Following Your Bliss Can Mean Leading Others to Theirs

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In honor of National Masturbation month, here’s an encore column by Maria about launching into the sex-positive education industry from last May. — Amanda

By Maria Padhila

You know that feeling you get inside when you know it’s just absolutely right? That’s the feeling Jessica VonDyke got when she started working in sex-positive education and retail. And it’s the feeling she’s hoping to share with others, in more ways than one.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

In honor of the merry month of May (National Masturbation Month, let’s not forget), I wanted to talk to a woman who is following her bliss professionally and personally — she’s seeking to open The Garden, a sex-toy boutique and education center. A positive, queer-woman-owned, educational, eco-friendly, community-centric, good-looking (she’s also an interior designer) sex-toy boutique, in one of my favorite neighborhoods. What could be finer?

How does a person end up pursuing that line of work? (Just lucky, I guess, as the old joke goes.) She says that about a decade ago, she got interested in erotic art, and began to study its history, just as a personal interest.

Then a friend launched a project to create something along the same lines as The Garden, a combination toy shop, classroom space and resource center. “I was having the time of my life working on this,” Jessica says. “Talking to educators and selling toys — it just felt like it was what I was meant to do.”

But her friend dropped the project, and Jessica didn’t think she had the chops to pursue it at that time. Now, after having had some experience in running her own interior design business, she’s come back to what she enjoyed doing most. “There were so many signs pointing toward it, saying: ‘This is what you have to do,'” she says.

She’s working a full-time job as well as generating funds, marketing and business plans, and pursuing grants and development help. “I haven’t had a day off since January,” she says, but accepts that’s normal for an entrepreneur.

I found out about her efforts to get a space and seed money through one of the poly mailing lists — people were already eager to do workshops and host events and fund-raisers, even before she had a space and firm investors, and some from the poly community were helping with fundraising. The need and the interest are there.

So I quickly signed up for her Facebook page and have been delighted by the occasional educational articles and quotes from adventurers ranging from Anais Nin to Hunter S. Thompson. Not so delightful were some of the comments on a neighborhood blog from some trolls who thought a higher-end sex-toy boutique would “bring down the neighborhood.”

But even more voices wrote in her support.

That blog was as bad as it got, Jessica says. “And I was ready for that — I was ready for so much worse! The reactions there really speak to how much DC needs a shop like this.”

If you’re thinking that you would like to go into a sex-positive profession or service, I think what has happened to Jessica can be inspiring and hopeful. Against the small volume of haters, there was a roar of support:

“A lot of people ask who my main audience is with this. I’m not trying to target any one audience. I’ve gotten interest from very straight, hetero-normative couples. There’s a huge queer community in DC, and they’re excited that this is being run by a queer woman who understands the community. I’ve been approached by people in the transsexual community, and people in the African-American transsexual community, and they’re excited about it. I want to reach a broad cross-section of people, not a single target market.”

Others have voiced reservations about whether brick-and-mortar sex shops can make it in an online world. But there are examples of successful toy shops in most cities under a similar model. “There are many people who know just what they want, and so they can go online,” Jessica says. “Fortunately, there are a lot of really good sources online.” She doesn’t disparage what’s for sale online but points out that it’s a different experience.

“There isn’t that one-on-one interaction, where you can get questions answered. A lot of buyers aren’t that experienced, and some of the high-end items can really be an investment. You want to get something that will last longer and continue to work the way you want it to work. Personalized service still makes a difference.”

“A description can say “5 inches in diameter,” but unless you go in and put your hand on it, you don’t know what that means.”

Health issues are important to her as well, and she is focusing on products made of materials that are safer for the body. Just as important as having the right materials, however, is having a good education, and the education-center mission is a big part of her dream. The HIV-positive rate in DC is dangerously high, she points out, and she hopes to partner with organizations that are working to fight this. (At more than 3 percent living with HIV/AIDS, according to the DC Health Department, the city meets the level established by the World Health Organization for an epidemic. This is a situation that has broken a lot of hearts in this city over the years.)

In the meantime, she’s coping with suddenly finding a great location, but not having the full funding to jump on it. For help, she’s tapped neighborhood leaders — and she encourages anyone who wants to get a similar business going to investigate small business assistance and development programs. Don’t be hesitant because of the nature of your business, she says.

The neighborhood she’s chosen has been having a renaissance, but the rebirth is too driven by restaurants and nightclubs, and not enough by other types of business. At the same time, it’s a highly hip, queer-welcoming part of town — there are regular burlesque and circus performances at the nightclubs, for instance — so her business would seem to be a perfect fit. She’s getting advice and mentoring from an entrepreneur who has led the new development in the neighborhood and has successfully done so in other neighborhoods, and who has the unique ability to work with the city government, the existing community and the new arrivals. (Disclosure: He’s a friend and I dated him, but I didn’t find out he was helping her until after we talked.) This is the kind of help you need if your bliss lies in that direction.

Jessica is sensitive to the feelings of residents who might be offended at a sex-toy shop, but the fact is, the neighborhood needs retail. Here’s a little DC history, which may resonate with those of you in other cities that have experienced conflict, flight and gentrification over the years:

A few neighborhoods in DC were burned out and abandoned during the riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. To our shame, these neighborhoods received little support from the city to rebuild. In the past 20 years, they’ve gone through a trajectory that’s become usual in many cities: The Gays and The Artists move in and start transforming empty spaces, and ‘gentrification’ follows. In DC, as in many cities, this process carries a distinctly unprocessed racist and classist component. That is, the people living there are forced out by the high-end newcomers. Often, The Gays and The Artists end up getting shut out, too.

There are a few neighborhoods in DC where that racial/class/sexual identity shutout is not happening according to plan, and the place she’s opening is in one of these. It’s taken a lot of work and listening on the part of a lot of people to keep it from happening. All this is to point out that there’s gentrification, and then there’s revitalization. The difference is who gets to have a say in how the transformation happens — those coming in from outside who tear down, build and leave, and those who work with a community to get things they all need. From this vantage point, a sex-positive business is a win all around.

There’s more about her fundraising campaign, quotes and information, and events coming up at The Garden’s website.

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2 Responses to Following Your Bliss Can Mean Leading Others to Theirs

  1. mariapadhila says:

    Just wanted to let people know that Jessica has been moving forward with her plans and has been presenting lots of interesting workshops–including one from Tristan Taormino–and being out and proud at neighborhood events. If you’re in that area, check out the website to see what’s coming up. So to speak.
    And thanks, Len!

  2. Len Wallick Len Wallick says:

    A happy Mother’s Day to Maria, Chelsea, Jude and anybody else i missed out there. Take it from me, you are as important as any human being can possibly be.

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