Advertisement

How can Iowa City be sex-positive without locally-owned, feminist sex stores?


Illustration by Sarah Hayes
Illustration by Sarah Hayes

Whether it’s choosing the farmers market over Walmart or the Haunted Bookshop over Amazon, Iowa City denizens have a fondness for supporting locally-owned small businesses. In one arena, however, the ability to shop locally is hindered by a complex combination of factors including zoning laws, differing approaches to “economic development” and conservative Midwestern morality. Unlike Chicago, Portland, New York City, Milwaukee and Madison, Iowa City lacks an independent, feminist, sex-positive sex store.

Currently the only game in town is Romantix, part of a 50-plus store chain. While Romantix’s website touts a welcoming atmosphere and knowledgeable staff, its location outside of downtown (near some railroad tracks for good measure) and the on-site viewing booths land it in the territory of “traditional” sex shop, historically uninviting spaces for a variety of people.

Where in Iowa City can individuals take sex education classes and connect with community members with similar interests and identities? If one wishes to purchase a vibrator, test different types of organic lubricants, join an erotica writing group and attend a workshop on BDSM, all at a single location, there are no local options. It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, Iowa City was once ahead of the curve.

Soon after its opening 2001, Ruby’s Pearl had its detractors. A writer for the community organization Looking for Better Ways called it a “tiny, risky business” with a “tacky window display [and a] limited selection of merchandise.” And the fledgling business was also in need of a loan. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) awards Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for projects that are a “benefit to low- and moderate-income (LMI) persons,” “aid in the prevention or eliminations of slums or blight” and “meet a need having a particular urgency.” Ruby’s Pearl co-owners Kimberly Koester and Laura Crossley asked the City of Iowa City for $50,000 — $40,000 as a grant, $10,000 as a loan — “to help pay three employees a ‘living wage’ of $9 an hour, as opposed to the $7 an hour they could now afford.” They ended up receiving $20,000 as a loan.

Illustration by Sarah Hayes
Illustration by Sarah Hayes

Working closely over its four-year tenure to co-sponsor programming with local non-profits like the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, Emma Goldman, and the Women’s Resource & Action Center, per the UI Libraries’ Iowa Women’s Archives, Ruby’s Pearl was “a hub for feminist and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) activism [that] held workshops on topics ranging from body image and tampon safety to hate crimes and safe sex education.” Given the specific demographics HUD tasks CDBG awardees with serving, it seems clear that Ruby’s Pearl, which the owners claim was “one of only seven feminist sex shops in the United States” when it closed in 2005, was serving populations HUD is charged with helping.

The goals of an independent, feminist sex store are a bit more complicated than just making money, and, in the end, money troubles caused by a relocation, an economic slowdown and the internet caused the business’ demise. Similar issues plagued Iowa City’s next iteration of the feminist sex store, the Toolbox, which made headlines in 2011 when the owners’ landlord revoked their lease before the business even opened. While the Toolbox didn’t last as long as Ruby’s Pearl, owner Julia Schaefer took a similar approach, viewing her store as a place for both commerce and education (full disclosure: I led a couple of workshops at the Toolbox in 2012).

Illustration by Sarah Hayes
Illustration by Sarah Hayes

After her business partner quit, Schaefer “found that time and money were an issue.” “I was trying to find part-time jobs that allowed me to be open… consistently,” she said, “If I couldn’t make it to my shop for reasons such as illness, this was difficult for my customers and I didn’t have the money to pay someone else.” I asked Schaefer if she had sought out any grants from the city; she replied that she “felt very intimidated by the idea of that.” Given its inherent emphasis on education and community development, a feminist sex store must necessarily straddle the boundary between for-profit and nonprofit enterprise, so these types of establishments need a little bit of extra help.

“I wanted to have time and energy to focus on my family, and I knew I would not have the ability to put 100 percent into my both my shop and my family,” Schaefer said. “My wife and I were trying to have a baby, and decided to move to her hometown.”

