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How a local adult store creates a sex-positive experience By Alvin Buyinza

Photos by Alvin Buyinza

Walking into Oh My Sensuality Shop in Northampton, you wouldn’t be surprised to find everything that may pique your curiosity about the inside of a sex store. Black leather strap-on harnesses and erotic art hang on the brick walls. Brightly colored dildos, vibrators and leashes sit on display in shiny glass cases. In a small corner, piles of erotic fiction are stacked neatly on a bookshelf. Despite its raw look, the main goal of this store isn’t just to sell sex toys –– it’s about creating an atmosphere of sex positivity.

Beginning in 2003 in a small 300-square-foot room in Maplewood Shops, Oh My has come a long way in pushing the conversation on sexual pleasure forward. It’s founders, mother-daughter team Carol and Beth Meyers were bent on the philosophy that sex and pleasure should be viewed in a healthy and positive way. Sixteen years later, the store has moved to a new location, 122 Main St. Carol is retired and Beth now runs the store on her own with the help of a small team, but the original philosophy has remained the same.

“My number one goal every single day is to make people feel comfortable enough that they can walk around and look at stuff, and hopefully if they’re curious, that they can then ask questions and find out about products and things that they don’t know anything about. If they’re looking for a toy, I just want to match the person with the toy, it’s like a puzzle,” Beth said, laughing as she leaned over a counter with bottles of lubricant, condoms and vibrators placed on top.

Although the majority of Americans’ views on sex and sexuality have radically changed over almost the past two decades, the stigma around sex toys still exists, causing many people to still feel uncomfortable about buying one, especially in person. Stores like Oh My aim to dispel that negative stigma by offering an atmosphere of inclusion, community and comfortability.

Knowing and talking about sex

Part of how Beth and the staff at Oh My are able to make their customers feel at home while shopping for sex toys is by learning how to talk about sex and answering any burning questions customers may have about a product.

For Beth, talking about taboo topics like this was rough at first. Coming from a traditional retail background and only entering the sex toy market in 2003, she had a lot of learning to do.

“Before I worked in an adult store, I had never talked to anybody about butt plugs, it just never came up, so I had to practice with friends,” she said.

Starting off conversations about anal play or butt plugs helped her ease her way into comfortability talking about sex. “It’s something that took a while to get used to doing.”

For many people walking into the store, it’s their first time buying a sex toy. So, a lot of Beth’s job relies on informing customers of certain functions and features of toys, such as what types of strength they have or if they have an internal or external usage.

But learning about how to use vibrators or anal plugs is only half the battle – another big area of expertise is knowing the possible hazards of sex toys.

Unlike other industries, such as agriculture, automobiles or alcohol, there are no safety regulations regarding sex toys, meaning it’s up to retailers like Beth and her team to be able to inspect and review each product to see whether it’s safe for customer use.

One thing in particular that Beth looks out for when ordering a new product is whether it contains Phthalates, a carcinogen sometimes used to soften sex toys. While popular, the chemicals may lead to skin irritation or even cancer. However, no substantial amount of evidence has been able to accurately prove the harmful effects Phthalates have on the human body, according to the Center of Disease Control.

In order to test whether a new product contains Phthalates, the team will sometimes hold a flame to the toy, since Phthalates are flammable. If the toy burns, then Oh My sends it back to the distributor.

Sex toy retailers’ relationships with their distributors are tight, and if the store feels as if a distributor is being dishonest or misleading with their products, Oh My sees no problem in warning others about them.

“These are big deals and companies don’t benefit from being caught, so it’s in their best interest in being honest,” said Constance Augusta Zaber, a staff member at Oh My.

Creating inclusivity and trust with customers

Since the store sees a wide range of customers from all different backgrounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, it’s also important that Oh My caters to the diversity of its customers. One way that it does so is by taking the product out of its packaging to be put on display.

A lot of the packaging relies on gendered marketing, meaning when the store receives a new product, it comes in a package that depicts either a white, cis-gender woman or man. To people outside this demographic, the packaging could be a deterrent to them buying a product. But, leaving the toy out in the open removes that gender barrier.

“It’s hard to find packaging that includes black and brown models, and oftentimes [its] conforming to these ideals around thinness and Euro-standards of like beauty and physical able-ness. So it’s even beyond just that gender question and going to ‘What do you see when you look at that package?’”

Having a ‘no-labels’ atmosphere creates an “open playing field” vibe for customers, where they can choose any toy that sparks their interests. Once customers are ready to buy a product they are comfortable with, all purchases are kept confidential and the items are placed in paper bags.

Creating a bigger network for sex positivity

Beyond being a sex store, Oh My also operates as a space for others hoping to further the conversation around sex positivity. In the past, the store has opened its doors to events such as BDSM rope tying workshops, erotic writing classes and classes on how to create your own adult film.

Unfortunately, the events didn’t turn out to be as popular as Beth had hoped.

“We’ve tried over the years to have classes and stuff, it’s never really worked out great for us,” she said. “I think that’s because the colleges these days are offering so much, and there’s local rope groups and local kink groups. Education exists already –– more, thankfully.”

With universities like Smith College and groups like the Northampton Sex Therapists Association providing higher levels of education, it has become difficult to attract people to the store for those types of events. So, eventually the store stopped putting them on.

But every now and then the store will host a fellow retailer or person in the sex positive community to showcase their work.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, Oh My decided to open their doors to local lingerie maker Emily Rose Pequin, whose upcoming clothing store, OpalSutra, aims to change the conversation on who gets to wear what.

“There are a lot of body types that are underrepresented in the lingerie industry, like it’s not even a conversation – it’s a fact,” Pequin said. “But I really want to shed light more on how beautiful everyone is and that’s cheesy to say, but when you’re in it and you’re experiencing that, it means a lot to a lot of people for sure.”

In the back of the store, beautifully colored robes, bodysuits and lingerie sit delicately on a rack. A few customers circle around the clothing, touching it’s fabric as they talk to each other about the design.

In particular, Pequin draws a lot of attention to their bodysuits, which feature fully adjustable tops that allow people with different chest sizes to find them comfortable.

“These are specifically designed to look good on every body type,” Pequin said as they held one up from the rack. “I specifically designed these bodysuits so that they would great on people with curves.”

In addition to bodysuits, Pequin also designs robes and bralettes, both articles of clothing that don’t have a specific structure, so they are also able to accommodate all body types.

Another big staple of the young designer’s work is gender inclusivity. Prior to founding OpalSultra, Pequin had worked at a lingerie store in San Francisco, where they were met with a lot of transgender women looking to try on bras for the first time. According to Pequin, the experience for the women were “emotionally charging,” which in part inspired them to create clothing for all genders.

In the past, Pequin stated they’ve had men, women and non-binary individuals purchase their work, whether for the benefit of wearing something that identifies with them or just putting together a costume for drag. Pequin wants to create lingerie that makes people feel good about whoever they are.

Wanting to spread their market and ideas to Northampton, it wasn’t hard for Pequin to find the perfect place to showcase gender and body inclusive lingerie. After months of planning and talking with Beth, Pequin was sure Oh My was the atmosphere for them.

“I really like a lot of the customers who come in here and the customer base around here, just because Northampton is such a queer-friendly little town,” Pequin said. “It just brings in the right type of people who really appreciate what I do and kind of see the same value in what I make and in what I’m trying to get out there.”

Oh My Sensuality Shop remains the only sex store in Northampton, and although the stigma around sex toys is still prevalent, the store still aims to change the conversation on sexual pleasure, one vibrator at a time.

Alvin Buyinza can be reached at abuyinza@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @abuyinza_news.

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