Unashamed, Unembarrassed, and Here’s My Credit Card: Losing the Stigma of Sex and Sex Shops

“Go to a damn sex shop, ask some fucking questions, and stop giggling at the dildos.” – Laura

Sex, depending on your species, has been going on for 200,000 years, if you’re just looking at our modern incarnation of Homo Sapiens, or 385 million years if you’re the Microbrachius dicki, an armor-plated fish with “little arms” that I promise you I did not just make up. It is considered the first creature to have sex.

200,000 years later, one of the most important things we do – the most important depending on your scientific views and philosophies – and certainly one that can be the most pleasurable, is still stigmatized.

While sex is quite old, and sex toys can be traced as far back as 30,000 years with the world’s first dildo (a piece of polished hand-carved stone), sex shops are a recent phenomenon, with the first one opened in 1962. Beate Uhse AG, a shop in Germany, which was once a family planning office.

More recently, in New Orleans, Dynamo, at 2001 St Claude Avenue, opened its doors to the public.

Hope Kodman VonStarnes, one of the best tour guides I’ve ever met and an excellent ghost storyteller at French Quarter Phantoms, is one of the owners of Dynamo. She says of her shop:

“Dynamo is an erotic boutique with a focus on sexual health and wellness. We believe that sex is a lot of things—it’s beautiful, it’s natural, it’s silly, and it’s fun. It’s important. What it shouldn’t be is shameful. We welcome everyone, regardless of gender or orientation, and strive to provide a cheerful, comfortable, stress-free environment. Our store is designed to be a welcoming place for nervous first-timers, curious couples, and sexual Olympians alike. We want to be the place folks are proud to be seen leaving with bags in hand – and we want to provide answers to sex-related questions that they may have.”

One of the most surprising moments of my interviews comes up when VonStarnes talks about sex toys, “Not all sex toys are created equal! The sex toy industry is completely unregulated. That means manufacturers can create and sell adult products with no oversight – and they often use harmful chemicals to cut costs. Ever have a vibrator break after one use? Ever seen a melted sex toy? That’s because it was made with cheap, unregulated materials – which not only decrease the lifespan of the toy but can harm the most sensitive areas of our bodies as well. For example, chemicals called phthalates have been deemed so toxic that they are actually banned in children’s and specific dog toys. But you can still find them in some vibrators!

“So at Dynamo, we completely curate our inventory for quality and safety. We only carry toys made of body-safe materials, like 100% silicone, non-porous plastic, glass, and/or metal. Our lube, bath and body, and kink selections are carefully vetted as well. Our customers’ sexual health is paramount to us.”

It’s astonishing to me that something so personal as a sex toy is completely unregulated; an item you may put in your own body that can possibly kill you. And the only reason I can think of? The stigma of sex, the sex industry, and especially sex shops.

When it comes to fighting the stigma around sex and sex shops, VonStarnes says,

“We can educate ourselves. You can read books (or blogs, or listen to podcasts) about sex, gender, and sexuality. You’ll not only gain biological and technical information, but you’ll be exposed to perspectives you might not have encountered otherwise! One of my favorite books right now is Come as You Are, a fantastic look at women’s sexuality by Emily Nagoski. The ‘Sex Out Loud’ podcast from Tristan Taormino is also really great!

“We can also take a look at the conversations we are having, and language we are using, around sex. Resist the urge to label a sex act or body part gross or dirty, just because it’s not your cup of tea.

“And of course, we can visit our friendly neighborhood sex-positive shops and see what all the fuss is about – and bring a friend!”

I speak to Mistress Genevieve, of Msgenevieve.com, who says of herself, “I own a local dungeon I rent to couples and shoots, etc. I have been a professional dominatrix well over 25 years.”

We talk about everything from toxic masculinity to knife play. Few parts of sex are more stigmatized, and theatrically exaggerated than BDSM. “Many consider it a lot of yelling, pain, and seriousness. I get asked frequently what happens if I want to laugh in session. I laugh. A lot. Often,” Mistress Genevieve says.

She’s a regular customer at Dynamo. Of sexual stigma, she says:

“Firstly, stop slut-shaming and stop toxic masculinity. Women are either out of touch with masturbation due to stigma and slut-shaming and so many men are too committed to toxic masculinity that it seems only women attend the majority of non-sadism sex workshops.

“We have to start understanding that nothing between consensual adults is wrong and knowing your body liberates you more from the dependency on bad partners for sexual release and it also equips you to direct a healthy partner in how to please you.”

These are themes everyone I interview touches on: education, respect, and openness. These are the keys to healthy sex, and healthy experiences at sex shops.

