The Ethics of Sex Toys – Part 2

Part 2 of Ms Razorblade's guide covers environmental and health issues, as well as quality, pricing, fair trade, internet shopping, and the question of jelly v silicone (no contest!).

, 11 September 2004

Price Fixing

Womynsware claim that most sex shops apply a gigantic mark-up (say 600%) to each toy they sell. Hence, if the cost of the toy and its packaging would otherwise be around “2, it will retail for “12. This makes cheap vibrators a “Veblen good”, the term economists use for a product that sells more when its price goes up. Confronted with a “2 vibrator, consumers might realise they were being sold crap; since they equate higher price with higher quality, raising the price to “12 makes them more likely to buy. I have no information on whether these claims are true.

Quality

Sex toys are in general a low-quality, high-tat, unregulated industry with a great deal of planned obsolescence. Vibrator electronics are among the worst culprits: they pack up very quickly and it is almost impossible to get them repaired. Silicone dildos and butt plugs have a slightly more hopeful prognosis, since they have no electronics and are by nature extremely hard-wearing. Many silicone dildo retailers offer a lifetime guarantee against splitting, discolouration or smell. Latex and jelly products, however, are inherently unstable and will probably discolour, split or deteriorate after a few months. (Please remember one of the chief problems with “jelly rubber” is that its precise composition is unknown. It is therefore difficult to make absolute statements.) Few toys come with adequate guarantees.

sex shops seem to rely on the probability of women being too embarrassed to demand a refund

Gimmick factor in sex toys is extremely high, and you can expect most mainstream sites to try to catch your attention with novelties such as radio-controlled or musical toys. If a shop’s wacky oddity:straightforward vibrator ratio seems disproportionately high, it’s probably a good time to leave.

An inherent problem of sex toys is that they cannot be returned or exchanged, since the shop will rather obviously be unable to resell a toy that has been smeared with (possibly infected) vaginal goo. Most toys sold over the internet come in a box with an ostentatious “quality” seal; once the seal has been broken, the item is unrefundable. This means you cannot road-test your toy before buying: if it turns out to smell vile or make a noise like a pneumatic drill, you cannot send it back. While this is a good health and safety policy, it is rather convenient for the shop.

As for faulty toys, sex shops basically seem to rely on the probability of women being too embarrassed to demand a refund on the broken toy. Given the masturbation taboos this is, unfortunately, an all too realistic scenario, and they are getting away with it. Women frequently seem to be cut off at the knees by feelings such as (a) I’d be too embarrassed to mention my sex life to a complete stranger, what if they leer at me?; (b) this toy is worth so little it’s not worth the hassle of packing it up and sending it back; (c) what an idiot I am, I should have known it was tat to begin with. This prevents the manufacturer having to pay up, and essentially means that the industry can continue producing crap toys.

There is, obviously, no watchdog or consumer protection scheme for sex toys: Which? isn’t exactly falling over itself to review them. The best option at present would probably be to (a) buy only quality materials such as silicone, stainless steel, etc; (b) buy toys that come with a guarantee, since they are more likely to be worth the money; (c) do NOT assume that if a toy is expensive it must be good quality; (d) go on word of mouth; but only if you actually trust the mouth’s owner.

Internet Safety

The Internet obviously offers a much wider range of toy than is available even to the London resident; it is also anonymous and relatively embarrassment-free. It has many advantages over shopping in the street, but the most pressing problem may be: is it safe?

  • I do not know whether card fraud is more common on sex sites than any other type of website. Make sure you use a secure site; if in doubt, you could use a well-known or reputable company rather than an obscure or sleazy one.
  • Some sites demand that you set your cookie slider to “accept all” before entering. Others insist you give them your gender and date of birth before they let you buy anything. I recommend you shop elsewhere.
  • Toys will invariably be delivered in plain brown paper packaging, although some manufacturers (such as www.velvetpiranha.co.uk) raise a few eyebrows by writing the company name on the outside of the box.
  • Some sites use a pseudonym so that an innocuous title will appear on your bank statement; others don’t, e.g. if you shop with Sh! your statement will come proudly emblazoned with the words “SH WOMEN’S EROTIC EMPORIUM” [Update: Sh! has now changed their policy so statements simply read: “Sh! Ltd” – Editor]. Each site has a different policy, so if you are worried a family spy might read your bank statement you could check with the shop first (or, preferably, clobber the spy).
  • If you are worried about the package getting lost in the post you can usually request special delivery for an added fee. Whether the postperson will deliver it does of course depend on what sort of postperson you have; mine leaves special delivery items propped against the front door. Yeah, thanks.
  • Mainstream sites, if you buy their products, will generally send you spam. It will probably be at a tolerable level, say no more than one email a month, but you may still find it irritating. As a general rule the smuttier the site the more likely they are to spam you.

