Pssst. Do you have a vibrator? Me too. And not just the one my bridesmaid Becca tricked me into opening in front of in-laws and two Granmas at my bridal shower! I have never blushed so hard!
I know it's weird to talk about, but here's why we're going there: sex toys can be so so good for you, but they can also have some of the same dangers as the personal care products we've been talking about for the past couple of weeks. And they too, are unregulated.
So, today, in the last of our 3 part series about the baddie chemicals in our personal care products, we're talking about sex toys. But not just about the bad stuff. We're also delving into the good. The basics. The focus being on a different kind of party in your pants than we normally talk about. There are photos of toys, but nothing explicit. Still, we recommend not reading this at work, because, you know, we want you to keep your job.
And, if you can't talk about sex toys with the gal that makes your undies, who can you talk about them with? Well, you know, besides your partner ;)
For a little background, check out the rest of our series: part 1, our endocrine system, why it matters, and the crap that's getting into our systems; and 2, tools and tips to protect yourself and your families from the baddies. And if you're curious about what all this has to do with underwear, well, the series' intro is here. :)
A little house keeping: remember these icons from a couple of weeks ago? They helped us talk about the baddies, and they're making a comeback today:
|where you’ll find it|
|what it does|
|what to avoid|
More importantly, this week, fellow Upitees lover, engineer, and sex toy enthusiast Lucia is sharing some of her expertise with us. But I'll let her introduce herself. Hereafter, I'm italicized and Lucia is unitalicized text.
This is Lucia playing a very silly and straight-faced Vanna White after giving a presentation at Kalamazoo's Planned Parenthood office last fall. :)
Lucia, thank you so much for sharing your research and knowledge with us! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be so interested in sex toys?
Thanks so much for this opportunity! I am an engineer, trained in chemical engineering, and while I am not a doctor, nor do I have official training in sex education, I have spent countless hours researching these topics. I wrote my undergrad thesis about them (I'm linking all my research for you below), and I regularly present this information both publicly and for staff of LGBTQ groups, and different Planned Parenthood affiliates.
I started learning about it all in college. I was out to reclaim my sexual identity for myself. Thinking like an engineer I decided that must mean I needed cool gadgets (go go gadget vibrator!). I started reading about different companies and toys to see what would make a good first purchase.
During my internet journeys into topics of human sexuality and sex toys, I found out that sex toys were not always a magical adventure. I read about hospital visits for electrical burns, nicks or cuts in sensitive places, toys lost up someone’s ass, and chemical burns from toys and realized there was likely a significant problem looming. I learned there is very little regulation in the sex toy industry which means toys do not have to be safe to be sold.
I wanted to know more and eventually found The Smitten Kitten! They are a wonderful feminist sex toy store that had been advocating for safer toys. They are the gold standard that I use for quality and safe sex toys (and lube, yay!) They started turning the tide of community awareness about phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) and porosity in soft plastics (usually referred to as jelly toys).
[Remember phthalates as one of our baddies from earlier in the series? Lucia also gives us a review below.]
Porosity refers to the many microscopic pores that make up the toy. Even if a toy claims to be jelly and phthalate free, the issue of pores still remains. These tiny pores can capture bodily fluids, lubes, and anything floating in the air in your house. This creates the perfect environment for bacteria and fungi to grow and they can never truly be cleaned out.
I realized people in my community needed to know about this. I approached the university PRIDE organization, of which I was a member, about doing a meeting specifically about sex toy sexual health. They were enthusiastically supportive and I worked with my dear friend and roommate to build a comprehensive presentation on sex toys, anatomy, and navigating bringing sex toys into your life and relationships.
It was a huge hit and we had an encore meeting the next year! Then I wondered if I could incorporate this knowledge into my background in chemical engineering. I approached the honors college about writing my thesis on sex toys and they gave me the green light.
Throughout that time, I was networking with local organizations with a sexual health and LGBTQ focus to see if I could train their staff. I had learned that these dangers aren't well known, even among sexuality educators/professionals. I was in contact with Planned Parenthood to find a way to get them information and training. Last year, I had the amazing opportunity to host a sex toy education event with Planned Parenthood in Kalamazoo!
I hear you take 2 suitcases of sex toys with you where ever you go. [Ok, she shared that at one of her trainings...] Which are your favorites and why?
Take a minute to imagine airport security gawking slack-jawed at my luggage under the x-ray machine when I travel, hahahaha. What can I say, I like having options. Some people collect shoes, and I collect sex toys. (Actually, I collect both of those things and my closet is ridiculous.)
