Peace and coital unto you.
Photo: Lise Gagne/iStockphoto.
Ever thought about the toxins in your sex toys?
So you're an Enlightened Green Consumer. You buy organic food and carry it
home from the local market in string bags. Your coffee is shade-grown and fair-trade,
your water's solar-heated, and your car is a hybrid. But what about the playthings
you're using for grown-up fun between those organic cotton sheets -- how healthy
and environmentally sensitive are they?
Few eco-conscious shoppers consider the chemicals used to create their intimate
devices. Yes, those things -- from vibrators resembling long-eared bunny rabbits
to sleeves and rings in shapes ranging from faux female to flower power. If
these seem like unmentionables, that's part of the problem: while some are made
with unsafe materials, it's tough to talk about that like, well, adults.
But it's necessary. Unlike other plastic items that humans put to biologically
intimate use -- like medical devices or chew-friendly children's toys -- sex
toys go largely unregulated and untested. And some in the industry say it's
time for that to change.
Many popular erotic toys are made of polyvinyl chlorides (PVC) -- plastics
long decried by eco-activists for the toxins released during their manufacture
and disposal -- and softened with phthalates, a controversial family of chemicals.
These include invitingly soft "jelly" or "cyberskin" items,
which have grown popular in the last decade or so, says Carol Queen, Ph.D.,
"staff sexologist" for the San Francisco-based adult toy boutique
Good Vibrations. "It's actually
difficult for a store today to carry plenty of items and yet avoid PVC,"
Queen says. "Its use has gotten pretty ubiquitous among the large purveyors,
because it's cheap and easy to work with."
In recent years, testing has revealed the potentially serious health impacts
of phthalates. Studies on rats and mice suggest that exposure could cause cancer
and damage the reproductive system. Minute levels of some phthalates have been
linked to sperm damage in men, and this year, two
published studies linked phthalate exposure in the womb and through breast
milk to male reproductive issues.
A study in 2000 by German chemist Hans Ulrich Krieg found that 10 dangerous
chemicals gassed out of some sex toys available in Europe, including diethylhexyl
phthalates. Some had phthalate concentrations as high as 243,000 parts per million
-- a number characterized as "off the charts" by Davis Baltz of the
health advocacy group Commonweal. "We were really shocked," Krieg
told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Marketplace in a 2001 report on
the sex-toy industry. "I have been doing this analysis of consumer goods
for more than 10 years, and I've never seen such high results."
The danger, says Baltz, is that heat, agitation, and extended shelf life can
accelerate the leaching of phthalates. "In addition, [phthalates are] lipophilic,
meaning they are drawn to fat," he says. "If they come into contact
with solutions or substances that have lipid content, the fat could actually
help draw the phthalates out of the plastic." Janice Cripe, a former buyer
for Blowfish -- a Bay Area-based online company whose motto is "Good Products
for Great Sex" -- confirms the instability of jelly toys: "They would
leak," she says. "They'd leach this sort of oily stuff. They would
turn milky" and had a "kind of plasticky, rubbery odor." She
stopped ordering many jelly toys during her time at Blowfish, even though their
lower prices made them popular.
So what's being done to protect consumers? Well, nothing. While the U.S., Japan,
Canada, and the European Union have undertaken various restrictions regarding
phthalates in children's toys, no such rules exist for adult toys. In order
to be regulated in the U.S. under current law, sex toys would have to present
what the federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission calls a "substantial
product hazard" -- essentially, a danger from materials or design that,
in the course of using the product as it's made to be used, could cause major
injury or death. But if you look at the packaging of your average mock penis
or ersatz vagina, it's probably been labeled as a "novelty," a gag
gift not intended for actual use. That's an important semantic dodge that allows
less scrupulous manufacturers to elude responsibility for potentially harmful
materials, and to evade government regulation. If you stick it somewhere it
wasn't meant to go, well -- caveat emptor, baby!
It's a striking lack of oversight for a major globalized industry. The Guardian
recently estimated that 70 percent of the world's sex toys are manufactured
in China, and the CBC's 2001 report suggested the North American market might
be worth $400 million to $500 million.
More detailed figures can be hard to come by. "In the U.S., all of the
companies that manufacture adult novelties, whether they're mom-and-pop or large
corporations, are privately held," explains Philip Pearl, publisher and
editor in chief of AVN Adult Novelty Business, a trade magazine. "None
are required to publish financial information, and none do."
Queen thinks the lack of agreed-upon standards is a major problem. She and
the staff at Good Vibrations have often had to fall back on marginally relevant
regulations. "I remember trying in the early '90s to track down information
on an oil used on beautiful hand-carved wooden dildos -- was it safe to put
into the body?" she says. "The closest comparison we could find was
the regulation governing wooden salad utensils!"
