Now a group of 10 Green Party members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, are demanding that the government take action. They have drawn up a paper entitled "Sexual Health as a Consumer Protection Issue."
"Many dildos and other sex toys such as vibrators and anal plugs contain a high amount of phthalates, other carcinogenic plasticizers and toxic substances," the paper reads. The substances, which enter the body through mucous membranes, can lead to infertility, hormone imbalances, diabetes and obesity, the parliamentarians warn. The chemicals can also cause hormone disturbances in unborn babies, the paper reads. Phthalates and other plastic softening agents are being officially phased out of products in many developed nations.
Because dildos and other sex toys are widely used in Germany, the Greens see the issue as a problem for society as a whole. While children's toys are subject to strict regulations that allow only the smallest percentage of plasticizers, a 2006 study by the Öko-Test consumer magazine found that sex toys contain high quantities of the chemicals. Plasticizers comprised up to 58 percent of materials used in such products, the magazine wrote. More than half of the vibrators examined by Öko-Test contained so many toxic substances that they failed the test entirely, it said.
In their paper, the Greens demanded to know what the government planned to do about the problem. They wanted to know what the latest scientific findings on the dangers and regulation of plasticizers were, and if the government planned to ban the substances.
But the center-right government's response, which has now been delivered, has enraged the opposition party. Consisting of six pages riddled with complicated legal phrasing, it amounts to a refusal to address the delicate issue, they say. Where the Greens refer to "sex toys," "dildos" and "vibrators," the response, prepared by the German Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, refers only to "erotic items." It also reveals little inclination to act on the Greens' concerns.
With no representative studies on sex toys, setting regulations is out of the question, the government's paper says. But the use of phthalates and other toxic substances in plastics will likely only be allowed in products for a limited time to come, because Germany and other European Union nations have suggested the introduction of an approval procedure, it adds.
"The use of dangerous substances in the manufacture of erotic items is a problem that is not confined to Germany alone," the document says. "Moreover, a national government is not capable of regulating the flow of products, much of which comes from Internet orders and imports."
But the answer has failed to satisfy the Greens. "Plasticizers are dangerous in vibrators and dildos too," parliamentarian Volker Beck told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Consumer protection should also be a top priority when it comes to sexual health."
At least 20 percent of German adults use sex toys, making the government's failure to come up with its own consumer protection initiative inexcusable, Beck said. "In light of the high number of endangered consumers, it's of no use at all for the government to simply refer to planned EU initiatives," he said.
He encourages Germany to look to Denmark as an example. "The Danish Environment Ministry already put out a warning against unhealthy sex toys last year. It urges users of vibrators, artificial vaginas and other such items to first cover them with condoms and to avoid models made of PVC," Beck added, accusing Berlin of ignoring the problem.
"Even if it touches on a taboo, carcinogens and chemicals which damage a person's hormone balance and immune system are not a trivial matter," he said. "The government has a responsibility and it must use it. Ducking the issue is not an option when health risks are involved."
With reporting by Anna Reimann