Over the past 20 years, people have begun to care more and more about what goes into their bodies. Most think about this in terms of the food they eat, but for customers of Oh My Sensuality Shop in Northampton, the same can be said for sex toys.
“Most companies have become more aware of what they’re selling,” said Beth Meyers, co-owner of Oh My. “I feel like the retailers really pushed this movement through.”
With that in mind, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that here in the Pioneer Valley, a small cottage industry of locally-made sex toys has developed.
Spurred on by the queer community and boutique sex stores like Oh My, some of the taboos and fear that surround sex and sex toys are starting to lift.
More people know how to ask for what they want with more visibility, and Maxine Kroll, owner of Toys of Eros in Provincetown, said that what they want are quality products. Kroll compared modern dildos to drinking glasses.
“It’s not just straight and rounded at the top,” Kroll said. “They’re elegant. You can have a glass that you can drink out of or you can have a glass that’s beautiful.”
Jukebox Glass: a covert local dildo maker
Oh My has only been selling glass dildos by local producer Jukebox Glass for the past few months, but as one of the only Pioneer Valley dildo-makers, Jukebox Glass stands out in the market. A dildo is an artificial phallus used for sexual stimulation. The owner and artist behind Jukebox Glass asked the Advocate not to use her full name because she doesn’t want her other employer to know about her side business, so we are calling her Val. Val explained that she has a background in ceramics, but that she started learning glass flame work a little over a year ago. She learned how to make sex toys from another glass worker and was immediately excited to make more.
“I was really excited about it since it was something that was pleasurable, but also completely safe,” Val said. “(Sex toys) are often mass-produced in China with cheap materials.”
Val uses a technique called flame working to melt a special, durable glass called borosilicate into the shape of her choosing. While many people are more accustomed to a softer material for sex toys, glass dildos have some perks. Val emphasized that the glass is very durable — she said she’s dropped one without breaking it — and that they are particularly well suited for temperature play, where you can provoke arousal through hot or cold stimulation. They are also easy to sanitize because they’re made of a non-porous material. Val started making designs based on feedback from friends.
“One of my favorite parts of how the process can go is talking to people about what they want,” Val said.
Some pieces include ridges and bumps, others are smooth, some are long, others are small, but almost all of them are thinner than the average dildo. Val said that most dildos she could find in stores or online are very thick, but that many of her friends and customers were requesting thinner toys, similar to the width of a finger or two.
“You don’t find toys on the narrow side that often,” Val said. “I think I found a good balance between what’s comfortable for folks who want it thinner, and thick enough.”
All of JukeBox Glass’s toys are clear glass because colored glass is more expensive and Val wants to make her products as accessible as possible for people. Her pieces are available at Oh My or at email@example.com and range from $30 to about $80.
“I also think the clear glass is handsome. It’s sculptural,” Val said.
Agreeable Agony: local kink toys
Agreeable Agony is another sex toy maker based in Northampton. Owners K and J met locally almost nine years ago and asked to remain anonymous because they don’t want their customer base from their other business to know that they also produce sex toys. J learned how to make his own leather floggers and impact toys because the ones available on the market were too expensive. K started making candles to use for temperature play when he couldn’t find any on the market that listed the melting temperature and came with a handle for easy pouring.
Floggers and other impact toys might be a little more kinky than an average dildo, but specialty kink toys have also become more visible and accessible in the last few decades.
“Outside of what we see, I’m sure people have been kinky forever,” said Meyers. “But it doesn’t have the same taboo and shame around it.”
K said that Agreeable Agony saw a huge jump in sales following the Fifty Shades of Grey movie series. He said that the month the first movie came out was one of their most profitable months ever.
“As inaccurate a representation of the lifestyle as it was, people realize that they’re into this by watching the movie,” K said.
K said that while kinkiness has often overlapped with queerness, movies like Fifty Shades of Grey have brought sex toys like floggers to mainstream culture.
“With more awareness comes a lower barrier of entry,” K said. “People can find the part that they find interesting.”
While the Fifty Shades series might have peaked some people’s interest, relationship therapist, sex educator, and Valley Advocate sex columnist Yana Tallon-Hicks emphasized that consent is essential to any sexual encounter. Tallon-Hicks teaches a workshop about sex toys called “Hitting the Spot” that explores how to use sex toys and the importance of consent.
“Part of what makes us so bad at consent is that we don’t have good information,” Tallon-Hicks said. “The more we talk about it, the stigma will lower and we’ll be more able to know what we want to say yes, no, or maybe to.”
Leather Coven: whipped up in Holyoke
Mateo Guadalupe is the owner of Leather Coven, a Holyoke-based leather studio. Guadalupe started making leather harnesses and collars for himself while he was a Hampshire College undergraduate in 2013, and ever since then he’s been selling custom made leather products online.
