My first vibrator came from Spencer’s Gifts. I was sixteen. It had a generous (and dangerous) 10 inch-long shaft, was dinner-plate hard, and glowed in the dark. I still remember the way the store manager looked not at me but into me when he said, “You’ll want batteries with this” in a way that made me afraid to use it for three months.
Luckily, the sex toy industry has evolved since then. Many now have a velvety texture, go by names like Mimi Soft and Lelo, and employ the latest technological know-how. An Amazon search brings up over 50,000 results for sex toys, and recent findings claim that 50% of American women use them. But while Sex and the City immortalized the Rabbit, not a whole lot of people are talking about how to purchase sex toys that are not only stimulating, but also safe.
Enter Rose Marie Pink. Pink’s electric blue hair is barely a shade lighter than her mathematical turquoise glasses. She is articulate, even eloquent, when she talks about sex toys. Knowledgeable and savvy, Pink is gearing up her company Friction to launch its e-commerce site in the coming months, hopefully with a physical location following. It looks to be Nashville’s first women-friendly, queer-friendly supplier of sex toys. It’s not a revolutionary concept; shops like this have existed in New York and Seattle for two decades, and they’re common in most major and minor cities today. So what’s with Nashville?
According to Pink, who was born and raised here, “Every major city pretty much has this, but no one’s done it in Nashville. I feel like it’s important on some level for counter-programming the Bible belt reputation.” She connects this to the lack of sex education in Metro schools. Abstinence-only programs and sex ed that fails to answer very basic practical questions about safe sex leaves teens and young adults at a huge disadvantage.
“Because they can’t do condom demos in schools, people are abstractly aware of them but often don’t know practically how to use them," she said. "You have people either having unsafe sex or having safe sex that fails. I think we should be having progressive, honest sex ed with kids and adults saying, ‘Look, people have sex because sex is fun and pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean people don’t make mistakes this way and people don’t have regrets. Let’s be realistic about what you need to protect yourself no matter what.’ You can’t really get into schools to spread that message because there’s a legislative body against it. I felt like Friction could help fill in a gap once people are 18.” Opening a dialogue with parents about how to talk about sex with their kids is another goal on Pink’s horizon. She hopes this could go a long way in helping kids to understand consent, which could save them later on. She explained, “Talking to kids at a really young age helps them to understand that if something happens, it’s not their fault.”
Pink has had trouble finding a physical space to rent, which is why she’s starting with e-commerce. “Because a lot of what I think is important about bringing information about toys to people is the ability to let them touch and see how they function, I kind of resisted the e-commerce site.” But, despite Nashville’s conservative tendencies, people have been asking Pink about the store, and e-commerce is a way for her to get started while she hunts for a physical space. She began looking for a space in 2012 with another Nashvillian who wanted to start a gay bookshop. Unfortunately, landlords heard “gay bookshop” and thought “porn shop.” Their prospects were bleak, and her partner soon bowed out.
“I think a lot of people are scared off by the concept of adult toys,” Pink said. “It’s asking someone to take a leap because there’s no example to show them of what I want to do….They have no framework to deal with stores that are women- and couple-based and queer friendly just because they haven’t had to think about that.”
Adult stores can only have anatomically correct toys up to a certain percentage, or they have to be located in adult zones, and these zones are often difficult places to cultivate a warm, welcoming store. Because so much of Pink’s vision revolves around Friction being inclusive, the location matters a great deal. Owners of adult stores usually work within code rules and sell mass market paperbacks, clothes, or bachelorette-type stuff to offset that percentage. These zoning rules exist for different reasons: legitimately, they want adult stores far away from schools and daycare centers. Less legitimately, lawmakers claim a “secondary effects doctrine,” which says that adult stores diminish property value, raise crime, and cause other negative effects. In the past, Nashville community members have been up in arms over the opening of adult stores even within zoned areas.
According to Pink, Nashville’s zoning laws are not too unfriendly because they’re based off of California and New York laws that were made decades ago, but finding a store is still a challenge in a conservative climate. “It was a hard discussion to have when we’d walk into a potential realtor and see a giant poster of Ronald Reagan...and just think, This may not be a productive meeting.” However, Pink says that she’s feeling more hopeful right now because talks with one landlord are going well. Friction will veer away from cheesy boxers and lacey thongs and specialize in some of Pink’s other interests, art and design.
So why go to a specialized store when customers can turn out tens of thousands of vibrators, dildos, and cock rings in seconds online? Well, many of these toys are not made of materials that should be anywhere near our most private parts. Shockingly, Pink says of the industry: “There is no regulation whatsoever. There are rules, for example, about what can be in dog toys. There’s no rule like that for sex toys. There’s nothing. There’s no oversight in this industry. They can essentially put whatever they want on the box, and no one’s checking.” Friction will only sell safe products and continue to educate people about harmful ones. Pink isn’t the only one trying to combat this negligence. An independent startup called Dildology sends toys to labs to test them for toxic material; then, the results are published on their website.
Pink shared a few ground rules with me. First, the only material you should ever insert into your vagina should be made of silicone. Any plastics that contain phthalates (that leech chemicals) or thermoplastics are a big no-no. Avoid toys that are soft and sticky -- these usually use a plastic softener -- and steer clear of toys that have a skin-like feel unless they are dual density silicone. Pink recently bought some cheap toys on Amazon and put them in a jar in her air-conditioned house. Within a month, they were generating moisture on their own and disintegrating. Even these precautions can steer the most conscientious buyers wrong, however, because companies often falsely claim a toy is 100% silicone or phthalate-free. When in doubt, Pink suggests that you trust your senses and follow your nose. A brand new toy is likely to smell a little weird because of the foam it’s been packaged in. Take it out of the foam and wash it. If it still has a smell a day later, the chemicals are probably off-gassing, which is sign of toxic substances. Pink will rely on her strong research base to choose the toys Friction will sell. “I’m not going to carry any of these things if my customers can’t know what’s in them.”
With that said, Pink is also really excited about good companies that are putting out safe products. She recommends Je Joue, Tantus, Happy Valley, Pleasure Works, and Fun Factory. Historically, very few toys have been designed for people who are trans and queer, but this is changing with companies like Wet for Her that makes toys shaped, for example, like two fingers and a thumb, rather than a penis. Products made with issues of inclusion in mind also don’t give their toys racially charged names. E-commerce sites give designers the chance to hear feedback from customers, which can allow them to adapt their toys to fit all types of anatomies and preferences -- but they have to listen.
“I think this is a really exciting time,” Pink said.
As for me, I’m looking forward to having her help me to pick out my second-ever vibrator. I have a feeling it will be quite a pleasure.
Photo credit: Jamez Huff