By Michaela Ritchie
CALGARY — I heard Karl Sandberg long before I ever saw him, a perfectly pitched string of notes from some obscure, off-Broadway musical drawing me into the theatre where he was helping set up stage. I had been on assignment writing a preview for the show for the Calgary Journal. He sounded like something straight out of a Disney movie, and, as I soon saw for myself, he had the snappy suit and meticulously stylized hair to match. He strolled around the stage with that sort of Stepford-level pleasantry common of guys that pay their taxes early and help your grandma from the vehicle when the sidewalks are slippery. The kind of guy that, when you hear the confident click of his would-be bowling-alley shoes, reminds you of ‘50s music and the flavour vanilla.
He seemed pleasant enough, sure — but almost boringly so.
To say the least, he was far from the sort of person I ever imagined turning my entire sexual worldview on its ass and giving it a flogging.
“No, I’m not kidding you,” his distinctly jovial half-drawl insisted a few rows back as he conversed with crewmates. “I have, right now, in my backpack, a Spider-Man dildo.”
…I may have spoke too soon.
As it turns out, Karl, 22, happens to be just as knowledgeable (if not more so) about sex toys as he is about harmonizing chords and blocking out a scene. That’s because, much to my story-mongering delight, Karl is not just an ex-arts major slash theatre enthusiast. Karl sells dicks for a living.
“Actually, dildos probably make up the lowest percentage of the products I actually sell,” he persists. But dildo salesman has such a nice ring to it, even if it does carry with it a certain door-to-door quality. The title stands in almost comical contrast to the man you would meet at the front counter of the Little Shop of Pleasures’ (LSOP) two Calgary locations, were you to venture by. You have to understand, he simply doesn’t look the type.
Of course, to say there’s a “type” for this sort of work is highly reductive — even borderline offensive — but you knew what I meant, didn’t you? And isn’t that exactly the point? The duality infuriated my imagination like an itch I couldn’t scratch. He looked more like he should be selling made-to-order suit jackets and billion-dollar watches than gallon drums of lube and themed masturbation sleeves. And yet…
Interview With the Dildo Salesman
I said as much as I stepped into the Macleod Trail location of the sex toy chain, my first ever foray into such tumultuous and tantalizing territory. It wasn’t meant as a snub, but more as a way to diffuse my palpable anxiety at being suddenly surrounded by such a volume of as yet unidentifiable fuckable objects. The top 40 hits strategically filling the shop’s white noise, while hilariously ironic, were simply not enough to anchor me back in my own reality.
“I get that a lot,” Karl chuckles. After a year of employment there, he was used to customers remarking on his spiffy appearance upon their entry into what my super-celibate mind could only describe at the time as a kind of Disneyland for grown-ups. “My first thought is always, ‘Well, who else are you going to buy a dildo from? Would you prefer if I came in here in my ripped jeans and a T-shirt? ‘Cause I can do that if you like.’” His adamant professionalism was startling, to say the least, in as much as it unsettled me more than the nearby display of Fleshlights did. The comments on his appearance are second only in frequency to Karl’s personal favourite: “‘I bet you get a lot of strange people in here, huh?’”
“Of course it’s not a question, it’s an assumption, but it’s posed as one because whoever’s asking it is looking for validation,” Karl explains. “And the more I hear it, the more I realize that the people who come to our shop are all people who consider themselves to be very normal, but also very isolated.”
The elder of the LSOP stores is a bit of a fucking rabbit hole — in every sense of the phrase. It is home to not just whips, chains, and harnesses of all makes and models, but a rainbow wall of more than 100 kinds of lube (silicone, water-based, flavoured, you name it), a bright and colourfully illuminated glass case full of weapons of mass seduction (all of which are made entirely of surgical steel), and a half a dozen seemingly endless racks of lingerie (spanning 10 different sizes, including one for the curviest ladies fondly labeled “queen size”), all overlooked by a flamboyantly decorated butt-plug mascot about the size of a grown man’s torso standing watch at the front counter. So I could forgive the folk whose off-kilter reactions to the place have given Sandberg and his coworkers many a vivid tale to recount over the years. Hell, my own eyes became saucers the moment I stepped in the door. How did Bill Hader put it on SNL? “Mark me down as scared and horny.” Karl lives for it — that moment of unhinging. It’s the thing that breaks up workdays of otherwise stark retail monotony. In a business where customers are reluctant to even leave their name at the shop to sign up for the points reward system, their discomfort is a rare rift in the armour that Karl can reach them through.
