Toxic Toys Interview Series: Laura Anne Haave of the Tool Shed

This post was originally featured on a previous iteration of this site on November 17th, 2013. It has been reposted here for posterity. 

This interview is part of a series, asking industry professionals and experts about toxic sex toys, how our adult stores have changed, what we can do to support change- and most importantly, how we can avoid toxic toys ourselves. Some of the quotes from this interview were featured in my post for Bitch Magazine, The Trouble With Toxic Sex Toys

Laura Anne Haave is not simply the owner of the feminist sex toy store called the Tool Shed in Milwaukee, WI- she has been a sexuality educator for nearly 20 years. Her credentials include being the Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention Coordinator at Northwestern University, advising peer education programs that include sexual health information at Northwestern, UW Milwaukee, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, authoring a sex advice column for Milwaukee’s Local free weekly paper, the Shepherd Express, called SEXpress, and she is a curriculum writer, trainer, and teacher for Our Whole Lives (OWL), a comprehensive sex education curricula series jointly published by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. In other words, she’s a busy bee- and an incredible force of sexual education who takes toxic toys and sex positivity very seriously.

In the beginning, finding enough non-toxic toys to fill our shelves was a real challenge!

Sexational!: When did you first become aware of toxic toys?
Laura Anne Haave: I was aware of the negative physical reactions (burning, itching, swelling, persistent infections, etc.) that some users experience with toxic toys long before I got involved with the Tool Shed in 2008, but I became much more familiar with the unique problems within the sex toy industry once I was trying to stock our store with body-safe products.  In the beginning, finding enough non-toxic toys to fill our shelves was a real challenge!

S!: As someone that works in a retail store, have you ever had anyone come in talking about having a bad reaction to a toy and having no idea why?

LAH: The story we often hear is from customers who have purchased cheap jelly dildos or vibrators from another store, only to find the toy would cause severe burning and itching.  Many have no idea what the toy in question might be made of, but often these painful experiences will encourage customers to start asking questions.

Some companies have gained a bad reputation over the years for mislabeling their toys (calling things ‘silicone’ and ‘phthalate free’ when they are not), so we stay away from a few companies’ products altogether, even if their products are labeled ‘body safe’.

S!: Body safety seems to be a really important part of what the Tool Shed is about; how do you choose the sex toys you bring in? Is there any special research you do before stocking a new company or product?
LAH: A large amount of our stock is made by companies that already have an excellent reputation and track record for safe materials: Fun Factory, Tantus, Vixen Creations, Njoy, Aneros, Happy Valley, etc.  For dildos and anal toys, we generally look for toys that are made from 100% silicone. For super-soft toys like masturbation sleeves or soft packers, we look forphthalate-free materials from companies we trust.
Some companies have gained a bad reputation over the years for mislabeling their toys (calling things “silicone”  and “phthalate free” when they are not), so we stay away from a few companies’ products altogether, even if their products are labeled “body safe”. In an ideal world, third party lab testing would be optimal for each toy we consider, but that is prohibitively expensive!  We can do some home tests on certain kinds of toys (boiling silicone dildos to see if they hold up without melting or deforming, for example), but there is no easy home test to be able to say with certainty what a toy is made of.  After you’ve been looking at quality toys for years, it is pretty easy to tell by look and feel when something is *not* silicone, but that is not the same as being able to say with certainty the exact composition of a given toy.
In the end, it comes down to trying to work with companies and other stores who share your values and your mission, and who take body safety seriously.  We do as much research as we can, and we rely on like-minded stores (such as the stores in the Progressive Pleasure Club) to continue to advocate for toy safety and consumer education.

If you don’t know much about the manufacturer or the store, you can always try the informal ‘sniff test’ on your new toy– if it reeks of chemicals or smells like a new shower curtain, it is probably best to walk away.

S!: What are your suggestions to people who want to figure out whether or not a toy they have or want to buy is toxic?
LAH: My first suggestion would be to buy from both a manufacturer and a store that is reputable.  Buying, for example, a Fun Factory toy from a store you know and trust goes a long way toward knowing what you’re getting.  If you don’t know much about the manufacturer or the store, you can always try the informal “sniff test” on your new toy– if it reeks of chemicals or smells like a new shower curtain, it is probably best to walk away.
Try to stick to materials that aren’t likely to leach toxins into your body.  Hard plastics like ABS tend to be chemically stable under normal use conditions, so they are not likely to cause the problems you’d see with so many soft jelly toys.  Stainless steel, glass, properly sealed
wood, 100% silicone from a reputable source– all those choices tend to be quite body safe.

…friends don’t let friends buy toxic toys. Don’t be ashamed to bring this issue up in conversation!

S!: Since regulation of sex toys doesn’t seem eminent, what can we do as individuals to make ourselves and others more aware of these issues?
LAH: I would echo what I said above — purchase from reputable stores or companies and ask questions before buying. The Coalition Against Toxic Sex Toys (www.badvibes.org) maintains a list of such stores and manufacturers, as well as some basic information about sex toy safety. Dildology.org is a recent crowd-funded effort to do more testing on toys, so supporting that group financially might help us all get better information. Also, friends don’t let friends buy toxic toys. Don’t be ashamed to bring this issue up in conversation!