“Do people treat you differently when they know what you do?” someone asked me recently after an hour of conversation.
I said “no” but – reflecting on what usually happens when I meet new people, I’d like to answer the question again. “Yes, they do.”
And what do I do? For 2 years I have been running a sex-positive, design-led sex toy brand called Je Joue. I now have a lot of experience explaining that I work with sex toys and design them – as well as talk about them in a business-like fashion. I have sat round a table with three of my male colleagues discussing how to improve our cock ring design to heighten male pleasure. Standard way to spend a Wednesday.
The first time I told my – fairly Catholic – wider family about my job, we were all sitting round a table, when my aunt asked ‘so what are you doing now, Jane?’ Both my parents’ heads pinged back to me at the same time: they wanted the ground to swallow them up!
I’ve recently been discussing the judgements or preconceptions that people have about working with sex toys with Kitty May, an extremely experienced sex educator working with Other Nature, an alternative sex shop in Berlin. We’re both interested in the concept of “normality” within sex and gender and identity, and we started to wonder whether we are seen as normal – and, of course, whether this matters!
Sex shops: a dirty little secret?
Plenty of people in the UK still associate sex shops with a kind of seediness, imagining them to be furtive places, a little dirty, with uninformed and disengaged staff. Trying sex toys out in the privacy of one’s own home is one thing, but the idea of sex shops freaks many people out.
However, the people I know who’ve been into brilliant shops like Other Nature in Berlin and Sh! in Hoxton square usually get the sex-positive concept very quickly. In sex-positive shops, the vibe (excuse the pun) is usually clean and bright, with extremely supportive staff on hand. Much of the work is empowering people; giving them permission to be themselves and ask their questions. The sex educators who work in environments like these have great stories about supporting clients who want to try something new or to improve something like communicating their sexual wishes to their partner.
Sex shop workers are humans too
Alternative sex shops can offer a comfortable, welcoming space in which to explore sexuality in all its complexity, and can provide services that may be lacking elsewhere. For example, Other Nature, supports many members of the trans community in Berlin and beyond, not only by selling products related to gender affirmation, but also through supporting community building and offering advice from informed and experienced staff.
The sex industry is vast and varied, and there are elements of it that I don’t consider sex positive – things that define sexuality in a very specific way, or as looking a certain way. But there are many shops, people and standards that are being set that are cutting edge in terms of defining the politics of sexuality and gender identity.
One of the most brilliant things for me about coming into this industry is the engaging, politically active and dedicated people who I’ve met through my work. There are intellectual power-houses in the industry, such as the founder of LovePieceClub in Japan – and there are incredible entrepreneurs with a political agenda – for example the wonderful Claire, who co-founded Babeland in the US.
I’m not sure any of this makes me think I am normal – or that Kitty is normal. But I’m proud of working in an industry that supports the growth of sex positivity globally – and if I’ve got that, who needs normal?