BusinessThe frisky new world of non-toxic, cruelty-free, eco-friendly sex toys
We investigate the latest ethical turns and trends in the industry.
Being conscious (ethically, ecologically, etc.) about what you put it in your body can make you feel more than just good—it can get you off.
Twenty years ago, while people were shoveling processed foods down their gullets, they were also shoveling the sex toy equivalent of processed foods down… you know where. Yes, in the not so distant past folks were donning dark glasses and heading to their local smut emporium to purchase dildos, butt plugs and other goodies made from toxic, porous materials chock full of phthalates and other unpronounceable scourges.
Fast forward to the era of Whole Foods plastic bag bans. Erotic-minded consumers looking to be healthy and save the world now have sundry options. You can browse physical or virtual aisles of non-toxic, body-safe, phthalate-free, paraben-free, vegan, PETA certified, nickel-free, medical-grade silicone dildos and infinite permutations of “safe” sex-enhancing doohickeys.
↑ Doc Johnson, a California-based sex toy manufacturer
Specific examples abound: Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis bills itself as the “first-ever completely non-toxic body-safe sex toy store in the world”; the Bay Area’s Good Vibrations retail stores feature an “Ecoerotic” section; sex toy manufacturer Doc Johnson was certified “cruelty free” by PETA in February; and Orange County-based manufacturer Sportsheets works with disabled veterans to create products for the handicapped and those with limited motion.
There seems to be consensus amongst retailers and manufacturers that the sea change towards social and eco awareness in the sex toy industry was in large part due to innovation wrought by small companies, which was welcomed by consumers and eventually adopted by the larger players.
Good toys are higher-profile in the public eye than they were 25 years ago, and that helps.
From alt to boutique
“Newer companies inspire the bigger companies to embrace change in materials and design just via the process of competition,” Dr. Carol Queen, the staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, explains. “Good toys are higher-profile in the public eye than they were 25 years ago, too, and that helps. I’d say ‘boutique’ companies have a strongly innovative role; mainstream companies tend to make products that are extra-accessible through store and large mail order channels, and as far as price point is concerned.”
Queen noted that when she arrived at Good Vibrations in 1990, there were a few small and ‘alt’ companies that were producing silicone dildos. Established companies steered clear due to its prohibitive costs. (Silicone is widely considered the safest, highest quality material to make sex toys out of.) So “it was a truly big deal when the first silicone-clad vibrators arrived,” in the early 2000s from Fun Factory, she said. Eventually, manufacturing costs for silicone decreased somewhat, allowing more companies to jump on the body-safe bandwagon.
↓ Image: Smitten Kitten
A change is coming
At the core of production is demand. And while Queen and others in the know don’t believe that the majority of their customers are expressly seeking cruelty-free or eco-friendly products, it can be selling point once they’re in the door.
“Larger companies that are still making toxic toys aren’t only making toxic toys, they’re making body-safe toys and advertising them as body-safe toys because that’s where a lot of the demand is,” says Sarah Mueller, a sex educator at Smitten Kitten.
On my recent tour of Doc Johnson’s headquarters in North Hollywood, California, the words of Queen and Mueller seemed to echo true. The final stop on the tour of the almost 40-year-old company was the newest addition to its campus—a room dedicated entirely to silicone toys. Dainty little black and purple butt plugs were piled in heaps in plastic bins. Filled dildo molds waited patiently to be exhumed. Doc Johnson’s Marketing Manager, a pert blonde woman by the name of Sunny Rodgers, said that just a year and a half ago they had one silicone machine. Now they have three.
Doc Johnson’s Marketing Manager, a pert blonde woman by the name of Sunny Rodgers, said that just a year and a half ago they had one silicone machine. Now they have three.
“The number one question we get is, ‘What’s the safest material I can use?’” Rodgers said. Medical-grade silicone is the answer—it’s the same material they use for prosthetic limbs—but “the drawback is people don’t like the price, because it’s really expensive. If we can increase the volume [of production], we can decrease the price,” she added.
Beware “jelly rubber” and “sili-skin”
As the choice agent of pleasure, silicone is lauded for its versatility—it can be made in various densities, pretty much any shape you can imagine, and all the colors of the rainbow. If it’s a solid silicone toy, i.e., without a filler built into it, then you can boil it and easily sterilize it at home. It’s not porous, and it’s not going to break down over time.
Material-wise, Mueller also gives an erect thumbs up to ABS hard plastic (“that’s like the cheaper end of things”), solid stainless steel, certain types of glass, and even stone and wood—if they’re finished carefully with the proper sealant.
Mueller warns against “things that don’t have real material names,” like “crystal jelly,” “jelly rubber” or “sili-skin.” Things like latex, PVC and rubber are porous and can break down over time. “But a lot of folks still use those because they’re so much more affordable,” she said, echoing the same conundrum that haunts the health food realm. I.e., quality costs.
Consumers looking to do right by their junk right can be foiled by more than their flimsy wallets.
Most stores, including Good Vibes and Smitten Kitten, attempt to carry products at every price point to cater to the greatest number of customers. That usually means compromising on quality to some degree when it comes to the cheaper stuff. And, unfortunately, it’s literally the poor genitals that suffer.
Consumers looking to do right by their junk right can be foiled by more than their flimsy wallets. There are currently no formal regulations governing sex toys. So even if a company say its products are organic, body-safe, etc. there’s often no way to verify its claims.
As a result, “the consumer has to be the one that is vigilant in the products they buy,” said Tom Stewart, president of Sportsheets. “If the consumer wants body-safe sex toys, [she must] rely on reputable companies that use body safe ingredients.”
Gimmicks, knock-offs and "organic" lubricant
But there are gimmicks companies employ to ensnare potential customers. Mueller says that lubricants will often insert the word “organic” into the product name. “If they claim to be 100 percent organic, they’re probably lying,” she said. “Most lubes that have organic on the packaging are 50 to 85 percent organic.”
Items ordered from the internet warrant even more suspicion, especially given the recent rise in sex toy knock offs produced in China and elsewhere. Sunny Rodgers says that it’s hard to keep tabs on all the copycats, and typically has to learn about them the hard way. Every so often, a foreign newspaper reaches out to her and asks her to comment on a severe injury or allergic reaction caused by a Doc Johnson product. She then seeks out the culprit, “to find out who I have to sue,” she says. Mueller swears she’s seen real pictures of alleged solid silicone dildos that when cut open were actually stuffed with rags.
The future is sexy
The Food and Drug Administration has recently taken a renewed interest
in regulating lubricant and sex toys. While increased regulation intuitively seems like it could relieve some of the Wild West aspects of buying and selling sex toys, most manufacturers and retailers I queried vehemently opposed it. According to Timothy Crawford, director of scientific affairs at Doc Johnson, FDA regulation mandates expensive, senseless tests—including tests on animals. “You have to kill bunnies with every formula,” he said.
FDA and knockoff drama notwithstanding, the fact remains that there are a ton of quality, body-safe, eco-wonderful, everything bad-free products out there.
If anything, the future likely holds safer, cheaper sex toys or at least greater awareness about which materials actually are safe and which are harmful. The hope is that research increases and stigma surrounding the subject declines.
Carol Queen summed it up: “Even if every material in every sex toy were completely green, the question of environmental safely is not going away in general, and so this keeps toys and all other sorts of products on peoples’ radar.”
Consumers just have to think with the right head.
The future likely holds safer, cheaper sex toys or at least greater awareness about which materials actually are safe and which are harmful.
cover image via smittenkittenonline.com