Ryan Reed, who has written a men’s sex advice column for a magazine, and is a published novelist working on her next book, seems to embrace that healthy openness.

“I’m 31 and my connection to sex work started off innocently enough. I took a job bartending at a high-end strip club. Several months later, it made sense to jump to the other side of things. I’ve been dancing for right at three years, and travel pretty extensively with it. I do dance in NOLA on occasion, but mainly travel to Vegas every couple of months for roughly a week or week and a half at a time.”

As far as a stigma towards sex, as a dancer, she’s felt it up close and personal. Even on stage, she says, “I’ve seen people bring in Bibles and sit at stages and preach. I’ve had religious family members that think I still bartend preach about the immorality of dancers and how they’re all prostitutes and hos and trash. On the other hand, there is a church group of ladies that are quite wonderful. They bring snacks and little gifts once a month to my home club for the girls. They offer counseling and education and info on insurance. I’ve even seen them bring girls to work with no other way to get there.”

I ask her what we can do to help remove the stigma of sex and sex shops, and Reed replies,

“Actually go in one. Talk to the people that work there. Realize that they’re people just like we are. They give great advice on products and are so non-judgmental. I know so many people that work in sex shops and they seem to genuinely have a passion for helping people that come in. So yeah, best advice, go in, get some advice and get to trying some new things.”

I speak to Laura, a horror film aficionado and a former salesperson at Mr. Binky’s in the French Quarter. She says of her job, “It was fun mostly. Our shop specifically is half a Halloween shop and half a Mr. Binky’s. We would consult with people what exactly it was they are looking for. Which can be tricky. Some would be very open and honest about what they wanted and accepted our help easily. Others were more timid so that def made the job a little harder.

“For some reason, people automatically assume it’s a raunchy store where we’re all freaks and that’s ok. Like nah man, it’s like a very personal deli counter.” She laughs. “We sell a product, you tell me what you want, how much you wanna spend etc. Just because it’s toys doesn’t mean it’s not just retail.”

When I ask her about the stigma of sex shops, she says,

“I think it would be good for more people to go to one and see that it’s just a nice store. They’re generally nicely organized, bright, clean stores. In general, I think you can agree that sex is still very hard to talk about for a lot of folks. It’s still hush-hush; youths aren’t taught about anything. The ‘Let’s just not talk about it’ mentality is still very much alive.

“I’ve had 50+ year-old women come in thinking a cock-ring is inserted… that kinda shit should NOT be a thing. Laughing, she adds, “Yeah, baffled me.  And it makes me sad for them, like grab your husband, nix that missionary BS and have some fun for chrissake. I’m not saying buy a leather catsuit and build a dungeon but ya know. Try some stuff. It’s an addition, not a replacement, is what I always told dudes.”

This lack of information, or need for further information, is something VonStarnes hits on when she talks about Dynamo, “One of the biggest reasons for us in opening this shop was to provide a place for adults to get accurate sex information because it largely isn’t being taught in schools in this region. Growing up, I had exactly ONE day of sex education, during which we viewed slides of the most extreme STI cases possible. There was no discussion of consent, of gender, or even of safer sex practices.

“Many of us who grew up in the South never received sex education growing up – or if we did, it was severely lacking or tinged with misinformation. Dynamo was designed to be a place for adults to ask questions and learn about sex in a welcoming environment.

“The workshops we offer take that a step farther – at least once a month, we bring in a local or visiting sex educator to present a class on anything from anatomy to relationships to kink. They speak on their areas of expertise, which are often different from ours, offering a wider range of perspectives. Workshops this year have included: Rope 101, Healing and Sex after Trauma, Banishing Bedroom Boredom, Cunnilingus 101, Strap-On Sex, Better Blowjobs, and Intro to Impact Play.”

In the end, a sex shop is not just a shop, it’s not just retail. It’s a series of questions: How do we want to view sex shops, and how do we want to view sex? And most importantly, how can we be honest with ourselves, our friends, lovers, and the world around us? And part of that answer is a new balance of power between men and women, an understanding that one person needs a (or several) partner(s). And that is only the beginning.

As Mistress Genevieve says, “Be more supportive of all happy consenting adults who find a perfect playmate of an appropriate age. If you’re a furry, or an adult baby, or a pony, or a puppy, you’re not hurting anyone and everyone should celebrate that you’re happy expressing within a healthy loving context.”

So visit a sex shop. Free your mind, express yourself, give some joy to another person. There’s no shame in that.

Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. If you like this piece, you can read more of his work here.

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