How the Modern Woman’s Sex Shop Came to Be
It used to be a coffee shop. Then one day the coffee shop closed. (My roommate suspected that it was because the owner, a nice Indian man, played terrible music.) The storefront was vacant for a time, leaving locals to muse about what would take its place.
One day while I was walking down the street on my way to the bank or the grocery store or on some other mundane errand, I saw that a red curtain had been hung inside the window, tied to one side. Written on the window pane in white cursive was: “Come out of hibernation! Please-ing is now in season.”
A few weeks later I saw that the store seemed to be stocked, and that two women were talking behind the counter. The sign out front read “Please” above a sinuous logo suggestive of two intertwined bodies.
I tried the door—locked. A petite woman with a bandana over her hair and a bright smile on her face came to unlatch it. She shook my hand and introduced herself as Sid. The store would be opening that weekend, she said. “Are you getting excited?”
I told her I was.
The following week I went by Please again, and this time, I got to go inside. I met Mallory, one of Sid’s staff. She told me she had helped curate the wide book selection displayed at the front of the store (before the table of massage oils, the shelves of vibrators, and in the very back, the BDSM accouterments). “The kids’ books are selling the best.”
While we were talking, a woman from UPS came in with a dolly stacked with packages for delivery. She peeked around the store while Mallory was signing the receipt. “I like how it’s so open in here,” she commented. “Usually these places are so closed off.”
“I want to be her friend,” Mallory said once she’d left.
The neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn and its environs is more about babies than bondage. While Please was preparing to open, a new kindergarten was advertising that it was accepting applicants a few storefronts down. So it was no surprise that neighborhood blogs were buzzing about it (not to mention all the passersby engaging in the old “slow-down-and-stare” routine).
But Sid is standing on the shoulders of brazen, sex-loving giants. Please wouldn’t be there at all if not for the early pioneers who, starting in the 1970s, established the women’s sex toy industry as we know it, shattering many of the myths surrounding female sexuality along the way.
Dell Williams, who died just this March at the age of 92, was fond of repeating the adage “an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away.” She began a self-loving revolution right here in New York, where she was inspired to start a sex shop for women after a humiliating experience buying a Hitachi Magic Wand—a vibrator sold ostensibly as a “massager”—at Macy’s. Before she could get to the checkout counter, a teenaged male salesperson confronted her and asked her—loudly—what she wanted it for.
She promptly made it her mission to provide women with a place where they could discreetly and comfortably explore their sexualities. That venture opened in 1974, first operating by mail order out of her apartment before she established the bricks-and-mortar store. (In case you want to visit, women haven’t been expelled from Eve’s Garden—it’s still standing, tucked away in an office building in Midtown West).
Though Williams was a 20th-century trailblazer, sex shops that sell women’s products are, in fact, not new. The first sex shop opened its doors in London in 1738, run by a savvy businesswoman known as “Mrs. Phillips of Half Moon Street.” According to Fergus Linnane, author of London: The Wicked City, Mrs. Phillips sold three different sizes of condoms (“cundums,” as they were called at the time, apparently after a physician whose particulars have been lost to history). She shipped these exotic “Implements for Safety of Gentlemen of Intrigue,” to locales as far-flung as France and Spain and specialized in giving seafaring men something to take with them on “the shortest notice.” But Mrs. Phillips was also a zestful lover herself, with a long history of lovers that started when she was 13, and she must have had a female clientele—she also sold dildos.
It took until the 1970s for sex shops geared towards women to appear, including Eve’s Garden and San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, which proudly proclaimed that it “invented the concept of the clean, well-lighted vibrator store.” It’s no surprise that sex shops for women emerged so late, considering that for almost all of history leading up to it, the female orgasm wasn’t thought to exist.
