If you think sex toys are a modern invention, think again. The world’s oldest known dildo is a 30,000 year old German specimen and is approximately 7.9 inches long (the average erect penis length is about 5.5–6.3 in). In fact, the Ancient Greece have been using olisbokollikes (“dildo breadsticks”) since 400 B.C., and Chinese women from the 1400s used dildos fashioned from lacquered wood. Despite fluctuating social norms on sexuality, let’s face it—human nature never changes. We are all horny beasts programmed to mate, whether it’s in a Paleolithic cave or on top of a squishy Tempur-Pedic mattress. But despite the prevalence and importance of sex, people avoid talking about it like the plague. We joke, repress, or meander around the concept of sexuality, rarely making it a topic of serious conversation.
So I decided to talk sex with one person I knew wouldn’t shy away from the matter-Searah Deysach, founder and owner of Early to Bed, a highly-ranked and reputable sex shop near Uptown.Established in late 2001, Early to Bed (EtB) is a sex-positive store “where women (and people of all genders) [can] shop for quality sex toys in a safe, welcoming space.”
What began as a women-centric sex store has evolved into a multifaceted organization that caters to a broad clientele, offers informational workshops, lectures, and parties, and actively supports organizations that promote women’s health and sexual well-being.
We meet at Tweet for a late lunch, where I easily spot Searah with her colorful pink hair. As we peruse through the enormous menu of delectable café options, I ask her how the saga all began. She says that as a consumer of adult toys in Chicago, she was frustrated by the lack of women-oriented, sex-positive shops that were prevalent in other cities like Madison or Seattle. Realizing this market need but lacking retail experience, Searah took a leap of faith by dropping out of grad school (from the Art Institute) to develop a full business model. “My timing was really lucky because I opened right when people were just talking about sex. And there were no other stores. But within two years of opening my stores, three other stores with very similar philosophies opened in Chicago so the field got crowded very quickly.”
Although EtB’s ongoing success speaks for itself, Searah has faced resistance and criticism since the store’s inception. She says that her insurance doubled after they discovered EtB sold more than just female lingerie and that she lost her credit card line after 10 years because the bank didn’t want to be associated with the industry. In addition to advertising restrictions, companies like Groupon that once courted her company now refuse to do business. In addition to business limitations, Searah also faces consumer issues:
“We had a long history of really bad phone calls with people who can manipulate you into giving them free phone sex before you realized that’s what you’re doing.”
She told me about one man who called her about a masturbation sleeve while actually using it, and another prank caller who repeatedly asked about latex cat suits. “After 10 years of this, we stopped answering blocked phone calls. And our prank calls have gone to almost nothing.”
Why all the negative responses? For one thing, people assume sex toys are only used by abstinent individuals, those without sexual partners, kinky couples, or gay men and lesbians. They assume sex toys fulfill sexual inadequacy rather than complementing or enhancing sexual pleasure. Searah says that one misconception about sex shops is that people worry about being bombarded with pornographic images when they enter the store and that first-time visitors often arrive on-guard and clearly uncomfortable. “But then you start talking to them, and all of a sudden, you get this flow of conversation and everything starts coming out. Because there’s no many negative connotations, people are surprised that it can be so comfortable, easy, and fun.” She also adds that the general “story about sex” doesn’t help her cause either.
“[People think] sex is this thing that happens between a man and a woman. It’s satisfying for both people because he puts his dick in her for 35 seconds, moves it around, and has an orgasm. And then she’s just happy.”
Sarah says that society doesn’t provide an opportunity for women to demand sexual satisfaction, if that means touching themselves, asking their partners to help them achieve orgasm, or using a vibrator.
Searah says that society believes in the myth that a vibrator can replace a man but asserts that “any man that’s nice to you is better than a vibrator! I have women clients who come back because their boyfriends keep throwing away their vibrators because they don’t want them to have one.” As we converse about dicks and dildos, I regret not ordering a hot dog of some sort. Instead, I order a protein platter (eggs, chicken, portabella mushrooms) and Searah gets a veggie BLT with a heaping side of tater tots. My portion alone could’ve sustained an African village for three years, but I’m not one to complain about delicious food.
