Head of the Class: Promoting and Encouraging Sexual Health

Dan Cameron

It wasn’t that long ago, recalls Mark Foreman, when sex toy consumers preferred not to have a conversation or ask questions when shopping. But this isn’t your father’s sex shop anymore.

“In today’s information age, retail consumers are more empowered and informed,” says the Operations Manager for Baltimore-based Komar Company Inc. “Customers ask questions like never before. They want to have a deeper understanding of design elements, sexual response and an ability to make more informed choices. As a distributor, we recognize that we need to help our customers rise to meet the needs of their customers.”

People are becoming more open in looking for ways to enhance their sexual experiences; educators are often on the front lines. - Debra Peterson

And it’s that need that led to the development of the Sexual Health Expo. The inaugural event will take place in Los Angeles in January and is the first upscale consumer expo dedicated to the promotion of sexual wellness through quality intimacy products and proven sex education. The two-day event will consist of seminars and workshops, an exhibition hall and special events. For distributors and retailers, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn—and share success stories.

“The Internet has been an enormous game changer,” says Foreman. “A person can go online and learn that using a sex toy is a normal and healthy thing to do. Prior to the Internet, there was no such thing as consumer reviews in the industry of sex toys. Today, manufacturers, distributors, store buyers and customers alike can read consumer reviews and use them to make more informed decisions. You can look a sex shop up on Yelp and see photos, read reviews and get a better understanding of what happens inside a store. The adult world is less isolated and fearful when it comes to sexual expression. We are healthier.”

He notes that the biggest change has been the demand for higher quality toys. When customers had less knowledge and asked fewer questions, he says, everyone had fewer options. “A manufacturer might have offered a small collection of designs in a few color selections. Now that customers are more sophisticated, manufacturers have stepped it up. Today we are seeing more thoughtful and innovative designs. Komar’s becoming more selective in our offerings as well, distributing higher quality products in terms of design and materials.”

Redefining Sex Ed

At Fairvilla Megastores and Fairvilla's Sexy Things, Chief Marketing Officer Debra Peterson is finding sex educators and experts are influencing consumers’ choices simply by what they teach and the products they recommend.

“People are becoming more open in looking for ways to enhance their sexual experiences; educators are often on the front lines. And recently, it seems more manufacturers in our industry are utilizing experts for technical advice as they develop products. In addition to the creation of more thoughtful designs that appeal to the consumer, their affiliation to these experts can add a sense of credibility to their offerings.”

Fairvilla offers monthly education sessions at several locations, and Fairvilla University (yes, FU) offers diverse topics by a variety of experts. Peterson says they utilize a certified intimacy coach for the majority of the programming. Stacey Murphy, the education director of Blissful Lotus School of Loving Arts in Orlando, has a diverse class selection that helps Fairvilla keep topics fresh and allows it to meet customer needs.

Most of the classes are an hour-and-a-half long, are in the middle of the week and take place inside the stores. Fairvilla also offers a “Love & Lust Brunch” on Sundays (once a month) at its Sexy Things location on International Drive in Orlando — which Peterson says is very well attended.

“In addition to the referrals we receive from educators outside of our stores, we believe that an educated staff is extremely important. They’re provided with education from manufacturers and various support materials for the items we carry. The more informed the staff is, the more comfortable they are speaking to our customers regarding what we sell. This easily equates to enhanced customer service.”

Peterson says the Oral Arts class for women is one that sells out every time, while BDSM 101 has also grown in popularity along with Back Door Love. “Our presenter delivers information in such a way that’s fun and informative. These are topics that pique a lot of interest, and people are looking for ways they can explore these concepts from a source they trust.”

Allison Johnston, marketing manager for HH Entertainment, Inc./Hustler Hollywood, says they recently began to do these types of events in the stores again — like a workshop with Dr. Emily Morse called “How to Blow (His Mind)”. The event wasn’t just about blowjobs — it included sex tips and tricks for everyone.

“There were over 100 people in attendance, and they were totally engaged the whole time. I think it was popular because people love Emily! They listen to her podcast, hear her on ‘Loveline’ or read her book, and with these workshops they get the chance to meet her in person and interact with her. She’s also extremely relatable, which helps people really digest all the information,” Johnston says. “There is so much to learn out there now and so many different trends that people want to hear about. But a lot of people really want just good old ‘Sex Ed 101’ type of information. I think being in the industry, we forget that since we’ve seen and been educated on just about everything.”

At Komar, renowned sex educator Ducky DooLittle was brought on earlier this year as marketing and development director. She will support customers through staff training, free online classes and in-store events like grand openings, ladies nights and workshops.

“Not only has Ducky been in the industry for years as a sex educator, she’s excelled at retailing, buying, manufacturing and design…to have a resident sex educator like her on board simply means we can better support our customers,” Foreman says.

The distributor aims to help its customers build a stronger business, and one of the ways it accomplishes that is by providing product knowledge in fun and engaging ways. Its online classes are free to customers and presented specifically for retail workers to expand their ability to engage comfortably with their customers. Foreman says they also do in-person staff training sessions and public events that combine sex education with a shopping experience.

“Ducky does sex classes in a classroom-type setting, or she’ll set up a table and do mini-classes where everyone gathers around and tunes in for a few minutes. Then she does shopping breaks and raffles in between classes to keep the event flowing. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach. She looks at the individual store, what their needs are and she makes it happen,” Foreman says.

