Cleaning Up the Dildo Department

The proprietor of South Lake Union's Raven's Gallery Erotica isn't alone in her concern over the use of phthalates in sex toys.

On a recent afternoon at her eponymous erotic emporium, the woman known as Raven begins a rant on one of her favorite topics: bad sex toys.

"I love how these companies say they make these for women, by women, tested by women," she says. "Yeah, right. A woman would never make something that looks like a spider and put it on her pussy." Excuse Raven if she's a bit of a snob when it comes to vibrators. The owner of Raven's Gallery Erotica near South Lake Union spent seven years designing and marketing adult toys before opening her own shop in April.

She runs upstairs and returns with a poorly conceived version of the industry's most popular toy, the rabbit. "There are at least 100 knockoffs," she says. "Most of them are crap." She keeps this model around expressly to demonstrate ergonomics gone wrong. "Women's vaginas aren't this long, and the beads are positioned way too far up to stimulate anything," she explains.

But what concerns her most is the material. Though the toy is more than four years old, it feels overly tacky, like a lint brush, and still gives off a noxious new car smell. According to Raven, the scent and the stickiness are from phthalates, a family of chemicals commonly used to soften PVC plastic—an inexpensive material from which the vast majority of sex toys are made.

Phthalates tend to leach or gas out of their substrates, which is not a good thing. The Centers for Disease Control has reported that phthalate exposure in laboratory animals has been linked to certain cancers, as well as abnormal prenatal male sexual development. Yet the multi-billion-dollar sex toy industry continues to use phthalates in its products, and thanks to largely unrestricted labeling practices, consumers are often none the wiser.

"This has been the sex industry's dirty little secret," Raven says. "They're creating a toxic time bomb for people's reproductive systems and then giving it a direct path to the very organs it damages."

First it was saccharin in sodas, then parabens in deodorants, and, recently, bovine growth hormone in milk. It was only a matter of time before the all-natural, organic marketing machine descended on adult toys. Earlier this year, a frenzy of media coverage on the hazards of phthalates compelled two major companies, including megadistributor Adam and Eve, to pull phthalate-containing products from their catalogs. Another company voluntarily began listing product ingredients on its packaging.

On the grassroots level, phthalate-free, "body friendly" sex toy stores like Raven's are sprouting up—quasi-public-health endeavors that also fill a market niche. The stores offer nontoxic toys and peace of mind, often at a sizable premium. Some of Raven's safest toys are medical-grade silicone dildos that can cost three times as much as their PVC counterparts.

"My rule of thumb is, if you wouldn't put it in your mouth, don't put it in your woo hoo," she says. "The public needs to be educated that personal items you're going to use in an intimate way should be as high quality as the vitamin supplements you take or the organic food you eat."

Seattle's resident woman-focused sex toy institution, Babeland, still carries phthalates in its inventory. "They're inexpensive, and we want to give people that option," says Audrey McManus, education coordinator for the Seattle Babeland store. "Some stores out there are totally phthalate-free, and they're really adamant about it, but I don't know. I guess we just want to educate people so they can make their own decision. We usually recommend people use condoms with them."

"That's like telling people to smoke a 'light' cigarette," Raven responds.

"Right now, your dog's toy is safer than your sex toy," says Jeff Meusse, spokesperson for Chula Vista, Calif.-based Tantus, maker of those silicone dildos.

Babeland co-founder Rachel Venning says less than 5 percent of its offerings currently contain phthalates, and the company is actively phasing them out. "There's this long tradition of thinking chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, but I'm not inclined to take that point of view," says Venning. "We're basically phthalate haters."

Yet research on the dangers of phthalates to humans is far from conclusive. Proponents of phthalate-free toys usually cite the same three pieces of evidence. One is a 2006 study commissioned by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency that confirmed the presence of phthalates in 16 popular adult toys and their tendency to leach out. Though the study states that massive quantities of phthalates were harmful to laboratory animals, it found no conclusive evidence that phthalates in the sex toys posed any health hazards to humans over the course of normal use, defined (perhaps not so realistically) as 15 minutes per week.

Another is a study conducted by Greenpeace Netherlands, which merely tested the composition of several popular sex toys (conclusion: most contained phthalates). The study didn't research the health implications of the chemicals, but when Greenpeace UK posted the results on its Web site along with its own editorializing in 2006, suddenly a toxic scare was fanned.

A third is the fact that the European Union has banned certain phthalates in cosmetics and children's toys. So, the argument goes, if phthalates are dangerous in those items, what about adult toys? But EU laws allow the banning of substances with a relatively low burden of proof—high doses causing harm to rodents was enough.

As phthalates have taken on dangerous connotations, silicone has emerged as the marketing buzzword of choice, a bit like the way "organic" was tossed around before 2002. "Sex toys are just kind of unregulated, so manufacturers have made toys that say 'silicone' on it, but it's actually a blend with a tiny bit of silicone," explains Venning. "It's become a buzzword, so they slap it on there, and it's kind of misleading."

Last month, an MSNBC story blamed this negligence on the fact that "there is no government oversight of sex toys," and that "there seems to be no official research by government or universities on sex toy manufacturing or ingredients." But in fact, adult toys fall under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, according to CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese. The CPSC enforces the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and is well aware of phthalates, having studied in 1998 the potential dangers they present to children. Though the study did recommend further investigation, it concluded that "few, if any, children are at risk of liver or other organ toxicity from mouthing teethers, rattles, and other PVC toys that contain [phthalates]."

"We were concerned about it, but we've done research, we've looked at it extensively," says Vallese. "And we don't have health concerns about it. We don't call it a toxic substance."

Phthalates are also common in cosmetics and medical devices, which the FDA regulates. According to FDA spokesperson Veronica Castro, "the FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed about carcinogenic effects from the use of cosmetics containing parabens or phthalates."

Meanwhile, the industry seems to be equivocating. Less than six months after it announced its intention to eradicate phthalates in its catalog, Adam and Eve has softened its stance. "We think we may have jumped the gun a little," says spokesperson Katy Zvolerin. "The research we've gotten is not definitive. We're not pursuing it as aggressively as before."

"This is a lot of hysteria about absolutely nothing," says Al Bloom of California Exotics, the company that began disclosing product ingredients.

San Francisco-based Good Vibrations, however, has stuck to its promise to eliminate phthalates in its products, figuring it's better to be safe than sorry. What staff sexologist Carol Queen finds more interesting than the possible health issues are the social and cultural forces that frame the debate.

"Without the confluence of environmentalism, which includes a certain suspicion of industrially created materials and a preference for 'natural' materials, and the sex-positive movement, which leads on one path to a sex toy shop, I don't think we'd be having this discussion at all," she says.

In 2001, Raven herself was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer typically found in women twice her age. With no family history of reproductive cancer, she admits she can't help but wonder how sex toys might have contributed. "I honestly don't think I had cancer that was caused by sex toys," she says. "I think I had cancer caused by a broad-based toxicity negligence. But I certainly don't thank the manufacturers for adding to the cumulative effect."

hhsu@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus