It started, like many great nights, at a sex shop. A seedy sex shop—but no seedier than your average purveyor of rabbit vibrators and "Sil-a-Gel" double-ended dildos. After a some idle conversation, the employees of this humdrum roadside attraction admitted they had been coached not to sell "certain products." They knew it would shock customers to know that scores upon scores of toxic sex toys lined the shelves, but they also knew their store was no exception among the thousands of sex toy retailers peddling questionable products under the slogan of "For Novelty Use Only."
How could these stores sell so many low-quality toys, with so many customers left in the dark? And how could some of these so-called toxic sex toys also be considered "body-safe" by most sensibilities? This led our group to start researching the phenomenon of toxic, porous sex toy materials, and what we could do to bring attention to their dangers.
Our team devised a bioart project as part of our biopunk class led by Kathy High, our later research adviser, to draw attention to this widespread problem. We collaborated with the inventor of what we termed PDA Fabric: facing fabric infused with potato extract and dextrose, aka potato dextrose broth (PDB). When potato dextrose broth is infused with agar to create potato dextrose agar, a common resource in most bio labs, it is a selective medium for a wide variety of fungi and bacteria. But our collaborator's invention could grow colonies big and colorful enough to identify without a microscope, effectively bringing the lab into the kitchen—and the bedroom.
It took several iterations before we finalized our procedure. The first batch of PDA Fabric did not take sanitary measures to prevent contamination. We had committed the most basic mistake for a team of young new scientists—forgetting to use a control! We were sure to remedy this for our next round, adding gloves and extra boiling to our procedure.
As we streamlined our process, we were amazed to find out that so few people knew that the sex toy industry, which is expected to be worth $35.5 billion by 2023, is completely unregulated! This inspired us to do some research on the state of the industry. We interviewed sex shop owners, the CEO of a prominent sex toy company, sex toy reviewers, sex educators, and scientists from a variety of fields.
Our findings were eventually summarized in what became the For Novelty Use Only zine. We found out that the sex toy industry is fucked, and not in the good way!
We wanted to spread the word and get a head start on our new project, which is why we hosted our first Sexy Swabbing Party. At this event, we provided an educational presentation about the dangers of the sex toy industry and distributed kits for attendees to take at-home samples from their sex toys.
While we did not collect as many samples as we hoped for, we had enough to start our inquiry. Along with our samples, we also collected information about sex toy cleaning, use, and materials. Most of our subjects were confident that they knew the material of their sex toys, but as several studies have shown, false advertising is rampant in the sex toy industry.
Our surveys also showed that many subjects readily admitted they owned at least one toy made of suspicious material. That was worrisome to us, and only emphasized the need for our project.
With our samples collected, we were ready to get into the lab and create the world's first general survey of sex toy microbiota.
We prepared sampling kits and performed our analysis in Kathy High's Bioart and Technology (BAT) Lab. Some samples were cultured on a selective medium, while others were analyzed directly from PDA Fabric that had been submitted to us.
Our goal was to use bacterial morphology and basic microscopy to identify more microorganisms for the Sexy Microbiota Field Guide. This turned out to be a tall order! While plenty of these organisms were "repeat customers," we also encountered several stubborn germs that remain unidentified to this day.
Our team also struggled with the challenges of bacterial morphology on a budget and being visibly queer at a historically conservative research facility. However, our spirits continued to be lifted as the other part of the project—researching and developing the zine—just starting to take off.
Our interviews had pointed us in the direction of lots of interesting new information. We learned about sex toy recycling, current debates in material science, and heard many diverse opinions on the future of the sex toy industry. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done about the epidemic of toxic toys on the market. On the other side of the lab bench, we also learned about some of the organisms and materials we were finding, from the history of Serratia marcescens and bioterrorism in the United States to the violent colonial origins of Coomassie blue dye.
And as our team of engineers, artists, and social scientists toiled, our PDA Fabric quietly grew. Each of our samples were quickly becoming a rainbow of diverse microbiotic cultures; for some of us, a veritable queer ecology, borne from queer sex, queer bodies, and queer materials.
While we did not have enough data to draw any definite conclusions, we did notice a pattern emerge from our small sample size. Samples that were taken from nonporous toys, materials supposedly less likely to harbor microorganisms, were turning up greater numbers of colonies than the porous toys, subverting our expectations.
We came up with several hypotheses for how this could be: one, that these toys are less used because their owners are aware of their risky status, and two, that these toys are only used with condoms as opposed to their safer, less permeable friends. Our last hypothesis requires more data for us to prove: we believe that the reason these toys don't show as many microorganisms from a surface swab is because their microorganisms are under the surface, having sunk down into the recesses and pores and rended the object impossible to fully clean.
As you can see, there is so much more to learn about these organisms and their relationship to sex toy materials. This is why we need you to send in photos of your PDA Fabric to expand our data set, and to help spread the word about the plight of the toxic sex toy industry.
For Novelty Use Only was distributed at the University of Oregon Zinefest and was intended to be featured at FEMeeting 2020 (which was sadly canceled for the coronavirus). It will be featured as part of 4S/EASST's Making & Doing 2020, but the word must spread further.
Do your part to make the sex toy industry sexier, healthier, and more eco-friendly by sharing For Novelty Use Only with your friends, family, and partners! Our hope is fulfill our mission by using bioart to hold the sex toy industry accountable. Viva la sex toy revolution!