As concerns grow about toxic sex toys, Violet Blue explores potential consumer health risks
Thursday, November 8, 2007
When I worked at a sex toy store, we could smell the boxes before we even opened them.
Once the boxes of mass-manufactured "novelty" vibrators, dildos and assorted sex toys were open, the chemical smell would fill the room and linger wherever we kept the back stock. Some materials stank more than others; certain "lifelike" or "cyber" materials smelled like wet asphalt. Each item was individually packaged or bagged, often with misogynist or offensive marketing or labeling. So, we'd don sterile gloves and put the products into plain, clear, sealed bags. But each of the "jelly rubber," "jell-lee", and "sili-gel" products would be oily, with beads of some kind of chemical sweat oozing through its often visible pores.
It was so not hot.
It's ethically tough to sell sex toys you think might be toxic. For years I had a well-rehearsed speech I'd give to every customer who bought a fun, though chemically dubious item: Wash it first, please use a condom on it; if you don't, then clean it thoroughly, and throw it away after it loses its shine or after a month or two of enjoyment. It didn't take a brain surgeon (or Dildo Hut clerk, often confused) to figure out that the novelty industry was making a mint off having sex toys manufactured cheaply and sans health regulations in China. "Made in China" is printed on most sex toys. And selling sex toys as novelties means no one is responsible for how they are used (or if they function properly, or if they function at all).
It wasn't until the word phthalates hit mainstream consciousness — in conjunction with safety in plastics, children's toys and human endocrine disruption — that women-run adult retailers started to make noise about what we'd all been saying: These sex toys might be toxic. Working the sex toy retail front lines, it had become clear that jelly toys were cheap and accessible, but some customers complained of rashes and others had latex-allergy reactions. Jelly rubber toys, we cautioned, can't be stored next to cyber toys or they'd turn into chemical goo. Some cyber toys were so porous you could set them on a newspaper and then practically read the headlines on them — absorbing newsprint like a Silly Putty dick, even though CyberSkin's manufacturer professes the material is phthalate-free. We wondered, just what the hell were we all sticking in our collective orifices?
Smitten Kitten, a retailer in Canada, became so concerned about what was in these toys that it founded CATT: the Coalition Against Toxic Toys. As told in the Environment Report's "Sex Toys Safety" audio show Oct. 22, Smitten Kitten had a range of vibes and perky dildos sent off for chemical analysis — with the results showing that the nation's most popular vibrator, the Rabbit Habit, contains phthalates. That's the same rabbit vibe featured on "Sex and the City," and the same vibe Oprah Winfrey gave out to an entire studio audience. The findings only confirmed what many indie retailers knew all along and had been taking steps to educate customers about: No one knows if these toys are safe for internal use.
Those mainstream jelly rubber novelty products were miles away from the high-quality goods we'd get from health-conscious manufacturers like Tantus, who were slowly building a business model on healthy sex toys for smart adults: All their dildos, plugs, vibes and ring-dings are made of medical-grade silicone. Expensive toys, but hygienic. Even Tantus was having a hell of a time educating the huge, 600-pound gorilla entity that is the adult novelty industry as to why consumers' sexual health is important — never mind profitable. Companies like Vibratex, while not in the silicone market, have been phthalate-free from the start but remain in the novelty industry's minority.
But will a few concerned retailers and toymakers change the world (of orgasm-inducing bunnies with a poisonous bite)? Probably not; we're talking about a massive industry making 1,000-percent profits on cheap goods, a country that funds abstinence education and a national health department that is even less likely to test a King Dong Ballsy Supercock for safety and freshness than it is to say the word "sex."
Long opposed to the use of phthalates across the board, Greenpeace saw that 3 million Dutch people responded to a Durex condom survey stating that they owned sex toys. Greenpeace Netherlands was curious about the possible toxicity of all those dildos, vibes and plugs and in late 2006 it tested eight different sex toys: The study revealed that seven out of eight contained phthalates in concentrations up to 51 percent. Greenpeace issued a press release with the findings, stating that the substances in toys sold for internal use should only be put on the market once their safety had been proven. In 2006, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the sale, distribution and manufacture of baby products containing any level of bisphenol-A and certain levels of phthalates. This year, the entire state of California passed AB 1108, banning most phthalates, though the concentration of this ban is, again, in children's products — not adult toys, which, as pointed out by many sex educators and described in this podcast, are coming into direct contact with mucosal linings within the human body during "novelty use."
But not everyone agrees these sex toys are toxic, reports seem contradictory and studies are limited. Phthalates are used in everything from kids' toys to flooring, perfumes to paints. According to Brian Alexander at MSNBC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says we're soaking in them, the chemical industry claims they're safe as rainwater, and scientists say that we'd have to consume them by the ton to see adverse health effects — though the CDC admits that there is no consensus about adverse health effects in humans due to lack of human studies. Only lab rats seem to be having abnormal hormone activity, liver, kidney and lung damage and genital development problems. (But apparently, it's only rats who are buying and nibbling on the Jeff Stryker Realistic Anal Invader.)
The connection between lab rats and butt plugs is tough to navigate for a variety of reasons. British sex toy giant (NSFW)LoveHoney has a huge phthalates information page, where it details its take on the relationship between sex toys and phthalates, urging customers not to panic — or at least to use condoms on worrisome toys until hard, firm scientific data prove a risk to human health. LoveHoney also sent a mini rabbit vibe to a lab, and (NSFW)detailed the process and results, complete with a published test report according to European Union directives, showing the toy complied with EU safety standards but could not be given a pass/fail rating because the item fell outside of legal definitions. (Meaning, it wasn't a pacifier — for babies, anyway.)
But it's interesting to see phthalates banned in California, namely, Southern California, where most adult novelty companies and distributors call home. Last month, homegrown sex toy retailer Good Vibrations (goodvibes.com) was purchased by one of the old-boys' network biggies: GVA-TWN (gva-twn.com), which (NSFW)distributes everyone from Doc Johnson to Pipedream — exactly the kind of jelly and cyber products that retailers like Good Vibes (and concerned customers) have been wary of.
While stores like Babeland (babeland.com) chose to educate customers rather than stop carrying products, this summer Good Vibes stated that it would be phasing out toys with phthalates, and each phthalates-free product on the store's Web site is indicated with a symbol. But despite the buyout, Good Vibes' Carol Queen tells me, "We haven't changed our opinion about this material, which is that there is both a lack of thorough information about its potential health effects and simultaneously a real concern among many members of the buying public. We don't know if jelly rubber is a health hazard, but we do know it is more porous and harder to clean than many other materials, and this makes us want to err on the side of caution and continue to present better-quality toys to our shoppers. Plenty of places make the phthalate-inclusive jelly toys available, and we see our role as supporting the alternatives."
Jonathan Plotzker, Good Vibrations' senior director of merchandising and e-commerce adds, "We are not scientific experts and cannot make judgments about materials that have not been regulated domestically. We also understand that there are many, many kinds of phthalates, and that there are only three that are questionable. Those three are the ones that we are making an effort to eliminate from our assortment."
Until the CDC, Food and Drug Administration or the National Toxicology Program start holding pleasure parties for rodents — or fess up to the realities of adult sexuality — we're all just going to have to assess the risks for ourselves, as Cory Silverberg explains so eloquently (and in refreshingly unbiased detail) in his recent About.com article "Phthalates in Sex Toys."
Maybe what goes in your butt doesn't matter to Pipedream. But I still think if something smells like Bed Bath & Beyond's shower curtain section, it doesn't deserve a trip down south. And if they start letting rats play with Bouncy Bunny Clithuggers, I'll donate the lube.