Searah Deysach does not rush to customers who enter her shop. She likes to give them time.
“We find that if you approach someone immediately, they shut down,” she said. So she waits before asking, “Do you need help finding something?” Do you have any questions?”
They often do.
Early to Bed, 5044 N. Clark St. in Andersonville, is notable for two reasons. First of all, he has just celebrated his 20th birthday. An important step for any small store.
And second, he sells sex toys. A visit seemed in order.
Alas, much of the store’s colorful stock defies description in a family diary. “Probe-shaped things and ball-shaped things and tickle things and curvy things,” is how Deysach put it. Often a single object will suggest a whole subfield of human psychology hitherto unimaginable – at least by me – such as the silicone squid tentacle.
“These are all rechargeable vibrators,” she said during a visit. “And then here we have a lot of battery-operated vibrators, and then wand-type vibrators.”
What drives a person to open such a shop?
“It wasn’t something I intended to do,” said Deysach, 48, who “just made up” her first name, Searah, in seventh grade. “So many Sarahs in college,” she said. “I was looking for my unique identity.”
Like any good businessman, she saw a need: buying sex toys was unpleasant.
“It wasn’t the warm, fun, and exciting experience I thought buying sex toys would be.” she said. “It was awkward, uncomfortable, disappointing. I felt ashamed of the people who worked in these stores. It was the ‘aha’ moment. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. The stores that sell these products have of people who make you feel bad for wanting the products.”
The starting money came from his mother.
“Nobody gives a commercial loan to a sex toy store,” she said. Credit card companies are charging her more, insurance companies dumped her when they realized her line of business. She can’t advertise on Facebook. The reason is clear.
“It’s 100% prudery,” she said.
Deysach noticed a strange inversion. Pleasure products are a rare area where women have more freedom than men.
“They absolutely do. It’s this weird stuff. We have this puritanical culture with a lot of stigma around sex,” she said. “When it comes to sex toys, the tables are almost reversed. Women are empowered to buy a vibrator. It’s seen as a self-care thing, this powerful takeover of your sexuality. For men , especially straight cisgender men, buying a sex toy, getting that toy for themselves is not seen as a source of power, but as sadness and stigma.
Couples who visit the store often have “this beautifully arousing experience, and they’re on the same page, exploring together, talking, having conversations about sex, whatever you want everyone to do,” said Deysach.
But not always.
“Then you see the opposite end of that, couples where the communication just isn’t happening and we have to help facilitate that because we’re looking for people.”
Deysach and her clerks sometimes have to be both marriage counselor and arbiter.
“At least half of our male customers buy for their female partners,” she said. “We see more men supporting us, but sometimes it’s aggressive and unwanted. The guy is really invested in getting his female partner to want and use sex toys, but you can tell the woman isn’t interested. We will be put in the middle of these clearly non-consensual situations and have to maneuver to find out what the woman really wants.
“Their staff are sex educators,” said Jennifer Litner, a Chicago-based sex therapist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness. “They are really great for the information they provide.”
While I had Litner online, I wondered why people are often so uncomfortable when it comes to this area.
“Masturbation is embedded in many cultural messages,” Litner said. “Actually a very natural part of sex life, also very useful for partners to find out what satisfies them and how they want their partners to stimulate them. It’s taboo because of cultural, religious and other values that people people have. There is a lot of shame.
In certain places. In others, a rediscovered audacity. These aren’t your mom’s vibrators.
“There’s been so much creativity, so much innovation, so much moving away from what you think of when you think of sex toys,” Deysach said. “Beautifully designed, innovative products that you wouldn’t mind leaving on your counter.”
Some people wouldn’t. It depends on whether you view embarrassment as a condition to be avoided or overcome.