“I’m looking at the rings to use with my boyfriend,” said Lily (no last name, please), who came to Smitten Kitten Saturday night with her boyfriend Sam (same), who commented, while curled up in the 12-year-old Lyndale neighborhood adult toy shop’s lounge and reading area, “I’ve only been to a handful of sex shops before, in Seattle, and they’re pretty experienced with sex shops there; you know, Dan Savage is from there and the gay scene on Capitol Hill has been going for a long time. I’m new to Minneapolis, and I guess I think of Minneapolis as being kind of tepid when it comes to stuff like this, but maybe that’s just a baseless stereotype.”
It was the Saturday before Valentine’s Day and just a few breathless days before the orgasmic opening of “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” and Lily and Sam were part of a brisk business being done at Smitten Kitten, the “sex positive” progressive toy shop at 31st and Lyndale that’s been spreading the joy of bondage and all things sexy-kinky long before Target started selling the “Fifty Shades of Grey” Official Pleasure Collection of massage oil, blindfold, lube, and vibrating love ring, or before “Grey”-aping “mommy porn” became the rage of the lit world, or before hardware stores across the globe reported a “Grey”-fueled uptick in sales of duct tape, rope, and cable ties.
“Totally personal preference based,” Sarah Mueller, one of the store’s sexperts and sales associates, counseled a woman who was in the market for a new self-pleasure toy. “If you want to have a lot of control, or have your partner have a lot of feel for where the pressure is going inside your body, stick with the firmer material. Glass toys are super super strong and you can vary the temperature.”
The woman glided away from the shelf of glass sculptures over to a shelf stuffed with more human-looking and fleshier torpedoes. She picked one off the shelf, absent-mindedly fondled the hard rubber, looked at the price tag and muttered, “$48.99. It breaks my heart.”
Smitten Kitten was in heat. Just after suppertime Saturday, to the sound of soft moaning electronica and a sensual whiff of lavender aromatherapy, two dozen customers, mostly couples and many first-timers, checked out the vibrators, feathers, whips, harnesses, games, plugs, dildos, and erotica with all the fanfare of a trip to Lunds or Patina. Which is to say that, in a sexually repressed/muted and/or shame-based day and age, it’s thrilling and liberating to be in the midst of a group of strangers who are so obviously and palpably having great sex, and so obviously comfortable with their own curiosity, health, individuality, and sexuality.
“I think the general populace’s attitude towards sex is unhealthy and conflicted,” said Patrick (no last name, please), a twentysomething who was visiting Smitten Kitten with his girlfriend, Jessica (same), for the first time. “It’s both too much and not taken seriously enough, but here it’s just up front and part of life. Tonight we got a bed buckler; I just learned about it today: It’s a series of straps that you can put underneath your mattress so you can bind somebody to the mattress without having a bed frame.”
“It’s really exciting to be in a place where it’s not taboo to talk about,” said Jessica. “Where you can walk around and ask, ‘Is this lube compatible with this condom?’ or, ‘Is this lube comfortable with this kind of toy?,’ and not really have to worry about the kind of judgment that comes along with talking about sex and sex toys. This feels better to me than [downtown Minneapolis institution] Sex World. Like, at Sex World, there’s not even a trans section for people who might need packers or rodeo stuff or anything like that, so it felt dirtier than being here. This feels cleaner and nicer. It’s comfortable.”
Smitten Kitten opened in 2003 by owner Jennifer Pritchett, who rode the feminist sex toy shop boom of the era and has been expanding to include everyone else ever since. Along with its pioneering vision for not carrying toxic toys that might feel good in the body but aren’t good for the body, the company has devoted itself to creating an almost spiritual shopping environment, and providing an oasis of sexual sanity where people can feel good about their innermost feelings and deepest yearnings.
“We try very actively to make this a safe place and a comfortable place,” said Cat Hammond, whose job title, like that of the rest of the Smitten Kitten staff, is “sex educator and sales associate.”
“All of our staff go through a lot of training right from the start, so we can answer all sorts of questions. We realize that everybody who comes in our door has different pre-existing ideas about sexuality and has had different exposure to information and attitudes about sexuality, and we’re here to affirm whatever they might be bringing in with them and meet folks where they are. We try to be a comfortable resource for people and answer questions they might have – or just help them have fun shopping.”
In a Smitten Kitten world, the possibilities are endless and the imagination is free to roam. An hour’s browse finds all sorts of provocative DVDs, CDs, ‘zines, comics, and books, including such promising titles as, “The New InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook,” “Our Bodies Ourselves’ Guide To Getting It On,” “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” “Talking To Your Kids About Sex,” “Better Than I Ever Imagined: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty,” “Bend Over: The Complete Guide To Anal Sex,” “Healing Painful Sex: A Woman’s Guide To Confronting, Diagnosing, and Treating Sexual Pain,” “Rhythms Of Women’s Desire,” “Read My Lips: The Complete Guide To the Vulva and Vagina,” and my personal faves, “Hippie Chix Eros Comix,” and “Housewives and Hot Moms At Play.”
In the back of the store, propped up next to the Bondage Basics Restraint Kit display and the Keeping Couples Connected Sport Sheets display, is a handy chalkboard that gives good-to-know tips on how and where to spank your lover. Erotic artwork dots the walls, and a giant kitten unicorn lords over the shelves of fake but willing penises, tubes of lube, straps, satin, bodices, underwear, bras, and um yeah.
As with the very existence of this column, the good news is that, like it or not, the by-all-reports-dimwitted “50 Shades Of Grey” has provided something of a mainstream forum for sexual beings of all stripes to talk openly about their sexuality, which is why the sexiest thing of all at Smitten Kitten may be the neon “OPEN” sign hanging in the window — open not only for business, but open, as in a bright light in this city; open, as in a gathering place for the truly open-minded and open–hearted, and a reminder to all of us to stay open to new ideas and people and pay attention to the gender role definition revolution at hand.
“This is my first time here,” said Sophie (no last name), who was shopping with her friend Chelsea and who lovingly fingered a cucumber–shaped package as she made her way out the Smitten Kitten door into the unseasonably warm-and-getting-hotter February night.
“The environment here is super non-judgmental and everyone’s doing their thing, and it’s really cool,” said Chelsea.
“I got just what I came for, a Velvet Touch Vibes product,” said Sophie. “I bought it for a friend.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org