As Rachel Maines details in the only comprehensive history of the vibrator, The Technology of Orgasm, vulvular massage was a popular technique from as far back as antiquity for relieving women of hysteria—a catch-all for symptoms from anxiety to irritability to vaginal lubrication that more accurately describe either normal sexual desire or PMS—and related disorders. The phallocentric model of sexuality—one that considered only penetration by the penis as a sexual act—was so accepted that doctors rubbing a woman’s clitoris until she reached climax was to them a routine, and wearisome, practice. The invention of the speculum and tampon, Maines notes, was more controversial than that of the vibrator.
The idea of thousands of women orgasming on doctor’s tables and then skipping off to go about their daily domestic routines is a bizarre one, but in fact, the popularity of such “massage” for female patients suffering from hysteria was the reason for the vibrator’s creation. It saved doctors and their aids valuable time, skill and manual labor, increasing the efficiency with which the palliative “paroxysm” could be induced. It was also one of the first home electrical appliances to be developed and popularized following the advent of electric lighting in 1876, along with the fan, teakettle and toaster, and before the vacuum cleaner and iron—a sequence which, as Maines wryly comments, “possibly reflect[ed] consumer priorities.”
Then, a strange thing happened. Vibrators virtually disappeared from the magazines and catalogues in which they were traditionally advertised and sold. The 1930s–1970s represented a long stretch of time in which there was nary a vibrator to be found on the pages of popular publications. That was because of the breakthroughs made in medical and popular perceptions of female sexuality—chiefly, that such a thing existed. It took the research of Alfred Kinsey, the evolution of feminist theory and, before that, a heavy dose of Freud, to establish that women are sexual beings with appetites equal to men’s.
So while women have been getting off using external aids for a long, long time, this only started to alarm people when it was widely recognized that the Hitachi Magic Wand wasn’t being used to massage any sore muscles, and that the “crisis” reached by hysterics was in fact a sexual climax.
Opening a sex shop that targets women as either a chief or a main clientele was, then, a radical act. Flying in the face of centuries (even millennia) of androcentric sexuality, the 1970s marked a revolution in society’s perceptions of women as consumers of sex and sex-related products. That was also when Williams opened Eve’s Garden and helped organize the first Women’s Sexuality Conference, attended by 1,000 women.
There was another resurgence in the 1990s, when Sh! opened in London as a just-for-women alternative to the city’s “sleazy, male-dominated sex industry.” Sh! is only open to women, or men accompanied by a woman (except on a certain time slot one day a week, during which the doors are open to anyone), to maintain an atmosphere of safety and openness. In Vancouver, Canada, Womyns’Ware set up shop in 1995 with a decidedly feminist agenda, while Babeland, now a New York favorite, opened its first doors in Seattle in 1993.
Babeland Founders Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning have since scooted away from their original goal of providing “top quality products, a pleasant place to shop, and most of all information and encouragement to women who wanted to explore their sexuality” to align with the more salable concept of a clean, well-lighted sex shop for everyone. Such is the current mode of New York sex shops, which are generally less about delivering an earthy, “find your inner goddess” experience for women, and more about pleasing the general consumer. Pleasure Chest (a 1970s West Village gay haven), the Museum of Sex (with its cheeky elision “MoSex”), and, to a lesser extent, Babeland, all play off of the self-aware kitschiness of their neon lights and bondage-clad mannequins. They deliver a wide variety of sex-related products for all genders and all interests, in a package that is part hip, part novelty, with “50 Shades”-branded whips and garter belt displays among the condoms and vibrators.
But these stores also play the role of educator. As Dr. Lynn Comella, a writer, researcher and professor of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Las Vegas, points out, stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland have “historically catered to women by using sexual information as a kind of marketing platform.” They offer workshops and provide information to boost customers’ sexual literacy, with staff trained in anatomy and physiology as well as the products they sell.
“In a society where the state of sex education in schools is so abysmal, these businesses actually provide a much-needed service in terms of pleasure-based adult sex ed,” Comella says.
