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Babeland Offers Workshops

Serena West
If universities awarded Ph.D. degrees in the care and feeding of erogenous zones, you'd have to refer to every staffer at Babeland as Doc.

With stores in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles, plus a lively presence on the web, Babeland is a female-friendly venue for sex toys, lubricants, specialty condoms and how-to books. The company's New York locations recently won the 2006 Zagat's Survey award as "the best shopping experience in New York."

But Babeland's catering to the sexual needs of the cities it graces goes well beyond the dildos, vibrators, butt plugs, cock rings and lotions on display. Its staffers receive many hours of training in human sexuality and the functions of the products they sell, allowing them to help customers with candor and real knowledge.

And each store offers a range of workshops on sex practices taught by in-house and guest educators. Babeland has hosted such luminaries as Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright. This spring, Ducky Doolittle, a former Babelander and current guru on matters erotic for women in their 20s and 30s, will be teaching and signing her latest book across the chain.

Known collectively as Babeland University, the stores' classes are coordinated by an educator in each city who lines up instructors, handling some of the teaching herself. The educator also oversees off-site workshops at bachelorette and in-home parties, comes up with ideas for new classes, gathers resource material and arranges for guest speakers. "We try to get the best of the best nationwide to come into the store," Kristina Garcia, education coordinator and manager of the Los Angeles Babeland, told XBIZ.

While some Babeland educators come from hands-on backgrounds in physiology or sexual health. Garcia, for example, is a licensed massage practitioner who also has worked in a gynecology clinic — most came to an interest in sexuality through feminist activism on their college campuses, as did Babeland's founders, Rachel Venning and Claire Cavanah, who opened the Seattle store in 1993, the website in 1996, the two New York stores in 1998 and 2003 and the Los Angeles site in 2005.

Women's studies departments and campus feminist centers are logical spawning grounds for sex activists, Cavanah said: "We're all interested in changing the culture around sexuality."

Audrey McManus, education coordinator at the Seattle Babeland, said she bought into "the feminist idea of taking pleasure into your own hands" while a student at art school. She began working with sex toys and leading workshops as a natural progression from taking friends into sex shops and helping them discover what would enhance their sexual enjoyment. "I was always more into it than anyone else," McManus told XBIZ.

Similarly, Carolyn Riccardi, education coordinator for the New York stores, became involved in activism and performance art about sexuality during her college years. "I'm more of a self-educated, independent kind of gal," she said, adding that Babelanders bring a "cross-pollination" of retail, academic, performance and health-care backgrounds to the stores and also "reflect the diversity of New York."

Passion for Pleasure
Whatever their histories, Babeland educators come to their work ready to inspire people to reach new heights and plumb new depths of sexual pleasure. "All Babelanders share a very passionate desire to educate our communities about safer sex and exciting sex," said Garcia, who has worked for Babeland for five years and transferred to the new Los Angeles venue from the Seattle store.

Alicia Guinn, a Babeland sex educator in Seattle, echoed Garcia's sentiments. "I love the education component of our mission, and I aim for a world in which every woman and girl knows the location of her clit and how it works," she said on the chain's website. Co-founder Venning told XBIZ that a few Babeland educators have gone on to earn graduate degrees in sexuality or public health.

Each coordinator matter-of-factly reels off the workshops she has taught: Fellatio 101, Anal Sex 101, Sex Toys 101, G-Spot 101 and How to Please Your Partner. "We try to keep them at the 101 level to reach the most people," Garcia said. She also distributes tip sheets on specific sex practices and health topics such as prostate and safer sex, handy guides that customers can take home.

Workshops, whose students are of diverse gender, sexual orientation and age, are held classroom-style, with chairs and clipboards. "There's no nudity, but we do make them as fun and interactive as possible," Garcia said.

Off-site parties, which can be customized to the specific needs of the group and have a looser vibe, give educators a chance to reach people even more directly. "They are ways to talk intimately and really get people to open up about sexuality," Riccardi said.

Babeland's co-founders changed the name of the stores from Toys in Babeland last year because, Venning explained on the website, the chain "had become much more than just a place to buy sex toys, so we decided to present Babeland as a destination, a lifestyle, a state of mind — all celebrating the simple truth that sexually healthy people make the world a happier place."

The educational component, clearly, is part of that mission. "Our workshop program isn't accredited by any greater authority than ourselves," Cavanah told XBIZ, "but our expertise comes from hours and hours and hours of talking to customers and finding out what their needs and questions are."

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