Downtown’s Next Retail Store: A Feminist Sex Shop?

Customers shop for sex toys at a Good Vibrations store in San Francisco. Photo courtesy Good Vibrations.

Customers shop at a Good Vibrations store in San Francisco. Photo courtesy Good Vibrations.

On a recent trip to San Francisco I did one of the things I always do: I paid a visit to Good Vibrations, the mother ship of progressive, women-oriented and queer-friendly vibrator shops. I browsed its selection of sex guides, scoped out the latest in sex toy technology, toured its antique vibrator museum and even attended a workshop on “Penis Pleasuring.”

My visit got me thinking: Why don’t we have a store like Good Vibrations in Las Vegas, a city known throughout the world for its openness about sex? Sure, we have our fair share of mass-market adult stores with their lingerie-clad mannequins, hawking a stereotypical version of female sexuality. But we don’t have a comfy, welcoming, feminist vibrator shop to call our own.

Meanwhile, major cities around the country have stores based on the Good Vibrations model, which was created in 1977 by author and sex therapist Joani Blank, who felt that women needed a comfortable, friendly and well-lit place to get their vibrators. The original Good Vibrations store, located in San Francisco’s Mission District, was tiny—about the size of a large closet—and carried several select vibrators and books about sex, including a few inked by Blank herself.  Blank hung macramé on the walls and placed throw pillows on the floor, creating an environment that visitors at the time described as “charming”—not a word usually associated with adult stores. Her honest, no-nonsense approach was an immediate hit—and not just with women, but with men who, it turned out, also welcomed an alternative to XXX stores with indifferent sales staff and cheaply made products that were never intended to last more than a night or two.

Today, stores based on the Good Vibrations retail model include Babeland in Seattle and New York, Self Serve in Albuquerque, Sugar in Baltimore, Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, Early to Bed in Chicago and the Tool Shed in Milwaukee. As for Good Vibrations, the company just announced its plan to open an eighth retail location in the heart of San Francisco’s touristy Union Square.

These stores turn the “seedy” stereotype of adult retail on its head, incorporating elements of boutique culture designed to make even the most tentative, first-time vibrator shopper feel at ease. They’re clean and inviting, with friendly sales staff knowledgeable in anatomy and physiology who double as sex educators. Products are carefully selected and openly displayed on attractive fixtures, and customers are encouraged to pick items up and turn them on to test the intensity of their vibration or the feel of a product against their skin. The message promoted by Good Vibrations and similar stores is that sex is fun, not something to be embarrassed about.

Curious, I reached out to Jackie Strano, Good Vibrations’ executive vice president, to see if the company has ever discussed opening a Vegas outpost as part of its expansion plans.

“We would love a Vegas location, especially for outreach of the brand to tourists,” Strano says. “But where? We’d have to find perfect locale to support it, and also a friendly, sex positive landlord, agreeable neighbors and zoning ordinances that [would] allow us to be congruent with who we really are—a safe, comfortable place to buy quality sex toys.”

Zoning ordinances are a key issue. The City of Las Vegas requires adult emporiums to be 1,000 feet from other sexually-oriented businesses, schools, churches, day care centers, parks and playgrounds. They’re also supposed to be located in industrial or commercial-industrial zones—keeping them out of many heavily-trafficked shopping areas—though loopholes allow for certain exceptions.

Nenna Joiner, a Las Vegas native who owns Feelmore, an adult store and gallery in downtown Oakland, California, tells me that she initially considered opening a store here, but between high unemployment and foreclosure rates, it remains a “tough city” for starting and growing a small business.

That said, Joiner still thinks a sex-positive retail boutique like hers would do well in Las Vegas—so much so, that following our conversation she applied for a grant from the Downtown Project.

Las Vegas has already proven to be a healthy market for home sales parties, said UNLV grad Karoline Khamis, who’s working to start her own feminist sex toy business that will cater to both locals and tourists. These events—think Tupperware parties but with vibrators–take place in the comfort and privacy of people’s houses, have relatively low overhead, and aren’t subject to restrictive zoning regulations. The party model can also be easily tailored to meet the needs of specific groups of women, from Spanish-speaking parties to events for married Christian women.

Khamis plans to launch a website in January, followed in the spring by a brick-and-mortar location. In the meantime, she’ll be reviewing local zoning ordinances, looking for commercial space and raising start-up funds.

“I want to be a neighborhood sex shop,” Khamis tells me.

With the redevelopment of Downtown Las Vegas in full swing, perhaps the city’s bohemian central core is the perfect place for a friendly, feminist vibrator store to set up shop.

Readers, what do you think? Does Las Vegas need a more female-friendly sex toy shop? And if so, where should it be?

Lynn Comella is a women’s studies professor at UNLV. Her column, ‘Unbuttoned,’ examines issues of sex and gender—with a Vegas twist.