The first sex toy Mindy Browning ever purchased was also the one she believes poisoned her. In an attempt to spice up their sex life, Browning and her boyfriend went together to a local couples' shop to explore different items. A bright gold dildo immediately caught their attention. Browning, 24, had read online that she should avoid "jelly" toys because they might contain dangerous chemicals called phthalates. But this toy did not—or at least its packaging claimed that it didn't. In fact, it boasted that it was made from a "non-phthalate body-safe" material and "antibacterial Sil-A-Gel," which made the whole thing sound vaguely medical. And so, seeing no reason not to, Browning and her boyfriend bought the dildo.
Almost immediately upon using it, however, Browning says, "Hell began." A burning sensation, unlike anything she had experienced before, spread throughout her body. At first, she attributed the pain to her lack of experience with sex toys. "I blamed myself for what was happening," she explains. But when she tried the dildo again, it caused such severe pain that she could barely speak. After reading dozens of articles and horror stories online, she was convinced: The dildo had caused a chemical burn.
Believe it or not, sex toys remain unregulated in the United States. And because there are virtually no safety standards to dictate what chemicals can be used in sex toys, manufacturers are free to make their products with whatever they want—including, most commonly, phthalates, a plastic softener that's found in everything from clothes to cosmetics to electronics. (This lack of regulation extends to labeling—i.e., sex-toy manufacturers can claim that their products are "100-percent silicone" or "phthalate-free" even when they're not.) According to the Material Safety Data Sheet, exposure to phthalates can cause skin irritation, rashes and burns similar to what Browning experienced as well as long-term ailments such as cancer and fertility issues. Nor are phthalates the only potentially dangerous chemical found in sex toys.Eight years ago, the Danish Technological Institute tested 16 randomly selected erotic toys and uncovered "a number of hazardous substances," including lead, phenol and cadmium.
Most of the other things we put on (or in) our bodies during sex are regulated by a government agency of some sort. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, regulates lubes and condoms, both of which are categorized as "Class II medical devices." (Other Class II devices include home-pregnancy tests and powered wheelchairs.) But sex toys—everything from truck-stop bathroom French Ticklers to $3,500 platinum vibrators—aren't as easy to categorize or define. Or better put, they're considered to be "novelty items," a designation sex-toy makers aren't eager to change since it lets them off the hook should one of their products cause health problems. "They're trying to do whatever they can to exempt themselves from any kind of regulation," says K.M. Davis, an attorney who specializes in adult industry law. "The nice thing about not being regulated is that they can say that something is 100-percent silicone, even if its not. No one is testing it."
"What the industry needs is more transparency," says Crista Anne, the co-founder of Dildology.org, a non-profit organization that launched nine months ago to test the chemical composition of popular sex toys. In June 2013, for one of her first tests, Anne sent the "James Deen Realistic Cock", manufactured by Doc Johnson, to Expert Chemical Analysis (ECA), a pharmaceutical and biotechnology lab in San Diego. Though the dildo was advertised as being made of "non-phthalate PVC," ECA claims that it was actually made of 61.1-percent phthalate-softened plastic.
Doc Johnson declined comment for this story, but the sex-toy manufacturer emphatically denies ECA's findings and questioned the lab's competency. "Doc Johnson switched to non-phthalate plasticizers four years ago, long before many of our competitors, and by choice, not law," the company wrote in a July 2013 statement on its website.
Sadly, ECA's tests are about the extent of the science on sex toys—basically, because no one wants to fund such research. However, a 2009 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy claimed that between 1995 and 2006, nearly 7,000 people went to U.S. emergency rooms with injuries related to sexual-enhancement devices—and that number doesn't include the many people who, like Browning, felt too ashamed to get medical attention. (Full disclosure: The toy Browning used hasn't been tested for the presence of phthalates, so it's possible that something else caused the pain she experienced.)
All the while, phthalates continue to receive intense scrutiny. Almost six years ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) permanently banned three different types of phthalates—DEHP, DBP and BBP—from being used in children's toys, which inevitably end up in kids' mouths. (The Commission also temporarily banned an additional three phthalates—DINP, DIDP and DnOP—until more scientific evidence is available.) There have even been a few grassroots campaigns to regulate use of phthalates in plastic dog toys. But phthalate use in sex toys—which by design end up in adults' mouths, among other orifices—is still ignored. "There's not a huge lobby of people saying, 'I've had an injury related to sex toys,' because it's embarrassing," Davis explains. "It's largely a shame issue."