Taking Things Into Their Own Hands
Metis Black, president of U.S.-based erotic-toy manufacturer Tantus Silicone,
has written on the health risks of materials for Adult Novelty Business. "Self-regulation
-- eventually we've got to do it," says Black, who adds that creating safe
toys is what got her into the business about seven years ago. "Just like
children's teething toys, we're going to have to start doing the dialogue"
within the industry, Black says, to "discuss what's in toys and how it
affects customers." Otherwise, she feels, government regulators will step
While the industry wrestles with such issues, some manufacturers and suppliers
aren't waiting for regulations. Tony Levine, founder of Big Teaze Toys, says
he's made his products -- including the cutely discreet, soft-plastic vibrator
I Rub My Duckie -- phthalate-free
from the start. "While working at Mattel as a toy designer, I was made
very aware of the concerns of using only safe materials for children's products,"
he says. "This training has stuck with me ... We take great pride in using
only the materials which meet strict toxicity safety standards for both the
U.S. and the E.U."
Meanwhile, if customers select jelly playthings at Babeland, a retailer with
stores in Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle, the staff gives them a tip
sheet on phthalates, and recommends using a condom with the toy. "Our goal
is to help people make an educated choice, and give out as much information
as we can find -- without alarming people," says Abby Weintraub, an associate
manager at the company's Soho store.
Babeland staff also steer willing customers toward phthalate-free alternatives,
such as hard plastic, or the silicone substitute VixSkin. Some manufacturers
are also using thermoplastic elastomers instead of PVC. Vibratex recently reformulated
the popular Rabbit
Habit dual-action vibrator -- made famous on Sex and the City -- with this
material. Vibratex co-owner Daniel Martin says the company has always used "superior
grade," stable PVC formulations, and still considers the products safe,
but acknowledges that customers are eager for phthalate-free tools. While alternative
materials can be more expensive, Weintraub says when people have the option
of choosing them, many do.
The owners of the Smitten Kitten,
a Minneapolis-based retailer, opted not to carry jellies, cyberskins, or other
potentially toxic toys at all when they opened about two years ago. "They're
dangerous to human health, to the environment," says co-owner Jennifer
Pritchett. "It's part of our philosophy to put good things in the world,
and it's counter to that to sell things that are toxic."
No Sex Please, We're Skittish
So what are the other alternatives for eco-conscious pleasure-seekers? The
most ecologically correct choices may be metal or hardened glass dildos -- which,
with their elegant, streamlined shapes (and sometimes hefty price tags) can
double as modernist sculptures if you grow weary of their sensual charms. "The
glass is going to be more lasting, possibly safer, and less toxic than something
that's plastic," confirms Babeland marketing manager Rebecca Suzanne.
And the eco-choices don't stop there. If you want to do your part for conservation
while getting a buzz, go for the Solar
Vibe, a bullet vibrator that comes wired to a small solar panel. Some vibrators
come with rechargeable power packs, says Suzanne, "which is a little bit
better alternative to the typical battery-run toy, where you just toss the batteries
... into the landfill."
What about accessories? The Smitten Kitten takes pride in its "animal-friendly"
inventory of bondage and fetish gear. "We have some floggers that are made
of nylon rope ... natural rope, and rubber," says Pritchett. "The
same with the paddles, collars, cuffs, and whatnot. Totally leather-free, animal-product-free."
A few manufacturers are bringing green values directly to the adult-toy market
via products that might not be out of place in the cosmetics aisle of a natural-foods
mega-retailer. Offerings include Body Wax's candles
made from soy and essential oils, and Sensua Organic's fruit-flavored or unflavored
lubes -- one of
a few lubricant lines touting either organic or all-natural formulations. "People
enjoy having the option," says Weintraub. "It's like, 'I use organic
face wash. Maybe I want to use organic lube, too.'"
Pritchett feels health and eco-conscious retailers are a shopper's best ally
for staying safe and healthy. "So many of us are used to shopping for organic
food, or ecologically safe building products, or cosmetics," she says.
When people realize it's possible to shop for sex toys the same way, "you
can see a light bulb go off -- they realize it's a consumer relationship and
they can and should demand better products."
Choosing the most eco-correct erotic toy can seem fraught with compromises
-- more akin to picking the most fuel-efficient automobile than buying a bunch
of organic kale. With no government assessment or regulation on the immediate
horizon, it's up to you, the consumer, to shop carefully and select a tool that's
health-safe, fits your budget, and gets your rocks off. Meanwhile, pack up that
old mystery-material toy and send it back to the manufacturer with a note that
they can stick it where the sun don't shine.
Emily Gertz has written on environmental politics, business,
and culture for Grist, BushGreenwatch, and other independent publications. She
is a regular contributor to WorldChanging.