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January 2005
Toward a More Passionate World
The Satya Interview with Claire Cavanah


Masked Reformers: The Guerrilla Girls
Guerrilla Girls

Frida 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 college nation.

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 Museum 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.

For more information on the Guerrilla Girls, and how you can get involved visit www.guerrillagirls.com.

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, toys.

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 shows. 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; also intelligent.

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 101: The 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 toys?
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.

 


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