Sex dolls: taking an educational approach to hygiene for home rentals

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Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Angela Eykelbosh

The age of social media, online commerce, and to-your-door service have resulted in many novel services being performed outside typical commercial settings. Recently, the media highlighted a business that is renting life-like sex dolls for home use, one of several such businesses currently operating in Canada. The dolls consist of a fully articulated metal frame, around which a softer material (silicone or thermoplastic elastomer [TPE]) is cast or moulded. The dolls are roughly human height (approximately 5 feet tall) and weight (70-130 lbs). Clients order the service online; the doll is then delivered to the home and later recovered for cleaning and disinfection, before being rented out again.

Although operators typically “require” the use of condoms (which is generally recommended for safe use of sex toys, especially when shared), it is reasonable to assume that the interior and exterior surfaces of the doll have come into contact with body fluids. Because subsequent users will likely also contact these surfaces via mucous membranes, public health concern for disease transmission is warranted. Secondary concerns may include dermal or inhalation exposure to baby powder containing talc or corn starch, which is used to smooth the doll’s skin after cleaning.

Sex doll rentals are just one example of a growing number of atypical services that, although warranting concern, are operating at the margins of public health oversight. Other examples include such diverse products as inflatable birthing pools, home hookah rentals, and subscription services for children's toys (to name just a few).  All of these rental products, though less titillating than sex dolls, have the potential to come into contact with body fluids and require disinfection before re-use. However, as these activities occur in the home, the business would not typically fall under the purview of public health inspectors − until a complaint occurs and public health may then act to redress a specific health hazard.

Does public health have a role to play in regulating sex doll rentals?

Rental services like sex dolls do not fall within any specific public health portfolio. Although some provinces have expanded personal services legislation to cover activities that occur outside of traditional premises (e.g., mobile shops, tradeshows, etc.), activities like sex doll rentals don’t quite fit the definition of a personal service either. For example, in BC’s Guidelines for Personal Service Establishments, a personal service is defined as one in which a person (i.e., a human) performs a service on or to another person. Interacting with an adult doll does not fit this definition. Even if the sex doll is viewed as a tool or instrument, the definition of a personal service may also be limited according to activity (e.g., tattooing, massage), specific premises (beauty parlour, barber shop), or according to intent (services carried out for cosmetic or cultural purposes, as in NFLD's Personal Services Act). These again exclude sex doll interactions or businesses renting them out for home use.  Other Canadian jurisdictions do not work under a formal definition of a personal service. So what does public health “do” about rental services like sex dolls, for which the business activity carries an as yet undetermined risk of disease transmission?

Can operators and the public “figure it out” on their own?

At present, there is no evidence-based public health guidance on disinfecting sex toys. This is unfortunate given the research showing that sharing sex toys may transmit infections between partners in both men and women, and that TPE-based sex toys may harbour infectious agents longer than silicone sex toys.

However, even in the absence of sex toy guide, there is no shortage of online resources regarding the cleaning and disinfection of body fluids from environmental surfaces, many of which derive from the personal services literature. Recent examples include guidance documents from BC Ministry of Health and Public Health Ontario, which provide detailed information on not only cleaning body fluids, but also describe the classes and appropriate usage of disinfectants. These resources, read cover to cover, provide a wealth of information on infection prevention and control that would be highly useful to business owners wishing to provide the safest service possible.

And yet operators and the public may have difficulty singling out reputable resources, or in interpreting them.  Depending on the jurisdiction and the amount of body fluid involved, health authorities may recommend high- or low-level disinfection, which may lead to further confusion. As a result, it is highly unlikely that operators or the public will come to a fulsome understanding of hygiene for potentially risky rental products on their own.

Taking an educational approach: helping operators and the public to understand disinfection needs

Public health inspectors have an enormously valuable role in educating operators and the public. Sex dolls are a great example of this, as the complex design of the product can create real challenges for cleaning and disinfection. For example, the dolls have 2-3 orifices (which may or may not be removable inserts); they also have seams, hair and eyelashes, and phallic attachments. Material is also important. Although silicone dolls are typically non-porous and heat-resistant, some classes of TPE may be porous and/or hygroscopic, and may also be heat-sensitive, which can create challenges for disinfection.

There are also practical considerations. For operators, it is important that that reprocessing does not unnecessarily wear or damage the surface of the doll, and that it can be carried out in a reasonable time frame. For clients, it is important that the doll is fully disinfected (but not left with a distinct sanitizer odour), and that sanitizers have been adequately rinsed to avoid subsequent irritation or allergy. Given these criteria, the expertise of a public health inspector is invaluable to setting out a disinfection protocol that will adequately sanitize the product without damaging it, and without leaving (or creating) a hazard for the next user.

Communicating with the public regarding atypical services

In addition to providing recommendations to operators regarding disinfection issues, public health inspectors and health authorities have an important role to play in actively communicating with the public regarding atypical services. In the case of sex dolls, the obvious hygiene concerns may lead some members of the public to assume that health authorities are in some way active in or monitoring business operations. This highlights the need for improved communication regarding the role of health authorities and the need for consumers to be alert and hygiene-savvy. 

Summary

Given the wide range of new products and services available through social media and the online marketplace, both operators and the public may struggle to find the resources to use or provide these services safely. Public health must also expand its presence online, and find creative and engaging ways to educate the public about the risks they choose. Consumers must also realize that businesses providing services or delivering products to the home may not have ever had the benefit of consulting with a public health inspector. When it comes to sex doll hygiene, it’s buyer beware.