“It Actually Hurt Me”: Inside The Dangerous Rise Of Dropshipped Sex Toys

Photo by Kaitlyn Flannagan.
Twenty-three-year-old Kara* from the West Midlands recently bought a bright pink, clitoris-sucking sex toy online. She was excited to explore its much-lauded double-ended function (allegedly covering the G-spot and clitoris simultaneously) as well as test its waterproof capabilities. "My boyfriend had just moved away so I was like, 'Let's up the ante', and bought a toy to just use myself," she recalls. 
The vibrator she had discreetly delivered to her home wasn’t just any sex toy. Sold by a company named Tracy's Dog, this vibrator was infamous, having gone viral in 2019 after an anonymous reviewer on Amazon claimed that it caused her soul to leave her body and made her legs "[go] straight out like those goats who faint when scared". 
Kara wanted a piece of the action. Who wouldn’t? 
However, Kara didn’t buy her toy directly from Tracy’s Dog, where it costs around £43. Instead she added a toy that "looked like one in the reviews" to her AliExpress cart for closer to £15 excluding shipping. AliExpress, part of tech company Alibaba Group, is a Chinese e-commerce site which sells cheap, mass-produced goods.
Today on AliExpress, a vibrator similar to the one that went viral is listed for £20.12. On Amazon, the real deal from Tracy’s Dog is £43.99.
Like many of us, Kara wanted to save money. "I’d not really spent much money on toys before and I wanted something cheap and cheerful," she explains. She thought the toy on AliExpress was the same as the one that went viral but didn’t look too closely. 
At first, everything went to plan. Kara got a few good uses out of the toy. "It was as good as people said – really intense," she says.
Then things took a turn. "The material was ridiculously hard and uncomfortable. I was a bit battered."
After the third or fourth use, things went awry. The toy’s settings stopped working the way they were supposed to. Previously whisper-quiet, it grew much louder until it "sounded like a fucking power drill" and "scared the shit" out of Kara. Then it stopped and started jarringly mid-use. Within a few days of receiving the toy, it had completely stopped charging.

The toy was stopping and starting and because it's made of hard, plasticky material, it kept stopping while I had it on a high setting inside me and it actually hurt.

kara, 23
In the end, Kara became afraid when she was masturbating and the toy’s whirring sound developed into a "crunching" sound. 
"The toy was stopping and starting and because it's made of hard, plasticky material, it kept stopping while I had it on a high setting inside me and it actually hurt," Kara reflects. "It would die and go silent, then start up loud and fast again. It got pretty hot. I was worried it might burn me."
Kara had not bought the viral sex toy. She had inadvertently bought a dropshipped imitation. Dropshipping is as simple a concept as it is a dystopian one. Via sites like AliExpress, people sell products they've never physically owned, shipping them directly from countries they’ve never visited to customers they will never meet. 
The dropshipper – who is effectively the middleman in a global online supply chain – will sniff out a trend, whether it’s cow-print skirts or viral vibrators, find a corresponding product from a wholesale site and create a listing for the item they’re selling – usually for a drastically marked up price. This technique has become a huge problem in the fashion world. Depop is full of dropshipping victims who believe they have ordered a gorgeous dress only to receive a cheap, ill-fitting garment. Now it is increasingly a problem with sex toys, too. 
Imitators look to make quick money from the viral popularity of a product by selling similar items. While dropshipping itself is not inherently dangerous, poor quality products might be. And since there’s no communication between the seller and the wholesaler, there’s no return policy or recourse if things go wrong. 
Jules Margo is the cofounder of Hot Octopuss, a sex toy brand specialising in luxury sex tech, which includes toys that can be connected to smartphones and watches as well as toys which can record the strength of an orgasm on the company’s own climax Richter scale. Jules believes that people buy into dropshipped sex toys because they think they’re "lucky" or have "stumbled on a rare opportunity for a bargain, due to the low price".
"Often the dodgy dropshipping sites use very bright visuals and lots of price drop promotions and countdowns which urge you to make a quick buy," Jules says. "It makes you feel like you’ll miss out if you don’t."
Customers tend to go off images to garner the quality of a product before purchasing but because dropshippers aren’t using their own images (because they never see their stock in the first place), there’s no guarantee that you’re buying the product you think you are. 
"Some dropshippers also make a lot of effort to make their toys look like those of popular brands," Jules adds. This is what prompted Kara to buy a dodgy sex toy. "We’ve found Hot Octopuss branding on fake versions of our products before and had customers complain when the toy isn’t what they ordered," Jules continues. "Unfortunately there's not much we can do in that situation other than try to shut down the fake seller. We can’t help the customer recoup their money."

