Calgary adult store on the frontier of sexploration
Hair slicked back, suit vest and tie in perfect order, the young man behind the counter looks more like he should be selling bespoke clothing, rather than dildos.
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” chuckles Karl Sandberg. He has grown used to customers remarking on his “spiffy” appearance when they first step into Little Shop of Pleasures, a Calgary outlet for adult sex toys and paraphernalia.
“My first thought is always, ‘Well, who else are you going to buy a dildo from? Would you prefer if I came in here in my ripped jeans and a T-shirt? ‘Cause I can do that if you like.’” The comment is second in frequency only to Sandberg’s favourite: “‘I bet you get a lot of strange people in here, huh?’”
“Of course it’s not a question, it’s an assumption, but it’s posed as one because whoever’s asking it is looking for validation,” Sandberg explains. “And the more I hear it, the more I realize that [our customers] are all people who consider themselves to be very normal, but also very isolated.
“It’s not like the shop is inhabited by crazed, depraved freaks or anything like that. And our customers, they’re just normal people, living normal lives, maybe looking for something a little different.”
That curiosity is an itch the Little Shop of Pleasures scratches with two locations in Calgary. The apparent success of the store and others like it, plus a recent influx of exhibitions and events like Smut Slam coming to our city, suggests Calgarians are becoming more comfortable exploring their sexuality, and perhaps sexual taboos are diminishing.
Indeed, sexual curiosity is what first got Christina Nelson into the business. Now a co-owner and manager, Nelson first started working at the Little Shop in 1996, looking to satisfy her sexploratory appetites with an employee discount. She hired Don Wilheim, whom she had just begun dating at the time, as reliable backup in case someone else couldn’t come to work. He says, as a musician, he was in it for the tax benefit it gave him.
“We were really just having a ton of fun,” Nelson says of the couple’s whimsical decision to work at a sex toy store. But one thing led to another and, as they say, the rest is history. After a few short years, Nelson was promoted to manager, she and Don stayed together, and when the previous owners wanted to sell in 2000, the pair couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“I was already leery about who would be taking over, right? I wanted the new owners to have respect for what we do here,” says Nelson.
“We knew if we were going to do it, we had to take this very seriously,” seconds Wilheim, the gravity in his voice booming like a thunderstorm. The severity is a contrast to what most people believe about their jobs, he says — that it’s non-stop “product testing” and genitalia jokes.
“We’re not selling carburetors here — this is people’s sexuality we’re talking about! This is people’s intimacy. We’ve got to know our stuff,” he says.
Over the past 16 years, the couple has seen the sex toy industry evolve from a space dominated by visual pornography centered solely on male pleasure, to one where risque products are packaged in discreet, sleek boxes reminiscent of the Apple brand; where trans-identifying folks can obtain appearance-altering tools safely. A place where even a 91-year-old woman can come pick up a pair of sexy stockings with her 75-year-old daughter — free of judgment.
But that evolution of mindset has yet to become mainstream, Nelson, Wilheim, and Sandberg agree, so they often ifnd themselves bridging the gap in the best way they know how: with plenty of friendly advice and encouragement.
“A lot of people, when they come in here, they’re shy, they’re worried about people seeing them, they’ve got their own judgments about themselves, they’re kind of hunched over,” says Wilheim. “And I always tell those people, ‘You know what, treasure that feeling you’re feeling right now. How many other things in your life make you feel so embarrassed, so nervous? That makes you this excited? That’s because it’s important to you! That’s why it makes you feel this way!’
“So treasure that feeling and the taboo nature of it — it’s human nature. The second you tell somebody they can’t look behind that screen, they immediately want to look. It’s the forbidden fruit, and they know in their gut that it’s going to be good.”
“We’re just here to reassure people that whatever you want to do, it’s actually fine, as long as it’s between consenting adults, and nobody gets seriously injured. Sex is okay, and it’s important, and it’s good for you,” he continues. “The health benefits from orgasms three times a week are shocking. Sex is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the cement that goes over the cracks that form from day-to-day life.”
Despite the innate normalcy of liking, craving, and exploring sex, Wilheim and Nelson say carnal knowledge remains taboo, even in the digital age, because while people are so inundated by sexual images in our daily lives, we often lack the comfort with our own sexuality and bodies to process sexual ideas in a healthy way.
“I often see people coming in with the idea that, ‘I don’t need anything from this store,’” says Wilheim, identifying customers’ most prevalent misconception, that using sex toys somehow diminishes their own adequacy in the bedroom. “People think they should know everything about [sex] already, and if they do then what could they possibly need? And I say ‘Nobody needs anything from our store. You do not need a Lamborghini to drive to work; a Ford Fiesta will work just fine. You don’t need a Lamborghini, but it sure is fun to drive!’”
Furthermore, says Sandberg, people’s inability to feel comfortable with their own sexuality not only hinders their own pleasure, but risks shaming others.
