If you’ve bought a sex toy any time in the past decade, you may have noticed a label that proudly declared the product to be phthalate-free. Chances are good that you didn’t give it a second thought; but if you decided to look deeper, you would have learned that phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastics (like the plastics used in many jelly rubber sex toys) and that some studies have linked them to negative health effects (from relatively benign things like mild irritation to far more scary outcomes like cancer). The exact extent to which phthalates are damaging or dangerous isn’t really known — but the existing research was enough to get the US government to ban them from children’s toys in 2009.
When it comes to sex toys, the general consensus is that phthalates are best avoided — which is why many manufacturers voluntarily refrain from using phthalates in their products, and why they proudly advertise that this is the case. Which would seem like an example of the market forces working everything out for the best, if it weren’t for one small, troubling detail: Many of the marital aids that bear the “phthalate-free” label aren’t actually free of the chemicals.
Take, for instance, the Doc Johnson James Deen dildo. Despites its manufacturer’s claims that the product is phthalate-free, a materials analysis by Dildology shows that claim to be false. The revelation has inspired at least one James Deen fan to write an open letter encouraging her crush to stand up to the system and demand better toys. Unfortunately, fixing the system that’s led to a phthalateful James Deen dildo may not be as simple as that.
There are two main factors that drive the continued proliferation of unsafe sex toys: greed and shame. Greed — better known as capitalism — isn’t unique to the sex toy industry; virtually every for-profit company in existence is primarily there to make money, increase gains, and make more money. Sure, there are many companies out there that would prefer to not be evil, but when the bottom line comes a-calling, there are few that really put the greater good over their own annual reports unless they’re absolutely forced to. Tobacco merchants knowingly sell their customers carcinogens; processed food manufacturers load up their wares with unhealthy amounts of salt, sugar, and fat; sex toy manufacturers use phthalates. They all do it, because it makes good business sense, and unless there’s a compelling reason to change, they’re unlikely to alter their behavior.
One could argue that consumer outrage over phthalates is a pretty compelling reason to stop using them in production; the proliferation of “phthalate-free” labels would suggest that sex toy companies have, in fact, heeded the public’s demands for safer sex toys. But the revelation that “phthalate-free” toys aren’t always as advertised suggests that while claiming to be free of phthalates might be good for business, actually doing the legwork to ensure that toys are non-toxic isn’t really worth a company’s time — unless, of course, it faces serious government penalties for misrepresenting its products.
Which leads us to shame. In a country where it’s hard enough to get protections for some of the most basic of reproductive rights, the idea of a congressperson actually authoring a bill demanding safer dildos is laughable at best. Likewise, the shame many consumers feel about admitting to — let alone discussing — sensitive purchases like sex toys makes it hard to imagine a widespread consumer campaign demanding regulation for marital aid manufacturers. Without this kind of government intervention, the sex toy business has no actual incentive to change the way it operates; meaning the sex toy market is likely to be flooded with unsafe merchandise for the foreseeable future.
Which brings me back to James Deen. In her open letter to him, Shawna from Sex Siopa argues that, as one of the biggest adult stars out there, he has the power to stand up to Doc Johnson and demand the company produce safer toys. It’s a nice thought, and I do hope that Deen takes it to heart; I’d certainly like to believe that he cares about the health of his fans (and to give him the benefit of the doubt, it’s entirely possible that he believed Doc Johnson’s label and thought his toy was totally safe). But it’s naive to think that the loss of the James Deen dildo would force Doc Johnson to overhaul its entire product line; the James Deen collection is just one of many superstar collections that are themselves just a tiny fraction of the massive catalog of Doc Johnson toys. While it’s nice to imagine that James Deen might leave to lend his name to a smaller, truly phthalate-free company like Vixen or Tantus, it’s unlikely that either of those companies has the funds to equal whatever Deen has made from his Doc Johnson contract; ultimately, leaving Doc Johnson would hurt Deen more than Doc.
And let’s not forget this: James Deen could stand up to Doc Johnson, receive assurances that it would change its toys, and still find himself representing a company that puts out unsafe products. As long as there’s no governing body analyzing toys and enforcing safety standards, companies like Doc Johnson have no incentive to uphold their safety claims, and performers like Deen have no way of knowing how safe their “safe” toys really are. Perhaps instead of starting a battle with Doc Johnson, Deen — and other adult stars — could devote their energies to petitioning the government to require FDA supervision to ensure sex toy safety. That might actually have a chance of changing things — or at least of inspiring other consumers to get over their sex-related shame and stand up for their rights.
UPDATE: Doc Johnson has responded to Dildology’s analysis.