“Classes are most popular with women. Oral-sex based classes draw the most people. Ducky says they are ‘gateway’ classes. It’s easy for a woman to tell her partner she is going to a class to learn how to please. But inevitably, the post-class questions are about female orgasms and sex toys.”

Of Comfort And Curiosity

Hustler’s Johnston notes that from buyers to marketing to sales associates, they all make sure they are knowledgeable about what they are selling — and more importantly, make sure what they are selling is safe and performs the way it is supposed to. Sales associates are so well-informed, they are used for events as experts on products. In September, almost all of their stores did a “Passport to Hustler” event where people could come and learn about everything they had to offer—with “stations” including toys, BDSM and sensual care.

“Sexual health awareness has become so important and widespread in very recent years. I think it’s a combination of society naturally evolving and pop culture making it more accessible. Younger generations are more curious… well, openly curious. It’s hard to pinpoint, but in my opinion, it truly does have a lot to do with pop culture and celebrities. They are talking about it, doing it, showing it and people are becoming desensitized to that ‘taboo’ nature of being sexually aware. There’s almost a ‘cool’ factor to being the smartest person in the room when it comes to sex,” Johnston says.

“Also, stores these days like ours aren’t like most sex shops were in the past. Our stores are bright, colorful and really well-designed. People feel comfortable coming in, looking around and asking questions. There’s zero judgment, and I think people can sense that when they walk in the door.”

Cheryl Sloane, owner of g Boutique in Chicago, says that their entire business model is based on creating an educated and informed community—and all of her associates are trained as educators. They do several workshops: How to Give a Great Blowjob (BJU), Burlesque Dancing, Tease & Please, Men's Night, Hitting the Spot, Sex for the Long Haul, Champagne Date Night and All Tied Up.

“Our BJU class is by far the most popular. We do a lot of private parties, and it's a great forum for ladies to get together and talk about sex while having some fun. I think that essentially people want to please their partners and be pleased by their partner. Sometimes, ego and poor communication skills get in the way. We try to lighten things up a bit,” Sloane says.

“I think more people are exploring their own desires. I also think people are on the verge of realizing that sex is fun and all of the toys and accessories are meant to enhance the fun, not replace it. Hopefully, with the growing population of sex educators in our communities, we can create more open conversations and we will see more relationships that are based on positive communication.”

At Good Vibrations, sex education has been essential to its mission since opening its doors 37 years ago. Coyote Amrich, product & purchasing manager, notes that they work with many different sex educators but also have a staff sexologist who educates all of their SESAs (Sex Educator Sales Associates).

“We are very hands-on when it comes to customer service and the in-store experience. Classes and events can support sales, but it’s not always a given that just because somebody does a reading, everybody in attendance will buy that book,” she says, adding they offer a lot of popular classes—from specific how-to classes to more community/lifestyle-based workshops.

“Having such a long history in this industry, we can definitely say it’s been a long journey to get to this point. While for some the concept of sexual health may be new, for us it is part of our foundation and has guided us for the past 37 years. The Internet, social media, television — these outlets have all increased awareness to communities that didn’t previously have access to quality resources. Now you can find so much information on the Internet, follow a store you’ve never been to or ‘friend’ a sex educator you admire. It brings ideas and people closer together.”

Romantix has also worked very hard to make sure every person on staff is educated in the products it carries, says Christina Shannon, director of marketing. “Our staff is able to keep up with new trends through monthly training put on by the industry’s leading professionals. This ensures that our customers receive information that will lead to a smart purchase that will enhance their sexual pleasure. All the vendors we partner with recognize that education is one of our top objectives and help in achieving our goals.”

Shannon says events like SHE promote sexual health in a positive way that they want to support.

“We are excited that people are starting to open up and talk about sex and all its wonderful benefits. We have noticed that in the past couple years, sex has become an open conversation and people are a lot more willing to try new things. There is also no question that the book and soon-to-be movie ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has increased the popularity of fetish items in our store. We now carry a lot of product for couples interested in beginner bondage. Our purchasing team has seen also seen an increase interest in luxury silicone vibes, which have become more affordable the past few years.”

Johnston and others agree that BDSM is definitely still trending — particularly in ropes and submissive items. “The lingering curiosity from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is still driving sales on everything BDSM related, from books to DVDs to items needed to participate. Couples toys are increasingly popular in all areas. Obviously, pretty much all toys can be used with couples, but with We-Vibe and other big brands making and marketing products specifically for couples, it all seems a bit more accessible for those new to incorporating toys into their sex lives.”

Fairvilla’s Peterson notes that in addition to an increase in the popularity of light fetish/bondage fantasy (both in attire and accessories), she’s also seeing an escalation in the acceptance and purchase of men’s products — manufacturers are creating more innovative and quality enhancements for men, and the market is responding favorably.

“Nearly every time you turn on a TV today, you see commercials for products that treat ED. Likewise, sexual health and wellness is discussed constantly in women’s magazines and on blogs. Information has become readily available to consumers, and has subsequently made them much more likely to try new products and explore solutions for their sexual needs and desires,” she says. “While customers might still be a little shy when they walk through our doors, they are quickly at ease once they recognize that our store represents a thoughtful product selection and offers a highly trained staff that knows how to relate to them.”