If you want to find a good site, you could try some of the links below (they are NOT endorsed), or try some of their links. Feminist sites frequently have links to other feminist sites. Alternatively, buy a copy of a lesbian or feminist magazine, and look at the adverts.

Environment

PVC clothes and harnesses are environmentally diabolical. PVC is presently under boycott due to its environment-destroying double whammy of phthalates and dioxin (which is even more toxic than phthalates). Greenpeace’s pdf file sums it up best. As for jelly toys, there is no safe disposal method; even when you’ve chucked your stinky dildo away it’s still emitting poisonous chemicals.

All plastics (including jelly, vinyl and silicone) are petroleum-derived and as such promote unethical oil exploration and deplete fossil fuels. Regrettably, there are few alternatives: if there is anyone making natural latex toys, I haven’t heard of them. If you are determined to protect the environment, steel might be your best bet.

Disposable batteries are an infuriating waste of natural resources and a major expense

Disposable batteries are an infuriating waste of natural resources and a major expense. The best option for vibrators is to buy a corded one that plugs into the mains; the problem with this is (a) the cord gets tangled round your legs, (b) the only ones I know of are American. You certainly can get them sent over here – Womynsware sell them quite cheaply – but there will be a hidden cost of around “20 for a plug adaptor and a current converter, which you can buy or order from an electrical shop.

The second-best option is to run your vibrator on rechargeable batteries. I would recommend you avoid Tantus vibrators (see below), since they require watch batteries. For an incredibly intemperate rant, see www.battery.ukf.net.

Health problems of sex toys

It should not come as a great surprise that sex toy manufacturers are not exactly falling over themselves in a rush to give out health leaflets. The embarrassment problem outlined above under “quality” applies even more strongly to issues of health and safety because few women are prepared to got to court over a dangerous sex toy: who wants to see their name in the papers under “Perverted Sex Toy Damaged My Rectum”? Sex shops are therefore able to sell sometimes highly dangerous toys with impunity.

Latex, used to make dildos and plugs, is a common allergen, affecting maybe 40% of the population to some degree, and can cause itching, rashes, asthma or, rarely, anaphylactic shock. Stainless steel toys will also cause reactions in people who are allergic to nickel. Hard plastic toys are safe for all users as they are chemically inert, UNLESS they have a metallic coating. This is liable to flake off and get stuck inside your orifices. Do not buy.

Astonishingly, talc is sold with certain sex toys, despite being a known carcinogen. Health Canada has banned the use of talc on condoms since it is known to cause cervical cancer, but certain jelly toys are still sold with sachets of talc and instructions to consumers to rub the talc onto the toy from time to time to “reconstitute” it. How much the risk of cancer might be increased by this type of practice is not known.

Which brings us to silicone – not traditionally regarded kindly by feminists, since it is mostly associated with breast implants. Well, whatever it may mean to boobs, silicone is generally regarded as a great boon to sex toys. Claims made for silicone are:

  • It has very little smell, unlike latex.
  • Being a rubber, it is yielding to the touch, which many women find more comfortable than hard plastic or metal.
  • It is chemically stable, which means it cannot leach chemicals into the body, and will not deteriorate with age.
  • It is non-porous, ie liquids do not sink into it but instead run off. This means that it does not retain vaginal fluids, smells or germs.
  • It resists extremely high temperatures and can therefore be boiled. Boiling a toy for three minutes will kill all germs.
  • It is hypoallergenic and there is considerable dispute over whether it is possible to be allergic to silicone at all.
  • It is expensive, but it’s worth it.

