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Are your sex toys ethical?

December 27th, 2006

Dr Petra

Over the next few months you can expect to see a number of features in women’s magazines about ethical sex toys. This is because a few months back Greenpeace complained that some sex toys are not very green and may contain harmful components. Cue journalists getting very excited about the ‘new trend’ of green sex toys.

It’s unlikely we will see a rise in green sex toys over the coming year, although increased awareness of ethical issues might lead to some changes in manufacturing.

Within media coverage it’s unlikely we’ll see all areas of ethics of toys covered, with the focus mostly being on the Greenpeace angle. So here’s a checklist to see how ethical your sex toy store is.

Ten ways to spot an ethical sex toy stockist

1. How (and where) are your toys produced?

Some sex toys are produced in factories in developing countries (including China). When buying your toy it’s important to know if it was made by people whose access to sex information, education and contraception is good. In many cases you could be buying a toy made by a person who will never be able to enjoy a positive sex life due to gender inequality, poverty or lack access to sex education or reliable contraception. Instead urge your stockists to sell toys and lingerie created by people working in ethical conditions with access to education and healthcare.

2. Does the advertising of your toys or lingerie have an environmental impact?

Many sex product sales are based on paper catalogues. Last year pressure was put on the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret who were producing over 350 million paper catalogues but not using recycled paper. A campaign against the company led to a successful change in policy and a move towards recycled paper use in catalogues. Where possible check your products online and avoid paper catalogues, or if you decide you no longer wish to subscribe cancel your catalogue order. And you can always recycle your sex toy catalogue that will, if nothing else, liven up the lives of staff at the recycling plant. Treehugger has a list of products that are (and are not) environmentally friendly.

3. How much are workers paid to produce/sell the toys?
Whilst people often assume working in a sex store is a dream job, many staff are not paid well – in fact in some stores often they’re paid just above or often around the minimum wage. Selling sex toys and lingerie is a job that requires sensitivity, training and skill and it’s a cause for concern where staff are paid poorly for their services. Ask staff how they’re treated and only shop at stores where staff are paid fairly and treated well (more on this later).

4. What’s the mark-up on products sold?

Some sex shops and online stores make a point of selling lo-cost condoms, lubes and other essentials. Others offer a sliding scale of costs for products. Unfortunately a minority of stores make a point of marking up the sales prices, for example charging £10 or more for lubricant that probably only cost a matter of pence to make. Question stores that sell basic products at inflated prices – are you really getting a much better product because it costs so much more?

5. How much does the store make in profit?

Many sex stores make large profits annually. That’s no bad thing so long as the wealth is shared. It is worrying when stores charge high prices and make profit but staff are paid basic wages (and those who produce toys paid even less). Ethical stores put profits into charity ventures or educational programmes, or run their companies collectively (see examples of good practice at the end of this blog).

6. What support or education is given to staff?

Some stores encourage their staff to learn more about sex so they can give good advice to customers. This could range from tips on condom use, to advice on how to choose a sex toy, through to delivering advice to diverse customers – pregnant women, disabled folk, or people wanting to try a new kink for the first time. In many stores, however, no training is offered so staff are not supported to showcase a range of products and may only talk about what they like best. They may not be skilled to give accurate advice so may inadvertently mislead a customer, or perhaps not feel strong enough to manage a customer who acts inappropriately around them or clearly needs additional support or care with sexual health problems. Find out what support or training your store offers its staff and shop at stores or online stockists that have a proven staff development programme and continually assess and support their staff.

7. Does the store make you pay extra for information?

Reputable online stockists and sex shops provide information about products and sex without any extra costs to you. This might be in advice sheets downloadable from their websites, features and answers on their sites, or trained advisors within shops to offer you an unbiased opinion. A minority of stores do not provide such information on websites or within their stores but instead require you to pay to attend classes they run (which are thinly disguised opportunities to sell you more of their products). Whilst some stores will accept a donation or charge a nominal fee, some shops charge several hundred pounds for a couple of hours tuition (which will go to the store not the tutor).

8. Are products tested and evaluated?

Shops that are ethical test out their products to see whether they’re easy to use have any problems that might make them unsuitable for some customers, and will review products independently. This means they won’t just say a product is good because the manufacturer has asked them to, they will test something themselves and see if it’s worth the hype. Shops that do this will make it clear in the way they write about or describe a product and won’t simply sell you the most expensive or ‘best seller’ item, instead they’ll give you the information based on their evaluations to help you make the best choice of sex toy for you.

9. Does your stockist sell dodgy products?

Unfortunately a large number of sex toy stores sell herbal supplements and products that haven’t been tested or have been proven not to work. Amongst the hit list of dodgy products you’ll find grow it big penis creams, pills, patches or weights, herbal viagra, and patches/pills/lubricating oils to ‘boost’ female desire. Where stores sell such products ask them what the evidence is that these products are safe and also that they work. If they cannot give you this information or refer you to reliable sources think twice before you buy.

10. Are products tested on animals or made from animals?

Most sex toys are not made from animal products. However there has been concern expressed that toys made from feathers or leather-based products may not have always been ethically farmed. Some herbal boosters, creams, pills etc may contain animal products which again may not have been ethically farmed and may not have been adequately tested or proven to work. If you are unsure about a product ask the store for advice. You may also want to contact an organisation such as PETA if you are in doubt about products. (Warning: the PETA site contains images of animals in distress you may find upsetting).

A reputable store should have this information available without you having to ask. If you do have to ask a reputable store will provide you with the information you want – or be willing to listen to your concerns. Be advised that a number of stores which aren’t particularly ethical are cashing in on the ‘green sex toy’ bandwagon claiming they are examples of good ethical trade or practice. However if they are involved in any of the problem areas highlighted above they are not a truly ethical store and should be treated with caution.

Examples of good practice

Sh! (UK)
Good Vibrations (US)
Come as You Are (Canada, in French and English)
Use Cory Silverberg’s excellent guide to spotting a good sex shop to help you decide where you want to purchase sex products.

If you’ve a sex store you want to recommend, or if you’ve examples of good practice let me know and I’ll post details in a future blog.

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