Right now I’m absolutely smitten with a very unusual toy called The Eroscillator. It uses an oscillating motion, which in this case is side to side, instead of the conventional vibrator random vibrations.
For those of you that are familiar with The Eroscillator, you’re probably waiting for the standard sex educator gushing about how it is the greatest toy ever. Well, I’m not going to disappoint you, because it is the greatest toy ever. I really like the oscillations because they don’t make as much noise and I find they don’t cause the temporary numbness that I notice with some vibrators. And talk about a party in your pants of the most amazing variety! It took me a few tries before I really understood how to utilize this toy with my body and the results are spectacular.
I have so many favorites that I could write an essay on why I love each one! If I had to choose another, it would be the Lelo Ella. This toy was my first dildo and happened to have double sided design with the g spot in mind. One side can function solely as a dildo and the other is curved for g spot stimulation. Something about the engineering of this toy makes it a perfect fit for my body. I’ve taken the time to learn about my g spot and to explore it; this toy was instrumental in that journey.
Stay tuned, Lucia has SO much more to say about the G Spot. She's coming back for another guest post soon about all this goodness.
What are some good gateway toys if you haven't delved into sex toy world before?
Where should I even begin? Probably by asserting that even though vibrators are commonly marketed and talked about as items for cisgender straight women, that is not the full story! Vibrators can be used by any person of any body type!
Just because a toy is marketed for internal and/or external use, doesn’t mean you have to use it that way. Get creative with the erogenous zones you’re using them on. You might even find some places that feel good you never even realized were there!
The only restriction I make is to not insert them anally if the toy doesn’t have a flared base. No one wants an ER visit where they have to explain that their colon really wanted a turn with the toy.
Lucia explained to me that you can't lose something in your vagina because your cervix will block it from going anywhere further up, but your butt actually can suck things up. Wild!
As for a starter vibrator, everyone is very different and will have their own preferences. I suggest a good place to start is buying a replaceable battery toy that is fairly inexpensive to figure out what you like.
If you have a local sex toy store nearby, and you are comfortable visiting it, sometimes they have demos or will open items for you to see. This is a great way to feel the vibrations in your hand or test how squishy/firm the toy is.
Really take some time to ask yourself some questions:
If you're not really sure, try something that's more middle of the road, or that has a lot of settings so you can play. You might find that something gives too much or too little stimulation.
Give yourself some time to experiment with it and think about what might be a good upgrade. Keep trying new and cheap-ish toys over time until you have a better idea of what your body likes. Then break out the piggy bank and go for a bigger investment! A higher quality toy is well worth the price if you know it will be what you want.
What is a good way to introduce the idea of sex toys, with the eventual goal being incorporating sex toys into the relationship, to your partner?
That’s a great question! I wish there was an easy series of steps to get to the sex toy. It takes a little risk to put yourself out there and communicate, but the reward is totally worth expressing what you want.
Sex toys get an unfair rep that they are only for weird single people, will replace your lover, or otherwise ruin your sex life. Sex toys are a healthy and fun part of many single and partnered people’s lives.
The best place to start is by talking to your partner in a low-stress situation. That means not in public and not immediately before, during, or immediately after sex.
While sex may initially seem like the place to bring it up, that might really ruin the mood and your partner may feel ambushed. It’s likely safer to bring it up as a conversation when an opportunity presents itself.
That could be after a movie where a sex toy is brought up as a joke or focal point. Maybe a good chance is when talking about a friend’s bachelor/bachelorette party where a sex toy made an appearance. An easy test could be a statement that you read an article about the increasing popularity of sex toys and wonder what your partner thinks of that. There might be an opportunity to talk about it if a friend gets one as a gag gift (or make up a friend, or a friend of a friend to spark the conversation). It may be as simple as asking what they thought about the sex toy in those situations, or if they’d ever thought about sex toys before.
Feel out the situation and move forward if you think it’s safe. If you can be bold and say you’re curious about them, then go for it. You may be pleasantly surprised that they’ve always wanted one or are curious about them. It could also lead to a really awkward moment where you find out that they think sex toys are for desperate single people or are an addiction. You’ll never know until you ask.
Be wary that this may turn into a series of conversations full of many minefields. You might inadvertently end up in a conversation about your cis boyfriend's fear that women who try vibrators become lesbians, or that women all want a really big dildo and then won't go back to average sized men because it will stretch them out, or that if your girlfriend uses a dildo then she'll run off to a find a man, that using a dildo always has bigger implications for your gender identity, a vibrator will cause permanent numbness, etc. You have to be able to explain to your partner that their feelings of fear are valid, but that the basis for the fear is misinformation. That’s a really delicate and complicated topic for anyone to handle, especially when the conversation is about sex.
