The Sex Shops That Changed The Way We Think About Eroticism
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The Sex Shops That Changed The Way We Think About Eroticism

Avatar of Maria Suarez

By: Maria Suarez

September 26, 2017

What's on The Sex Shops That Changed The Way We Think About Eroticism
Avatar of Maria Suarez

By: Maria Suarez

September 26, 2017

What happened the first time you walked into a sex shop?


We’re all curious and nervous about what we’ll be finding behind those frosted-glass windows. In my case, I was afraid something would jump out at me. I don’t think I was alone in my fear that the person behind the counter would look at me and just know I was a newbie, and that I would be judged for choosing the wrong thing. Considering how those businesses have been marketed and portrayed in films as male-centric, I held on to the belief that I was safer away from these establishments for a long time. Years later, when I walked into a small store decorated much like a Victoria’s Secret from the mall, but with brighter lights, I felt a lot more comfortable than I thought I would.


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For a long time, sex toys and their retailers were seedy spots which often included a peep show in the back. They were the kind of place most people would hurriedly walk past without looking. In fact, up until the seventies, during the sexual revolution and second wave of feminism, women who wanted some sort of sex toy had to go to a regular department store and ask for a “back massager”. That’s actually how one of the first shops came into existence. Dell Williams went up to a counter and asked for one. The salesperson reaction embarrassed her to the point that, when she left the store she was, “clutching my precious, anonymous brown shopping bag and thinking: Someone really ought to open up a store where a woman can buy one of these things without some kid asking her what she’s going to do with it.”


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Image by: jamesfelixraw


Williams went on to create Eve’s Garden, the first sex boutique created with female clientele in mind. It all began as a mail-order business from her New York apartment, but it slowly grew into a walk-in shop where clients could walk in and get the entire experience. What made the store different from the other adult stores in the big city was the fact that Williams had actually taken several workshops and trainings about women’s sexuality and pleasure. A customer did not just walk in and order a number 43 in pink, unless that’s what they wanted. They’d have a conversation and be able to ask questions about the products. It was a way to bring the sex industry into the life of the everyday woman who might’ve been curious but afraid of being mocked or shamed.


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Meanwhile on the west coast, a revolution was brewing in San Francisco when Joani Blank opened Good Vibrations in 1977. This shop was more than a just a business; it was a community. Despite being created in the Women’s District of the Mission District, under the tenements of female liberation and feminism, this was a place for everyone. The combination of sexual education and exploration created a space for personal discovery and growth where conversations could happen regarding sexuality and eroticism.


Lynn Comella is a professor of gender and sexuality at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her book, Vibrator Nation, tells the story of how these new sex toy retailers brought the sex industry from being the seedy neon lit store to a place of conversation and progressive thinking; not to mention how the vibrator, the most common adult toy, came to be part of the everywoman’s life. During her PhD research, Comella had many conversations with Joani Blank, who passed away from cancer in 2016.


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In a heartfelt piece written shortly after Blank’s death, Comella describes the woman who brought Good Vibrations to life:“She blended the educationally oriented and quasi-therapeutic approach to talking about sex that she had refined as a sex therapist with aspects of 1970s feminist consciousness-raising and humanistic sexology, turning her small vibrator shop into a sexual resource center for anyone who might wander in.”


In a way, there was more to these business than mere profit. Sure, everybody wanted to try a vibrator, but Good Vibrations, Eve’s Garden, and other shops that opened at the time became centers for dialogue. Particularly during the seventies, when different feminist scholars and activists were discussing the role of porn, and even dildos, in a progressive society. “(Blank) felt that talking about sex should be as casual as talking about the weather; she also believed that sexual information was a birthright and that no one should be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed for wanting more pleasure in their life.”


We don’t realize how lucky we are to have a society that, despite continuing to be quite prudish, is actually able to open conversations about sex. We’re still far from having dialogue that does not have to resort to slut shaming or prejudice, but at least we’re not pretending that nobody is having sexual needs and desires anymore.


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In an interview with The Atlantic Comella went on to explain how these progressive women saw themselves beyond the shop itself: “The majority of feminist entrepreneurs that I interviewed were very reluctant to describe themselves as businesswomen. It was very important for these entrepreneurs to see what they were doing as a mission-driven project for social change.”


I believe that this goes to show that sex toys are not luxury items, nor are they meant to be gendered or categorized as made for a particular segment of society. As businesses like Good Vibrations flourished, companies like Seattle’s Babeland came into existence with different ideas on how to present certain products. Much like the second wave of feminism, the first shops were mirrors of their creators: white, middle class, straight women. Stores like Babeland opened up the market to be inclusive to the entire LGBTQ community as well as to people of color.


The shops have gone through changes in ownership throughout the years, but that dedication to being an ally and support, as well as a provider of sex toys, has remained. It’s a place nobody needs to worry or be nervous about walking into. It’s a safe space to talk about and open the door to discover one’s own sexuality.


Images by Babeland


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