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a More Passionate World The Satya Interview with
Masked Reformers: The Guerrilla
Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz scurry through the dusky streets
of night, donning their hallmark gorilla masks, decorating your
neighborhood bodega with piquant posters indicting the art world
of sexism and racism. Really? Frida Kahlo? No, not physically,
but her spirit lives on in this still-anonymous group of rabble-rousing
activists, the Guerrilla Girls. For they all embrace the names
of dead female artists.
Nineteen years after they formed in response to a major show at the Museum of
Modern Art in which only 13 of 169 featured artists were women, the Guerrilla
Girls, who call themselves “the conscience of the art world,” have
become cultural icons. Their work has enlightened many an art history class,
they are legends in print and are notoriously known as soapbox orators to the
Today they have their own publicist and on November 11, 2004, Printed Matter
hosted a launch party for their third book The Guerrilla Girls’ Art
Activity Book, an ‘artrageous’ look at the world of New York City
museums. It is a comic-book style call to action, and a parody of those cutesy
books museums produce to teach children to respect high culture. How about respecting
women as part of high culture?-—K.A.M.
A sex shop without the sleaze? “Impossible!” you
say. Well, you haven’t been to Toys in Babeland. This women-run
business celebrates the idea that having sex is perfectly normal for
consenting adults. Rachel
Venning and Claire Cavanah opened the first Toys in Babeland store in
Seattle, in the fall of 1993. Their mutual interest in sex-positive feminism
inspired them to create a sleaze-free environment in which women especially
(but men, too) are encouraged to peruse a mind-boggling array of devices
displayed in a fun, user-friendly setting, as well as a library of educational
literature. The stores also host workshops and discussion groups
designed to improve bedroom techniques for even the shyest of folks.
Building on the success of these ventures, Claire and Rachel opened NYC’s
first Toys in Babeland store in 1998 on Manhattan’s Lower East
Side, and a SoHo location in 2003. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance
to talk with Claire Cavanah about feminism, politics and, of course,
So, let me begin with a rumor I’ve heard that this all
began over a cup of coffee and a bottle of lube?
Ha, yes. That is so true! Rachel, my business partner and co-founder,
and I have been friends since 1992, in Seattle. We were a lot younger
then and trying to figure out how to apply ourselves to the world. We
were also ardent feminists—sex-positive feminists—in our
college days. One afternoon we were just laying on my bed (we weren’t
lovers or anything), ranting. She was resisting going to school and I
was resisting going to work. She started making fun of a bottle of lube
on the nightstand and I defended myself, explaining that I had gotten
a gift certificate as a joke to this sex store, and got it when I went
I didn’t recognize anything there. It was such a drag. A discussion
of the product’s lack of merits and the lack of products designed
for women ensued, and it was right then that we had this moment of total
revelation—this was the business. We felt a little like missionaries
at first, because we knew we’d found something that was missing
in the community and decided to set about to change that. We never looked
back. It was a wonderful moment.
The concept of women-owned sex toy shops is radically different
from the old adult stores with racks of sleazy skin magazines and peep
What’s the environment like in a Toys in Babeland shop?
Our store is very different. Toys in Babeland is based more on education
than shame, denial and bad humor. For example, we don’t have any
novelty products like hopping penises, blow-up dolls and stuff like that.
We find them demeaning to a great part of life—sex. I think that
our culture has shifted a little bit since we opened the business in
1993. We had the vision that people like us would like to shop and buy
toys in an environment that was positive, supportive, pleasant, and fun;
Another thing is the way our products are displayed: to minimize the
often exploitative packaging and to keep the environment appealing to
women, while making them feel
safe, stimulated and excited. The pure physical joy and pleasure that comes from
sex can also come from walking into a well-designed space. Traditional sex shops
create space that says, ‘you are ashamed to be here.’ Our design
says we value sex, we value our customers and their willingness to come here,
ask questions, and explore their sexuality. We also have mostly women both working
behind the counter and shopping. Women do feel more comfortable in Toys in Babeland
than your regular old peepshow shack.
I definitely think things are changing. This new breed of store uses design as
a way to challenge people’s expectations of what a sex shop looks and feels
like, encouraging them to handle the goods and inspiring them to do something
private—explore their sexuality—in a public space.