Let’s be very clear that an inanimate object can never replace a person. A sex toy cannot laugh with you, hold you close when you’re sad, tell you how much it cares about you, or give you the intimacy that partners can. A sex toy is a wonderful tool when used correctly.
There is a myth that penetrative sex involving a penis and vagina is the “proper” way to orgasm. Statistical evidence shows that only about 30% of women can orgasm via penetration alone. That’s great for those women that want to get off that way. For that 70%, a little assistance is called for and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Can anyone move their fingers or tongue so fast that it vibrates on par with a vibrator? Nope. If you are that rare person that can, it probably doesn’t go for very long.
What dangers might be lurking in our sex toys? Why are high-quality sex toys so important?
So the big one is unsafe design. Some toys are cheaply manufactured and may have sharp edges where plastic pieces meet, or they may have shoddy wiring.
I have read numerous complaints, some on the saferproducts.gov website , about electrical shocks to people’s fingers or cuts caused by poorly manufactured sex toys.
Many people have heard about the fabled ER visit where someone has to have an object removed from their lower intestines after it gets lost in their ass. That really happens to people because the design doesn’t provide a safe flared base so the toy doesn’t get sucked in.
There are also many cases of burning or stinging sensations on the genitals, hands, or mouths of purchasers. Thousands of anecdotes reporting various levels of discomfort and pain are due to very soft plastic toys containing a mystery soup of chemicals that can leach out onto your skin. Those reactions are not just a few people that are hypersensitive to certain chemicals.
Because a picture can be worth a thousand words, check out this super gross jar of decomposed jelly sex toys.
No one regulates the sex toy industry [remember a couple of weeks ago we mentioned that they're considered "novelties" which means, in the mind of regulators, that people don't actually use them which means that they don't need regulation?] and many of the items are produced in unknown conditions overseas. With no regulation of the chemicals, there is really no way to know what is actually in the items.
If you'd like some heavier reading, Lucia recommends a Dutch study where heavy metals and heavy industrial chemical solvents/irritants were found in sex toys. Yikes!
A class of chemicals that have recently been brought to light are called phthalates (pronounced “thal-ates”). These are used to soften hard plastics and are sometimes referred to as plasticizers.
They are already known to be irritants in certain amounts. There is growing scientific suspicion that phthalates may cause birth defects, disorders of the hormone systems in your body (the endocrine system), and other unknown health effects.
The scientific community is slow to produce substantive research on the topic, and nothing even close to the realm of sex toys. When I was reading phthalate research I learned that individual small doses of phthalates are likely not a problem. [Like we talked about a couple of weeks ago...] The issue is the numerous places in our lives where we are exposed to small amounts repeatedly. It has been suggested that the cumulative long term exposure to many types of phthalates, in individually harmless doses, needs to be studied to assess if there is a risk.
Well, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that I can’t give you a 100% safe set of toys to choose from. The good news is that there are some reputable businesses that sell sex toys that will do much of the weeding out work for you. There are also some companies that are making extra effort to produce safe toys. I have some silicone and aluminum toys that will last my entire lifetime. I always joke that they’ll be heirlooms I pass on to my loved ones, or I want to be buried with them.
What should we be looking for in a sex toy company? Do you have some favorites you can recommend?
I always look for transparency:
I’m very picky and only buy from stores that stock safe products. If they would even carry something that is unsafe then I don’t trust them with my money. I have so many favorites, but here is a small sampling:
|Awesome Feminist Shops||Awesome Manufacturers|
|Babeland (Seattle, New York, online)||Fun Factory - German manufacturer|
|Early to Bed (Chicago, online)||Je Joue - sultry brand|
|Good Vibrations (CA, MA, online)||Leaf Vibes - for those with many allergies|
|Self-Serve Toys (Albuquerque, online)||Minna - sleek, tech focused products|
|She Bop (Portland, online)||New Love Creations - strapless strap ons|
|She Vibe (online)||New York Toy Collective - products for all gender expression|
|Smitten Kitten (Minneapolis, online)||OhMiBod - high tech toys (they created the iPod vibrator)|
|Sugar (Baltimore, online)||PicoBong - toys with a sense of humor, owned by Lelo|
|Tool Shed (Milwaukee, online)||Rocks Off - UK manufacturer|
|Tantus - 100% silicone toys|
|Tenga - Japanese manufacturer|
|We-Vibe - Canadian manufacturer|
Any we should stay away from?
For toys, there are some easy red flags to look for:
Amazon - Orders from here usually come from third party vendors that might be questionable. You'll often find that they don't have good return policies or customer service, either. Amazon's prices are tempting, but they are also known to price cut the companies that work really hard to make safe things for your body, making it harder for those companies to stay in business.