As we munch and chat away, I realize that Searah’s as much a feminist as she is a saavy businesswoman. She says that most women feel uncomfortable simply acknowledging that they want porn: “They’re scared—they don’t want to turn on some movie and see some woman get the crap slapped out of her and a dick shoved in her mouth.” She says that females have a hard time separating emotion from sexuality, but that women have physical requirements which aren’t being met through normal heterosexual intercourse.
“We have such a two-sided kind of weird culture that we live in. On one hand, women are sex objects—our purpose in life is to be receptacles, and we are not to complain for being harassed on the street. There are boobs everywhere, and that’s supposed to be fine. At the same time, women’s pleasure is not talked about, is not acknowledged, is not valued,” Searah says.
She tells me about a variety of sex products that only cater to male pleasure, such as ass-numbing creams and throat-numbing gels to suppress the gag reflex. There are also shrink creams (a topical substance that dries out and inflames the vaginal tissues so that penetration feels tighter for the male), deodorizing female products filled with irritating chemicals, and douche kits to clean out the grossness that is the vagina. “We’re expected to deal with a lot of pain, anal, throat, penetrative pain. A lot of women do things that they don’t want to do because they have expectations that they’re supposed to do it.”
With a give-no-shit attitude and spunky hair, I can easily see critics branding Searah as a bra-burning lesbian, but I find her blunt feminist perspectives rather refreshing. Because really—why are women bound by such rigid social structures? For instance, women are expected to shave and wax to hairless perfection, wear makeup to hide our endless blemishes, and relinquish our reproductive rights to straight white males. In addition to the lack of representation in politics (Palin doesn’t count), women face wage and career discrepancies, especially in the STEM fields and especially in higher-level positions. In fact, Searah tells me that the sex toy industry is “taking over faster than other industries in terms of being women-friendly.” That’s not to say the sex toy industry isn’t plagued by its own share of issues. “Because there’s no regulation, stores can sell whatever the fuck they want. It’s sex, so no one wants to touch it. There are major concerns such as material issues [e.g. the use of phthalates], and consumers aren’t asking questions because it’s an industry based on and profited off shame.”
Searah says traditional sex toy stores “order across the board so they have something for everyone,” but she selectively curates her products.
“Can you turn it on easily? Does it work the way it’s supposed to? Can I turn it off without reading the instructions? I wouldn’t sell anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable using myself.”
Like Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, EtB procures high-quality products that actually complement the body to enhance sexual pleasure. I ask Searah if her store still caters to a mostly female and queer crowd. Although 60% of her customers are female-identified, she says that her customer base has expanded dramatically, including men who want high-quality toys for their girlfriends, older men with erectile dysfunction, and post-menopausal women. Interestingly, EtB has experienced an enormous growth from trans-men clients, so much so that she created a separate website for gender-expression items. However, her clientele remains largely white (“We sell light-colored dildos from 10:1”), a phenomenon likely due to factors such as cultural differences and the nature of her store. But Searah offers more than just sex toys through her business; she also provides sex and relationship advice.
“Sometimes the problem is not sex; it’s the relationship. We’re in a society where we want to buy something to fix our problems, where we don’t want to talk about anything. People don’t want to talk about anything, and they don’t want to talk about sex.”
It’s obvious that Searah is a true feminist and sexual health advocate, and EtB is only one manifestation of that passion. The way she enthusiastically gushes about her customers and cause makes me sad that people aren’t more respectful towards the industry. For the average person, dildos and strap-on harnesses will still induce boyish giggles or whispers of fierce repentance, and I don’t see that changing soon. Similarly, women will continue shaving their legs and pits, leaving their jobs to be stay-at-home mothers, and receiving lesser wages for the same amount of work. And if I complain, I’ll either be that flower-power-pink-stiletto feminist or a butch lesbian. Despite my general romanticism towards life, the situation’s pretty fucking discouraging. But alas, progress begins with taking small steps and so I’ll continue taking those strides, a burger in one hand and a fantastic silicon vibrator in the other.