When it comes to education, scholarly research is just starting to emerge on the subject of women and the adult industry. A 2010 survey of 125 sex shops around the world conducted by scholars at the University of Otago found that female sex toys could be found in 117, but only 17 exclusively targeted women. Its analysis of worldwide sex shops found that women and female bodies are still used to market sex shops, including those that target women. (Even the Eve’s Garden website is not immune, with a friendly, buxom Customer Service representative smiling out from the top right corner.) Another notable commonality is the rhetoric of the modern sex shop, either women-exclusive or equal opportunity: the words used to sell the brand or products tend to rest on a traditionally “feminine” notion of sex, emphasizing romance, partnership and monogamy. As authors Neil Carr and Steve Taylor write, this can be interpreted as “an attempt to broaden the appeal of sex shops and change their image from one of questionable morality to one focused on more wholesome ideals such as personal and relationship health and wellbeing.”
Although slow on the uptake, entrepreneurs are starting to see that women represent a huge, underserved market for the industry. Take Ethan Imboden, founder of Jimmyjane, a company that sells thoughtfully designed sex toys online. Imboden, a designer by trade, had no great passion for sex toys or feminism when he started the company in 2004. But he saw a business opportunity in the creepy circus of veiny dildos and other porny products at a sex toy industry trade show. (“Not only were they often anatomically representational, but they were anatomically representational with, like, a penguin grafted onto the side. It was just a freak show,” he said in a 2013 interview.) By applying a streamlined, ergonomic, sexy-but-not-sexual aesthetic to sex toys, Jimmyjane has been touted as a major innovator of the sex industry—or, as Imboden would have it, an example of how design can altogether change society’s perception of a traditionally seedy industry.
Yet despite the fact that sex toys represent a $15 billion-a-year industry, investors are still squeamish when it comes to laying down money in these ventures—an odd point of cognitive dissonance, since most don’t harbor any personal moral qualms. As Brian Krieger, founder of a sex-toy startup that turned to Indiegogo for funding, put it to Newsweek, “Most people don’t personally think vibrators are taboo, but they think everyone else does.”
“Sex is intimate, but not illicit.”
That’s one of the main tenets preached by 32-year-old Sid Azmi, who likes to think of her shop as a “sensuality store.” But Sid didn’t come from a liberal, free-loving background—quite the opposite, in fact.
“I was that woman who had so many self doubts, like everything was wrong with me, sex was dirty,” Sid says. “And I brought myself here.”
Sid, who is of Malay Indian descent, was raised Muslim in Singapore, where sex was a taboo topic. Though she was always more open to talking about sex than her peers, those cultural underpinnings run deep. The woman who now sells sex toys cried the first time she used a vibrator, in her mid-20s, convinced that she was cheating on her partner.
And while the dialog has since opened between her and her family, there are some bridges that are not easily crossed. When Please opened, Sid called her mother to ask for her blessing. Since there is no word in Malay for sensuality, she told her it was an “affection store.”
“She knew exactly what I meant,“ she says, adding with a laugh, “She hung up the phone and hasn’t spoken to me since.”
Sid has no background in the sex industry—her career has been in medicine. She worked as a radiation therapist for seven years, helping patients undergoing treatment for cancer, and now teaches the discipline to future practitioners. She has worked extensively with patients recovering from vaginal and cervical cancer, as well as with prostate patients and women who have undergone mastectomies. “The sexual side effects of these cancers are far-reaching, and the attention paid to them is inadequate,” Sid says. While products exist to address the issues, she found that there was not enough “education to direct [patients] to these products.” Too often she saw doctors declare patients cancer-free and then send them on their way. “Doctors talk about the dysfunction and the issues, but they don’t talk about what you can do after that.”
Just like the woman from UPS noticed when she was delivering those intriguing packages, Sid’s store is a departure from most in its open, airy atmosphere. “It’s easy to open a shop and copy Babeland or Pleasure Chest, but to me it has to be different,” Sid says, explaining that while she didn’t want Please to feel closed off like Good Vibrations, she was equally wary of the pornographic aspect of some other New York stores.
