By Sara Rodenhizer, owner & co-founder of Other Nature: alternativer Sexladen, Berlin
Coming from a family of small business owners – my Italian grandparents started a boiler-making company shortly after arriving in Canada, and my mom founded a language school when I was 16 – running a small business feels to me less like a career choice than an unassailable compulsion. It’s not good or bad. It just is. But in a global pandemic, it is something else entirely.
For all the monotony and lack of novelty that many people are struggling with right now, the constant readiness for significant and spontaneous change that’s been a regular part of our working lives at Other Nature (as with many other small businesses) since March of last year has been extremely destabilizing.
We’ve closed and re-opened the store multiple times, created, implemented and revised safety protocols, shifted around the shop’s interior to accommodate changes in how many people can be in it and how far everyone needs to be from each other, constantly revised our team’s schedules and restructured our responsibilities, found creative virtual ways of doing our regular community-driven work, and tried our best to communicate all these evolving changes to our customers. And while small business owners are in general masterful contingency planners, this has been Next Level.
Challenging as all this is, Other Nature is still one of the luckier small businesses. The first time the store had to close, we already had an online shop (albeit one that didn’t have all our products in it yet!), we can do lots of our customer consultations online or by phone, and we sell things that people can still use during shutdown. My mom’s language school never properly recovered from the SARS pandemic in 2003, but I’m hoping Other Nature will fare better through Covid-19. Still, we need continued support.
Not a level playing field
The mainstream media likes to report on how sex toy sales are skyrocketing during this pandemic, but let’s be clear: it’s not the small, queer, sex-positive, education-oriented shops that are getting rich. It’s the online sex shop mega-platforms – which in fact have always made the existence of small, alternative shops like Other Nature difficult, particularly in recent years – because large-scale online sales, and making big profits, is their core business model.
Until the pandemic hit, our shop was different enough from these online platforms so as not to cause us too much anxiety: our core appeal (and mission) was what we offered in person, both to our local communities and to Berlin’s many visitors. But since in-person shopping became extremely restricted (or, for many months, impossible), we’ve been forced to compete more directly with these online mega-stores, on a playing field that they powerfully dominate. So our stress has been real.
Whereas purely profit-oriented sex toy sellers will seize on people’s insecurities or exploit a political moment to make money, at Other Nature we’ve always worked hard to address our communities’ needs and then ask how we can actually help make things better.
Over the past year, we’ve received such incredible support and words of encouragement and appreciation from our customers, proving that there are people out there who recognize how important it is to support small businesses – especially now, as Covid-19 keeps small businesses around the world on a knife-edge.
But for those who may still be inclined to order that vibrator from Amazon (eek! Read this and this AND this before you do!) – I wanted to share my thoughts about what a small sex-positive sex shop offers that a big online platform doesn’t, in the hope that if you’re shopping online and maybe deciding who to support based just on the price of a toy, or how fast it can get to you (though we do the best we can on both counts!), you’ll have more insight into what that choice actually means for the future of spaces like ours, and why that matters.
A space for talking (about things you might not be able to talk about anywhere else)
Giving you good and reliable advice about our products is, of course, central to our shop’s ethos. But we also prioritise non-judgemental sex education, support and community work that has little to do with selling stuff.
Our shop is not just a place where you can come and buy things. It’s also a place where you can come and talk, whether to ask for advice or to just talk to us about things that might not be so easy to talk about in other spaces. Our work in the shop constantly shows us the immense possibilities for change that come from having normalizing conversations about sex and sexuality.
We might help someone figure out why they’re experiencing a burning sensation during sex, explain that butt play doesn’t have to include penetration, or go through safer sex options with someone re-entering the dating world later in life. And often these types of conversations are jumping off points to talk about broader issues surrounding desires, sexualities, relationships and bodies.
Sometimes there’s also less of a psychological (or financial) barrier to coming into our shop for a chat than there is in getting an appointment at a counselling service or paying for a sex therapist. (Though we by no means want to imply that we are a replacement for either of those things!)
In “normal” times, we also have a cosy bookroom, and this too is designed to help people feel comfortable – there are two big armchairs to sit in while you browse books, and even a pot of tea.
After years of doing sex education in sex shops, it still amazes me how often our customers tell us what a difference their visit has made in their lives, or how just having a place like Other Nature to go to is so special for them.
For now, your support will help us to continue to offer advice and discussion in different ways – for example, through our new sex and relationships column, or through our online Community Talks in which we connect with community organizers, sex workers and other sex educators to chat about their amazing work. We’re also offering workshops online – check out the schedule on our website.
We research sex toys, so you don’t have to
If you’ve ever bought a sex toy (particularly in the last 15 or so years, as the sex toy industry has exploded), you know how overwhelming the vast selection of products can be, and you’ve probably also heard about the potential health hazards of some toy materials.
Part of what we do is to help customers navigate the murky waters of a very problematic industry. In other words, we do tons and tons of research so that you don’t have to!