Eden Fantasys - STAY AWAY! This place is known for treating reviewers like garbage and has sent people used toys!
What else do you want us to know? What should we tell our friends?
Let's talk about lube, for just a second. Lube loves you. But some lubes are better for some things and some are better for others:
The only personal recommendation I can give is Sliquid (vegan!), though friends have enjoyed Sustain (& fair trade condoms!) and Good Clean Love. And two reviewers I really trust created their own Lube Guides: Dangerous Lilly and Lorax of Sex.
Best of all, Smitten Kitten carries lube samplers, so you can try a few before getting 10 oz. of anything!
Finally, spread the word. Friends don’t let friends buy terrible sex toys!
Where can we learn more?
You can also check out the sources for my thesis below.
Lucia, thank you so much for sharing so much juicy and important information.
And if you're wowed and inspired, and getting excited thinking about being hot and bothered, please send this link to 3 women you care about.
Lucia's Selected Thesis Bibliography - she's bolded items of particular interest
Aaronson, D. S, and Alan W Shindel. “Advocating for Safer Use of Sexual Enhancement Products.” The journal of sexual medicine 7.6 (2010): 2285–7. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Awehali, B., Lisa Jervis. "An Interview with Jessica Giordani, co-founder of sex toy business The Smitten Kitten, about the new Coalition Against Toxic Toys."Lip. Lip Media Inc. 2002. p10. Web. March. 2014.
Biesanz, Z. (2007). Dildos, Artificial Vaginas, and Phthalates: How Toxic Sex Toys Illustrate a Broader Problem for Consumer Protection.” Law & Ineq. 2007 Web. March 2014.
Blue, V. "Not All Butt Plugs Should Glow in the Dark / As Concerns Grow about Toxic Sex Toys, Violet Blue Explores Potential Consumer Health Risks." SFGate. Web. 25 Feb 2014.
Bouma, K, and DJ Schakel. “Migration of Phthalates from PVC Toys into Saliva Simulant by Dynamic Extraction.” Food Additives & Contaminants 19.6 (2002): 602–611. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.
Cesario, SK; Hughes, LA. “Precocious Puberty: A Comprehensive Review of Literature.” Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & … (2007): 263–274. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.
Chazan, A. “Good Vibrations: Liberating Sexuality from the Commercial Regulation of Sexual Devices.” Tex. J. Women & L. 18 (2008): n. pag. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Clancey, K. “Vaginal pH Redux: Primate Vaginal Microbial Communities and Your Health” Context and Variation. Web. Jun 2013.
Coalition Against Toxic Toys. BadVibes -Coalition Against Toxic Toys. CATT, 2005. Web. Jan 2014.
Coffey, J. “The Ancient History of Modern Sex Toys” James R Coffey Writing and Resources Center. Web. Jan 2014.
Committee on the Health Risks of Phthalates, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Division on Earth and Life Studies, National Research Council of the National Academies. Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment – The Task Ahead. Washington D.C., 2008. Print.
Congress and Consumer Protection and Safety Commission. “Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.” (2008): 1–63. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Dangerous Lilly, "A Phthalates Experiment (or: I touched a slimy dildo on purpose)." Dangerous Lilly. Web. 10 Jan 2014.
Dangerous Lilly, "Yes, Jelly Sex Toys can be Dangerous." Dangerous Lilly. Web. 10 Jan 2014.
Ehrenreich, B. and Deirdre English. Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness. New York: The Feminist Press, 1973. Print.
European Chemical Agency. Evaluation of New Scientific Evidence Concerning DINP and DIDP in Relation to Entry 52 of Annex XVII to REACH Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006. N. p., 2006. Print.
Glover, R. “Can’t Buy a Thrill: Substantive Due Process, Equal Protection, and Criminalizing Sex Toys.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 100.2 (2010): n. pag. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Griffin, R., & McGwin, G. (2009). “Sexual stimulation device-related injuries.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 35(4), 253–61.
Herbenick, D., Michael Reece, Vanessa Schick, et al. “Beliefs about Women’s Vibrator Use: Results from a Nationally Representative Probability Survey in the United States.” Journal of sex & marital therapy 37.5 (2011): 329–45. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Herbenick, D., Michael Reece, Stephanie Sanders, et al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use by Women in the United States: Results from a Nationally Representative Study.” The journal of sexual medicine 6.7 (2009): 1857–66. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Herbenick, D., Michael Reece, Stephanie a Sanders, et al. “Women’s Vibrator Use in Sexual Partnerships: Results from a Nationally Representative Survey in the United States.” Journal of sex & marital therapy 36.1 (2010): 49–65. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
Heudorf, U., Volker Mersch-Sundermann, and Jürgen Angerer. “Phthalates: Toxicology and Exposure.” International journal of hygiene and environmental health 210.5 (2007): 623–34. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.
