SEX Future sexologists will pinpoint the 2000s as the decade in which the sex toy industry finally crawled from its toxic swamp toward the green light. Before now, mainstream sex toys were garish in appearance, sloppily constructed, and intended to be dumped in a landfill after a few months of use. Made in shady overseas factories by exploited workers, many contained chemicals, like phthalates, that have been linked to cancer and were powered by frequently disposed-of batteries. Virtually nothing about the assembly or life cycle of the average sex toy indicated any consideration of consumer safety, labor standards, or environmental sustainability.
Fast-forward to today. Toys are available in a range of medical-grade, recyclable, and body-safe materials that don’t threaten users with possible tumors. There are rechargeable, recyclable, hand-cranked, organic, or solar-powered erotic accoutrements for the picking. A growing number of businesses manufacture locally. Retailers are using their influence to spread the natural sex toy word. And the products are actually selling.
The Bay Area has been pivotal in catalyzing these changes. Many of the most influential and promising environmentally-minded sex entrepreneurs, retailers, and advocates are based here we house more green-compliant adult manufacturers than any other city. In a city where the word "sexual" is happily associated with innumerable prefixes homo-, bi-, poly-, pan-, a-, omni- we’ve earned a new variation: ecosexual.
If you’ve turned yourself on in the past 33 years, you probably know about Good Vibrations (www.goodvibes.com), the sex-toy juggernaut that evolved from a small women-owned cooperative into a worldwide phenomenon. I met with Carol Queen, PhD and staff sexologist, and Camilla Lombard, publicity manager, at Good Vibes’ Polk Street retail location, where large posters announced a new "Ecorotic" line: "Have Sustainable Sex! Kiss uninspired evenings goodbye!" The candy-colored Ecorotic toys, rechargeable and organic, occupied the most prominent display tables and cases.
Good Vibes has influenced some of the industry’s most important ecosexual developments. In 2001, the popular German magazine Stern ran the first feature on the harmful effects phthalates in sex toys, and Queen recalled, "The [journalists] stopped at Good Vibrations on their way back from Asia, after having gone to enormous toy factories in China and Hong Kong. They thought they were going to do a Life magazine-type spread on sex toy factories there. But their photographer was a medical doctor and when he smelled the air in the factories, he knew something was wrong. So they came to us the day after they got off the plane from Asia looking for alternatives. We started that conversation well over 10 years ago." (More than 70 percent of the world’s sex toys are still manufactured in China, where safety and environmental standards can be sketchy.)
Good Vibrations was among the first major retailers to phase phthalates out of their inventory, but they are, to this day, among the minority to do so. Included in this minority is Libida (www.libida.com), which like Good Vibrations is a local, women-centered adult e-boutique. Libida’s founder, Petra Zebroff, has a doctorate in human sexuality. (While most cities can’t boast of a single sex shop with PhD-certified sexologists on staff, San Francisco, perhaps unsurprisingly has several). I asked Petroff for advice on choosing a safe product. She warned, "If you smell a strong chemical smell or it’s unusually inexpensive phthalates are the cheap way to make a rubber pliable it probably contains materials that are not good for you or the environment."
As an alternative, the staff at Libida and Good Vibes suggests silicone, a recyclable, hypoallergenic, and nonporous substance also used in cookware and medical devices. Both retailers stock products by Vixen Creations (www.vixencreations.com), a local woman-owned dildo company celebrating 17 successful years. Vixen develops and manufactures popular silicone toys at its San Francisco factory, where each toy is crafted by hand and given a lifetime warranty something unprecedented in the field.
Like silicone, wood is used in body-safe and eco-conscious sex toys, but has the added benefit of being naturally beautiful. Founded in 2005, NobEssence (www.nobessence.com) sells handmade sculptural toys that resemble antique curios. CEO Jason Yoder has an environmentalist’s background, having worked as an auditor for SA8000, a global accountability standard of ethical working conditions. During a phone conversation, Yoder remarked, "We hold ourselves to that standard not because we want to seem greener but because it’s self-evident that it’s the right thing to do." NobEssence sources sustainably farmed and harvested hardwood, and suppliers sign a code of conduct designating penalties for labor or ecological violations.