Kara wasn’t exactly sad to see the end of her toy. She didn’t try to get a refund or complain about the toy "since it was so cheap", but she didn’t buy another toy from AliExpress. 
Unlike a badly made dress, badly made sex toys can be dangerous because they are powerful electrical goods intended for use on the most sensitive parts of the human body. Sex toy injuries are more common than you might think. A few years ago The Washington Post reported a spike in sex toy injury-related hospital admissions in the US. Two thousand five hundred people had visited the emergency room in 2012 with injuries resulting from the use of massage devices and vibrators. More recently, Dr Martin Dahlberg, a Swedish surgeon who is campaigning for better regulation of sex toys across the board, said this problem hasn’t disappeared. He reported that he finds himself increasingly performing operations to remove sex toys lodged in the body. At his hospital, he said, "40% of cases of retained foreign objects are due to sex toys".
The rise of dropshipped sex toys is therefore cause for concern. Like the Tracy’s Dog vibrator, another sex toy – The Rose – has been all over TikTok of late. 
@angelbond1 #stitch with @tiffanynolagirl #toy #fyp #xyzbca #toofunny #rose #helpher she just wanted some alone time #😂 ♬ original sound - Angel Bond
The Rose is a small suction toy shaped like a rosebud and has swept the video-sharing app thanks to reviews calling it the "holy grail of sex toys". Inevitably, The Rose is also being dropshipped from wholesalers like AliExpress and Alibaba, with its manufacturers difficult to trace. The popularity of the toy has meant that dropshippers keen to ride its viral success have begun to multiply faster than gremlins. 
From Amazon to Etsy and even TikTok, the vibrating flower is being sold everywhere, under different names and for prices much higher than the product is worth. While some are sold around the £27 mark, others are sold for just £12.39. Over on Etsy, meanwhile, you can find the rose toy for as much as £41 or even £60.61. The toys all appear the same – they all have a teardrop-shaped logo – but it is impossible to locate the manufacturer. On AliExpress and Alibaba, the same toy goes for roughly $8 to $24 per piece, with the price decreasing if you buy in bulk.
According to Dr Gordon Hayward, a leading consumer risk expert, there is serious cause for concern. He explains that the quality of sex toy products ranges enormously in China and that "the most dangerous toys" are likely to have been manufactured there. 
When searching "Tracy’s Dog" on AliExpress I found multiple copies of the genuine toys, some for as low as $2.95. A few of them are made from jelly rubber or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) materials, which can pass toxic chemicals into the body and even interfere with reproductive health. While these toys all seem to ship from China, there’s no information about where they are manufactured or what they are made from. There are also no warranties. When I looked for contact details for each seller, they were not available when I clicked through. 
Hayward notes that the smaller the importer, "the less likely they are to have independently verified conformity" – like the heart-shaped bottom we all recognise as Lovehoney or the bunny logo that lets us know a toy is from Ann Summers. He adds: "Only a small proportion of these goods get stopped by UK customs." 
Hayward also underlines the fact that all electrical goods sold in the UK and EU are required to be safe. "There are specific requirements for some chemicals in fluids and plastics, and for products connected to the electrical mains," he explains. There is no guarantee that a dropshipped sex toy will have met these requirements or been properly tested in accordance with them. 
In Europe, standards are getting more rigorous. In October 2021 technology magazine Wired reported that the International Organization for Standardization – which goes by its European initialism ISO – had released its first-ever set of guidelines for the construction of dildos, vibrators, butt plugs and all other products within the rich and varied world of human pleasure. 

It would die and go silent, then start up loud and fast again. It got pretty hot. I was worried it might burn me.

kara, 23
ISO 3533 – "Sex toys: Design and Safety Requirements for Products in Direct Contact with Genitalia, the Anus, or Both – lays out the specifications for sex toys, from the types of materials which are safe for contact with mucosal membranes to the tolerable range of vibratory frequency and the need for flanges or wide bases on objects designed to be inserted into an anus.
Ultimately, Dr Hayward advises only buying sex toys (online or in person) from a well-reviewed UK retailer. When it comes to sex toys intended to be used more intimately, such as G-spot stimulators or anal toys, he recommends going for brands with a reputation in this field. "They will take measures aimed at ensuring they only import products that meet UK safety regulations and standards, which remain identical to the European Union’s," he explains. 
Right now, the issue of dropshipped sex toys feels like whack-a-mole. In a truly globalised world where you can buy almost anything from anyone, anywhere, at any time, regulation is challenging. This makes dropshipping sex toys a particularly appealing business opportunity. The dropshipping subreddit is filled with advice about starting out with sex toys because it’s so "easy" to launch.
While writing this article, I tried to set up a sex toy store to see what checks and balances are being put in place by platforms which host sellers. While Amazon requested verification, identification and membership set-up with a fee, I was able to set up Shopify and Etsy stores straightaway, using pictures of the rose toy that I screen-grabbed from Google. It was sobering to see how easy it is to set up a sex toy shop using Google Images and no merchandise. 
Buying sex toys from international dropshippers may seem appealing because it seems more affordable. But there are so many good manufacturers out there, like Hot Octopuss, which have years of experience, will user-test new models and will recall products quickly if injuries or faults are reported. The same cannot be said for a dropshipping importer. 
A spokesperson for Alixpress said:
“AliExpress is a third-party online marketplace that enables merchants and buyers to connect directly with each other. We take very seriously the safety of all our customers and we work hard to ensure a safe shopping environment."

“We are investigating the item identified by Refinery29 and we will take appropriate action in accordance with our platform rules, including where appropriate removal of products and penalising sellers found to be violating our platform rules and regulations.”
Refinery29 has contacted Amazon, Shopify, WooCommerce and Etsy for comment. 
*Name has been changed

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series