There is, happily, growing consumer demand for non-toxic sex toys – for example, toys made from silicone (the main raw material used in the production of silicone is silica, which is basically sand) – but now we’re also seeing supposedly “100% silicone” toys sold at mysteriously low prices. There’s no industry regulation here, just a lot of questions: has the silicone, for example, been combined with low-quality fillers to enable such a low price point? How much are the manufacturer’s workers being paid, and what conditions are they working under? How trustworthy is the company and how accurate is their info?
We do our research and are always happy to talk with our customers about the companies we choose to work with. We also take great care to work as much as possible with companies that share similar values, including lots of small queer-/women-/and trans-owned manufacturers.
“Not Your Average Sex Shop. Bring Your Mum.”
Those who know us will recognise our tag-line, which we hope brings out the guiding principle behind our shop: everyone is welcome.
My own mom, who was educated by Catholic nuns, has been to my sex shop many times despite the fact that we’ve never had a single conversation about sex. Still, she and my dad planted the flowers outside the shop’s front door, and they both listened as I gave them the shop tour, including the all-important dildo wall display, which I’m pretty sure elicited a barely audible “that’s nice, dear” from my mom. And then one day a few years ago, after reading an article by their local newspaper’s openly lesbian (and also Catholic) columnist, my mom asked me what “cis” means. And that’s what I’m talking about.
“Bring your mum” is about having, and often opening, conversations that matter – whether it be with your mum, another parent, your friends, your partners, your community or even just with yourself. Feminist sex shops have grown into a movement precisely because we create a space for these types of conversations to happen, and encourage people to continue talking out and about in the world.
All this to say that it’s in all of our interests to keep feminist sex shops alive and thriving through this pandemic and on the other side of it. (And while you’re at it, don’t forget about your neighbourhood cafes and other local businesses! If you want to support Berlin-based businesses from the comfort of your sofa, it’s still possible to buy vouchers through the Helfen.Berlin website.)
Below is a list of ways you can support us, followed by a list of some other sex shops around the world that work their booties off to deliver incredible sex positive services, resources and educational community programming. Please support them, too! We all need you – and I hope it’s clear by now that you need us, too.
HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT US AT OTHER NATURE:
- If you’re going to buy sex stuff, please buy it from us instead of from solely profit-oriented platforms
- Like our Instagram posts & share our Facebook posts
- Register for one of our workshops!
- Watch our Community Talks on Insta-Live or IGTV
- Read our sex & relationships advice column Feelings Involved, and/or write us a letter
- Sign up to our newsletter (we send out 6 emails per year)
- Get a gift voucher for someone special!
OTHER AWESOME INDIE SEX SHOPS TO SUPPORT
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather some of my personal favourites or places that I’ve heard great things about (so I can’t personally vouch for the latter but hope to be able to visit them when this pandemic is over!):
Sally’s Toy, Hong Kong (physical stores & online)
Fuck Yeah Sexshop, Hamburg (physical store & online)
Los Placeres de Lola, Madrid (physical store & online)
Lytta, Marseille (physical store & online)
Mail & Female, Amsterdam (physical store & online)
Other Nature, Berlin – that’s us, in case you forgot! (physical store & online)
Playstixx, Berlin, (physical store & online)
Self&more, United Kingdom (online-only)
Sexclusivitäten, Berlin (online + Friday salon)
Sex Siopia, Ireland (online-only)
Untamed Love, Switzerland (online-only)
Awakening Boutique, Denver (physical store & online)
Come as You Are, Toronto (currently online-only)
Dynamo, New Orleans (physical shop & online)
Early to Bed, Chicago (physical store & online)
Enby, Portland OR (online only)
Feelmore, Oakland & Berkeley (physical stores & online)
FtM Essentials, Chicago (online-only)
Good For Her, Toronto (physical store & online)
Hart’s Desires, Washington D.C. (physical store & online)
Intersection Adult Emporium, Namaimo (physical store only)
Jellywink Boutique, Tucson, AZ (physical store & online)
Nox, Montreal (online-only)
Oh My! Sensuality Shop, Northampton (physical store only)
Organic Loven, Florida (online-only)
Passional Boutique & Sexploratorium, Philadelphia (physical store & online)
Pleasure Chest, LA/NYC/Chicago (physical stores & online)
SheBop, Portland, OR (physical store & online)
SheVibe, Newburgh, NY (online-only)
Smitten Kitten, Minneapolis (physical store & online)
Spectrum Boutique, Detroit (online-only)
Sugar, Baltimore (physical store & online)
Tool Shed Toys, Milwaukee (physical store & online)
The Travelling Tickle Trunk, Edmonton (physical store & online)
Venus Envy Halifax (physical store & online)
Venus Envy Ottawa (physical store & online)
Wink Wink, Bellingham, WA (physical store & online)
Womyns’Ware, Vancouver (physical store & online)
Dvice, New Zealand (online-only)
Max Black, Australia (physical store & online)
Das Bar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (physical store inside the bar)
Japi Jane, Santiago, Chile (online-only)