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2015 seemed like a landmark year for sex and sexuality. We saw mainstream conversations around gender identity, as well as sex acts that were traditionally seen as more taboo, like butt play. Have you seen that firsthand in your shop?
Ashley: Absolutely. The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon and Caitlyn Jenner coming out as a transgender woman, as well as Laverne Cox [starring in] Orange Is the New Black — those were three really big phenomena. Our society is becoming more aware, and with that awareness comes more empathy and understanding of alternative experiences.
Has that resulted in any changes in people's buying behaviors?
Samantha: 50 Shades of Grey has definitely changed things. [We sell] lots of kinky toys, restraints, and bondage-y things, but on a very beginner, exploratory level. And butt toys account for such a large percentage of our toy sales — for men and women, gay and straight. Even straight men who have in the past been a little apprehensive about it are coming around and exploring things with their partners and themselves.
So the 50 Shades of Grey trend is still going strong? I thought the spike in interest in bondage after the film came out would eventually taper off.
Samantha: There was a huge spike afterwards. People were coming in for specific things that they saw in the movie or read about in the book. But I think in general it opened the doors for conversation, for dialogue. The box has been opened, and it's not completely shut.
Ashley: Historically, kink has been like a label — like, "that's a kinkster," or "that person's into S&M." The books and the movie helped make it more normal. Anyone can explore kink. Anyone can explore bondage. You don't have to go to S&M parties to explore this stuff. That's a really big shift.
What about technology? Do people gravitate toward the tech, or is there still a place for low-fi toys?
Samantha: It's split. I think there's always going to be a place for the plain old dildo that doesn't do much beyond what it is, compared with something like the WeVibe, which has a smartphone app that you can control from anywhere in the world and is fully customizable and really sophisticated. The WeVibe is one of our most popular toys — when you tell someone about the smartphone app, they're either like, "oh my god, that's so awesome," or "that's way too much work for me."
There are a lot of highly technologically advanced toys coming out now, and people are definitely taken by the technology. [On the other hand], there are people out there who do want those simpler toys. The Hitachi is still one of our best sellers, and that only has two speeds. And you have to plug it in the wall. It's been around since the '70s.
Some people might feel awkward and uncomfortable about trying something new or shopping for a sexy toy, even if they really want to. Do you have any advice for them?
Samantha: This happens all the time, a single person or a couple will coming into our shop and being a little uncomfortable. I think being in the right space makes a big difference. It's partially up to whoever is working in the shop to make people feel comfortable in their environment and have an open, receptive, non-judgmental attitude. Find a place where you feel comfortable and safe and where you feel like you can talk to the people there.
Ashley: Or start smaller, like reading erotica to each other at home. They have these books and games that give you questions to ask your partner. That can be a really fun, lighthearted way to open the door on these uncharted territories and discussions. Or try seeing a sexy show together, like a burlesque show. That takes the focus off the couple, but you're still around that stimulating sexual energy. It's amazing what going to a show like that can do for people.
Do you have any advice for couples who want to try something new this Valentine's Day?
Samantha: Take a workshop! We have a tantra workshop for beginners, where you learn about what tantra is and how to reconnect or connect with your partner.
Ashley: Tantra is really interesting, and I think there's a misconception about what it is. It comes down to energy exchange. That can be sexual, but it's really about how to harness your energy and share your energy with people. It's really pretty powerful and intense. Doing a tantra workshop gets you to experience your partner in a new way, even if you've been together for years. They talk about this idea of "new energy" — what happens when we meet new people, or go on first dates. and we have that rush of adrenaline and endorphins.That's why you get so sexually stimulated by new people. It's chemical. People who have been in relationships for years, that sexual energy wanes a little bit. Tantra can be an awesome way to reignite that chemistry with your partner.
Dan Savage has a golden rule when it comes to Valentine's Day: Make sure to get busy before going out for dinner. Do you have any golden rules of your own?
Ashley: We've been working on Valentine's Day for so many years, our own personal lives have probably suffered.
Maybe that's a good thing, because then you skip all the heightened expectations of Valentine's Day.
Samantha: Yeah, but that's part of the fun! That crowd mentality — everyone's excited and everyone's feeling sexy and everyone's looking good.