Accessing the erotic

History is no stranger to pleasure with a price tag. And neither is Harbord Street. In the thick of cafés and street art lining Harbord’s sidewalks stands one of Toronto’s oldest independent sex shops. Housed in a tame Victorian row house marked with a small orange sign, the store has an otherwise naked facade. By looks alone, the absence of cherry symbolism and black lettering cues visitors in to the fact that Good for Her is a break from tradition in the business of eroticism. It’s a 21-year-old storefront that offers a new meaning to selling sex — one that forefronts women and queer individuals. 

Besides dealing in the twenty-first century circuitry of wearable vibrators and kink, they dispense sexual and relationship education. Workshops focusing on topics such as “finding your fluids,” somatic sex, and dating with mental illness run on a regular basis. They have traded out shelves of smutty magazines for accessible exploration and a redeeming sense of freedom. Good for Her is about fuelling self-discovery and uncovering intimacy — with an extensive stock of leather and rubber on the side. 

The store’s relaxed yellow hardwood and white walls are an uncomplicated introduction to the rows of blush- and lilac-coloured toys on the back wall. Familiar phallus shapes sit alongside more inventive ones, cleanly laid out with white labels. 

More often than not, though, much more information is required — how toys work and why, for example. At Good for Her, they give you answers and, more importantly, make you feel comfortable while asking your questions, regardless of who you are. Regardless of your sexual or gender identity, the store has provided a space for visitors to exercise their sexual curiosity beyond a Google search bar since 1997.

“I really started the store with an idea in mind that women, in particular, who didn’t feel comfortable walking into a regular sex shop would feel comfortable walking into my space,” owner Carlyle Jansen says. But outside of the hours exclusively dedicated to women and trans customers each Sunday from 12:00–2:00 pm, everyone is welcome. 

“It’s for people who maybe feel a little bit more comfortable in a space where there aren’t cis-gendered men,” she adds about that two-hour window on Sundays. “Not that men are bad or misbehave in the store — I’ve actually met lots of fabulous men through the store, and I think it takes a really confident man to really understand women and make that journey into the store,” she explains. 

“It’s just that for some people who’ve been through sexual assault, sometimes they’re just worried that a guy is going to look at them while they’re talking about something intimate. So those women and trans-only hours are for people who wouldn’t be as comfortable in our store at other times.” 

Hours aside, Jansen has cultivated a store where the cookiecutter is more likely to furrow brows than a vibrator-themed greeting card. Everything is on the table, conversationally and, in the case of most toys, tangibly. 

The taboos of female and queer pleasure have no place in between artsy copies of the Kama Sutra and indie porn, just as Jansen intends.

“I think that women being empowered in their sexuality is [considered] very threatening. The whole idea that if we don’t need men to satisfy ourselves — people interpret that as man-hating or that we don’t like men or that men are dispensable. That’s not what I’m saying,” she clarifies. 

Despite being the youngest child of an accomplished and conventional family, Jansen’s empowered and assured explanations dispel any boilerplate ideas of love, gender, and, most of all, intimacy. “What it is, partially, is that when… you talk about the word ‘sex,’ what comes to most people’s mind is a penis inside a vagina, and then when you start to say you don’t need a penis inside a vagina, [that] you can have a mouth on a vagina, you can have two vulvas rubbing together, you can have a penis up another part of a guy with a penis — it’s when you start to change the permutations that they go, ‘Oh no, that’s not the real way of having sex, the mature way, the procreative way.’ That is also threatening the establishment that feels like, ‘Wait a second, this is what we’ve been told, this is what we interpret from the Bible or other kinds of religious texts.’”

However they may clash, it is the collision of sex and religion that delivered Jansen to Good for Her. When her sister, the Reverend MaryAnn Jansen, held her bridal shower, Carlyle Jansen gifted erotic toys and settled in to explain the potential that they carry for uncharted pleasure.  Her straightforward authority and delivery still punctuates her programs and talks today.

“Information is key. I had a group of women who all knew each other; they were all really progressive and there were about 15 of them. We went around the room and 10 of them said they couldn’t orgasm during intercourse. And I said to them, ‘Does that mean you’re not normal?’ We need to change what our expectations are, what we think sex is supposed to look like, and channel it toward what is realistic instead of what society thinks it’s supposed to look like. I think a lot of women contort themselves toward an imaginary mold. There’s all this pressure that we have to look sexy and enjoy all kinds of sex and orgasm during intercourse at the same time as our partner. It’s a performance and it’s not what is realistic and pleasurable for most women.”

While Good for Her is not alone in its ideology, it has lost contemporaries to the rising costs of business downtown. Jack Lamon of Come As You Are (CAYA), a worker-owned cooperative, was a part of its transition into an online only sex shop after the dispensary craze drove up rents and dried up retail space in 2016. A self-described partner in the “new wave of feminist sex shops,” CAYA lives up to the Nirvana-esque reference, sexy pun, and open invitation to an accepting space that its name contains.

“We worked really hard to keep it as a safe space for folks who were marginalized because of their sexuality, gender orientation, disability, and people marginalized because of race,” Lamon, a trans man, says. “We worked to make sure that people consented to the way that they entered and interacted with the store. We always kept things that were less exclusive at the front. So you could check out the massage oils or some books and magazines and, as you [get] more comfortable and as you go more into the store, you get into vibrators or strap-ons or DVDs,” Lamon continued. “We’re a worker-owned cooperative so we’ve always been democratic — we all have an equal say on the products that are selected and what the store looks like. We’ve all selected a very diverse set of experiences rather than just one person’s idea of sexuality.”

Staunchly anti-capitalist and feminist, Lamon is unabashedly vocal about CAYA’s values-first approach and advocacy. “Politically and socially, sex is something that’s really governed by patriarchy and, like it or not, that’s the world we live in,” Lamon says. “As long as we’re in a society that is overly influenced by religious conservatism, we will never really shed those taboos.”

So how do we make sex what we really want it to be?

“It all starts with yourself. The best way to have an easygoing, satisfying sexual relationship with another person is to explore your own body on your own terms,” he says. “Get private with yourself. We do this all the time with other things but we don’t think about it. You try a food on your own or a special coffee or to have a little adventure. But with sexuality and your body, we’re all so different that nobody else is going to know how to navigate your body unless you teach them how to do so, and the only way you can teach them how to pleasure you is to know yourself.”

Ultimately, sexual pleasure is in our hands, regardless of who we share it with. Stores like these remind us of that.