By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In "Dangerous Dildos, Part 1" I recounted my experience with a red dildo that left my ass feeling as if it were on fire and I laid out the research on the culprit: phthalates, a group of industrial chemicals found in many sex toys. Mine is not an isolated incident; ask any sex store clerk or porn star: Lots of people are talking about the burning, itching, and other irritation experienced after using PVC sex toys with phthalates.
Another downside to these toys is that they're porous, so they cannot be easily cleaned or completely disinfected (like nonporous materials such as silicone or glass). Irritation is one thing, but whether these toys are toxic and cause long-term problems is a hotly debated question. Research has shown a link between the chemicals and cancer in mice and rats but not in humans. (Furthermore, most human research deals with phthalate exposure through the skin and mouth, not through the absorbent tissue of the genitals.) What is clear is that the issue highlights a growing tension within the sex toy industry between companies stuck in an outdated "adult novelty" model and those invested in raising the bar.
When co-owner Jessica Giordani opened The Smitten Kitten, a sex toy shop in Minneapolis, her first shipment of PVC toys arrived in a box with a strong odor and full of what looked like oil stains. According to Giordani, when she questioned her distributor about it, he said, "Oh, yeah, that happens." Unsatisfied with that answer, she asked the manufacturers about their ingredients. No one would tell her what their toys were made of. So, Giordani decided to do the research herself, which lead to the formation of CATT, the Coalition Against Toxic Toys (badvibes.org), a nonprofit consumer advocacy and education organization dedicated to ending the manufacture, distribution, and retail sale of toxic sex toys. CATT sends popular toys (like the "Rabbit Habit") to an independent lab to test their formulations and publishes the findings on its website. "We want to make the information available to consumers so they can make informed decisions," says Giordani. The Smitten Kitten and Womyn's Ware in Canada won't carry any toy they consider toxic. Other retail stores, like Good Vibrations and Babeland, inform customers what a toy is made of, and, in the case of toys with phthalates, recommend using a condom over them.
Thanks to Giordani and others, there's been enough media coverage about the issue and dialogue among retailers and consumers that many toy manufacturers have begun advertising products as "phthalate-free." This would seem like a step in the right direction; however, unlike other products, sex toys are not regulated by any agency (part of this is due to an unfortunate loophole where sex toys are labeled "for novelty use" meaning they have no actual use). The FDA makes sure that shampoo manufacturers must tell you what's in their product, but dildo companies are not required to list a toy's actual ingredients. This allows the industry to provide misleading and incorrect labeling, which it routinely does, from "hypoallergenic dildos" to so-called silicone toys that aren't made of silicone. Some well-established companies recognize the need for change and have moved toward higher quality products; others don't seem that concerned.
When you look at the phthalate issue in a larger context, what you see is the current split within the sex toy industry between old-school adult novelty makers and new age sex-positive toy companies. The former are stuck in a model of "get it as cheap as you can from China, make it look like a penis (that's what women want, right?), and spend as little as you can on packaging." Toys from these companies scream, "Who cares if this looks good or actually works? No one's going to return it or complain, they'll be too embarrassed. Besides, it's just a dildo," reinforcing people's low expectations and shame. Nick Orlandino, chief operating officer of Pipedream Products, recently told Adult Novelty Business, "Most of our customers don't give a shit what their toy is made of." This gag-gift mentality treats its products, and by extension sexual pleasure and satisfaction, as frivolous and unimportant.
Metis Black, president of silicone toy manufacturer Tantus (tantusinc.com), disagrees with this attitude: "Consumers need to expect more and demand higher quality products." Tantus toys are made of the highest quality (and most expensive) medical-grade platinum silicone. Black thinks there should be self-regulation within the toy industry and transparency when it comes to the ingredients they use. "The phthalate studies are a mixed bag. We know that these toys smell and off-gas, and that can't be good for you. It's not just phthalates. They've found cadmium and lead and industrial-grade mineral oil, which is like kerosene, in some toys."
Tantus is part of a new generation of companies dedicated to research and development, top quality materials, attention to detail, and consumer satisfaction. These sex-positive manufacturers design and test their products with real bodies and pleasure in mind. They stand behind their stuff, and want consumers to know they have the right to toys that are well made, long-lasting, and do what they say they'll do. They treat butt plugs like they treat sex: as something valued and valuable.
As these two kinds of companies with radically different philosophies battle for a share of the market, I can only hope that quality will prevail over making a fast buck. My pussy and ass deserve quality sex toys. So do yours.
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