The New Sex Educators

When you think of sex-ed, do you think of science class or gym teachers? Perhaps you don't. But even if you did, it's not how most people view sex education these days. Today, more students are ditching the classrooms and seeking out nontraditional educators, many of whom come out of, or live in, the retail sex world. These adult students are looking to the pros to teach them how to have better sex. From certified (and non-certified) sex educators to retail sex shops, consumers are learning firsthand that knowledge is pleasure. Moreover, they're signing up en masse for a different type of classroom experience, one that comes without chalkboards and desks but still stresses homework and extra credit.


To meet the demand, a new sex education continues to spring up across America. The curriculum differs from the kinds of sex education (or lack thereof) taught in many schools because it's pleasure-based and not focused on statistics and scare tactics. The people and places stepping up to fill the information void love sex, and sex education is something these stores can sell. Instead of focusing on shame and embarrassment, this new education focuses on empowerment, encouragement and eroticism. According to Charlie Glickman, education program manager of Good Vibrations, the shift is partly due to the availability of better sex materials and resources. "For a long time, the idea that you needed to learn some skills to be sexually empowered made people feel shame and embarrassment," he says. "Now, people are realizing it's not the end of the world to not know everything there is to know about sex. Now, there's more opportunity and less stigma associated with gaining sexual knowledge."


What happened to shopping for sex that has turned the adult novelty industry from a dirty little secret to a profitable and respectable affair? For starters, sex became normalized, for both women and men, through the work of women like Betty Dodson, Candida Royalle, Annie Sprinkle, Del Williams, Carol Queen, Susie Bright and Joani Blank. Through their insightful teachings, films, performances and business savvy, sexual satisfaction came out of the closet. "All through the 1990s, sex and sex toys were creeping out of the shadows," says Dr. Carol Queen, staff sexologist for Good Vibrations. "By 1997, I was talking to the big women's and men's magazines on behalf of Good Vibrations all the time. I think there is no question that women-centric toy retailing led the way for this change."


A whole new generation has been established, and it's spreading all over the world. Sex educators like Violet Blue, Tristan Taormino, Ducky Doolittle, Sadie Allison and Cory Silverberg are being acknowledged and honored as the newest individual voices in sexuality. Others like Lou Paget, Ava Cadell and Robert Lawrence are still using their unique voices to spread the gospel of sex.


Carol Queen, who received her doctorate in sexology at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, helped launch the educational component of the sex shop Good Vibrations in the early 1990s. She and her partner, Robert Morgan Lawrence, were among the first to travel the country teaching sex classes in stores and at community-based organizations. Queen says the path "is now well trodden by a new generation of sex educators and ‘sexperts.'" She uses "sexperts" to describe writers and workshoppers who don't have academic or professional backgrounds.


A lot of sex educators are being born out of the retail sex industry. Tristan Taormino and Ducky Doolittle spent time slinging dildos at Babeland. Violet Blue did years at Good Vibrations. Cory Silverberg is a co-founder of Canada's sex shop Come As You Are. And although Silverberg wrote in this issue of AVN Novelty Business' health column that he is "not a fan of retailers who refer to their staff as sex educators," the truth is that more and more retailers are playing a huge role in the field of sex education.


My personal path to sex education is laced with the traditional (masters in sex education from an accredited university) and the less traditional (I spent more than four years working at the sex shop Babeland, as well as being a TV and radio producer for sex-related talk shows), and as I continue to teach private workshops on everything from how to have safe sex to how to give great head, I notice that more and more women and men are craving sexual know-how.


A Unique Shopping Experience


Sex retailers that focus on creating a safe, nurturing and information-filled environment rank highest in press coverage, customer loyalty and satisfaction. These shops include places like Babeland, Come As You Are, Good Vibrations, Early to Bed, Freddy and Eddy, and The Smitten Kitten.


There is no stigma or shame attached to owning or working at any of these places. Most of the shops are homey: Freddy and Eddy offers customers cappuccinos and couches. "We've been told we're quite different, though we find it odd to think so," says Ian Denchasy, the "Freddy" of Freddy and Eddy. "We definitely offer much less selection than a typical store, with a free library of books and DVDs for loan to anyone who visits, as well as one of the best (and also free) cappuccinos in L.A. We also offer a complete return policy, including if someone simply doesn't like a product. We want a completely positive experience, regardless of whether or not it costs us a few bucks. While most sex shops don't offer complete refunds, they all have their niches."


