The crusade against phthalates and toxic toys

When Jennifer Pritchett opened The Smitten Kitten, her goal was to run a sex-positive, feminist adult retail store. But that mission expanded when she discovered the issue of toxic sex toys. She had never heard the word “phthalates” before, but three days before the store’s grand opening in August of 2003, while opening a shipment of inventory, she saw the chemicals in action.

You know those styrofoam packing peanuts? They were moist. And the moisture had oozed through the peanuts and into the cardboard box, so it looked like, you know when you put chocolate chip cookies on a grocery bag and they leave grease marks? That’s what the box looked like . . . They were leaking, oozing, this . . . oily substance . . . And it reeked. It smelled so bad. I’ve told people before, it smells like a headache.

Not knowing what on earth was going on, Pritchett and her staff washed the toys and set them on towels. But it didn’t help — more beads of sweat appeared on the toys. Pritchett called their distributor, who explained that “it happens all the time” and promised replacements. Then she called Metis Black, president of Tantus, who said, “you know what that is, don’t you?”

Pritchett quickly went to work researching phthalates and toxins in sex toys. She talked to others in the industry, fought with her distributor, and realized how huge of an issue she had stumbled upon. It was at this point that the mission of The Smitten Kitten shifted to encompass social justice, environmental justice, and personal health. The store’s entire inventory was revamped, despite the fact that eliminating the toxic toys made it difficult to fill even a 500 square foot shop.

Now there was an explanation for all the burning, rashes, bacterial infections, and unexplained irritation that consumers were having after using sex toys. Still, the conversation needed to change, because most consumers just thought they were too sensitive. Pritchett explains,

What we really worked to do was flip that conversation around. Your body’s having a perfectly natural and appropriate reaction to a toxic toy. To chemicals that were never meant to be in consumer products, and certainly not in consumer products that you come into that intimate of contact with . . . That really resonated with people . . . And then we started to shift the responsibility from our bodies to those products, and to those manufacturers, and those distributors, and those stores.

Pritchett even sent the industry’s 10 bestselling jelly toys to an independent lab in California, where many were found to contain various chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and hormonal disruption. In some toys, up to 68% of the total volume of the toy was a hazardous phthalate.

Now, almost 9 years later, we know a bit more about phthalates and toxic sex toys, and many stores (like us and the others in the Progressive Pleasure Club) stock only body-safe toys. But we wouldn’t be at this point without Pritchett and other brave industry folks taking a stand and knowing that a smelly, oily sex toy should not come in contact with anyone’s genitals.