Sex, the Self Serve way
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, May 3, 2007
We were searching for our KI, which, if LuAnn our instructor was correct, was nestled in the midpoint of the lower balls of our feet. We stood, knees bent slightly, pelvis tipped forward, eyes closed and, most importantly, feet hip-width apart, legs anchored to the wood floor.
“Every time you exhale, roots extend out of your KI and into the ground,” LuAnn encouraged. “Breathe. Feel your roots grow.”
“Now take a deep breath, and yell …”
The collective voice was stronger now, arresting. I peeked quickly to see if anyone else looked startled, or if I was the only one still embarrassed to command our would-be attacker to “Stop!” with such gusto. I was apparently alone.
On the third try I got it. And I shouted with such enthusiasm, I felt certain no mugger/stalker/rapist would dare creep up on me in a dark alley.
We opened our eyes and shot each other congratulatory glances. But now it was time for the real lesson: figuring out how to kick the crap out of someone twice as big as you when he has his hands wrapped around your throat.
It almost made flogging seem easy.
Four weeks prior, I stood in this classroom with a considerably larger sense of trepidation. Instead of learning how to protect myself, I was being taught how to inflict pain on others—in a purely pleasurable, nonjudgmental way, of course.
The philosophy behind flogging, according to our black leather-clad leader of the class who went by the name Goddess throughout the evening, is that “flogging is tearing someone down as low as they can go so they can build themselves back up. When you’re in control all the time, when that control is taken away, it’s so nice, it’s an escape. We’re physical counselors.”
I had never completely understood the desire to hit someone or be hit for pleasure, be it with a whip, shoehorn, cane, paddle or, in this case, a flogger. But I’ve also never considered myself judgmental when it comes to the way people choose to express their sexuality, as long as all parties involved are educated and willing. Yet, sitting among a group of potential floggers—some just curious, others entrenched in a 24-7 lifestyle—I felt the boundaries of my apparently much narrower mind being stretched.
Goddess, a former professional dominatrix, also known as a “pro dom,” outlined the elements of flogging. Safety received the bulk of attention since hitting someone too hard on their kidneys, neck or sciatic nerve, among other points on the body, can lead to a trip to the hospital or, in some cases, death. It’s with that in mind that she instructed us to find a partner and practice—clothes on, light strokes.
I watched as those around me paired off with their respective dates. Then I saw him: the only other single person here. I was hoping to pair with another woman, but he was already introducing himself, and he looked nice enough. I explained my terms: I was happy to “flog” (I stumbled on the word), but I just wasn’t comfortable being in a “s-sub role” (again with the stammering), a term referring to the person receiving the flogging. He was OK with the arrangement.
Goddess handed me a long, purple suede flogger and I got into position. He put his hands on the back of a chair and lowered his head.
“Now gently try a figure-eight,” ordered Goddess.
Here we go …
The space where I learned to both flog others (“Intro to Flogging”) and protect myself (“Women’s Self Defense”) is no orthodox classroom. It’s also no orthodox sex shop—although that’s the term that most easily describes it. Instead, Self Serve, a new addition to Albuquerque’s East Nob Hill corridor, embodies the symbiotic relationship between two seemingly paradoxical worlds. It is what it claims to be, printed in smaller font next to its neon sign: your sexuality resource center.
Matie Fricker and Molly Adler, exuberant women who followed unlikely paths to their hard-won entrepreneurship, opened the store in January after years of planning and struggling for funding. Their philosophy is evident not only through the merchandise they sell and the classes they offer but also through the way they talk to customers. It incorporates a holistic attitude toward sexuality, where education is the web that binds it all together.
“It’s not just about sex, sex, sex,” says Matie, sitting next to me last Wednesday on the store’s centerpiece, a white vinyl couch virtually radiating silver glitter. “It’s much more interconnected.”
Molly comes out from the back end of the store where she’s been milling over paperwork and beginning-of-the-day operations. “All these parts of our lives are tied to our sexual beings; they’re all related. To pretend they’re not is lying … and stupid,” she says. “We get to connect these dots.”
The dots Molly is referring to are the subjects of a pile of books that have just been delivered by a stylist at the salon next door, who received the package while Molly and Matie were away. The titles are broader in range than what you’d usually expect from a sex shop: The Survivor's Guide to Sex, for people suffering from past sexual abuse; Deal With It!, a light-hearted, hot-pink reference on sexuality aimed at teenage girls; The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians; Maybe Baby, a discussion of the desires and conflicts that go into deciding whether or not you want to have a child; The Honeymoon is Over, a book on divorce; Baby Remember My Name, an anthology of queer erotica by women; and, laying on top of the pile like a pink candy bar, “You Owe Me” coupons for new mothers.
The stack of books points to the reason Matie and Molly opened the store. They wanted to provide a forum for people to embrace and learn about their sexuality, and their humanity, in a culture that mystifies and stigmatizes sex, where the resources for discovering pleasure and safety are limited.
“There isn’t anywhere to go,” says Matie. “In a world where you can get designer coffee or choose from 50,000 options in paint color, there’s nowhere to talk about the details of sex.”
The lack of discussion is symbolized by states like Texas, Georgia and Alabama, which upheld laws this last year that ban the commercial distribution of sex toys and obscene material. “There are stores that sell sex toys in these places,” says Matie, “but they rely on selling them as novelty items.” The line is drawn, she adds, when employees tell customers how to actually use what they’re buying, including instructions on safety. It’s a line Matie finds unconscionable.
