Illustration by Kelsey Zuberbuehler

Are sex shops the new sex-ed classrooms?

Boutique sex shops push for education and destigmatization

The United States is progressively shifting in the way individuals view sex and pleasure. Whether it be through the sexual revolution or the development of sex shops, there is an attempt to push for positivity surrounding sex for pleasure as a form of sexual liberation.


Yet even in 2023, many still find themselves ashamed and embarrassed when it comes to discussing personal pleasure. It’s the same shame that pushes people to subconsciously hide their face and avoid eye contact when entering a sex store. There is a negative stigma surrounding sex stores and personal pleasure that is often left unspoken.


To address this, many of today’s sex stores have shifted towards educational and inclusivity-focused “sex boutiques.” SheBop and Lovers are two such shops in the Portland metro area. The self-identified boutiques emphasize education, cleanliness and an inclusive environment. Previously, stores solely operated as a location to purchase sex toys and gag gifts, while they did very little in terms of removing the stigma around sexual pleasure or providing any education materials.


“The welcoming environment and the [lack of] stigma was the reason that I wanted to work here,” one Lovers employee said when asked why they wanted to work at a sex boutique. “Lovers is different from other sex stores. Our windows aren’t darkened and I think that makes it different and more welcoming than trashier stores that add to the negativity around sexual pleasure.”


According to Women’s Health, a magazine that focuses on informing and empowering readers, “sex shop employees are sharp, open-minded, and ready to help you upgrade your sex life.” Sex shop employees who are employed by educational-based sex boutiques are often trained to help with removing the shame and judgment associated with shopping in an adult store.


As shown by the quoted Lovers employee, some of those who work in sex shops also often want to be a part of the change from judgment and negativity to fully embracing sexual pleasure and pushing the shame away. SheBop, which has two Portland locations, totes a similar message.


Since 2009, SheBop has been one of the biggest advocates for embracing sexual pleasure and reducing the stigma. The store hosts guided Zoom events and sessions on various topics from sex and pleasure, to how to better discuss STIs with one’s partner.


In addition, at SheBop there are similar items to Lovers. These include assorted sex toys, lube and contraceptives including dental dams and condoms, but there is also a different approach to the educational aspect. This boutique has a large selection of books that cover all forms of sexual approach.


In the reading section are books for LGBTQ+ individuals, different kinks, BDSM and books on self-care. The shop’s goal is to take it a step further by having books that can be useful for everyone.


However, being part of the sex-positive community does not remove all of the stigma. There is still judgment within the group of those vying for the embrace of sexual pleasure, and that is often directed toward those who are kink-friendly.


This begs the question: why do we kink shame?


If being sex-positive includes an inclusive environment that supports those who want to push back against the negative stigma around sex, how is it that some of these same individuals are also open to criticizing those who participate in kink culture?


An article published by Psychology Today regarding kink shaming states that “false narratives are continuously pushed regarding the kink community.” These narratives often highlight kink culture as dirty, dangerous and abnormal to the point where people are publicly shamed for their likes.


These negative narratives are based on assumptions made about kink culture. These assumptions often conclude that there’s always a link to trauma, those who participate cannot have normal sex, they are mentally ill or that their relationships are inherently violent or abusive in some way.


When asked about kink shaming and culture, the aforementioned Lovers employee offered some internal perspective. “We offer some items that are seen as being more kink related, like handcuffs and nipple clamps,” they said. “As long as it’s consensual, I don’t think kinks are wrong at all and I think shaming them takes us away from trying to create an inclusive environment.”


From the point of view of these new age sex boutiques and their employees, it appears as though the biggest obstacle is the societal perception of sexual pleasure and its intolerance for openness surrounding the subject. Their goal seems to be debunking this negativity and working to create a more positive atmosphere surrounding the idea of sexual pleasure, kink culture and sex shops as a whole.


As of 2023, however, there is a move toward removing negative stigma surrounding sexual pleasure, and sex boutiques are getting more attention—and so is the idea of education surrounding sex.