The Art of S-e-x-uality
Inspired by a fruitless search for sensual lubricants, Wanda Hennig discovers a boudoir boutique that sells gear for classy bedroom escapades.
First published Sunday Tribune, South Africa October 24, 2010
Had you told me, two short weeks ago, that I’d be writing a story comparing a sex shop started by women in San Francisco with a boudoir boutique started by women in Umhlanga, South Africa — the story inspired by a dreaded tube of KY jelly, the iceberg lettuce of lubricants — I’d have said, “What have you been smoking”?
But there it is.
To start at the beginning (a little foreplay?), one of my favorite places to take friends who come to visit me in San Francisco (where I’ve lived more on than off for a dozen-plus years) is a se x store called Good Vibrations.
Opened in 1977 by a woman and geared to the sexual health and pleasure of women (these days and for a long time now, it’s been popular with women and men, gay and straight, transsexual and transgender — in fact, anyone who likes sex but not your standard sleazy ‘adults only’ se x store), you can go to Good Vibrations to browse and buy erotica and se x toys and massage oils.
You won’t get boring old KY Jelly, same as you won’t get iceberg lettuce in your San Francisco salad anywhere but at the crummiest Chinese joint. But you will find a spring mix of sexier and slinkier lubes. And there’s a library that never fails to enlighten. Like, where else are you going to find a book of labia portraits?
Lube can change your life. That’s the bottom line.
But I digress.
When recent circumstances called for a slide into the slippery, and the question became where in Durban to go for the above-mentioned spring mix, the adventure began.
First stop, a Clicks where the very young pharmacist, who was male and black, looked like he was having serious regrets over his career choice when led to the section abundant with condoms, douches and over-the-counter remedies for untoward conditions, and asked for alternatives to those little boxed tubes of very medicinal looking KY Jelly that might be good when inserting a rectal thermometer but really, not what women want, and where were the alternatives?
(There were none.)
Second stop, a Musgrave pharmacy where an older pharmacist, who was female and white, looked perplexed and — yes, disdainfully disapproving — when asked the same question. Alternatives to KY? She hadn’t heard that the range has expanded to include sexy bottles with personal lubes that are different from what’s in the regulation old fashioned tube.
(You’re right. There were none.)
Meanwhile, a Durban friend who has visited me several times in San Francisco — and therefore done the Good Vibes tour — had been suggesting I write a story on The Bedroom. “It’s a sex boutique for women,” she said when, heading into a restaurant for lunch in Umhlanga, she pointed to a placard ad inviting people upstairs for a sensual experience.
I knew I’d hit the g-spot when I sat down in The Bedroom with Hilda Tod and heard her say: “Lube can change your life. That’s the bottom line.”
Tod, 40, a dominee’s daughter who studied industrial psychology at the University of Bloemfontein and who is married, is co-owner of The Bedroom. Her partner is Chantal Edouard-Betsy, 35, who studied environmental health in Durban, and who is single.
The pair met about 15 years ago when they worked in IT together. In the wake of a retrenchment, they stayed friends. “We’d meet, drink wine and talk about our love lives, as women do,” says Betsy.
“We were both looking for something creative work-wise,” says Tod, who in 2007 spotted a small story in SA Cosmo titled “Erotica has gone posh.” It talked about the growing popularity in South Africa of upscale sex boutiques for women. It also said there were no options for women in KwaZulu-Natal.
I didn’t know about retail or sex toys.
“I didn’t know about retail or sex toys,” says Tod, who had been given her first (sex toy) not long before, as a hen’s party gift.
“I called Chantal and said ‘Chick, I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to come and do this with me’.”
Tod cooked dinner, they opened a bottle of wine, and talked about going into the erotica business together. “Finally Hilda said, ‘go home and sleep on this and let me know what you decide in the morning’,” says Betsy.
As it turned out, neither of them slept for the next two months — until together, they opened The Bedroom door. That was three years ago.
“Our idea was to have a retail sensual boutique where normal girls like us who like sex can go to spice up their love lives and educate themselves,” says Tod.
They made a conscious decision to open in office space, not with a storefront “Because we wanted a place that would be both accessible and discreet,” says Betsy.
Waking the goddess
“You can go to Exclusive Books and pick up a sex book (Tod points to their small library of sex books) — but it feels like you’re masturbating in public.”
The Bedroom is private and intimate and there’s Tod and Betsy and sales assistant and massage therapist Joanne King, who is married and a mother of four. They host play-shops where speakers address small groups on subjects ranging from extending orgasms, to how to talk to your children about sex, to waking the goddess within. They’re members of the South African Sexual Health Association (SASHA) and have a good working relationship with gynaes, urologists, sexologists, and others in allied fields.
“We don’t believe we’re in the sex business. We believe we’re in the business of relationships and communication,” says Tod.
Don’t send boyfriends in alone to buy gifts.
And edu-retail, which is about educating people through what they’re retailing, which includes sex toys (about 20 percent of their stock and 70 percent of what is purchased) and playful lines of party-wear (think French maid’s outfit and ‘naughty nurse’) and boudoir wear (their own range plus an imported line). And Tod was recently named “emerging entrepreneur” by the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWA).
They allow men in, but by appointment only. Couples are welcome at certain times on Fridays and Saturdays. And they suggest women don’t send boyfriends in alone to buy gifts. “What men think we want and what we actually want are two different things,” says Betsy.
Men, Tod adds, forget that to romance a woman, “You need to play with her biggest erotic organ, which is not between her legs.” She points to her head. “That’s what men need to know about,” she says.
For Tod and Betsy, same as their customers, it’s been three years of learning.
They’ve found that young women love them. And many an older woman, too. They’ve had a client in her 80s ready to reinvigorate her sex life. They referred her octogenarian boyfriend to someone at SASHA.
And they find a range of cultural differences.
“Women like you,” Betsy tells me, “are our typical clientele. Thirty-five and over, white, educated, independent, in relationship and sometimes not, married — or divorced, disposable income. Seventy percent will have a partner of sorts — not always male.”
A challenge, they say, is breaking down cultural barriers. They’ve spoken to groups of Indian women and African women.
It’s a secret thing.
Given that across the board, their clientele tends to be educated and more affluent, “it seems that among Indians, sexuality and sensuality are more celebrated and Moslem men love our shop. In African culture it seems to be more about ‘his pleasure’ and sex is not part of the conversation.
“Typically if a black women comes in, what she buys is for her use alone. It’s a secret thing. A black customer told us recently that if she were to do a little dance with a feather boa while wearing the crotchless panties she was buying, there would immediately be suspicion. Like, who taught you that? Why would you want to do that? Are you possessed by evil ancestors? And female masturbation is taboo.”
Good girls can!
Meanwhile, far too many white women still come from the “Good girls can’t do that,” school, Betsy says. “And like they don’t know how to take off the mommy mask at the bedroom door. It seems there’s a prudish South African guilt thing going on.”
In 1995 Good Vibrations declared May “National Masturbation Month” in the United States and these days there are three Good Vibes stores on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, and there’s a strong online presence. The motto has changed from “If you want it done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself” (which ties in with the Antique Vibrator Museum, a popular tourist attraction) to “Making the world a sexier place”.
Similarly, The Bedroom has the toys, it has the lube — Tod and Betsy have the enthusiasm — and they’ve made Durban a sexier place.
© Story and Pictures Wanda Hennig, 2012