Pleasure & principles

The Smitten Kitten sells sex toys with the community in mind.

Niels Strandskov

When sex and politics intersect in our culture, the result is often unpleasant.

We live in a society that is divided about the role of sexuality in public and private life, and in particular, public expressions of desire encounter plenty of criticism from prudes and hypocrites. Fortunately, there is another side to sex politics, a growing sense among happy, honest and sexually empowered people that sexuality discourse not only can, but must be removed from the smarmy hands of demagogues and profiteers. For the owners of the Smitten Kitten, a new sex toy shop in south Minneapolis, this is a struggle that happens one person and one toy at a time.

Jessica Giordani, Jessie Jacobson and Jennifer Pritchett, Minnesota State University-Mankato alumnae, comprise the collective that runs the Smitten Kitten, which opened in August 2003. They decided to create the project around Halloween 2002 based on their own interest, politics and needs of the community.

Jacobson, who is pursuing an aviation management degree, identified “the need for something sex-positive in Minneapolis” as a prime motivation for starting the store. Giordani, who is pursuing a women’s studies master’s degree, said the collective wants anyone walking in the door to feel comfortable to ask questions, whether they have bought sex toys before.

Though it might surprise some people who are unfamiliar with sex toys or the adult industry in general, there are numerous considerations involved in ensuring a feminist sex toy shop lives up to its politics. Pritchett, who has received her master’s degree in women’s studies, explains that the collective wants to ensure they are not supporting exploitative suppliers. “We work really hard at finding handmade items, women-made items, transmade items, and we try to support people who are traditionally not represented in the adult industry,” she said. The collective is also adamant that the marketing and packaging of the toys they sell should not reproduce the ideologies they are trying to undermine. “If people are being exploited in terms of their identity to sell a product, then we don’t want anything to do with it,” Pritchett said.

Luckily, this does not prevent the Smitten Kitten from carrying a wide range of toys to suit many different tastes. The store features a comprehensive selection of dildos, vibrators, butt plugs, strap-on harnesses, lubricant, paddles, riding crops and cock rings.

In contrast to mainstream adult stores, where such products are kept firmly sealed in their packaging, the Smitten Kitten has a display model of nearly every toy they sell. As Pritchett points out, this is an improvement over ordering sex toys online. When the collective hashed out their plans, she said, they realized they were frustrated by the vagaries of Internet purchasing. “We were sitting around and thinking ‘I’m sick of ordering things online and paying a whole bunch of money for something that maybe I’m not so happy with, and it’s difficult to return. I want to see how big this is because on the Internet every picture is the same size, but not every toy is the same size.’ “

Customers are free to examine the collective’s toys, but that’s not the only departure from traditional sex toy marketing. Mainstream sex shops are notorious not only for their often furtive and anonymous clientele, but also for their lack of customer service.

Things could not be more different at the collective, where providing information and expertise to their customers is one of their chief responsibilities. Every customer is greeted as they enter, and the collective strives to put people at ease.

“I want this to be a space where our customers can feel empowered about their sexuality. They can walk in here and whether they’re really comfortable and particular about what their sexual desires are, or whether they’re coming in thinking ‘I don’t know what I want,’ whether it’s a paddle or a vibrator or a butt plug – they shouldn’t feel any shame or deviance about their sexual desires,” Giordani said.

The collective views the Smitten Kitten as more than just a pleasant alternative to mainstream sex shops. It’s also a community space.

Work by community artists hang above the toys, a feature that was part of the original plan, but came about sooner than expected. “We had always planned on offering gallery space to local artists, but hadn’t planned on doing it so soon, until an artist walked in and said ‘I want to show my work,’ ” Pritchett said.

The collective has also been active in taking their message to an audience outside the Twin Cities. “We do a ‘Sex Toys 101,’ a description of what things are, how to look for a good product and why you would want something like this,” Jacobson said. They have talked at several area colleges, universities and women’s centers. “The response has been great!” Pritchett said.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, the Smitten Kitten is hosting “Hot and bothered: An evening of erotica” that features erotic readings by several local artists. It is expected to fill the relatively compact storefront, so you should arrive early to ensure a seat.

One of the collective’s main concerns is accessibility. The store is wheelchair accessible, has store policies printed in Braille and can offer American Sign Language interpretation at events.

This also carries over to pricing questions. Many of the toys, which are mostly handmade using high-quality materials, are more expensive than items that perform similar functions at mainstream sex toy stores. However, the initial sticker shock that some shoppers might feel is tempered by a diverse selection. “We make sure that high-end items are balanced with other items so that virtually anyone can come in here and find something that fits their budget,” Pritchett said.

“You can spend $180 on a harness or you can spend $38 on a harness,” Giordani said, “and they’re all going to be good quality.”

“We’re not far out of school ourselves. It’s important that you don’t price people out of their desire,” Pritchett said.

In the current political climate, where “watch what you say” is an acceptable alternative to freedom of speech, it is important to resist the temptation to be silent. Now is the time for screaming in the street, debating in the classroom and moaning with ecstasy in the bedroom, the living room or wherever else you might fancy a go.