Culture

[Sustainable Sex]

Saving the planet one vibrator at a time

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Many rubber sex toys contain phthalates, a family of chemicals linked to reproductive defects and hormonal disruptions.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen
Lynn Comella

In an episode from the first season of Sex and the City, Charlotte goes vibrator shopping with gal pals Carrie and Miranda. Although she initially dismisses vibrators as cold and impersonal—she prefers having sex with someone she loves, she tells her friends—Charlotte swoons when she sees just how cute and colorful vibrators can be.

If Charlotte were shopping for sex toys in today’s more eco-conscious marketplace, she might be concerned with more than whether her vibrator looks pretty. She might also want her sex toys to be nontoxic and hypoallergenic, manufactured under sustainable conditions and made from quality materials that can be recycled.

Eco Friendly Sex Toys

A movement is afoot for greener sex toys, and leading the charge is a small but growing number of socially conscious manufacturers and retailers, for whom sustainable sex is not only an ethical priority but a viable business model. For years, retailers used to joke about the “mystery rubber jelly” that many vibrators and dildos were made from—materials that often smelled funny and frequently degraded. While these products were relatively inexpensive and therefore sold well, not much was known about the materials used to make them, or their potential health risks.

As it turns out, there was reason for concern. In 2006, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency released a research report verifying what many had long suspected: The majority of sex toys on the market, most of them manufactured in China, contained toxic chemicals, including phthalates (pronounced tha-lates), a family of industrial chemicals known as plasticizers that are used to make hard plastics soft and pliable. The problem with phthalates is that they break down over time and release harmful gasses, which cause toys to discolor, become sticky and take on an unpleasant taste and odor. Although research has been inconclusive about potential health risks linked to phthalates, some studies indicate they may cause reproductive defects and hormonal disruptions, especially in infant males. In 2008, Congress approved a nationwide ban on phthalates in children’s toys.

Amanda Morgan, a master’s degree student in public health at UNLV and a recent graduate of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, is doing her thesis research on toxic toys. As we sit together next to a sex toy display at the Erotic Heritage Museum, Morgan explains that there are no industry standards for sex toys, largely because they are marketed and sold as “adult novelties” or “gag gifts,” rather than functional items people actually use. “We just don’t know how much of these chemicals exist in these products and what kind of health effects they might have,” she says. To emphasize her point she picked up a rubber dildo from a shelf. “You can smell the chemicals coming off this toy.”

Fun Factory's "Baby Bug" is made from silicone, which means it's phthalates-free.

For consumers interested in safe and eco-friendly sex toys, as well as issues of sustainability, there are a handful of environmentally conscious retailers that sell only phthalate-free and nontoxic products. One such company is online retailer Earth Erotics, whose trademarked tag line is “Doing It Green.” Founded by Alliyah Mirza in 2006, Earth Erotics is the only adult boutique certified by Green America. It sells a range of green products—hand-crafted glass dildos, certified organic lubricants and platinum grade silicone vibrators—and has recently launched a sustainable version of home sex toy parties. Mirza carefully screens every product her company sells and stocks nothing manufactured in China. “I won’t carry products where the manufacturer can’t or won’t tell me what it is made from,” she tells me. “I need to be able to stand by the products I sell.”

Standards regarding eco-friendly products and practices differ from company to company. Tantus, a San Diego-based sex toy manufacturer, manufactures its products in the United States, pays its employees livable wages and uses platinum-grade silicone in its designs. The company also uses FDA-approved mineral spirits to clean its machines in an effort to avoid leaving toxic residue on its nontoxic toys. “We try to be as green as we possibly can, from start to finish,” founder and president Metis Black says.

While it’s certainly more expensive for companies to produce high-quality, eco-friendly products under sustainable conditions, Black argues that the economic recession has actually helped make sustainable sex more appealing to consumers. “People are spending the money they have on products that will last longer and be good for their bodies,” she says. “They are making smart purchases and stretching their dollars.”

The greening of sex toys has been fueled largely by socially progressive companies rather than consumers. According to Black, the sexual marketplace is still an “uneducated” one. Carol Queen, staff sexologist at Good Vibrations in San Francisco, sees inconsistencies in consumer choices. “People who think nothing of scrutinizing the health implications of what they put in their mouths often seem to forget about the other parts.”

While it is possible to walk into almost any adult store in Las Vegas and find sex toys labeled phthalate-free, latex-free, cadmium-free, hypo-allergenic and “safe and pure,” among other eco-friendly terms, not all sex toys are created equal. The industry remains, essentially, a standardless one, lacking in regulations and consumer watchdog groups. Manufacturers eager to jump on the green bandwagon can ostensibly put whatever language they want on packaging to help sell products. Mirza from Earth Erotics refers to this as “green washing”—the tendency for companies to stamp their products “green” when really they are not.

Given the lack of industry standards, consumers looking to be eco-sexy and sustainable should educate themselves about the kinds of products they purchase and the companies with which they do business. As Queen notes, “We can minimize our overall ‘sexual footprint’ by buying higher quality and longer lasting, not tossaway imports when we’re able to.” Saving the planet, one green orgasm at a time.

Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV
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