“I have people come in and ask me all the time, ‘Wow, what kind of loser owns that?’” recounts Sadnberg. “And my only thought is, ‘Remember where you are.’ It doesn’t make you cool to come in here, to this safe space, and point and laugh at things. If anything, it just shows your ignorance.’”
But Sandberg and his bosses prefer to teach the uneducated and calm the nervous in those moments, rather than chastise their behaviour.
“We hope that when you come in here, your experience leaves you with something that you didn’t know when you came in. I don’t care if you buy anything when you come in here, I’d much rather that you leave happy and with a piece of information that you didn’t have before,” he says.
While the Little Shop of Pleasures embraces openness and positivity, hoping that their actions can help pave the way for a more forward-thinking future generation, Nelson acknowledges their position as outlayers, saying there is likely to always be some level of taboo when it comes to talking freely about sex.
“I’m glad to see we’re much more open now and people feel they can talk about it more, and aren’t so ashamed and aren’t such a freak about it,” she says. “But there’s always going be a taboo, because the taboo is your judgment of it, not mine.”
Our Sexual Psyche
According to sex therapist Cheryl McMeeken, who has been helping Calgarians reconnect with their intimacy for over 15 years, the harsh stereotypes society puts on sexuality, and kinky sex in particular, are not something to be feared. Rather, they persist because the subject matter is deeply personal.
“It’s always going to be a personal issue,” McMeeken asserts. “These are personal items and our personal sex lives we’re talking about, so we’re not going to necessarily want to ever tell our neighbours what we’re getting into.
“That said, since we’re seeing more of sex — it’s becoming more present in media and elsewhere — I think we’re getting desensitized to the idea of sex. And to be clear, it’s desensitizing in a good way, not a negative way. In the past, I believe we’ve been over-sensitized to it. But now it’s almost as if we’ve realized, ‘Well everyone has one, so why not?’ Even my mother has a vibrator, and good for her!”
Nevertheless, says McMeeken, society is certainly on the right track to cultivating a healthier understanding of our bodies and intimacy.
“You have to think back to the fact that we were settled by people that left Europe expressly because they wanted to express their religious values and Europe was becoming too liberal for them,” she explains. “So really, in North America, considering the foundation we have, we’ve come a long way. We’ve just got to keep going in a forward direction if we’re ever going to catch up from that hangover.”
But whether sex toys will be the feather that tips the scale in regards to that normalization, McMeeken is not so sure.
“I don’t necessarily think that sex toys are increasing intimacy, I think they’re increasing variety. They might bring a sense of adventure into a relationship, but that’s not the same as creating intimacy. If you don’t have a connection [with your partner] to begin with, a sex toy isn’t going to solve anything — the only emotion you’re going to be increasing in your partner in that situation is anger, probably,” says McMeeken of people who misinterpret sex toys as “magic wands” intended to solve all of their relationships woes.
“You can’t lose the magic if you don’t have it to begin with. Having that magic in the first place is the key. Then we can talk about using sex toys to perk things up a bit. We all sort of like a balance between security and variety, and if there’s not enough variety we say, ‘Okay, I’m bored.’ But if there never was a connection established in the first place, if they really didn’t get each other… then throwing a sex toy at it is just a bad idea.”
Sex: The Final Frontier
Cameryn Moore, a Montreal-based playwright, actor, and self-professed sex activist and educator, shares these views. She is the mastermind behind the renowned production nerdfucker, and Calgary’s first-ever Smut Slam event, which opened the Calgary Fringe Festival on July 27. While Moore supports McMeeken’s observation that sex, kink, and sexuality are now more freely expressed in mainstream media and our personal lives, and that our society has indeed come a long way, she also believes we can push the envelope further still.
“I agree that events like Smut Slam are a sign that taboos are decreasing in some ways. But at the same time, there remains a very strong backlash to sexual openness, and sexuality generally being discussed,” Moore says. “Events like this are just one way of dealing with that.”
Moore stresses the informal format of Smut Slam is key to delivering this message. The event does not come across as a lecture, but rather as a time for storytelling and laughter among in a room full of complete strangers. Moore says folks are more likely to take away something meaningful from more casual interactions like these, insisting that, to be effective, sex education must never be boring or judgmental.
“If you have sex, you have a story to tell,” she says. “We owe it to ourselves and to each other to be honest about our experiences. That’s the only way we’re going to get more comfortable talking about it, and get more comfortable with each other.”
It is this attitude Don Wilheim believes our society must demand if we are ever to move forward.
“A lot of people who come through [our] doors, they’re on the edge of sexuality. They’re the Leonardo da Vinci of sexuality, the people who push the envelope and move society forward in regards to kink and sexuality,” Wilheim muses. “In science it’s the people studying psychics. In art it’s the people doing pop art. There’s always controversy there, and these people are always seen as half-crazy and half-geniuses at the same time.
“So when people come to us who are worried about their obsession or their kink, I tell them, ‘Listen, you’re not weird. You’re extraordinary!’”