By Terence Dick
“Oil Stains Ruining Your Sheets? Ask About Pure Pro’s Orange: Oil Cleaner and Degreaser!”
So goes a laundry-conscious notice posted amidst oils, lubes and sundry slippery stuff on the west wall of Toronto sex shop Come As You Are. The notices embodies an attitude toward sex and sex products that strikes the blissfully pre-orgasmic consumer as the epitome of consideration and maturity. After all, if one is going to be adult about the business of sex, one should be able to expect a similarly adult attitude from the commercial sector. Once past adolescence, sex is no longer a novelty and doesn’t have to be sold as such. Come As You Are is part of a new wave of sex shops that manage to mainstream the economics of pleasure and commodify the accouterments of ecstasy in a way that doesn’t taste of stale edible panties. They represent the un-undergrounding of post-capitalist culture: consumption is a given, these stores are saying, so let’s at least try to be conscientious about it. Reclaiming the accessorization of our most personal of experiences from the dreadfully impersonal hands of the legendarily seedy TRIPLE XXX sex mart, these sex shops are pro-active about the business, emphasizing a respect and love for their products and a personal involvement that extends into the daily lives of workers and customers alike.
As Canada’s only co-operatively owned sex shop, Come As You Are stands out as a good example of the noble emergence of the underground into the light of the everyday. Conceived in the Autumn of 1996, CAYA opened its doors (and curtained off its windows) to the throngs of downtown Toronto shoppers the following June. There were three original founders: Carrie Gray had a leather goods company that produced S&M related goods. Cory Silverberg came from an academic and professional background with a Master’s degree in psychology focusing on sex and disability. He had also worked at a sex shop for a number of years. Sandra Haar had worked at the feminist journal Fireweed and been on the collective of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. She is a writer and artist whose work is concerned with issues of sexuality. Since then, Sarah Forbes-Roberts has also joined the co-op. I talked with Sandra about the store and we tried to figure out its place in the socio-cultural milieu.
The only other known co-op sex store in the world, Good Vibrations in San Francisco, inspired Sandra and served as the prototype for CAYA.
“Most sex shops really don’t care about how they sell,” she says. “They don’t vouch for the quality and the usefulness of what they sell. As far as they’re concerned: Get the highest mark-up and get the customers out of there as fast as possible. Good Vibrations saw the stuff that they were selling as a tool for sexual empowerment. They also had a strong focus on education and informing and listening to the customers and really developing a personalized approach. Specifically, they were women-positive, which was another area that traditional sex stores had failed miserably with. Also the environment; it was very pleasant, paint wasn’t peeling off the walls, there wasn’t garish fluorescent lighting. It was a pleasant environment with encouraging and knowledgeable sales staff. And I bought my first vibrator there.”
After returning from San Francisco, Sandra came to the conclusion that Toronto needed a similar store. As a co-op, everyone who works at CAYA has an equal financial share in the company and an equal say in how the company is run:
“We have certain different areas that we’re responsible for but, generally speaking, we make decisions together on just about everything; from how much to pay the guy who cleans the windows to where we should bank. All the members work the same number of hours and get paid the same wage, so the profits get distributed evenly.”
While sharing a model with larger co-operative concerns, this collective method of organization is also similar to the way in which activist and community groups work. Links with DIY culture become more prevalent when the store’s business habits are examined.
“All of the leather stuff we buy is made by small manufacturers, small craftspeople,” explains Sandra. “We have certain items that we carry that are locally made; a massage oil that is local, the feathers come in from a small company. There’s one type of dildo that is made from silicon rubber. All of the silicon rubber is made by small companies because it’s all handmade. Whenever possible, we work with small businesses and people who are like-minded. The people who make the silicon are very pro-sex and really into their products and into what they’re doing.” The love is in the details. Rows of finely crafted buttplugs explode with colour. Dildos range from realist appendages to modernist monoliths to surreal contraptions. Some have been renamed in patriotic tribute to the Group of Seven, some retain more conventional names like Mr. Twister and the Observer (a crystal clear probe for the ocular erotic). Appliances like the WAHL Warm & Gentle (with four inch tip, g-spotter and tulip attachment) and the Canada Arm demonstrate the technical side of the science of pleasure, but there is always room for traditional skills. The Tulipwood Spanker (made by Erotic Tools from Exotic Woods) is a disciplinary paddle that my woodworking father would appreciate for the grain and the stain (if not the pain).