James-Todd, T, and Richard Stahlhut. “Urinary Phthalate Metabolite Concentrations and Diabetes among Women in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2001–2008.” Environmental Health Perspectives 120.9 (2012): 2001–2008. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.
Janssen, Pjcm, and H J Bremmer. “Risk Assessment Plasticizers from Erotic Objects.” September (2010): n. pag. Print.
Johnson, N. “Adam&Eve, Good Vibrations Just Say ‘No’ to Phthalates” AVN. Web. March 2014.
Liptak, J. Photograph for “Ancient phallus unearthed in cave.” BBC News-Science & Environment. Web. 4 Jan 2013.
Marrazzo, J., Patricia Coffey, and Allison Bingham. “Sexual Practices, Risk Perception and Knowledge of Sexually Transmitted Disease Risk among Lesbian and Bisexual Women.” Perspectives on sexual and reproductive health 37.1 (2005): 6–12.
McKenna, J. “Substantive Due Process/Privacy-Stay Calm, Don’t Get Hysterical: A User's Guide to Arguing the Unconstitutionality of Anti-Vibrator Statutes.” W. New Eng. L. Rev. 2.2 (2011): 1–36. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Moskowitz, C. “Stone Age carving may be ancient sex toy.” NBC News-Science. NBC News (taken from LiveScience), 2010. Web. 1 June 2013.
National Research Council. (2008). Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment. The National Academies Press.
Nilsson, NH. “Survey and Health Assesment of Chemicals Substances in Sex Toys.” Survey of Chemical Substances in Consumer Products 77 (2006): n. pag. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.
Pritchett, J. Toxic Sex Toys With Jennifer Pritchett. Youtube. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
Reece, Michael, Joshua G Rosenberger, et al. “Characteristics of Vibrator Use by Gay and Bisexually Identified Men in the United States.” The journal of sexual medicine 7.10 (2010): 3467–76. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Reece, Michael, Debra Herbenick, et al. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Vibrator Use by Men in the United States.” The journal of sexual medicine 6.7 (2009): 1867–74. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Rosenberger, Joshua G et al. “Sex Toy Use by Gay and Bisexual Men in the United States.” Archives of sexual behavior 41.2 (2012): 449–58. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Schettler, T. (2006). Human exposure to phthalates via consumer products. International Journal of Andrology, 29(1), 134–9; discussion 181–5.
Shelby, Michael D. “NTP-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Di ( 2-Ethylhexyl ) Phthalate ( DEHP ).” Ntp Cerhr Mon 18 (2006): v, vii–7, II–iii–xiii passim.
Stabile, E. “Getting the Government in Bed: How to Regulate the Sex-Toy Industry.” Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just. 1869.2009 (2013): 161–185. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Stark, EL. “Get a Room: Sexual Device Statutes and the Legal Closeting of Sexual Identity.” Geo. Mason U. Civ. Rts. LJ May 2004 (2009): 315–350. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Steiner, I et al. “Migration of Di-(2-Ethylhexyl) Phthalate from PVC Child Articles into Saliva and Saliva Simulant.” Food additives and contaminants 15.7 (1998): 812–7. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
Taormino, Tristan; The Anal Sex Position Guide. USA: Quiver Books, 2009. Print.
Taormino, Tristan; "Dangerous Dildos, Part 1." The Village Voice - Columns. New York Village Voice. Pub 30 Jan 2007. Web. 10 Jan 2014.
Taormino, Tristan; "Dangerous Dildos, Part 2." The Village Voice - Columns. New York Village Voice. Pub 30 Jan 2007. Web. 10 Jan 2014.
Taormino, Tristan; The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women 2nd Edition. USA: Cleis Press Inc, 2006. Print.
The Kaiser Family Foundation. “Sex Education in the US: Policy and Politics.” (2002): Web. March. 2014.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “TOXICOLOGICAL PROFILE FOR DI(2-ETHYLHEXYL)PHTHALATE.” September (2002): n. pag. Print.
US Environmental Protection Agency. “Phthalates TEACH Chemical Summary.” (2007): 1–25.
US Food and Drug Administration. “Safety Assessment of Di-(2-Ethylhexyl) Phthalate (DEHP) Released from PVC Medical Devices.” Center for Devices and Radiological Health (2001): n. pag. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.