If you would like to read a mini-debate about the properties of silicone try www.womynsware.com/abtdubiousdispute.htm. Even if your breast implants exploded five years ago and left you with a permanent hatred of silicone, you will probably notice that it is a very popular material with most feminist sites and, in fact, all sites. Standard exploitative XXX sites refer to silicone as “luxury” or “the cashmere of sex toys”; feminist sites conduct righteous crusades on its behalf. One warning, though: don’t use your dildo with silicone-based lubricants, it’ll melt.

Lead and cadmium were found in jelly and vinyl toys. These are highly toxic chemicals and are easily absorbed through the mucous membranes. See below for an exhaustive assassination of jelly.

Sexually transmitted infections can be spread by unwashed sex toys. HIV transmission, while theoretically possible, is highly unlikely as it can only live for seconds outside the body; the same does not apply to Hepatitis B. If you are going to play with a sex toy that has been used by someone else, it should be sterilised – washed with bleach or specialist toy cleaner – or boiled for three minutes. If it seems like too much effort to do this in the middle of sex, you can use a condom. A page on how STIs affect lesbians is http://depts.washington.edu/wswstd/qa_frame.htm.

If you have used a toy in your anus it should be sterilised before you use it anywhere else. Shit is not a particularly sterile medium. Jelly, vinyl and latex toys will be destroyed by boiling and, as they are porous, cannot be adequately chemically sterilised. They should not be shared without a condom.

Poorly designed anal toys can get lost in the rectum. All anal toys should have either a flanged base (i.e. the end should be considerably wider than the shaft) or an attached cord (but NOT the electric flex of a vibrator). If you insert a standard vaginal toy into the rectum, there is a distinct possibility that it will travel up into your digestive tract and get stuck. You will then have to go to A&E to get it removed (seriously – hospitals deal with hundreds of these cases every year). What fun.

S&M toys are by definition a health and safety headache. A document covering all the possible risks would be several miles long, so all I can say to sadomasochists is (a) S&M, like contact sports, is inherently risky and you should be aware when you agree to take part that you may get hurt; (b) research your activity in advance, find out the risks and choose the safe option where possible. Injuring yourself deliberately is one thing; being injured out of ignorance is quite another.

Toxic shock syndrome: “wearing an inserted jelly vibe all day is a horrific idea. The potential for… toxic shock syndrome (from the absorbancy and resulting festering bacteria)… is no laughing matter” (www.womynsware.com/abtbuyerbewware.htm). TSS is of course a highly controversial illness that can be caused by tampons, diaphragms or the contraceptive sponge. The aggressively anti-tampon tamponalert.org.uk states “tampon research indicates three high RISK FACTORS: absorbency, continuous use and low body immunity. Absorbency: the higher the absorbency the higher the risk; the lower the absorbency the lower the risk. That is why a woman should always use the lowest absorbency tampon for her menstrual flow. Continuous use: women should not use tampons continuously during a period. It is recommended that the most convenient time to break the continuous use is at night. Rather surprisingly, www.toxic-shock.com, which is funded by Procter & Gamble, agrees: “Research suggests that for cases which occur in women using tampons, tampon absorbency is a factor… change tampons regularly. Well, if even Procter & Gamble admit it, it must be true!!

Since jelly, unlike silicone, is absorbent, and plugs are designed to be left in place for long periods of time, one would suspect that all the requirements were there. To my knowledge, no research has been carried out and no cases of TSS have been ascribed to sex toys, so this is pure speculation.

Phthalates

You may not even know what phthalates are, let alone be able to pronounce them, so if you want an explanation of their health risks in full, gruesome detail, then go to: www.checnet.org/HealtheHouse/chemicals/chemicals-detail2.asp?Main_ID=281. It makes grisly reading. Basically, phthalates are endocrine disrupters (they interfere with hormones, including sexual hormones) and are suspected of causing lowered sperm count, cancer, liver and kidney damage, respiratory difficulties and developmental abnormalities. Why am I telling you about them? Because their basic use is to soften plastics, and they are accordingly used in the majority of sex toys. Anything that is listed as “jelly”, “jelly rubber”, “Jell-Ee”, “crystalessence”, “gel”, “skin”, “futurotic” or, to be honest, a whole range of synonyms, probably contains phthalates.