“I started doing it to have access to harness myself as someone who is fat and also trans and a student,” Guadalupe said. “I’ve been doing it for five years to fill a void in the market for othered, abundant, and otherwise transforming bodies.”
Like Val and K, Guadalupe is largely self-taught. Leather Coven only sells commissions, and Guadalupe says that that is an important part of his business model.
“Especially as a fat person, it’s been really important to me to keep all of my work to order,” Guadalupe said. “Bodies are limitless.”
Guadalupe said that his love of the fashion industry — and his femme identity — influence his designs. He primarily uses thin leather colored black or white and studs to create his signature pieces.
Like K, Guadalupe said that visibility in mainstream culture has brought more people to his online store. Many pop divas have worn leather harnesses in recent years, including Lady Gaga on her 2011 tour and Beyonce for her performance at the 2014 Grammy awards. Guadalupe said that he likes the visibility, but that leather and fetish culture have their roots in the queer community, and that he hopes that queer people don’t get forgotten as leather harnesses become more mainstream.
“I love that it means more people have affirming, body-positive, sexy gear and I hope that the queerness and sex of fetish culture aren’t erased,” Guadalupe said.
Both Agreeable Agony products and Leather Coven products are available at Oh My and on Etsy.
Looking back at early sex toy history: goat eyelids and camel dung
Sex toys have seen important advances in the past 20 years, but the idea of an artificial phallus predates most other inventions you can probably think of. In fact, the earliest known dildos predate the wheel, agriculture, and ceramic pots. In 2005, a 7.8 inch-long and 1 inch-wide stone object was found in the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany. The object is dated to be about 28,000 years old, and while it might have had other uses, archaeologists at the time said that there was little doubt that object was meant to symbolize a phallus.
“It’s highly polished; it’s clearly recognizable,” said Professor Nicholas Conard of the department of early prehistory and quaternary ecology at Tübingen University in Germany in an interview with BBC News at the time.
In Provincetown, which has an even more well-established queer scene than Northampton, Maxine Kroll, owner of Toys of Eros, has also immersed herself in the history of sex toys. She has a few of her own pieces of history as part of a museum display on the history of sex toys, including a penis ring from 1 AD made from the eyelid of a goat and a replica of a dildo made of camel dung that was dated to be 28,000 years old.
Eventually other materials were used to make sex toys. In 2015 a leather sex toy with a wooden head was found by archaeologists in Poland. The toy was described by scientists at the time in the Daily Mail as “quite thick and rather large.”
When Carol Gesell, 70, the retired co-owner of Oh My, first started working at a boutique sexuality store 1997, the sex toy industry was at a key moment in its evolution. Even though it was only about 20 years ago, Gesell said that the quality, safety, and style of many of the toys that were produced left a lot to be desired. The sex toy industry was, and is, completely unregulated in the United States.
“We started suggesting that people use condoms on their sex toys because we didn’t know what was in them,” Gesell said.
Despite the long history, dildo design plateaued for decades in the 20th century. Dildos were often large, straight, and made of materials that are now banned in several countries.
“There used to be a lot of things shaped like penises,” said Beth Meyers, Gesell’s daughter and co-founder of Oh My in Northampton. “They’re just more elegant now and and not as anatomy-based. It used to be that the industry thought that bigger was better.”
Kroll said that even the packages of sex toys in the ‘90s seemed to be made by heterosexual men. Many packages had pornographic images that she didn’t want displayed in her first store in Provincetown, called Wild Hearts, which was explicitly marketed towards lesbians.
“The packaging was super tacky,” Kroll said.
Meyers explained that in addition to a limited number of designs, dildos were commonly made of a jelly-type plastic that contained phthalates, which are potentially dangerous chemicals that make plastic more flexible.
“If you ever get a toy that smells like chemicals, it’s probably this,” Meyers said. “They could almost melt if they touched each other.”
The health risks associated with phthalates aren’t fully understood, but both the European Union and the United States ban the use of phthalates in children’s toys. The National Toxicology Program published in 2016 that at least one phthalate is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” meaning that it may cause cancer.
Moving into the future: figuring out what’s up and coming
A few decades before she opened her store in downtown Northampton, Gesell worked at a sexuality boutique in Brookline called Grand Opening where she was in the thick of what was trending in the industry. Grand Opening was founded by Kim Airs in 1992 and was unique in the Northeast as a boutique, woman-centric sex shop. Airs quickly became an authority on sex, and as an employee, Gesell was also required to be an expert on sex and their products. Gesell said that she would go to sex toy shows and warehouses with other employees to see new products.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve been to a sex toy/pornography warehouse,” Gesell said. “It gets to the point where you think, ‘If I see one more naked butt I’m going to throw up.’”
