Like it or not, you can typically expect two things from your average porn shop: products that are tacky and abhorrent, and a sleazy meat market where customers will stare at you or worse. This kind of shopping experience can be traumatic for many people – women, couples and, yes, even men who might feel uneasy in potentially predatory or otherwise uncomfortable situations. Many also avoid this trip altogether because of the sex fiend stigma attached.
My search for a porn/sex toy/erotica shop that would make my partner and I comfortable – both feminists, both a bit sheepish – was difficult to say the least. The selection can be overwhelming in the open-24-hours stores like Castle Superstore and Fantasy Video and other establishments scared us away with dim lighting and meat-market reputations.
But how were we supposed to find a video that was empowering, not degrading, or a toy that fit our needs without spending hours and hours sifting through everything else? As feminists, how would we find someone to make us feel OK for even being in a shop that sells porn?
For many people shopping online for erotica and sex toys fills the gap for people who want to make educated purchases yet remain anonymous. Fortunately there is also a brick and mortar store in the Portland-metro area. It’s My Pleasure in northeast Portland has a word-of -mouth reputation in the Portland area as the best destination for those seeking a sex-positive, queer- and women-friendly erotic resource.
I recently visited the shop (located in an unassuming Victorian-style house off of Northeast 64th Ave. and Sandy Blvd.) and spoke with Kim, a worker who enjoys helping people overcome inhibitions that prevent them from experiencing or enhancing sexual pleasure. The shop itself is completely non-threatening, with resident cats and a sign outside that states “gifts and resources empowering women.” When my partner and I walked in the door and were immediately greeted by a purring cat, how could we possibly feel anything but wholesome? The selection at It’s My Pleasure is wide and varied, but not overwhelming, which takes a lot of the guesswork out of finding what you need.
Whether or not porn, erotica and beyond can be woman-friendly and non-exploitative is still very much a contested issue within feminist communities, both in and out of academia. Some theorists, like the recently deceased controversial feminist icon Andrea Dworkin, argue that pornography can lead to sexual violence against women and that it is a violation of women’s civil rights. Others, such as Susie Bright (aka “Susie Sexpert”), consider themselves sex-positive feminists and they work towards liberating women’s libidos. There is also a lot of in-between, but regardless of one’s view about porn, the need for other erotic supplies may still exist.
Kim said many people still hold the misconception that all porn is detrimental and that women have no control over what they are doing. Female pornographers are flying in the face of this belief by writing and directing their own films.
The feminist porn phenomena began in the ’80s, Kim pointed out, when some in the porn industry realized that porn can be marketed to women in a positive way. Pro-sex feminists in the industry such as Candida Royalle (an ex-porn star turned pornographer) got together and formed a group called Club 90, and the women continued to work within the sex industry in order to change it.
The feminist movement within the sex industry created a new market. Online sex toy shops such as Babes in Toyland and Good Vibrations are very popular within pro-sex feminist and queer communities. But if you’re new to the scene, and don’t know exactly what you want or need, a blind online purchase can be a scary and pricey thing.
It’s My Pleasure has a manageable selection of videos and stocks films made by almost exclusively female directors including Royalle. They vary from pure fantasy to educational.
“Porn can be instructional and erotic, not just sexy,” Kim said, “The communities that buy this stuff have a different take on pornography.”
They also carry book and film titles from Dr. Carol Queen, including the DVD “Bend Over Boyfriend: A Couple’s Guide to Male Anal Pleasure.” In it, she and her male real-life partner, as well as two other couples, instruct by example. “In a lot of ways its really organic – it’s an actual couple, having actual sex, but it’s also instructing you,” Kim said.
It’s My Pleasure carries a wide selection of books and magazines, ranging from off our backs – the radical feminist news journal whose current issue’s cover shows a burning Hustler magazine – to On Our Backs, a lesbian sex magazine co-founded by Susie Bright, which continues to be made by women for women. Also in stock is a wide range of how-to sex books and erotic fiction, whose audience includes from heterosexual, gay, bisexual, lesbian, queer couples and possibly everyone in-between.
There are no “gay” or “straight” sections at It’s My Pleasure because the employees have found that sex toys and resources do not fit neatly into those categories. “You never know who is going to want what,” Kim said. “We’ll get a heterosexual couple buying the most abstract dildo we carry, whereas a lesbian couple may prefer the most realistic one.”
According to Kim, the market is difficult but sustainable in Portland. She said that their profit margin is low, and they are constantly “juggling price, quality and profit.” It’s My Pleasure has very competitive pricing on all of their condoms, “with the cheapest female condoms in town, because we really want to encourage people to use condoms,” Kim said.
Kim enjoys her job, but gets a little uncomfortable when customers assume that she is a super-freaky sex fiend (she was careful to state that it’s OK if you are, though). She took the job in part because it was the only one she could find where she felt she could both “help people on a daily basis and use my brain.”
“Feminist sex work ends up being therapeutic, not invasive. Telling people, it’s OK, you’re fine,” she said. “Some of the most rewarding experiences are when women come in at age 50 or 60 and they’ve never had an orgasm” and they overcome it.
From time to time men will call and ask if they are welcome in the store. The answer? The staff and clientele are overwhelmingly supportive of men coming in both to shop and for the sex-ed classes.
“Our store is for women and people who love women,” Kim said. “We’re starting to carry more things for men because it reflects the demographic that we have,” which includes gay, bisexual and heterosexual men.
The staff teaches sex-ed classes at their store location as well as in the community upon request, where men are also welcome.
“The difference between our in-store classes and Pleasure Parties is that ours do not resemble Tupperware parties. We don’t push our wares,” and they put strive to put education before selling, Kim said. They cap the price of almost all their stock at $100 to keep things affordable but within the confines of quality.
The selection is somewhat limited, but the quality is obvious and they display the items. When it comes to sex toys, it can be important to actually touch what you want to buy ��- you can pick up a vibrator and see how loud it is (in case you live in a dorm room or apartment with paper thin walls).
The small staff of three test the products that are carried in the store. “It’s one of the perks of the job,” Kim said. Sometimes they will also ask frequent customers for feedback on products. The employees also try to read all of the books that they carry to make sure that they fit the store’s ideology of empowering women.
It’s My Pleasure believes in the quality of their wares and offers a 30-day guarantee against defects. They will also accept unopened returns within seven days for exchange or credit, you know, in case you wake up tomorrow with a case of buyer’s remorse and think that the make your own dildo kit wasn’t such a good idea after all.
As for the creep factor? Kim said that rarely do they get any creepy or invasive customers and if an inappropriate customer comes in, the staff is trained to be assertive in getting them to leave.
Whether or not you fall on the pro-sex or anti-porn side of the issue, a visit to It’s My Pleasure is a must, if just for an informative conversation with one the staff. I still believe that many forms of conventional pornography are harmful to both men and women, but what better way to protest them than by buying into the feminist movement within the industry? Whatever your sexual orientation or style, you can learn something new here.
I didn’t buy anything during my visit, but I definitely have a wish list now and my partner and I will definitely feel comfortable going back.
Upcoming Sex Ed Classes at It’s My Pleasure:
Each class starts at 7 p.m. and requires a $10 pre-pay either in person or by phone at 503-280-8080.
Sat. Feb. 11, “Sex Toys 101.”
Sat. Feb. 25 “Anal Sex.”
Sat. March 11, “Strap-on Sex.”