It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the appeal of buying sex toys on Amazon. It’s discreet, there are tons of reviews to help you make a decision, and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your in-home bean bag chair to do it. It’s usually cheaper, and because it involves talking to exactly zero people, it’s a great option for anyone who feels uncomfortable visiting a sex shop in person.
However, while shopping for sex toys and accessories on Amazon is an easy and convenient option, it’s not always the safest. Because of the way Amazon regulates their merchandise, there is no guarantee that the product you ordered is the product you’re going to get. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to receive fake, counterfeit and even used sex toys from Amazon. The internet is awash with stories like this. Kinkly.com recently published a particularly alarming one that investigated the source of a number of highly rated products on Amazon’s Best-Sellers list, and, spoiler alert — the products were nowhere near as high-quality and safe as Amazon had advertised them as being.
So, just how exactly does Amazon get away with selling fake, questionable or dangerous products?
Amazon itself is not responsible for quality control or ensuring their customers get what they paid for. Rather, they’re just the third-party platform that connects retailers to consumers; the internet middleman running your vibrator from Company X to you. Even if they tried, they couldn’t possibly run the sort of quality control that would prevent things like this from happening. According to research by Juozas Kaziukenas of Marketplace Pulse, Amazon has more than one million brands, hundreds of millions of products and more than five million marketplace sellers that they currently work with. It’s unclear how many of those products are sex toys, but with that amount of stock, it’s easy to see how regulation would be difficult.
On top of that, because Amazon doesn’t connect retailers and customers directly, it can be hard to tell if a retailer, and the product they’re selling, is legit. Pretty much anyone can start a “company” and sell whatever they want to on the site. A fake company can easily pass off a fake product — all they have to do is print the real product’s barcode on their version’s packaging and Amazon’s none the wiser.
This has everything to do with how Amazon stocks and fulfills orders. In Amazon warehouses, products are shelved alongside every other product with the same manufacturer barcode. It doesn’t matter if the products differ; as long as the same barcode is printed on their box, they get “commingled” in the same bin. However, since it is not Amazon’s responsibility to ensure what is inside that box is what you think it is, boxes and packages can contain pretty much anything as long as that crucial barcode is on the outside.
So, say you order a Satisfyer Pro Penguin off Amazon. When someone goes to the bin where the Pro Penguin is stored, they pick up a box that has the corresponding barcode on it and fulfill the order — to them, fakes and real products look essentially the same. However, what’s inside the box that arrives on your doorstep may very well be the Pro Penguin, but it could also be something; anything else.
Additionally, because of Amazon’s return policy, there is nothing stopping someone from sending a used sex toy back. Said sex toy gets processed like any other Amazon return, and can be shipped out again to unsuspecting customers. Not only is that unhygienic; it’s dangerous — if the toy is made of a porous product (and most fake toys are) it can trap bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms that can transmit infection from one person to another.
And then there are the fake reviews. Amazon is swimming in falsified or paid reviews that sing the praises of counterfeit products and make them seem light-years more appealing and effective than they actually are. Many of these five-star reviews pop up within hours or days of the product being listed, suspiciously well before a customers would even have been able to receive a product in the mail.
The worst part is toys with the best reviews often get promoted to Amazon’s Best-Sellers page, which is where the majority of people go to buy sex toys. This means that fake or unsafe toys are often passed off as the cream of the crop, enticing more and more people to buy them while the safer, healthier real products get overlooked.
To be clear, this stuff doesn’t happen all day every day, or Amazon wouldn’t be the one of the most popular sites on the internet. Things go smoothly most of the time — actually, Amazon does allow retailers and brands to fulfill orders directly if they choose to, and their warehouses also offer the option to pay more to have their products stocked separately so that customers get exactly what they ordered. However, not every company takes advantage of this or has the capital to. It’s cheaper and easier to go the “commingled in a bin of random” stuff route for brands and retailers, but not for their customers.
So, what to do you?
The best place to buy sex toys online is through trustworthy independent sex shops or directly from the brands themselves. This ensures you’re getting a real, high-quality product that hasn’t been used.
But, if you must use Amazon, make sure to question both the reviews you see and what’s on their Best-Sellers list. While it’s impossible to tell from a consumer standpoint whether the product you’re looking at is real or fake from the the faraway perspective of a website on your screen, it pays to be skeptical, do your research, and compare the products you find on Amazon with the ones that come directly from a manufacturer’s website or a reputable online sex shop.
And, if you’re feeling up to it, visit a sex store in-person. There are many ethical, sex-positive and education-based sex stores that are doing some amazing work with education and philanthropy these days, often picking up where sex ed in schools leave off in order to become a resource or people’s sex-related questions and concerns. Sex shops are also a fantastic place to find and stoke community and to find people with similar interests to your own.
So, when in doubt, stay off Amazon.
… Unless you’re buying cheap packages of socks in bulk. Then you’re golden.
No one will ever understand that.
Ibby has written for Playboy, Harper's BAZAAR, Flaunt, Animals, Rooster Magazine and this very site you're on now.