Circa 1980s-now envision the one lone sex store in my very small hometown. The whole experience of going in, getting my gag gift, leaving without being noticed by any passers-by on the street was a terribly embarrassing experience for a 19 year old.
Sex shops of yesteryear have proven their reputation of being dismal and dirty. What with their frosted glass windows hiding a dark and smelly interior filled with a lot of hardcore porn. The sleazy men going in were of a questionable reputation. No woman with a shred of self-respect would ever be caught in such an establishment.
However, you may have noticed that the climate has changed. Slowly, forward thinking store owners have realized where the buying power is and have been creating a new niche market: women-friendly sex stores.
The first to open its doors was Eve’s Garden in New York-founded in 1974 by women’s rights activist Dell Williams. According to the Eve’s Garden website, Williams felt so much shame walking into a department store and buying a hand held vibrator, it propelled her to fight for women’s sexual rights.
Then, in 1977, across the coast in San Francisco, feminist Joani Blank became dismayed by the lack of resources for women seeking accurate sex information and good quality sex toys. She opened Good Vibrations.
The challenge in smaller cities was that women like to cluster, discuss and get positive reinforcement when trying something new. The old retail model is skewed to men, who don’t mind walking into a sex store alone. And the women were not biting.
The woman’s solution? She gathered girlfriends in her living room so they could buy sex toys at home parties. Sex toy parties are similar to Tupperware parties except they sell all sorts of sex toys and paraphernalia.
Yet after a few years of seeing the sales skyrocket with the home parties, the sex toy industry realized that women were the bulk purchaser of items. Scrambling in the last five to ten years, every major city has seen a new retail model that has built stores exclusively according to women’s preferences.
A colleague of mine, John Ince, author of The Politics of Lust, owns and operates The Art of Loving in downtown Vancouver. His shop is what I would definitely classify as the new wave in sex stores.
The first time I walked into Ince’s store, it was a totally different experience from the sleazy shop of yore. It has the look and feel of an art gallery with airy ceilings, big sunlit windows, wood floors, plants and comfy leather couches. Immediately upon walking through the front entrance, I saw an area displaying tasteful erotic art.
Going up stairs to the right were shelves of sex-positive books. On the left hand side were sex toy products on display, which customers were able to pick up and check out. With each product, there was a description of how to use it as well as a troubleshooting guide to any health concerns customers may have. The staff were laid-back and ready to answer any questions without judgment.
I spoke to Ince about his business and clientele. He said 70% of his clientele are women, their mean age ranging from 28 to 45 years. John believes that people from all economic strata visit his shop and spend on average $40 to $60 per visit. Women tend to buy smaller items and, as they get more comfortable, graduate to the bigger ticket items such as The Rabbit (made famous by Charlotte on Sex and the City).
Education is a high mandate for Ince, and his store gives 60 to 70 sexuality seminars per year. Obviously, the more educated a woman is about her sexuality, the more comfortable she will feel-and consequently, the more likely she will buy sex toys.
If you’re still not certain sex shops are for you, let’s look at what everyone else is doing. Durex Condom’s 2003 Global Sex Survey cited the percentage of Americans who use vibrators to enhance their sex lives at 49%. The Babes in Toyland website state the number of vibrators sold when they first opened in 1993 to be 500; in 2004, the number rose to 83,250.
However with all of this sex-shops-really-aren’t-so-sleazy-anymore progress, the bulk of sex toy sales is still online. I guess people appreciate the anonymous, non-stigma attached to brown paper packaging.
In closing, the Good Vibrations website states: “We look forward to the day when talking about sex, shopping for sex toys and teaching our kids about sex is so easy, so comfortable and so common that we take it for granted.” Amen.