You also promote further education in sexuality issues and erotica, from Flogging
101 to Strap-on Seductions. Can you talk about your workshops?
Most of the workshops stemmed from the information-based sales that we do. Talking
to people. For us, it has never been “here’s a dildo, isn’t
it funny. Look at all the colors it comes in.” It is much more than that.
It is about reading people when they walk through the door. Finding out where
they are—their security and self-discovery levels—in terms of sex.
We found that we kept saying the same things to customers, day in and day out.
So we decided to invite customers to the store after hours for discussions and
that sort of bloomed into Babeland University. Now our workshops involve people
on staff teaching different things that they know from working here. We also
have guest presenters. From the basics of sexual literacy to advanced algorithms
of satisfaction, Babeland University workshops have students begging for homework!
What are the most popular workshops?
The g-spot workshop is a big one. That is focused on demystifying the g-spot,
the most misunderstood and hyped part of a woman’s sexuality. Anal Sex,
S/M 101, and Sex Tips for Pleasing Your Woman (it used to be called Sex Tips
for Straight Guys, but we stopped saying who it’s for) are all big.
Tell me about the book you co-authored with Rachel Venning, Sex Toys
Ultimate Guide to Choosing and Using Sex Toys.
Rachel and I wrote Sex Toys 101 in 2003. The book explores sexual anatomy, vibrators,
strap-ons, lube, men’s toys, butt play, etc. It was our chance to reach
those people who may not feel comfortable attending a workshop or asking questions,
or who live far away and shop online.
There is a lot of debate about whether feminists should use dildos or take part
in bondage-type role playing games because they are mirroring the oppression
of women. How do you see this debate?
When I was growing up thinking about these things for the first time it was an
issue; and still is. It is a good question. I live in such a terrarium—I
mean, the people I talk to are pro-sex and adventuresome, figuring stuff out
for themselves. What people don’t understand is that pleasure is power.
I did run across a professor who is making a film on the detrimental effects
of porn. I think that topic is so out of the 80s, so I talked to her and it was
kind of fun to dust off those old ideas and see where that stuff is still coming
from. I mean, women like porn too. It’s not like women are naturally averse
to seeing explicit imagery. It turns women on and that is good. People should
be able to explore what gives them pleasure and if it is explicit imagery—which
is almost always part of it—then that should not be curtailed.
And dildos—people get sort of mixed up and think that the dildo signifies
the penis, which signifies power over woman. But think about it. This is a dildo—the
power is in your hand. It is something that can help you understand yourself
better, help you gain pleasure. Help you, if you do want to sleep with men, articulate
what you want because you’ve already figured it out. I think that all of
this is very loaded and scary for people, but in the end it is just more opportunity
to understand yourself better.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? I sure do. Above all, I am a feminist.
So tell us about some of the goodies. What’s the latest on sex
We are a vibrator store. Part of our mission is to get vibrators into the hands
of people who could use them to have orgasms for the first time, mostly women.
And since women now expect sexual pleasure, it makes sense that they would buy
sex toys. The Rabbit Habit is the most famous: there’s a shaft to penetrate,
with vibrating pearls that stimulate the opening of the vagina, and two ears
that tickle the clitoris. Vibrators also are getting smaller. There’s one
that slides over a fingertip, so it’s easy to incorporate into sex with
a partner, and less like having a third party there. Some are stealth toys, like
the Vibra Pen—a ballpoint with a vibrator on the tip. There’s the
Stowaway, which comes in a plastic case that makes it look like makeup, to avoid
embarrassment with airport security.
I must say you have one of the best mission statements I have heard in awhile!
Thanks. To be more accurate, our specific mission statement is: to promote and
celebrate sexual vitality by providing an honest, open and fun environment. Encouraging
personal empowerment, community education, and support for a more passionate
world are key. In other words…every woman should own at least one sex toy.
It’s like buying a tennis racket: you may not end up playing tennis, but
why not try it?
To learn more, visit their Manhattan locations at 94 Rivington Street (212-375-1701)
or 43 Mercer Street (212-966-2120), or see www.babeland.com.