For Gesell, the sex toy shows were where she found out what was up and coming. She said that she would follow representatives from Good Vibrations, one of the oldest and largest sex toy companies in the country, to see what they were buying and then bring those items back to Boston to try.
“We did get to try a lot of sex toys,” Gesell said.
In Kroll’s opinion, at that time the toys made by lesbians were the best. She said that many lesbian makers in the ‘90s would pour high-quality silicone dildos in their basements because the industry wasn’t making a product that could be used as a strap-on.
“Lesbians were really the ones who used sex toys and you couldn’t go anywhere to buy them,” Kroll said.
With the queer community and women-focused boutiques pushing the industry forward, more diverse silicone products started to dominate the dildo market in the early 2000s.
“At the same time people were becoming more aware of what they were putting in their bodies,” Gesell said.
In 2003, Gesell and Meyers opened Oh My Sensuality Shop in the Maplewood Shops in Northampton. Even their identity as a “sensuality shop” and their current location on Main Street in Northampton is notably different from the hidden world of dirty bookstores that Kroll said used to be the only place to buy sex toys.
“You don’t have to go into some dark place to try and find what works for you,” said Tallon-Hicks.
The boutique industry does have some drawbacks, particularly on the wallet. Tallon-Hicks mentioned that making sex toys a boutique industry can be cost prohibitive for people.
“What I’m usually looking for now is a sweet spot between quality and price,” Meyers said.
‘Stigmas still persist’
Despite all of the progress made in the sex toy industry, many states and communities still allow the stigma surrounding the industry to influence policy. In 1998, Alabama passed the Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act, which criminalizes the sale of sex toys. A similar law, called the Obscene Device Law, was introduced in Texas in 1973 but was deemed unconstitutional and unenforceable by a U.S. District Judge in 2008.
“It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly distribute, possess with intent to distribute, or offer or agree to distribute any obscene material or any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for any thing of pecuniary value,” the Alabama law reads.
First time offenders may be fined up to $10,000 and spend up to one year in prison.
Alabama and Texas aren’t the only places holding on to stigmas. They remain in the Valley, too. In February, East Longmeadow passed a bylaw restricting “adult-use” establishments from operating outside of the city’s industrial center after Adam and Eve, a Greenfield lingerie and adult-novelty store, proposed opening a storefront on Shaker Road in East Longmeadow.
“Obviously they were closed-minded as to the type of store we are,” said Scott McGregor, owner of Adam and Eve in Greenfield. “We’re more sex positive than anything else.”
In a Feb. 27 East Longmeadow Town Council meeting, Planning Board Chairman George Kingston spoke in favor of the restrictive bylaw, stating that adult use businesses are protected by the First Amendment, but also that the town has the right to regulate those businesses. The bylaw was approved unanimously.
McGregor said that it took him more than two years to open the Greenfield store and that they would now be looking for other towns to open a second store.
“We are a mainstream store. We have an extremely knowledgeable staff that really educate the public as to their needs,” McGregor said. “It’s a necessary store, but people perceive us as a dirty little hole in the wall.”
Northampton also has a complicated history with sex toy stores. In 2016, Amazing.net closed after nearly a decade of business on King Street. The store closed due to financial reasons, but there was a heated campaign to prevent the store from opening in the first place in 2007 from a group called NoPornNorthampton. The group’s website reads, “We support the reasonable regulation of sexually oriented businesses in Northampton, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. We ask businesspeople to balance profits with compassion. We do not advocate increasing government censorship of porn.”
Meyers said that Oh My was denied storefronts from private renters a few times, but that when the NoPornNorthampton campaign was happening, she was told by the people involved that they didn’t have a problem with the sign that Oh My uses.
Better toys, better community
Even though public opinion on sex toys and sexuality stores is still complicated today, many business owners in the industry agree that sex stores are still important spaces for community and education. While online stores can be good places to buy a sex toy discreetly, Meyers said that seeing the product in person can be helpful, and that her staff are always knowledgeable about their products.
“People want to touch the thing, to see how loud they are. People want to ask questions,” Meyers said.
When Kroll opened her first sex store for women in 1994 in Provincetown, it was as much about the products as it was about having a community for women, specifically lesbian women, to meet and talk about their sexuality.
“Back in those days it was huge to have a nice, well-lit store to talk about things,” Kroll said. “It was almost like a bar. That was unheard of.”
While sex toys are more mainstream than ever before, stores like Oh My are still important spaces for people to access information and community.
“The things that stick out to you are when you really feel like you’ve made an impact,” Meyers said. “Like getting them lube for the first time at 70. You can really help somebody enjoy sex more.”
Meg Bantle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.