"We have large, unobstructed street-front windows in uptown Minneapolis that allow our clients confidence when they walk in the front door," says Jennifer Pritchett, a co-founder of The Smitten Kitten. "We encourage folks to feel comfortable browsing or reading in our seating area. And we are the first and only sex-toy retailer to exclusively sell nontoxic toys. We are also the only retailer who founded and operates an adult consumer advocacy and industry education organization, The Coalition Against Toxic Toys." Early to Bed has a monthly book club that offers wine, snacks and discussions on assigned books like Bound and Gagged and Full Exposure. The store also hosts salon discussions like "Girls Gone Wild vs. Girls Gone Mild" (referring to the extreme ends of the spectrum surrounding the sexualization and modesty of adolescent girls). Education Coordinator Eden Robins says, "Both of these programs are free and bring in a different population of people than might come to the workshops." Silverberg describes Come As You Are as "the only democratically run, cooperatively owned and operated sex store in the world."


But just because Silverberg's store is alone in this designation does not mean that he doesn't feel a connection with other retailers. "We like to think of ourselves as part of a network of like-minded sex stores who share a belief that running a sex store isn't just a way to make money," he says. "It's about empowering people and putting something positive out to the world."


The People Behind the Workshops


With workshops being a key component in the new brand of sex education, adult retailers no longer sell only tangible products. They also sell tips and techniques to improve customers' love lives. And since many progressive, recognized, couple- and woman-friendly establishments offer workshops, the line between retail and education is blurred even further.


Denchasy describes his brick-and-mortar shop and his website as sexual-health boutiques and calls himself a "sexuality facilitator." What helps Freddy and Eddy spread sexual information is that Denchasy and his wife Alicia ("Eddy"), relate to their target audience. "[We] see ourselves as no different than 90 percent of every other married couple in America, including the same hang-ups and problems!" he says.


Adult retail employees are increasingly serving as more than just cashiers. At The Smitten Kitten, staff members are sex educators and social/cultural activists. At Good Vibrations, "the staff are both sex educators and sales associates," says Glickman, who has a Ph.D. in adult sex education from the Union Institute. "We want to balance out what we do. The job really is about sex education, but we're also selling product. So that was the most authentic way to describe what we do."


Not all educators in the sexual arena call themselves the same thing. Author Sadie Allison, who, like Queen, received a doctorate in human sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, refers to herself as a "pleasure coach." "A pleasure coach is a sex educator who focuses on the art of giving and receiving pleasure, specifically, offering the advice, direction and hands-on techniques to physically get men and women to a higher level of sexual pleasure and orgasm," she says.


Babeland owner Claire Cavanah prefers "sex educator" because "that describes a good amount of what our employees do with our customers." However, when it comes to her managerial mindset, she sees herself as a "retailer and a sex educator, in equal parts." Former Babeland employee Tristan Taormino, who educates in person and on DVD, also prefers "sex educator." "Some people call me a sexpert," she says. "Both work for me. I think of a sexologist as someone who has a doctorate in sexology.


"There are certain organizations and media outlets who give preference to doctors, people with M.D.s, Ph.D.s, M.S.W.s or similar credentials. I am following the lead of people like Betty Dodson, who began teaching masturbation workshops and counseling women long before she got her Ph.D. I never claim to be a doctor, a therapist, or a sexologist. One of the first videos I ever saw was How to Female Ejaculate, where Deborah Sundahl was teaching a group of women how to ejaculate. It was an amazing piece of work, and I never once thought, ‘What are Deborah's credentials to be able to teach this?' It was clear she knew a lot about the subject, was passionate and inspiring. I am completely self-taught and schooled by other sex educators via their writing and classes."


Ducky Doolittle is the type of sex educator Taormino was talking about. A former peep-show girl, dominatrix and nudie magazine model, Doolittle now finds herself in the spotlight as one of the nation's top sex educators and the educational coordinator for For Your Pleasure. She's trained with Planned Parenthood and is a certified sexual assault and violence intervention counselor. Doolittle teaches workshops in private settings and at public venues like the New York Museum of Sex.


She also worked at Babeland, eventually going from sex educator to lead workshop facilitator. That's where she became the education coordinator, "building the workshop program and training others how to teach," she says. "I never sought out to be a sex educator. It was just the natural path for me."


Doolittle says her retail experience provided some of the best sex education she received. "Working at Babeland was one of the best training situations a budding sex educator could find themselves in," she explains. "All day, you answer sex questions from random strangers. If they stump you, chances are there is someone else on staff who has the answer and who you can learn from."


About The Workshops


Many stores offer workshops on everything from sex toys to kissing to pole dancing, BDSM and oral sex. While they're not reinventing the wheel, successful stores can find unique ways to market their products. For example, Babeland offers "The Art of the Blowjob," and Early to Bed calls its class "Men Below the Belt."


Good Vibrations, which has the largest sex-education program of its kind-thanks in part to its prime location in Northern California's Bay Area-doesn't do private workshops or bachelorette parties, markets that the widening sex-education realm tends to appeal to. Still, Good Vibes does what many other sex shops do: outreach.


