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For teen Brynn Emond, left, shopping at a local sex shop is not about thrill-seeking; it’s about having access to a welcoming environment where he can find the products he needs to feel comfortable in his own body. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
For teen Brynn Emond, left, shopping at a local sex shop is not about thrill-seeking; it’s about having access to a welcoming environment where he can find the products he needs to feel comfortable in his own body. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

The new sex shop: Today's stores promote health and education Add to ...

For a long time, the term “sex shop” invoked a certain image – a seedy place with a neon sign, shelves stacked with porno mags and blow-up dolls and a peep-show booth in the back where mostly male patrons watched X-rated movies for a fee.

And so, as sex shops became more prominent through the 1980s and nineties, Canada’s municipalities started passing age-restriction bylaws to keep youth out, says John Ince, author of The Politics of Lust.

Parents discuss the various sex-ed lessons they want to teach their children (The Globe and Mail)

“There was a fad to prohibit or to very seriously restrict sex stores,” says Ince, who co-owns of The Art of Loving sex shop in Vancouver. “The root of these laws really dates from 25 years ago to attack the problem mostly of seediness.”

But times have changed, and a new brand of sex shop has emerged. From coast to coast, the shops are bright and friendly places that are welcoming to couples, women, LBGT people – and, in some cases, teens. These modern shops still peddle wares that tickle, vibrate and titillate, but their ultimate focus is on sexual health and education: Along with all of the eye-grabbing gear, they hold workshops on body image and communication, and help promote healthy sexuality for people with disabilities and others who might need some guidance.

For Ottawa teen Brynn Emond, shopping at local sex shop Venus Envy is not about thrill-seeking; it’s about having access to a welcoming environment where he can find the products he needs to feel comfortable in his own body. Emond, 18, is a transgender boy who goes to Venus Envy with his mom to buy chest binders, elastic pieces of cloth worn under the clothing to give the appearance of a flat chest.

Venus Envy, which bills itself as “a sex shop and bookstore with something for everyone,” is the only place in town that sells binders and other items that are considered critical to helping transgender youth affirm their gender identities. They are available online, but they work better when you can try them on and have them fitted.

Emond’s mother, Shanon Page, still remembers the first time her son tried on a binder from Venus Envy. “He was beaming. I had literally not seen him without layers on and looking so joyful for years,” she says by e-mail.

So Emond and other advocates of teen sexual health were dismayed in September when Venus Envy owner Shelley Taylor was fined $260 for selling a chest binder to another teenage boy. The store had violated a 30-year-old city bylaw prohibiting anyone under 18 from entering a sex shop.

“It was stupid. I can’t cut words. I’m not even sure how to articulate that. It’s just dumb,” Emond says. “I’m lucky enough to have my mom who is supportive, but a lot of kids won’t be able to go with their parents because their parents won’t support them at all.

His mom was also frustrated. “To many of the parents of trans kids that I know, this is not a small service that Shelley Taylor provides – it is one less obstacle for our kids to face in a daily barrage of difficulties,” Page says. “Every kindness props our kids back up. And they desperately need all of it.”

Taylor doesn’t believe that it makes sense to bar kids from shops such as hers when they can already find sex toys and contraceptives at drugstores, erotica in bookstores and pornography online. A 2014 survey by the Canadian organization MediaSmarts found that 23 per cent of high school students and 40 per cent of high school boys reporting have sought out porn online.

“The bylaws haven’t caught up with current realities,” Taylor says. What’s more, she says, the age of consent in Canada is 16. “The idea that you can’t go into a sex shop and see a vibrator when you’re 16 or 17 – to me that just doesn’t make any sense.”

The story of her fine caught the attention of city councillors and the mayor, and Ottawa is now looking at scrapping the decades-old bylaw barring teenagers from sex shops.

Robin Milhausen, a human-sexuality professor at the University of Guelph, says having access to sex toys may even encourage young people to put off sex as they get to know their bodies better. “[Sex shops] might be some of the first places teenagers could have an honest conversation with these experts about sexuality, gender and things that would impact their sexual health,” he says.

Rules about youth access to sex shops vary by municipality. Toronto and Calgary do not have any laws about age, and leave policing up to the owners themselves.

Ottawa prohibits anyone under 18 from entering any establishment with goods or services “designed to appeal to erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations” – on the advice of bylaw officers, Shelley was able skirt the rule by removing pornographic videos from her shop. It was an simple change to make, she says. DVDs aren’t big sellers nowadays.

It would not be so easy for Ince to get around Vancouver’s bylaw, which prohibits anyone under 18 from entering a store that sells “sexual paraphernalia.” He, personally, would like to have an open-door policy for all ages. “I think that for a store like ours – which is presenting a positive attitude to sexuality and it’s not pornography-based, its mandate is heavily educational – that any child of teenage years or up would not be in any way harmed, and could well be informed, by coming to the store,” he says.

But Cathy Daniels, general manager of Our Pleasure in St. John’s, says she is completely fine with the city laws prohibiting anyone under 19 from entering her store. “What we see with the younger shoppers that do try and enter our stores is that they are not mature enough for some of the content that we have,” she says by e-mail. “Younger customers tend to laugh, giggle and point, making our older mature customers uncomfortable.”

That’s something Carlyle Jansen has seen plenty of at Good For Her, a feminist sex shop in Toronto that hosts all sorts of informational seminars and holds women- and trans-only hours every week. The shop is just down the street from a high school, and Jansen stocks sex-ed books geared toward teenagers, including Heather Corrina’s S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College.

Jansen says sometimes teens will swarm through the store cracking jokes and waving dildos in each other’s faces. They usually get bored and leave without buying anything. Still, she believes that they sometimes pick up a few lessons along the way. She cites the example of a small group of three or four teenage girls who used to come in regularly and flip through a copy of I’ll Show You Mine, a book that showcases close-up pictures of women’s vulvas.

“At first, they were kinda like, ‘Ew! Gross! Ugh!’ … but they’d come back in and look at it and you could tell they were kind of curious and interested,” Jansen says. “Even though they didn’t buy the book, I just thought it was really important for them to see the diversity of what vulvas look like, because in porn, you often don’t see that.”

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