Catalyst Con: Toxic Toy Tales

Hooray for more Catalyst conversation! No really, I won’t harp it too much longer. The team behind the Evil Slut Clique compiled a storify collection of all the hash tags so you can find all the recaps you’d like in an organized manner.

The session on toxic toys featuring Ducky Doolittle, Metis from Tantus and Jennifer Pritchett was one of those sessions I attended on a whim – I’ve already read up a lot about the state of sex toy industry regulation and exposure to chemical agents. For some reason I went anyways, and I’m glad I did.

Most of the session was like an arms race of terrible stories between Ducky, Metis and Jennifer which left me feeling queasy. I’m accustomed to gross stories and things, but I felt sick by the fact that we as consumers do not always hold safety as a top priority. Metis astounded me with the lengths her and her company go to providing safe, affordable and exciting products. Ducky regaled the room with her experiences selling and and her personal reactions to those products. Jennifer talked about what must have been knee-buckling stress over the melting initial inventory at the Smitten Kitten, and her shock with the oily residue that seeped from the boxes (and destroyed packing peanuts!!) of those original products.

The problem isn’t just that consumers are exposed to chemicals. Our environment is a built one, you would be hard pressed to live your day without exposing yourself to some questionable (or unregulated) chemicals out there. Sorry, welcome to the industrial lifestyle. The problem with toxic compounds like phthalates in sex toys, is that they are endocrine disrupting, meaning hormones get out of whack. This can have profound impact ranging from learning disabilities, changes to reproductive abilities, and more. The other problem is that plasticizers (the chemicals that are used to make plastics soft or jelly-like) elude into the environment at a constant rate. It’s not like “oh just wash it well and it’ll be ok” (also heat from a dishwasher? bad idea).

Another fun part of this whole mess is that the industry is unregulated. Unless you get your hands on and smell those products, the packaging can lie. It can claim to be “pthalate free”, “medical grade”, or “birthed in a rainbow stream by organic unicorns”, and it doesn’t matter. Could be true, could also be smart packaging used to assuage potential consumers. What boils me the most, is that due to the inherent nature of how bodies are made, these products are used internally, that touch mucus membranes and some of the most sensitive parts of our bodies. Dr. Charlie Glickman wrote more about where/how we’re exposed to phthalates here– and he makes some interesting points about dosage and exposure to keep in mind too.

There is some silver lining here. There are organizations and companies who willingly provide products that don’t use these chemicals. Not only is Good Vibrations is one of those businesses that take safety seriously, they feature products with “Ecorotic Ratings” in their pursuit of Sustainable Sex! When shopping, if you read a package at a trusted store, look for labels like “body safe”. If you’re somewhere new or unreliable, look for ingredients that you can read (100% medical-grade silicone is easy to understand!), that are made of substances that are found in cookware or other more-regulated industry, than you can feel more at ease. Keep those tricks in mind, or just stick to Ducky’s advice: if it’s really 100% silicone, than you can take a flame to it and it will not melt, stink, or change drastically. Plus, it’ll wow your friends!

How have we come so far that the question of safety is not inherent or the most important component for consumers? It’s no surprise that of the 90,000 some chemicals developed in the last 60 years that 85% of them have never been tested (I cite this documentary for its eloquence, not scientific rigor. Do some research and you’ll see similar numbers out there for long-term safety testing). Today the fear is phthalates like DEHP, but 5 years from now? Will we even know the risk associated with exposures to new products?

I don’t think this was a session that attendees as jazzed up as I was – but I thought it was important because it felt like this community element that society misses sometimes. The audience was treated to storytelling, and was given experience and wisdom with a call to action.  It may not be new information that those working in sexuality, or even savvy readers here, but it is important to reinforce the things we as consumers need, and how we can get it. We need safe (and fun!) products with accurate labeling that will not provide exposure to carcinogenic or teratogenic chemicals. This goal is going to come from the industry, and it’s going to come from grassroots efforts from consumers. By being informed and comfortable supporting safety in consumer products and by voting with your dollars at establishments, at the least we can see support for organizations and businesses who do the same.

Editor’s Note: Good Vibrations was the first company to stop carrying sex toys with phthalates and we’ve been at the forefront of the industry shift away from these products. Our entire selection is phthalate-free and we’ll keep it that way.


Joanna Dawson earned her Masters in Public Health (MPH) before working for years in the non-profit world with sexuality, sex-positivity, GLBT themes and health education for young people, adults and communities. Sexuality is a complex, diverse and evolving component of our lives, and she works to equip folks with the tools to take charge of their sexuality and their health. Joanna is dedicated to promoting sex positivity as an advocate, educator and ACSM-certified personal trainer. To join in her pursuit of wellness, health and a fulfilling lifestyle follow Joanna's blog.

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