Cavanah, a co-owner of Babeland, also does outreach, such as teaching free workshops in places like the Gay Men's Health Center. "Babeland has a core curriculum that covers a lot of sex basics and misunderstood topics, like becoming orgasmic, anal sex, the G-spot and ejaculation," she says. "We are branching out into other kinds of events that are less education-oriented and more social, too."


Which workshops are most popular varies based on locale. Good Vibrations, located in San Francisco, says male erotic-massage classes are among its most popular, while Denchasy, of Freddy and Eddy in Los Angeles, says "oral sex is, by far, the No. 1 topic, with G-spot close behind."


Cavanah says Babeland's fellatio and "how to please your man" workshops in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles are "sure sellers." "I think they're popular because a lot women lack sexual confidence, through no fault of their own," she explains. "They want support and encouragement, and really do want to please their men."


Queen and Lawrence launched the Center for Sex and Culture in 2004. In addition to workshop space, the center boasts a library and an archive, and, unlike retail shops, it is not limited to what it can teach or how explicit it gets. "If we want to do a fundraiser involving nudity (like our annual ‘Nude Aid' art auction and giveaway) or explicit behavior (like the live ‘Masturbate-a-Thon'), we just go ahead and schedule it," Queen notes. "Our classes include explicit couples' classes, so, clearly, we can do things that an entity like Planned Parenthood can't, but sex shops, too, often need to watch their P's and Q's so their community stays tolerant. Good Vibes draws the line at explicit behavior in classes, partly because its history makes it one of the very first places into which someone who was shy about buying sex products might venture."


Class sizes also vary by retailer. Babeland fits up to 60 people in its workshops, Good Vibes keeps its numbers between 18-25 participants who sit in a circle, and Freddy and Eddy limits most workshops to 12.


In all cases, it seems the majority of participants are women, but Glickman sees the

tides changing. "For men, there's this idea that the real man always knows what to do,"

he says. "Like we don't want to stop and ask for directions, but now men are saying

maybe they do want to stop and ask directions like ‘Where is the G-spot?'"


Sex-Ed On Screen


Sex education isn't only in retail stores: It's happening online and on DVD. Women like Ava Cadell, a self-proclaimed love guru and media therapist with a doctorate in human behavior from Newport University and a doctorate of education in human sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, continues to bridge the gap between mainstream sex and conventional sex education. Cadell's Loveology University caters to teaching love coaching online and allows students to become master sexperts or certified loveologists. "If you have the desire to empower yourself, enrich your relationship or become a love coach," she says, "then Loveology University will give you the knowledge and the tools to make your dream a reality."


Loveology University offers virtual seminars (full-length sessions filmed in front of audiences), short instructional seminars and teleseminars (telephone conferences with hundreds of students on the line to ask questions). All of these lessons are learned from the comfort of one's own home, a type of privacy that isn't offered in most workshop settings.


Less interactive private sex-ed lessons also come on DVD. Taormino, whose educational video series was released in 2007, writes about sex in her Village Voice column, but she reaches a wider audience now that she also runs Vivid Ed.


The Sinclair Institute uses video and the web to help couples discover ways to improve their relationships and have better sex. The institute calls its Better Sex Video Series a sexual-health product and advertises its videos and other accoutrements in mainstream media. "Most interesting," says Susan Montani, director of wholesale for Sinclair, "is that Sinclair has sold over 5 million of the Better Sex Video Series through mainstream vehicles like radio, magazine and catalogs."


Each month, Adam & Eve sells 2,200 instructional videos like Nina Hartley's guides and my Personal Touch video series, which also goes to show that the need to bridge the gap between the adult industry and sex education is growing.


Sex-Ed Beyond Now


Where is the future of sex education heading? Jessica Giordani, a co-founder of The Smitten Kitten, sees the future of sex-ed as an opportunity for improved customer relations and products. "It's an opportunity for the public to hold their retailers to higher standards as they gain more knowledge," she says. "I also see great opportunity for the adult industry to move away from the concept of ‘novelty'-and all of the physically and environmentally unsound practices connected to that-and place more value on the products that we produce and sell as to meet the consumers' increasing demand for safe, healthy and smart products."


Denchasy sees online sources like YouTube and WonderHowTo allowing a larger audience to acquire information on every conceivable topic that sexuality encompasses. "You will see the education and product sectors form working relationships to diverge from the dreaded ‘porn' moniker, putting distance between education and titillation and thereby providing cover to editors and media owners to approve such content," he says.


Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: The time for sex education to merge with everything from adult novelty companies to mainstream porn manufacturers is now. And from the looks of it, the future is brighter than ever.