So what is jelly? Look in the dictionary: “2: any jelly-like substance”. How helpful. They are usually some kind of low-grade soft vinyl, but as the chemical composition page at Toys in Babeland states: “Plastic polymers are a large class of rubber and vinyl materials you find at most sex toy shops. These materials are porous, making them difficult to clean, and their actual chemical composition is often unknown [italics mine]. They are usually translucent, light in color, bubbly-looking, greasy-feeling, and often scented. [NB scented is a misnomer: you will be able to detect a jelly toy at sixty paces due to the vile stench.] There is one jelly ingredient of which we are increasingly certain: toxic chemicals.

phthalates are used in the majority of sex toys

The main controversy about chemicals was their presence in, not sex toys, but children’s toys. Children’s and especially babies’ toys were already causing concern prior to 1999 but this was due not to the phthalate content, but to alarming levels of lead and cadmium, both of which are hazardous to health (see Greenpeace’s 1997 report). Phthalates caused more outrage, and in 1999 the European Commission called an emergency ban on vinyl baby toys. Although plastics companies fought vociferously against the ruling, the ban was made final in 2001. Dog toys were also included and, as of 2002, cosmetics. Health Canada has banned phthalates from baby and dog toys, although the USA is resisting.

…BUT, the European Commission ruled out even the possibility of conducting an inquiry into the safety of sex toys. Ananova was the source of the following unbelievable, head-banging, hair-pulling-out statement:

…a Commission spokesman said there is no comparison between the risks faced by a baby sucking a teething ring for hours and an adult using sex toys for a variety of purposes.

“Unfortunately no scientific study has yet been conducted into how sex toys are used and for how long. But unless a member state complains to us about a possible risk from sex toys containing phthalates we are not investigating this matter,” said Thorsten Muench.

Scientific evidence shows that phthalates can leak out and into the human body, risking liver, kidney or testicular damage.

Mr Muench said: “For children, the potential danger comes from soft toys containing phthalates which are designed to go in the mouth and which babies sometimes suck for three or four hours at a time.

“There is no evidence that sex toys are used in such a way and for such a time as to generate a comparable risk.”

YES, SEX TOYS ARE USED FOR SEVERAL HOURS AT A TIME, IT’S CALLED HAVING SEX. While three to four hours might be an unusual wanking duration, one to two hours strikes me as entirely plausible. Although it’s uncommon to hold jelly toys in the mouth, they will be held in or against the vulva and rectum (mucous membranes through which many substances are capable of being absorbed). Jelly plugs would again seem to be particularly dangerous because they are by definition designed to be left in place inside the body for long periods of time, and there is an increasing trend towards “wearable” toys that are strapped onto the vulva and left there. As for a serious and seldom-mentioned topic, what about the effect of phthalates on the developing foetus? Or, to put it more bluntly, what happens when pregnant women wank? I doubt I even need to mention thalidomide to remind you that drugs that have little effect on adults can cause serious abnormalities in foetuses. While we are of course getting into speculation here, it does not appear to have occurred to them that pregnant women masturbate. If masturbation is a taboo to begin with, and sex toys more so, and pregnant women still maintaining an unfounded reputation for celibate chastity, then no wonder.

why was a chemical that was considered too dangerous for babies and dogs permitted to remain in sex toys?

And did they seriously conduct research into the length of time for which dogs chew rubber bones?! This is a serious question: why was a chemical that was considered too dangerous for babies and dogs permitted to remain in sex toys? Womynsware offer the following candid opinion: “They care about your kids. That’s good. They care about your dog. That’s good. But they don’t give a damn about your pussy.”

