. Some clinics will text you to tell you everything is okay, and others operate on a “no news is good news” policy. If there are any issues, they will call you and ask you to come in to discuss the issue and your treatment options.

And that’s it! Go forth, lovely reader, and have lots of responsible safer sex.

UPDATE: I wrote in more detail about what happens when you go for an STI test.

Want to ask me something? Please submit your questions by email for an anonymous answer on the blog.

Red Flags in a New Kinky Relationship

A reader writes:

“What are the red flags to look out for when starting a new relationship with a Dom or a sub?”

I have many, many feelings about this question and all the possible ways to answer it. As I often do when I’m mulling over a topic, I took it to Mr C&K for a male-and-mostly-Dom perspective (and also because he’s at least as smart as I am!)

His response, I think, was utterly brilliant: “Don’t get into a relationship with a Dom or a sub. Get into a relationship with a person.”

What I love about this answer is that it cuts through all the possible answers I was thinking of giving, and straight to the heart of the issue: get to know somebody as a real, three-dimensional human being before you seriously consider them as your Dominant or submissive. Spend time – LOTS of time – talking, communicating and seeing how they interact with you and the world. A good D/s relationship is a place of profound trust and vulnerability on both sides, and these things cannot be rushed. A real-life D/s relationship is nothing like an endless kinky fantasy – first and foremost, it is a relationship.

My partner is so fucking smart, y’all.

As an aside, I really recommend you check out Loving BDSM Podcast, as they’ve got some great things to say about building trust and getting to know someone at the beginning of a relationship, as well as every other kinky topic you can image. I particularly recommend episodes 31 and 83 for this topic.

In terms of more specific and concrete red flags to look for, I have some thoughts there too! I’ve tried to keep these applicable to people on either side of the D/s slash, and relevant whether you’re meeting online or in meatspace. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I would view any of the following with some serious side-eye and a healthy portion of skepticism:

Demanding too much, too soon.

You wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house or ask them to marry you on a first date, would you? Therefore, you shouldn’t be giving or accepting a collar, issuing or receiving orders, or committing to any kind of serious ongoing protocol or dynamic before you fully know someone.

If a Dominant expects you to kneel and call them Master the first time you meet, RUN. If a submissive expects you to invite them to move in and run every aspect of their life when you’ve barely got past coffee… you know what I’m going to say. Red flags abound.

Referring to themselves as a “Real” or “True” ANYTHING.

There is no such thing as a True Master, a Real Submissive, or a (*inserts tongue firmly into cheek*) Twue Dominate. Those of us who have been around the (spanking) block a few times call this One True Wayism. It’s frowned upon for good reason. People who think their way is the only way tend to be snobbish, elitist and derisive of others at best. At worst, they can be seriously dangerous – thinking you know everything, refusing to learn and refusing to be questioned is a recipe for disaster.

If you identify as a Dom, you’re a Dom. If you identify as a sub, congratulations – you’re a sub! There is no One True Way.

Using language like “if you were really [X] you’d do [Y.]”

“If you were really a sub, you’d give me all your passwords and your bank account login!” “If you were really a Dom, you’d take care of everything for me so I didn’t have to take any responsibility for my choices!”

Extreme examples, perhaps, but both examples I’ve encountered. If someone questions your identity or tries to use it against you in order to get you to comply with something you don’t want to do, run a fucking mile.

See above: no such thing as a “Real” or “True” anything. You don’t owe anyone proof of your subby or Domly Credentials.

Claiming to have no/very few limits.

Everyone has limits, folks. Absolutely everyone. Someone who claims not to have any (or to have “very few”) is woefully unprepared for what BDSM can actually entail. Even if you think you’re the most hardcore true subby who ever subbed, I promise there are things you would never consent to – and this is a good thing! Dominants have limits, too.

Repeat after me: everyone has limits. The sooner you learn what yours are and how to communicate them, the better your kinky fun is likely to be for all concerned.

Lying. This includes lies of omission.

The absolute foundational basis for any healthy relationship, kinky or vanilla, monogamous or polyamorous, is trust. Without trust, there is no relationship. Therefore, lying is arguably the biggest and reddest Big Red Flag out there. This includes big barefaced lies, of course, but it also includes lies of omission. “Forgetting” to tell you he’s got seven other submissives at home is a huge fucking deal and not something you should overlook.

The person who lies to you in the beginning will lie to you all the way along. Whatever your role, you’re a human being first and you deserve to be told the truth.

Breaking boundaries, including small ones.

Abusive people don’t start by trampling all over your boundaries in huge, glaring ways. If they did this on the first date, after all, they’ll never get as far as a second date. No – predators and abusers often ‘test the waters’ with a new victim to see how much they can get away with.

If they persist in using language towards you that you don’t like, touching you in a way you’re not comfortable with, or even subtly negging at you in small ways, you are not being too sensitive. They are testing you. They will push bigger and bigger boundaries if you continue a relationship with them. And more often than not, you will find yourself in a full-on abusive situation.

What do you think, dear readers? Did I miss out any glaring red flags that our lovely friend should know about?