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DISCLAIMER: please note that while this post draws on current scientific understanding of sexual health, I am NOT a medical professional and nothing in this post should be construed as medical advice or a substitute for such.
The first time I went to a sexual health clinic for an STI test, I was 19 and had been in a consensually non-monogamous relationship for about six months. When I awkwardly told the practitioner that I had sex with women as well as men (a reductive view of gender, of course, but my knowledge wasn’t anywhere near where it is today!) they cautioned me never to share toys with fellow vagina-owning partners.
Looking back, there were a couple of problems with this. First, “don’t share toys” is both unrealistic and unnecessary advice. The truth is more nuanced and less absolute than that. Second, why did they only offer this- albeit incorrect – advice when I said I was sleeping with women? People of all genders and in all types of relationship configurations use sex toys.
To that end, I thought it was time to bust some myths. So let’s look at the truth about STIs and sexual health when using toys, shall we?
You Can’t Transmit an STI via Sex Toys, Right!?
Sorry to break it to you, but you can. What you cannot do is get an STI spontaneously from using a sex toy alone. That’s impossible.
If a person who has a sexually transmitted infection (STI) uses a toy and then shares it with a non-infected partner, though, that person can contract the infection. This applies to STIs that spread via bodily fluids (such as blood, semen, and vaginal fluid) and those that spread via skin-to-skin contact. If you’re doing anal play, there’s an additional risk for infections that spread through fecal matter such as Hepatitis A, B, and C. It also applies to conditions such as bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections, by the way, though these aren’t STIs.
Most STIs cannot live for very long outside the body. However, this may still be longer than you think! One study showed that Human Papillomavirus (HPV) was still present on thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) sex toys 24 hours later after cleaning in 40% of cases. Other infections can last anything from minutes to hours or, rarely, days or weeks outside the body. This means that sharing a toy in quick succession is the highest risk activity. However, you’re still potentially at risk if you share an unsterilised toy even some time later.
An aside for the kinksters: if you are using toys that can break the skin (such as whips, floggers, and so on) then be aware that STIs can be transmitted through blood if you are using the toy on more than one person. Once a toy has blood on it, the most sensible thing is to consider it as belonging exclusively to that person. And if you play with rope, ropes that touch naked genitals or get sexual fluids on them should either be washed (if possible) or used exclusively on that person from then on.
Washing Your Toys is Not Enough
I feel like I bang on about this all the time, and especially in my sex toy workshops: washing a sex toy and sterilising it are not the same thing. Remember that HPV study I linked above? Those TPE toys had been washed! On silicone toys, HPV was present immediately after cleaning in 44% of cases. It was not present after 24 hours. This disparity may be due to the fact that TPE is porous and silicone is not.
Washing your toys after each use is a great thing to do, and I encourage it. This applies even if you’re the only person using them. Unclean toys can cause all kinds of problems for your body. However, washing your toy may not be enough to prevent STI transmission if you are sharing it.
The only way to be sure that a non-porous toy is STI-free is to sterilise it. This might include boiling, using a 10% bleach solution, or using a sterile medical wipe. I wrote an in-depth guide to cleaning and sterilising sex toys for Godemiche. Read it here.
One of the biggest problems with porous sex toys, and the reason I do not recommend them, is that they can never be fully sterilised. This means that they can harbour bacteria in the material itself. This is not just an STI transmission risk, but also incredibly unhygienic even if only one person is using the toy. If you must use a porous toy, always use a barrier such as a condom.
So What Can We Do to Stay Safe?
None of this is to say you shouldn’t share toys at all. If you know what you’re doing and take a few basic precautions, it’s actually one of the lower-risk forms of partnered sex. It’s also hot as fuck, obviously.
So what do you need to know in order to protect your own and others’ sexual health? If you’ve been reading my work for some time, you know what I’m going to say.
Go for an STI test regularly (between every 3 months and every year depending on how many partners you have.) Know your status. Talk openly about sexual health with each of your partners. Make agreements on what barriers you will and won’t use for each activity, including when using toys. Approach shared toy use like any other sexual activity. Negotiate it, do not assume it is 100% risk-free, and default to caution if you have any worries.
You can further reduce your risk by understanding how to fully sterilise your sex toys and choosing only non-porous materials (such as silicone, stainless steel, glass, and ABS plastic). Use barriers on shared toys if they are porous or if you have not negotiated that level of fluid exchange with the relevant partner(s.)
If you’re really cautious, it’s fine to just agree that each person will have their own toys for use on them exclusively. The downside of this, of course, is the expense. The most important thing is to educate yourself so that you can make the most sensible decisions for yourself and your partner(s.)
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