“At the time of our closing,” Schaefer continued, “the Toolbox was breaking even each month, but was not turning a profit yet, and I felt that if I had continued, I would have been able to turn a profit, but I felt that the rest of my life would have suffered for it. It was a tough call, and I don’t regret it, but I do miss my shop.”

Alea Adigweme is a writer, artist and educator. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 203.


[gravityform id="17" title="false" description="false" ajax="true"]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper your-village-form_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_17' ><a id='gf_17' class='gform_anchor' ></a><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_17' id='gform_17' class='your-village-form' action='/how-can-iowa-city-be-sex-positive-without-locally-owned-feminist-sex-stores/#gf_17'> <div class='gform_body'><ul id='gform_fields_17' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id='field_17_7' class='gfield gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><h3 style="font-weight:800; font-size:34px;">Let's get started</h3> <p style="font-size:18px;">Fill out this form and we'll contact you with information about marketing with Little Village!</p></li><li id='field_17_4' class='gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' for='input_17_4_3' ></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name gfield_trigger_change' id='input_17_4'> <span id='input_17_4_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_4.3' id='input_17_4_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='2' aria-invalid="false" placeholder='First name'/> <label for='input_17_4_3' >First</label> </span> <span id='input_17_4_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_4.6' id='input_17_4_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='4' aria-invalid="false" placeholder='Last name'/> <label for='input_17_4_6' >Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id='field_17_5' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_17_5' ><span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_5' id='input_17_5' type='text' value='' class='large' tabindex='6' placeholder='Company name' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /></div></li><li id='field_17_3' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_17_3' ><span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_3' id='input_17_3' type='text' value='' class='large' tabindex='7' placeholder='Your email address' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false"/> </div></li><li id='field_17_8' class='gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_17_8' >Email</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_8' id='input_17_8' type='text' value='' /></div><div class='gfield_description'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li> </ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_17' class='gform_button button' value='SUBMIT' tabindex='8' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_17"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_17"]=true; ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_17"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_17"]=true; jQuery("#gform_17").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=17&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_17' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='17' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_17' value='WyJbXSIsIjlmNzc1YTEyZmZjNmYyODk5Mzk0NDM3ZjRlOGYyZDNmIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_17' id='gform_target_page_number_17' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_17' id='gform_source_page_number_17' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> <p style="display: none !important;"><label>&#916;<textarea name="ak_hp_textarea" cols="45" rows="8" maxlength="100"></textarea></label><input type="hidden" id="ak_js_1" name="ak_js" value="218"/><script>document.getElementById( "ak_js_1" ).setAttribute( "value", ( new Date() ).getTime() );</script></p></form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_17' id='gform_ajax_frame_17'>This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.</iframe> <script type='text/javascript'>jQuery(document).ready(function($){gformInitSpinner( 17, 'https://littlevillagemag.com/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms-asdf111aasdfffs-nope/images/spinner.gif' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_17').load( function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_17');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_17').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').offset().top); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_17').val();gformInitSpinner( 17, 'https://littlevillagemag.com/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms-asdf111aasdfffs-nope/images/spinner.gif' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [17, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_17'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_17').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_17').offset().top);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [17]);window['gf_submitting_17'] = false;}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_17').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [17, current_page]);} );} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> if(typeof gf_global == 'undefined') var gf_global = {"gf_currency_config":{"name":"U.S. Dollar","symbol_left":"$","symbol_right":"","symbol_padding":"","thousand_separator":",","decimal_separator":".","decimals":2},"base_url":"https:\/\/littlevillagemag.com\/wp-content\/plugins\/gravityforms-asdf111aasdfffs-nope","number_formats":[],"spinnerUrl":"https:\/\/littlevillagemag.com\/wp-content\/plugins\/gravityforms-asdf111aasdfffs-nope\/images\/spinner.gif"};jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_render', function(event, formId, currentPage){if(formId == 17) {if(typeof Placeholders != 'undefined'){ Placeholders.enable(); }} } );jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_conditional_logic', function(event, formId, fields, isInit){} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> jQuery(document).ready(function(){jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [17, 1]) } ); </script>