Toss that Toxic Toy!

| By Lisa Ziemer |

Ah! Asheville… what other small city has such easy access to oxygen-intoxicating ‘forest bathing,’ Ashtanga and Bkakti yoga classes, drive-up waterfalls, and fantastic upcycled fashion? If you live in Asheville, you probably do your best to live consciously in many areas of your life.

Except… maybe?… bedtime… ahem. Do you know what’s in your lubricant? Your vibrator? Hmmm… Toys! Everyone knows they are regulated for safety by the Federal Government, right? Yes, that’s right… children’s toys are highly regulated for safety in design, materials, and components. But adult toys? Ha! That’s another story!

In the past, such products were prohibited for sale, and remain illegal in some states. Before the 1920s, a person could be sent to prison for selling condoms! Midcentury, sex devices purchased in Paris would be confiscated in customs. Vibrators were advertised as whole body muscle relaxers, and the euphemism for any other adult product was “marital aid.”

As attitudes changed in the 1970s with ‘free love’ and the demand for greater individual rights, Federal obscenity rulings were challenged, and then changed. The commercial distribution of XXX videos exploded in adult bookstores and was accompanied by the sale of other sexually-oriented items. Resistance in many communities to adult bookstores resulted in a complicated history of municipal and legal wrangling over the presence and location of sex stores.

Demand was high; Hustler’s Larry Flynt was persistent; and the adult industry rapidly expanded with products inexpensively made in China. These items were sold under the category “novelty” and remain completely unregulated as to safety. They do not fall under FDA guidelines, and are still not monitored for compliance with any health or safety standards.

The “novelty” maneuver is obviously disingenuous from the perspective of a consumer, but all ‘adult toys’ fall under this category. Of course, there are small print caveats from manufacturers that such items are not actually intended for any use but as a novelty item. (Read: gag gift – might want to put a condom on an item used other than as a party favor!)

Additionally, adult product manufacturers’ specifications for production are not always followed in overseas factories. Not infrequently, inferior materials and ingredients are used in production without the branding company’s knowledge. Consumer lab testing has sometimes shown alarming results. Toluene, cadmium, and lead show up in lab reports, as do many other toxic materials. Phthalates are added to the plastics to make them soft and pliable, but phthalates have been proven to cause cancer. Off-brand versions of the extremely popular “rabbit” are notorious for such toxicity.

Lubricants may have ingredients, such as glycerine or a variety of preservatives that can disrupt sensitive internal balances. And beware the adult shop supplement category… you may be getting unknown strength herbs that can dangerously interfere with prescribed meds you might be taking, or you may be getting, mostly, finely ground sawdust (it’s called cellulose… but don’t worry… that’s safe).

With the rise of the Internet, and a tremendous drop-off in XXX video sales, smaller brick & mortar sex shops (heavily invested in DVDs) failed. Corporate adult superstores survive today, with the high volume and high profit margins of the novelty market.

Inexpensive novelties are sold with a goal of repeat purchasing through the planned obsolescence that many manufacturers rely upon for profitability. Wonder why your pleasure toy died in a year? Sadly, much manufacturing is based on this concept. The more reputable manufacturers, thankfully, reject this concept. European companies such as the Swedish brand, Lelo, and the German brand, Fun Factory, excel in engineering and design and offer excellent warranties on their products.

These manufacturers, and others, are respectful of their consumer, honest about actual intended use, and are intentionally developing better, body safe products. They are self-regulating of the materials and ingredients in their products. Medical grade silicone, elastomer, and hard ABS plastics are more expensive in production but well worth higher consumer confidence. Some manufacturers even follow up with strategic lab testing of their end product to verify factory compliance to specifications.

Glycerine, actually a sugar, is found in most drugstore lubricants, and can cause dryness and yeast infections. As healthier alternatives, there are now lubricant brands, like Sliquid, which are externally and internally body safe, and some offer vegan and organic lines. Water based, hypoallergenic, ph balanced lubricants can be absorbed safely internally, and clean up nicely. Liquid silicone lubes are safe and slippery fun. Carrageenan (a seaweed product used as a thickener in food items) is used to replace glycerine, and has been shown to kill HPV in-vitro. (Though not safe to solely rely on for HPV prevention, it’s a good back-up for a barrier method.)

Adult stores are slowly catching on to the demand for better products but their sales continue to be dependent on established high volume turnover of product lines that currently fill their slatwall and websites. Women are driving a desire for product related to sexual health and wellness, for intimate connectedness in their relationships versus expedient “getting off,” and for a classier, more elegant presentation. In addition to a desire for quality and body safety, a sense of psychological safety is essential.

In a typical adult shop, even those marketed as “women-friendly,” there are still a lot of questionable products to sort through. Realistic representations of genitalia can trigger adult only or obscenity regulations in many municipalities, requiring an age 18 or over ID requirement, which can cue excitement, but also shame in a person who has been sexually shamed in the past, as so many of us were.

Because of the close association of porn with adult products, porn imagery is frequently duplicated in adult product packaging. Unnatural, plasticized, unrealistically photoshopped body imagery is all too common. Violence and misogyny are strongly present – undeniably part of our culture, and our brains make close associations between fear and excitement. Many people, as seen by the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, have a desire to play in these shadow realms, and becoming conscious of one’s sexual desires and drives can be quite valuable, if the process in undertaken with care. Moving away from a shame-and-fear-based model of sexuality to one of sexual health and wellness can be wonderfully empowering.

Many female-identifying individuals and their partners appreciate a gentle, romantic approach to conscious sexuality by exploring different aspects of persona through costuming, fantasy, and sensation play, and switching ‘power’ roles. All these possibilities can be a wonderful way of adding depth and complexity to one’s intimate life.

There is an incredibly colorful spectrum of human sexuality, and safe adult products are a legitimate part of overall health and wellness. An alternative to the corporate big box adult store, a ‘boudoir boutique’ like VaVaVooom is aligned with female sensibilities, and offers apparel, lovely lingerie, playful accessories, and carefully selected, body safe adult products within a boutique setting, for a pleasing shopping experience and a variety of playful adventures.


Lisa Genevieve Ziemer spent her early years among flower tossing hippies, Victorian and Edwardian-era dressed mommies, and progressive nuns in the Marin/San Francisco Bay Area. Before opening VaVaVooom in Asheville eight years ago, she passed the CPA exam, raised four bright hooligans, started a Home Care Agency, and studied Art History.

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