Her mission is to be the friendly neighborhood sex shop, a regular stop for locals like this one, on their way home from the bank or the grocery store. “The kind of sex that I’m selling is the everyday, not so ‘sexy’ sex. I want to tell people, you don’t have to be super attractive or be a great lover to like sex. You just have to be confident and know enough to navigate through challenges,” Sid says. She wants to enhance her customers’ sexual experiences in a way that is holistic and fully embodied, not just “about the bits.”
Hence the name (which Sid credits to a friend of hers, a local poet). “We teach our children to say ‘please’ all the time as a form of courtesy. But pleasing is also an act of giving,” she says. “Giving is an aphrodisiac in itself. And it’s just a good, kind word.”
As the mother of a six-year-old son, she also emphasizes the educational aspect of Please. She welcomes parents into the store with children in tow and stresses the importance of real sexual education—the kind that doesn’t start and end with “use protection.”
“I send my son to school with an extra snack because I think he might be hungry. I send him with a sweater because I think he might be cold. I need to send him to school with sexual education, because he needs to know that this is happening,” she says. “We can protect our children by telling them more.” Sid will soon begin workshops for people in the neighborhood (for those, she’ll put up privacy screens), on topics ranging from sex after menopause to sexuality for new mothers to how to get into that Kama Sutra position you’ve furtively puzzled over in Barnes & Noble.
And keeping the Park Slope demographic in mind, why not a class on how to have quiet sex? “It’s stressful enough to have a child and it’s expensive to live in New York City,” Sid points out. “It would be great to be able to learn how to play or do different things in your bed after your kids go to sleep without having to hire a sitter.”
Eventually, she would like to start a not-for-profit focused on bringing tools and aids to hospitals to help cancer survivors get their sex lives back, as well as educating diverse groups of people on sexuality. Her cultural background has given her unique insight: she believes that people need to be offered information and resources that fit with their lifestyle.
“I would consider myself so successful if one day I could teach a class in a mosque,” she says—not to dole out vibrators, but rather to tell women, “within our beliefs, this is what’s possible.” She wants to empower women to set their own boundaries, especially those who have “had something done to them or happen to them that they didn’t like, and it marred their lives, or their view of sex, forever.”
In general, while Sid carefully sources all her products to make sure they meet her high-quality standards, she doesn’t put the emphasis on the inventory itself.
“What makes sex good is not the toys, not the skills—it’s allowing your partner to be vulnerable,” she says. “Allowing someone to be vulnerable is the best toy you can buy them.”
Maybe, then, “affection store” wasn’t so far off.
Clearly, we’ve come a long way in the past few decades, after centuries of female sexuality being considered a (curiously widespread) pathology. But the sex toy industry is positioned at a particularly American crossroads: on one side, a (Puritanical? Patriarchal?) reluctance to invest in it, either financially or academically, and on the other, recognition of its commercial viability.
And of course, a woman’s sexuality (and sensuality) is singular to her. This presents a marketing challenge as well as a societal one. As Dr. Comella says, “How do you market to a community of people without essentializing them?”
“I think it’s a challenge to have a business that focuses on women and sexuality, and not fall into a trap of limiting women’s sexuality to ideas of safety and respectability, or romance, or ‘tasteful’ depictions of sexuality,” she adds. “I think it takes a very conscious effort to work against stereotypes that limit the idea of what women want when it comes to sex or sexually oriented products.”
Could we have a sex shop in every neighborhood, a vibrator in every bedside table drawer? As today’s trendy “sex-positive feminism” and anti-“slut-shaming” crusades reinforce, we’re not there yet. When it’s not being homogenized to fit the demands of marketing, female sexuality is still reactionary.
In a neighborhood where delis and cafes abound, like the 15th St. Cafe that previously occupied Please, Sid has little competition. The area is in slow flux thanks to gentrification, that New York inevitability. Just down Fifth Avenue, a new supermarket has opened across from the long-standing Polish grocer that just announced its plans to close. Condos are springing up like dandelions in empty lots. But if there’s one thing that will remain constant as rents fluctuate and storefronts morph, it’s that thing people do behind closed doors. Now, as Sid says, let’s talk about it.
Photography: Tatum Mangus