“I really don’t think there’s a major difference between a woman who fetishizes shoes or handbags or a guy or woman who wants a motorcycle between their legs and the freedom that that gives them versus a vibrator or a book of erotica,” she says. “And I know that the definition of obscenity is complicated, but when you start putting rules on what adults can do in the privacy of their own homes, that doesn’t sound like the kind of state I want to live in.”
Matie and Molly fight against that censorship of sex and, just a short time into its presence in the Nob Hill area, Self Serve is already starting to exemplify their goals. On a Wednesday afternoon, the shop is bustling as people wander in and explore the shelves of products—less than 25 percent of which are considered “adult.” Some eye the displays of imported chocolates, while others peruse the locally made lip balms and salves. “New Mommy” paraphernalia is also visited while many go straight for the good stuff: vibrators (including “the cone,” an innovative sex toy designed to rest against the vulva and mimic a woman’s natural pattern of orgasm through pulsations), harnesses, lubes and condoms. The condoms are worth noting, because Self Serve only offers Japanese condoms, which are made from higher-quality latex than most American condoms and offer increased safety with a thinner material. Molly and Matie have also decided to give all safe-sex items a low markup to make them affordable—“It’s not a question of gravy on the mashed potatoes,” chimes Matie. “It saves lives.”
Watching customers move in and out of the store, I’m filled with the sense of community. In the corner by the window, a young woman is sitting and reading the aforementioned book on queer erotica. She stays for more than an hour, at one point setting down the collection, reaching for a locally made erotic coloring book titled “Magical Men” and shading in one of the pages. Another woman sits by a round coffee table—overcome by books and literature on fetishes, sex education, empowerment and safe sex—and surfs the Internet on a laptop. A man parks his bicycle outside and comes in, asking Matie for advice on cock rings. In another corner of the store, Molly shows two women how to use a harness. “When you’re wearing a harness, it should be super tight, like a second skin,” she instructs while choosing a translucent, purple-hued dildo to demonstrate with. “Now, some people like the ones with padding, because otherwise hair can get caught …”
It’s a scene perhaps worthy of a few blushes, but it’s all evidence of what Molly refers to as the “stories that walk through the door”—like the woman in her 70s who’d never had an orgasm until she was shown how to use a vibrator, or the countless customers who’ve come in and expressed how relieved they are that there’s a place where they can talk about sex comfortably.
It’s what Matie and Molly envisioned more than two-and-a-half years ago when the idea for the store first came to them. At the time they were both managers in a similarly minded sex shop in Boston called Grand Opening. When the atmosphere at the business started to shift in a direction they felt uncomfortable with, they became frustrated.
“One night we said, ‘We could do it better,’” recalls Matie. “A hush came across the room. There may have been a bottle of wine involved,” she turns to Molly and laughs.
With Matie coming from a scholarly path headed toward social justice law and Molly from a background in union organizing and public health, the two never expected their “temporary” jobs at Grand Opening to lead them to establish a sex shop in Albuquerque. But they loved the work so much—which included teaching classes on sex education and safe sex, a couple times even to Harvard Medical School—that when they left the store, they couldn’t imagine leaving the practice. But deciding they were going to start their own business was the first step in a long process, filled with loan denials, refusals to lease them space and, finally, a momentous renovation.
“The floor is all new,” says Molly, scrolling through photos of the remodeling on her laptop. “We took down a wall, starting with a hammer from the dollar store. Then we broke the hammer.”
The work the two put into the place, with the help of countless volunteers from the community, is evident in the catalogue of photos, which show the before stages of a run-down head shop covered in sloppy spray paint and broken bong glass. The expressions captured on Molly and Matie’s faces—plastered in drywall dust—are of happy exhaustion.
“Look at how tired we are,” Molly says.
“No, look at how happy we are,” Matie interjects. “We finally had our space.”
After five months of looking for rent signs and receiving half a dozen rejections from leasers not interested in their “type” of business, Molly and Matie finally found their home. Looking around the store today, it’s nearly impossible to tell it was once anything but what it is: a home not just for the shop’s two proprietresses but in many ways for the community as well.
“Remodeling this place ourselves was a great way to get in touch with our skills,” says Molly, eyes wandering to where the old wall used to be. “It’s the same philosophy we use to tell people about getting in touch with themselves.”
Back under the instruction of LuAnn, I was getting in touch with something—mainly a blocking pad LuAnn was holding up to help us perfect our punches.
I had survived my night of flogging—I was told I had a nice way with the flogger by a woman I practiced on later in the evening—but it didn’t make me feel empowered in the way it did for others. Rather, even in the dominant role, I felt vulnerable, out of place. But that’s just me; it’s something I learned about myself.
LuAnn had worked her way over to me and leveled the blue pad at waist height. I drew my fist down in an arc and … not much. The hit hardly made a sound.
“Put your hip into it,” LuAnn directed.
I raised my fist again, paused to get a really good look at that pad, and swung my arm, this time using my hip to guide the flow of my movement.
The pad flew out of LuAnn’s hand and skid across the floor. “You ripped his arm off!” chuckled one of the other women.
It was a distinct sensation, wholly separate from the feeling of holding a flogger in my hand. I felt liberated, self-reliant, maybe even a little empowered. And, by the end of the lesson, I learned something else about myself: When necessary, I can really kick some ass.
Molly and Matie would be proud.