[Paleopsych] Getting (Too) Dirty in Bed

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Getting (Too) Dirty in Bed
By Emily Gertz, Grist Magazine
Posted on December 9, 2005, Printed on December 9, 2005

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

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.

Love Stinks

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 <http://www.goodvibes.com/> . "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 <http://www.grist.org/news/daily/2005/05/27/3/index.html>
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

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

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 in.
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
<http://www.bigteazetoys.com/pinkduck.htm>  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
<http://www.babeland.com/page/TIB/PROD/DA280880>  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 <http://www.smittenkittenonline.com/> ,
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

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
<http://www.babeland.com/page/TIB/PROD/DS215590> , 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 <http://www.babeland.com/page/TIB/PROD/NR638250>  made from soy
and essential oils, and Sensua Organic's fruit-flavored or unflavored
lubes <http://www.sensuaorganics.com/personallube.html>  -- 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  <http://WorldChanging.com> WorldChanging.

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