Cologne-based toxicologist Hans Ulrich Krieg, however, did give a damn, and analysed sex toys at his Eco-Umweltinstitut lab. (NB they do have a site, but it’s in German.) The Canadian consumer protection site CBC Marketplace quoted him as saying “We were really shocked. I have been doing this analysis of consumer goods for more than ten years and I’ve never seen such high results” (“Bad vibrations: a look at sex toys“). Phthalates were found in the sampled sex toys in concentrations of up to 243,000 parts per million. The acceptable European standard is 1000 ppm.

The big hole in the case against phthalates is that they are only a “suspected human carcinogen”: the only “research” conducted so far has been in the form of vivisection, and knowing that a rat will get cancer if it uses a jelly dildo is not very helpful. Until human studies have been conducted there will be no concrete evidence against phthalates. (NB: the same does not apply to lead and cadmium.)

But the second major problem is the complete refusal of sex toy manufacturers (AND the EU) to take any responsibility whatsoever. The attitude of both the companies and the European Commission appears to be that there is no need to take any action until the hazardous properties of phthalates have been proven beyond all doubt. This attitude is certainly not shared by IKEA, which upon the first rumours of damage to children’s health removed all phthalate-containing products from its shelves. Yes, IKEA is a retail giant that can afford to lose a few bob, and yes, IKEA has an unusually good record on environmental issues that it wouldn’t want to ruin: but the response from practically everyone to the sex toy problem has been to do NOTHING whatsoever. Even Good Vibrations, possibly the most famous women’s sex shop in the word, says only, “This jelly toy may affect your health and we recommend you use it with a condom” – shifting responsibility firmly onto the consumer.

ecomall.com were quite clear on this point: “Only a total phase-out of flexible PVC products can address the global spread of phthalates. Such a large-scale phase-out is feasible because alternatives exist for nearly every use of PVC.” With regard to sex toys, this statement could not be more true. Rubber jelly is smelly, poisonous, harmful to the environment and breaks down within months. The only reason it is used for sex toys is because it is cheap.

Harnesses

Dildo harnesses are overwhelmingly likely to be made of leather. As I am a vegan this strikes me as not only objectionable but baffling, since leather cannot be disinfected or boiled; your vaginal juices will therefore sink deep into the leather and remain there indefinitely, possibly spreading infection to anyone else who wears your harness. Lovely. Alternatives are few and far between. Rubber and PVC harnesses are now available, but may have the aforementioned problems of damage to the environment, phthalate contamination and unwashableness. babes-n-horny sell denim harnesses, but be aware that boiling denim tends to bleach it out, potentially spoiling its appearance.

Fair Trade

Most sex toys (along with most other cheap, crappy products) are mass produced in countries such as China. The specific reason for this is that the places chosen have few or weak labour laws and are therefore cheaper. The majority of the workers are typically women and their rights are routinely abused.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has recently pointed out that just because a piece of clothing is made in the UK, that does not necessarily mean working conditions are acceptable. They discovered that garment workers in London, as well as China, were being overworked and paid under the minimum wage. The fate of the Morecambe cockle pickers showed us all too clearly that it is not just in China that Chinese workers’ right are abused. But this depressing information notwithstanding, your best bet will probably be to buy a toy made in North America, Japan or Europe; the workers might still be being exploited, but probably not to the same extent as in the Majority World.

there are excellent, good-quality, beautiful toys available from feminist sites

Many silicone toys are hand made by skilled workers in small cottage industries, and are thus safe to buy. Have a look at womynsware’s fairtrade page.

The controversy over phthalates in sex toys is troubling because, in between discussing the ill effects on the Western women who use the toys, little if any research has been done into the health of the workers. Toxic chemicals – say, pesticides – almost invariably have a far greater effect on the workers who make the product than the consumer who uses it. The European Commission’s “defence” of jelly sex toys revolved almost entirely around the insertion that one would have to use them for at least three hours a day to suffer ill effects. If three hours is enough for phthalates to cause toxicity, what the hell are they doing to Chinese workers who might be exposed to them, gloveless, for the whole of a 14-hour shift?

Even if you really don’t give a shit about either the environment or your health, please take my advice on this one: don’t buy vinyl or jelly sex toys. There are excellent, good-quality, beautiful toys available from feminist sites, and they won’t kill Chinese women or destroy the planet. Spend the money on one of those instead.

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