Borosilicate glass is another aesthetically pleasing material option. Sexual locavores who enjoyed the recent Dale Chihuly retrospective at the de Young Museum must visit Glass Kandi (569 Geary, SF. www.glassdildome.com), where each uniquely hand-blown toy is a gleaming parcel of sexy sui generis. "I have more glass dildos in my kitchen than I do in this store," owner Samantha Liu told me mischievously. "I’d been using this stuff for years." When I heard her say "kitchen," my eyes instinctively fell upon her "Produce Collection": halcyon dildos of garden-variety cucumbers, jalapenos, and bananas plus a Chinese bitter melon and a cob of corn. "I’ve had people send me pictures with one of these in a fruit basket," Liu said. Liu designs most of the toys herself and works with local glassblowers to materialize them into objects of desire. Borosilicate glass may not be the recyclable kind, but these crystalline baubles would be criminal to discard.
Stationary toys like glass and wood dildos have their advantages, but sometimes it’s helpful when a toy moves on your behalf. With unique technical innovations, two local companies, JuicyLogic (www.juicylogic.com) and Jimmyjane (www.jimmyjane.com), have introduced impressive reinterpretations of the traditional vibrator, clearly illustrating that the demand for green solutions has never been higher than now.
JuicyLogic, started by Zebroff of Libida, is the company behind the only solar-powered vibrator on the market. "I started JuicyLogic in an ongoing effort to focus on finding and making green sex toys," she explained. "The idea of Sola Vibe came up when we found out that the only solar-powered vibrator on the market was being discontinued. We knew there was nothing else available, and we wanted to make sure solar power was an option for vibrator users." Like many green crusaders, Zebroff hopes to reduce battery waste. "The average person uses up eight batteries per year, leaving 2.4 billion batteries disposed of each year. I thought of how vibrators use batteries as their main source of power, and I felt an obligation to advocate for other sources of energy for vibrators." When the alternative source didn’t seem to exist, she created it herself: a silicone vibrator equipped with a solar panel containing 2.5 hours of vibrating bliss.
Jimmyjane, like JuicyLogic, is an inventive young company. Founded in 2004 by Ethan Imboden, an industrial designer and engineer, Jimmyjane is recognized as the industry’s current technological leader. With patented external docking devices that power a lithium ion battery, Jimmyjane’s vibrators are sleeved in silicone, hygienically sealed, and fully operable three meters underwater, displaying a thoughtfulness of design, a mechanical know-how, and a cavalier extravagance that distinguish them from others. Jimmyjane just released the Form 2, a smaller vibrator using similar technology. The nifty items in the Form series have more functions than most cell phones and rival Apple products in sleekness of design. Why the detail? Imboden answered, "We realized early on that if Jimmyjane is going to be a part of peoples’ sexuality because sexuality is such an intimate and a vulnerable aspect of our lives there are a whole set of responsibilities that go with that. We don’t market ourselves as an eco-company because for us, it’s an assumption that that’s our responsibility." They’ve certainly done their part: the Forms require not a single alkaline battery.
Thrillingly, the city’s DIY-oriented sexual community is also producing ecosex craft innovations that are as groundbreaking as they are thought-provoking. Madame Butterfly (www.butterflyrope.com) is a textile artist who handspins bondage rope out of raw silk, bamboo, and other natural materials. On the more steampunk side of things, SFSU student Martin Cooper recently unveiled an attention-grabbing, water-powered fucking machine in a nine-foot wood and metal frame. If it looks a little medieval, well, that’s part of the attraction.
Back at Good Vibrations, I asked Queen why San Francisco has become the crux of the ecosex movement. "It’s the sex-positivity," she said. "I think it’s because in the Bay Area I hate the word ‘normal’ when talking about sex but here this discussion is normalized in a different way than it is everywhere else." It’s true that savvy entrepreneurs are just a small part of our larger, sex-positive culture. Still, the ecosexual movement may be the proof that our culture as a whole is pushing forward toward a more sustainable future. After all, everything starts with sex.