There has been some minor progress on the issue outside of the United States—primarily within the European Union and Canada—where at least it has been discussed publicly. "Consumers must be protected when it comes to sexual health," said German Parliament Member Volker Beck after his Green Party released a petition asking the government to investigate standards on toxic chemicals in sex toys. "Feigned embarrassment or false taboos should not prevent information getting out and checks being done." (Despite Beck's plea, new regulation has yet to pass in Germany.)
Back stateside, a few years ago CPSC did launch a public consumer-review database where consumers can anonymously disclose safety incidents with common products, including sex toys. "I received a series of strong and painful shocks to my fingers," one reviewer complained about the California Exotic Novelties Teardrop Bullet vibrator. "Had I been less careful, it would have shocked my genitals."
Like Doc Johnson, California Exotic Novelties denies the claim. "It's important to point out that a battery-operated product like this simply does not produce enough electrical current to cause a shock like the one described in this report," says Al Bloom, the company's senior director of business affairs. "Upon reading this [complaint], we tested the product by physically pulling out the wires—which took considerable effort as they were very secure—and held the bare wires to our hand while the product was on high. It produced no shock, even when we moistened our hands in an effort to amplify the current."
This is part of the reason why Scott Wolfson, the CPSC's communications director, cautions that government initiatives and federal regulations might not be the best way to protect consumers. "The public sometimes doesn't realize that the majority of safety standards aren't federal mandates, but are voluntary standards adopted by the industries involved," he says. "And voluntary standards can often get things done faster than mandatory regulations."
To that end, a few eco-friendly sex-toy retailers, namely Good Vibrations in San Francisco and Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, have begun to self-regulate by selling products that they claim are made exclusively with safe materials. "I think it's a public-health crisis," says Jennifer Pritchett, the owner of Smitten Kitten. "If I wouldn't feel safe using something myself, I won't sell it. That's just my conscience."
Pritchett first became concerned about the chemicals in sex toys in 2003, when a shipment of toys arrived at her store covered in an oily substance. After extensive research, she realized the hot Minnesota summer had caused the toys to "off-gas" the phthalates inside them. (Translation—the chemicals were leaking out of the toys.) Ever since, she has helped lead the movement to encourage retailers to sell healthy, "body-safe" sex toys.
At the same time, consumer advocacy attorneys Miguel Custodio Jr. and Vineet Dubey have pursued a more aggressive legal strategy. "Why give big companies the power to decide whether or not they want to disclose toxins in their products?" asks Dubey, who believes that California's 1986 Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (commonly referred to as "Proposition 65"), which requires businesses to label toxic consumer products, could be a powerful venue for legal action against misleading sex-toy manufacturers. "The more pressure we put on these manufacturers, the faster things will change."
Custodio and Dubey are currently negotiating a settlement with an undisclosed company that was found to sell sex toys in California with phthalate levels greatly exceeding the amount allowed by Proposition 65 without a warning label. If the negotiations fail, the resulting lawsuit would be the first of its kind. The legal partners are also investigating a potential false-advertising class-action lawsuit against marketing phthalate-filled sex toys as "phthalate-free."
For now, there are some resources available to consumers. Both the Progressive Pleasure Club and the Coalition Against Toxic Toys highlight sex shops nationwide that specialize in "body safe" nontoxic toys, many of which can be purchased online. And several blogs, such as Hey Epiphora and Dangerous Lilly, review sex toys for safety—and efficacy. A couple of rules of thumb found therein: Sex toys made out of the same materials as kitchen products—sealed wood, glass, stainless steel or verified silicone—are most likely safe; on the flip side, if a toy smells gross (think of a bad shower curtain), it probably belongs in the trash.
As for Mindy Browning, it took some time before she and her boyfriend felt ready to experiment with sex toys again. Nor did she ever contact the gold dildo's manufacturer to complain; she figured she would just be ignored. She did, however, reach out to Hey Epiphorato ask what she could do to avoid a repeat of her first experience. Eventually, she found a few "body-safe" toys that didn't cause her pain. After time, she even felt ready to share her experience. "If we were poisoned by any other product—shampoo or food—we'd tell our friends to avoid it," she says. "We need to do that with sex toys, too. No exceptions."
Jillian Keenan is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic. Follow her on Twitter @JillianKeenan.
Illustration by Justin Page