Their “sex-positive” attitude links CAYA to like-minded stores such as Women’s Wears in Vancouver, Venus Envy in Halifax and Good For Her in Toronto. It represents a development of two strains of sex-oriented culture according to Sandra.
“The ‘healthy sexuality’ approach, which has been with us for quite a while, is the province of sexual health professionals. That kind of knowledge and approach is being wedded with people who are willing to be more blatant sexually, who are just having more fun with it.” She goes on to explain the explosion of sex-positive stores in the U.S. and Canada in the past five years as a progressive movement of underground communities into the mainstream. “I’m not sure exactly what happened. I have certain theories. It seemed to happen concurrently with a main-streaming or a breakthrough of queer politics. There seemed to be more visibility and acceptance. All the [new] stores are fairly queer positive. Things that had been known within and had been accepted within sex-positive feminist and queer communities stepped out of the confines of the small communities in which they were maintained. Certain kinds of knowledge, like a standard acceptance of dildos or pervasive knowledge of the use of strap-ons for example, suddenly just popped up in more general environments. I don’t know which happened first. I just think there was some kind of sense that this was going to be possible, that it was going to be possible to take particular types of knowledge developed in these communities and export them.”
At the same time, sexual politics on university campuses morphed from the frigid theory of the late eighties to the playful practice of the nineties. Once controversial practices like sexual experimentation, bisexuality and non-monogamy have become common. Take all these ingredients, bake in a post-PC (though not necessarily anti-PC) youth culture (which includes the young at heart), and sprinkle in a funky downtown neighbourhood. What you get is a consumer market hungry for kegelcisors (barbells for your vagina).
Progressive sexual knowledge is disseminated in a very active way by the staff of stores such as CAYA. Not only do they own the company, they are also clients. Their collective experience of every last doo-dah they stock means there is an informed opinion as to its effectiveness and versatility. The remote control vibrator has been tested at range and proven to work through a steel door. The porn videos have been divested of their cheesiness. The books are guaranteed to give you more than five easy (and useless) steps to the mythic perfect orgasm. There are monthly workshops, generated by the staff in conjunction with outside facilitators and through public requests, on subjects like female ejaculation, sexual self-assertion, spiritual sex, non-monogamy, erotic writing and self-pleasuring for men. Community outreach also occurs when social service organizations, like Planned Parenthood, sex education centres or women’s centres, request talks on sex toys and sexuality.
“I think there’s a parallel between how we see sexuality and how we deal with the customers and how we run the business.” Sandra concludes, “For sexuality to flourish, it’s not just a matter of product to me. There’s different ways that people learn about sexuality and we want to provide a different kind of forum than what is normally available. We don’t really push a particular philosophy. I think there is a philosophy that informs how we operate but, if anything, we try to foster a certain kind of acceptance. We don’t tell people what they need to get, but we’re certainly interested in what people perceive to be their needs and how we can help them in that pursuit. We don’t see ourselves as sex missionaries.”
Instead of telling their customers how it must be done, the owners of CAYA encourage people to ask their own questions and find out what’s right for them. Imagine that, sex as the original DIY endeavour! It’s a participatory, exploratory, and laudatory sport. Get on it! Get it on! For more info, check out the CAYA website: www.comeasyouare.com
Terence Dick is a regular BP contributor and one half of avant-garde noise dj duo The Rust Brothers.
Canada’s First Co-op Sex Shop Sanitizes Sleaze