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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Smitten Kitten: Guilty of Pleasure

By Hazel Schaeffer

Ever been or heard of a sex shop that considers itself a “community organization”? The Smitten Kitten, a boutique-style sex shop located in Uptown Minneapolis straddles the line between business and pleasure, striving to be profitable while promoting a sex-positive culture. From prostate massagers to wooden dildos, and books on sexual trauma to BDSM porn and safer-sex pamphlets, the Smitten Kitten provides a tremendously diverse selection of sex products. The store is progressive for its feministic politics and its focus on education and pleasure.After the 45-minute bus ride from Macalester, I had difficulty finding the store. I was looking for a big awning with a sexy logo and a provocative display window. I had no such luck, and was instead directed to a store that looks more like a health food store then a strap-on retailer with its forest green sign, potted plants and a display of awards.

The inside of The Smitten Kitten is spacious, well organized, unthreatening, and comprehensive. The exposed brick walls feature a cork bulletin board with ads, a mounted piece of art featuring a dildo, and graphic-novel/comic book style paintings. The store is very hands on. You can taste the lube, feel the dildos and browse the books.

The store is organized into sections. There are separate shelves for vaginal and anal vibrators, an antique-looking cabinet of lubricants, a coat-rack like hanger of BDSM accessories, a library of books and porn and a display of dildos of all colors, textures, widths and lengths, both realistic and more fantasy inspired, and a back wall adorned with strap-on harnesses. The counter, reminiscent of a jewelry store, features high-end dildos of glass, ceramics and wood.

Clare Jacky ’07 is the business manager and education coordinator of Smitten Kitten. She is one of two store managers and handles all the business, accounting, education outreach, and in-store education.

We spoke for half an hour the morning of Halloween on a comfortable couch by the windows next to large bookcase. If it hadn’t been filled with porn and books on a wide range of sexual topics from basic Kama Sutra how-to’s to menopause, the area would have felt like a café or small bookstore. In a thick grey sweater and wearing little or no make-up, Jacky does not seem like a typical person to be involved with the sex industry, but then again the Smitten Kitten is not your average sex shop.

According to its Web site, Smitten Kitten aims to be a “progressive adult sex toys and equipment retailer specializing in the highest quality, safest and smartest selection of products available.” However it is so much more than a seller of toys. Jacky explain that the store attempts to promote a healthy attitude about sex, which means to “acknowledge the broad spectrum of sexuality, both within a community but for an individual.” They provide the resources and education for people to explore their own sexuality.

Its progressive agenda is an integral part of the store. Jacky explained the store was founded to be “super radical in its conception [to be] a space that was unlike any other sex toy store: super well-lit and super informative and super sex-positive and not shameful at all.”

The Smitten Kitten strives to find, “the balance between radical philanthropy [to queer and sex friendly organizations] and business management.” While Jacky felt Macalester prepared her well with a theoretical background to understand, think and talkcritically about sexuality, she was unaccustomed to working in the private sector. The Smitten Kitten taught her to recognize that progress could be pursued outside of NGO’s and non-profits. “I’m really interested in the change that small business can make,” she said, after realizing [The Smitten Kitten] could be kind of radical even though it’s part of the market economy.”

Jacky attributed The Smitten Kitten’s sex-positive, progressive, feminist ethic to its success, noting, “You could buy all these things for cheaper on but you wouldn’t get the same type of customer service and education. or be supporting an organization that tries to promote healthy sexuality.”

The store caters to a wide range of people. Jacky noted that though certain items might be targeted toward to a specific gender or sexuality, “anything in this store can be used by anyone of any body type.” Its typical customers are white, middle-age heterosexuals, but the store is trying to do more outreach to gay men. Jacky noted that they notice increased use of “female”-condoms by gay men. “You can put it in [before you go out for the night], and you’re ready to go.”

The company founded the non-profit organization Coalition Against Toxic Toys five years ago to “combat the lack of availability of accurate, honest information in the sex toy industry,” according to its Web site. The store’s original owners opened a shipment of toys to discover that they had melted onto the packaging. The manufactures replaced the products, but left the owners concerned about the safety and content of the toys they were selling. Attempting to learn more, Jacky said they encountered an “information blackout.” Now Smitten Kitten only stocks toys that are non-porous and non-toxic so that they do not leach chemicals into patrons. Other merchandise in the store also reflects its agenda. “We try to stock porn from small indie porn-makers,” Jacky stated.

Education and safer sex is key at The Smitten Kitten. They stock pamphlets, lubes, and condoms, and the salespeople are prepared to give specific information on the merchandise or engage in the larger issues like the role of sexuality in society. Jacky particularly hopes to change the way young people view sexuality. The store seeks to be a community space and there is no age limit to enter the store, only to buy porn.

Smitten Kitten considers itself to be radical, begging the question of what is so radical about promoting healthy sexuality. “Moving from sexual prevention training to ‘let’s get some pleasure,’ is a radical jump for many people,” said Jacky.

Professor Deborah Smith, who teaches Sociology of Sexuality at Macalester, has invited Jacky to her class to speak about CATT and The Smitten Kitten. I spoke with Smith over the phone and she explained that her class starts with the theories of Foucault, a French philosopher, historian and sociologist. He argued that sexuality has been constructed in a way so that it dictates social norms and perversions and therefore serves as a social control. Smith noted that historically sexuality focuses on identity, not pleasure, and that the Smitten Kitten is radical for focusing on pleasure in a “world saturated with images of sexuality.”

The Smitten Kitten seeks to promote a sex and pleasure positive culture. However perhaps the taboo nature of sex and sexuality is what makes them so alluring.

After interviewing Jacky, I spent almost an hour perusing the shelves and listening to costumers. One woman bragged to Jacky that her partner was participating in a drag show and could pull off both male and female performances. A well-dressed middle-aged couple was looking for a vibrator to take on vacation.

After making my own purchase, Jacky asked me if I wanted a bag to put it in. I had no need of one, but I opted to take it to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with a sex product. It was then I realized, though I feel comfortable to visit, review and patron a sex shop, I cannot escape the illogical embarrassment so many of us feel about pleasure.

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