It is, perhaps, a measure of just how mainstream sex toys have become that there are now budding consumer and environmental awareness campaigns being waged over them.
The biggest controversy is about the materials from which many toys are made.
Most vibrators, dildos and “love dolls,” for instance — especially the soft, pliable “jelly” type — use some form of plastic. In an effort to make the materials softer and more lifelike, PVC plastics suppliers incorporate one or more members of a family of compounds called phthalates (FAY-lates). To hear some environmentalists tell it, using a vibrator that includes phthalates is akin to bathing in DDT. Alarmed, some sex toy retailers, most prominently San Francisco-based Good Vibrations, are banning toys that include phthalates. But to hear the chemical industry tell it, phthalates are about as benign as mountain spring water. So what is a sex toy consumer to do?
Phthalates are ubiquitous. They are used in perfumes, hair sprays, plastic raincoats, carpet backing, paints, medical devices and many other items. They are responsible for that “new car smell,” which goes to show you how much plastic is used in cars.
Now they are showing up in people. As the fact of new car smell indicates, phthalates “off-gas,” meaning that they escape from the plastic in the form of a gas. So we breathe them. They also can escape their bond with the plastic by seeping out in an oily film, and we can absorb this through our skin, our mouths, our mucous membranes. A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of urine samples from 2,540 people ages 6 and older found phthalate metabolites (what’s left after our bodies chew it up) in more than 75 percent of the subjects.
What scientists cannot yet say is whether or not all this exposure is bad for us. “There is consensus that exposure is widespread in the general population,” explains Antonia M. Calafat, whose CDC lab did the study. While there is no cumulative buildup — phthalates are metabolized quickly by the body and excreted — “there is also consensus that phthalates are toxic in animals. There is no consensus at present whether the phthalates are causing adverse health effects in humans.”
Part of the uncertainty lies in the absence of human testing. You can’t ethically give people a dose of something you think might harm them, after all. And much of the testing done in animals, or on cells, uses doses of phthalates many times the typical exposure people experience. Further complicating matters is that there are grades of PVC-phthalate combinations (including food grade), with the lower the grade usually meaning the more smell and oily feel.
A quiet revolution
Despite the uncertainty, concern over phthalates has created a quiet revolution in the sex toy business. Fueled by Internet chatter and some media stories (including an article on About.com), sex toy consumers are asking questions of store owners and managers.
“When you open a jelly toy that reeks you have a visceral response to it,” says Anne Semans, marketing director of Babeland, a chain of sex shops based in Seattle. “And people say ‘Well, why take a chance?’” Semans says that in lieu of reliable expert opinion, the employees try to educate consumers about the ingredients of toys and point out alternative options, but leave the ultimate decisions to shoppers. Given the preference some consumers have for the jelly-style toys, she says, there are no plans to ban phthalate-carrying items from the shelves.
Not so at Good Vibrations. Since 1994, Good Vibrations has recommended the use of a condom over many phthalate-containing toys not only because of the phthalates, but because they can be difficult to clean, and has decided to phase out the material.
Now, says Carol Queen, staff sexologist, “There is enough [science] there to make us say, ‘Let’s be on the safe side and not worry anymore.’” She expects the stores will be phthalate-free in several months.
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Richard Longhurst, founder of U.K.-based LoveHoney, a major online retailer, believes fears are overblown. “Despite the brouhaha, the issue is more important to the media and some vocal retail outlets in the U.S. than to consumers,” he argues. “You could chop eight of my fingers off and I could still count on one hand the number of customer inquiries we’ve ever had about phthalates.”
He blames media coverage for fanning concern, “but having said that, if there’s a risk — however remote — and there’s an alternative material, why not use it?”
One of the most popular alternative materials is silicone. Not only are silicone toys phthalate-free, but surgical grade silicone is dishwasher safe and practically indestructible. Still, there is a downside.
Phthalate-containing materials are used not only because they can be soft and pliable, but because they are cheap. Toys using them tend to be on the low end of the price scale. Silicone toys can be expensive by comparison because they can be difficult to manufacture and the material costs more. Tantus, a California-based company, for example, makes a wide range of high quality silicone toys. But vibrator prices start at around $50 and run up to $116.
Most cheaper sex toys are made in China by one of five large American companies. But the “brouhaha,” as Longhurst terms it, is forcing them to adapt. In business, perception is often more powerful than the facts, so even before the verdict on phthalates and humans is in, most big manufacturers are offering silicone versions of some toys, in addition to glass, metal and elastomer rubber (something like the neoprene in wet suits) that are phthalate-free.
“In two years’ time, there will be fewer products with phthalates on the market,” Longhurst predicts. “But there will still be a demand for the cheap-and-cheerful jelly vibrators and dildos. Manufacturers and retailers that are progressive and who want to improve will phase out use of phthalates. There are plenty of better alternatives.”
Lack of oversight
Regardless of how the debate over phthalates works out, there is an interesting side story about how consumers of sex toys have taken the initiative. There is no government oversight of sex toys because, officially, sex toys aren’t meant to be used on people — they're “novelties.” So neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor Food and Drug Administration has any oversight of their marketing or manufacture. And there seems to be no official research by government or universities on sex toy manufacturing or ingredients. Because of this, there’s no way to be sure how much of the chemical there is in a particular sex toy.
Both manufacturers and retailers, and probably most sex toy consumers, like not having the oversight for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that nobody wants to give the government any control over sex. So sex toy consumerism exists in a parallel universe, trying to find its own way. Now that it is dealing with a science question, though, it is faced with the need to conduct some research.
So the non-profit Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco is about to launch its own testing program with the aid of chemists. Whether or not it will arrive at any reliable answers remains to be seen, but the move, and the larger discussion about the quality of sex toys, shows average consumers are not just willing to talk about vibrators and dildos — still illegal in some places, like Alabama — they are now demanding quality from adult toys just as they do from toys intended for their children.
Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, recently traveled around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction for the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and for an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.
Sexploration appears every other Thursday.
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