Toxin-free sex toys – for a price

Toxin-free sex toys – for a price

By Danielle Capalbo

The presence of a set of potentially harmful, but common chemical compounds in dildos and other sex toys has prompted some sex retailers to make their products “greener.”

The compounds, called phthalates, are a family of polyvinyl compounds found in many everyday softened and flexible rubber products.

Environmentalists and some chemists have charged that phthalates (pronounced FAY-lates) are toxic to humans. In response, Good Vibrations, a major sex retailer, will stop carrying sex toys that are manufactured with the compounds this fall.

James Byard, a professor in the environmental toxicology department at the University of California Davis, said phthalates are potentially harmful, but weak.

“They’re known to produce effects on the liver,” he said. “And some cause cancer. But they’re not very potent – it would take very high doses to be affected.”

The compounds are controversial throughout the world. They have been banned in Japan in the production of certain toys for toddlers, like teethers, and limited in children’s toys in the United States, according to the website for the Phthalate Information Center, a division of the American Chemistry Council comprised of manufacturers that use phthalate esters in their products.

According to the same site, Greenpeace petitioned the European Union in 2006 to ban three allegedly harmful phthalates from sex toys across the continent.

A safety review conducted by the European Union, however, found no evidence that sex toys with phthalates posed a risk to users and has not banned the chemicals in European products.

Despite conflicting evidence on the potential risk of phthalates in sex toys, Jonathan Plotzker, senior director of merchandise at Good Vibrations corporate headquarters in San Francisco, said he has decided to err on the side of caution.

“Anything unsafe for a child to put in their mouth is probably not safe for an adult to use in another orifice,” he said.

Plotzker said Good Vibrations has set an Oct. 1 deadline to remove all sex toys made with phthalates from the company’s shelves.

The Good Vibrations shop on Harvard Avenue has introduced a number of alternatives to jelly-like phthalate toys including silicon, glass, wooden and ceramic products. Plotzker said the alternatives are more expensive, but customers will likely spend more for a sex toy of higher quality.

“People are realizing, ‘This is a luxury I deserve to buy for myself,'” he said, and likened the experience to shopping for foods. “Organic food costs more, but people feel it’s worth it.”

Margaret Jacobi, a sophomore journalism major, said she would only splurge on an alternative to traditional and cheap softened rubber toys if the risks of phthalates were clear and undeniable.

“The thing about this is, we’re college students,” she said. “I would have to know much more about it and look further into it before I would drop extra money. Right now, I’m supporting myself, and that’s already difficult.”

Rosemary Hilliard, store manager for Condom World, said Jacobi is not unique in thinking of sex-toys as novelty items. Because the possession and use of sex toys is illegal in some states, like Texas, Hilliard said venders are obligated to market them as novelty products. Consequently, the Food and Drug Administration cannot oversee their production.

“The sex-toy market is pretty much unregulated,” she said.

While effect of phthalate exposure on human health remains unclear, she said, sex toys made with phthalates can still be irritating to the skin.

“Another issue is cleaning – they’re porous, so you have to clean [phthalate products] very well,” Hilliard said. “The material isn’t solid on the surface of the toy – it contains microscopic little holes, and bacteria can get into those holes.”

Hilliard, whose store is tucked below Newbury Comics on Newbury Street, said Condom World has not stopped selling phthalate toys. But she and her employees educate shoppers on the precautions for cleaning and using phthalate toys.

“We’re definitely beefing up our inventory of non-phthalate products,” she said. “But Condom World really caters more toward the general population – phthalates are cheap to use, so the toys are less expensive.”

Both Hilliard and Plotzker said the best way to find a sex-toy that is suitable and comfortable is to be educated and unashamed.

“One of our basic tenets is, sex is a natural process,” Plotzker said. “Whether you’re with a partner or not, you can use toys.”

Hilliard said shopping for sex toys is so frightening for some that they refuse to ask questions – an integral part of making the best decision. She said it should be as straightforward as shopping for a television.

“If you’re going to buy a TV and you’re walking into Best Buy, you have absolutely no problem going up to sales clerks and saying, ‘Why is that plasma flat screen $4,000 and why is this shit box $50?'” Hilliard said.

For sex toy production and reputation to be improved, Hilliard said sex education from childhood has to instill confidence and knowledge rather than embarrassment and confusion.

“Instead of teaching abstinence only, kids have to be taught that sex and masturbation are natural,” she said. “When people are old enough to come into Condom World, to come into Good Vibes, they shouldn’t think it’s a bad thing.”

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