Germans are more sexually adventurous than their European counterparts according to one unofficial survey, carried out across Europe by Björn Borg’s underwear company a few years ago. They top the kinky league tables with more than half of Germans stating a preference for ‘tools and gadgets’. Yet because the adult toy industry is only voluntarily regulated, the chemicals commonly found in adult products make sex less than safe.
This should come as no surprise. Back in 2011, the Germany’s Green party drew up a paper entitled “Sexual Health as a Consumer Protection Issue” and raised the issue of “phthalates, other carcinogenic plasticizers and toxic substances” contained in many adult toys. The mucous membranes in every human orifice are extremely porous and allow for rapid absorption, yet sex toy manufacturers are not required by law to accurately label all the ingredients in their products, and some companies take advantage of the situation by falsely labelling their poor quality products as “silicon.” If consumers only knew what they were putting in their bodies, they might decide differently. Make no mistake. Withholding information that is relevant to sexual decision making when it comes to toy toxicity, means that this is a consent issue.
Sex shops themselves serve as a kind of a sex-toy curation service and could theoretically buy healthier selections for their clientele. That’s a responsibility few sex shops choose to shoulder in a capitalist system where sex sells. But for individuals interested in protecting their own sexual health, the ethics of their suppliers necessarily come under scrutiny. Tamara, an employee at Other Nature—Berlin’s only feminist, eco-friendly, trans-inclusive, vegan sex shop in Kreuzberg, agrees.
“Other Nature was visiting this years Erofame [one of Germany’s biggest B2B fairs for sex toy retailers and producers] and found that many companies who are there represented with a stall, can often not answer questions about the materials they use in their products. It’s disillusioning”
But there are other safety issues at play here as well. More traditional sex shops in Berlin Mitte’s red light district tend to advertise their wares with brazen neon lights and those who enter already need a certain amount of confidence to brave the pointed stares in riskier areas. Sex toys are not limited to one gender, kink, interest, or sexual orientation but the majority of sex shops which sell them are designed to attract the cis-het male. This in itself may deter more marginalized folk out of fear of targeted discrimination. For them, those shops may be perceived as unsafe.
Other Nature’s transparency is demonstrated not only in the products it sells, but also in its decor–a discreet black chalkboard font on the shop sign and no black-out blinds, whilst the products are artfully positioned and aesthetically beautiful. One anal massager lit from beneath seems to be made of bubble infused, blown glass–although this is actually made of shatterproof pyrex, Tamara is quick to point out. Safety first.
Sex-negativity, taboos and shame are also more likely to prevent open and honest communication between clientele and retailers. Thus clients often book an appointment to discuss their personalised needs over a cup of tea in the back room which also serves as the shop’s erotic and educational library. Consent is a context, it can only take place if the decision is informed, so information is what Other Nature gives, through workshops, home parties and in depth consultations. The notice on the door explicitly welcomes differently abled folk, their advertising material declares ‘all genders welcome’, many toys cater specifically to transgender needs, whilst daughters bring mums and mums bring their daughters. The shop is also popular with visiting tourists, notably those from less open cultures, Israel and Turkey. In this no pressure environment even the selling style is consensual.
The shop also extends a protective position of the community they serve, by discontinuing business relationships with larger suppliers like Lelo, who recently ran an advertising campaign for their new condom with Charlie Sheen–a celebrity with a well known history of partner violence. In absence of any formal regulation, many of the products are sourced from local suppliers they know and trust.
Their values are an explicit part of how they market their products, highlighting their own commitment to sexual health advancement. For a shop founded by women working in a capitalist system within a male dominated industry, Other Nature has done well. They would be happy if this way of working became the standard and the new norm. And judging by their increasing popularity since they opened in 2011, consumers in Berlin obviously want that too.