“My favourite part of any interaction is when somebody tells me their name — even if it’s a fake one. It makes me feel like the most trustworthy person in the city,” he says.
Unfortunately, the awkward exchanges Karl so often enjoys with his customers don’t always conclude in anyone’s idea of a happy ending. Sometimes discomfort simply breeds insensitivity, people’s inability to feel comfortable with their own sexuality not only hindering their own pleasure, but also shaming others.
“I have people come in and ask me all the time, ‘Wow, what kind of loser owns that?’” Karl says of the types of people LSOP staff call ‘point-and-laughers.’ “And my only thought is, ‘Remember where you are. It doesn’t make you cool to come in here, to this safe space, and point and laugh at things. If anything, it just shows your ignorance.’”
But such ignorance is common, says Karl, given our society’s historic mental linkage between a certain comfort with our own sexuality and an unspeakably horrific moral standing. Though Fifty Shades certainly got many a soccer mom’s blood boiling again, and despite the fact that Calgary has the highest percentage of sex stores per capita across North America (as Macleod Trail will tell you, we are a happy, horny city), our mainstream culture continues to marginalize kink — even in the face of findings presented in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, which approximate that one in six people have a sexual fetish and, furthermore, over 50 per cent of both men and women fantasize both about being sexually dominated and dominating somebody else.
“Turns out, if you’re not tying up your wife, if you’re still doing it missionary style, you’re actually the kinky one,” Christina Nelson all but cackles. “And yet…”
And yet, indeed.
Mixing Business With Pleasures
It was almost to spite the negative stereotypes and the shame they reinforced in her that Chris Nelson started working at the Little Shop of Pleasures back in 1996. Having always possessed an intense curiosity regarding her sexuality, despite the stern teachings of deeply religious relatives, Chris first started working for the previous shop owners in an attempt to satisfy her sexploratory appetites with an employee discount. She hired Don Wilheim, whom she had just begun dating at the time, simply as reliable backup in case one of her coworkers went MIA before a shift. As a musician, Don says he took the part-time position solely for the tax benefit it gave him.
However, what first started as strictly business soon evolved into a labour of love for the couple, who observed through working at the shop a real lack of quality products and sex education resources in the community for the types of customers they interacted with (which, both surprisingly and not, are most frequently mid-30s power suit women on their lunch break looking for a way to kill some stress after work). The previous owners, says Chris, knew little about the psychology and practice of kink or BDSM, much less how to relay such information to buyers.
“We got vampire gloves in one day,” Nelson remembers of her time managing the store under the previous ownership, “which is a leather glove with little tacks poking through for gentle spanking. I came into work that day to find my boss with a hammer, pounding all the tacks down! I said ‘What are you doing?’ and he said ‘Oh, this is terrible craftsmanship, this is going to hurt somebody!’ But that’s what it was supposed to do!
“So when I heard they were selling the store [back in 2000], I think I knew what I wanted to do,” she says, flashing a gentle glance over to her partner. “They needed us.” The pair looked to each other as they surely had a thousand times throughout the last 20 years, and giggled — some inside joke shared between them that I was not privy to, but that betrayed them in the moment more as the lovesick teenagers-at-heart they were, instead of the orchestrators of a small-scale sex revolution.
“I was already leery about who would be taking over, right?” she shrugs, “I wanted the new owners to have respect for what we do here.”
“We take this stuff very seriously,” continues Don, the severity of his tone more evocative of a funeral parlor than a discussion on the down and dirty. “We’re not selling carburetors here — this is people’s sexuality we’re talking about! This is people’s intimacy. We’ve got to know our stuff.”
It has been that commitment to professionalism, in everything from expertise to style of dress (and the staff regularly compete to see who can best succeed in both, Don and Karl inform, stealing glances at each other’s necktie du jour) that has motivated the Little Shop’s inner proceedings ever since the pair took over.
Sixteen years later, the sex toy industry has undergone a similar evolution. What once was a space dominated by sleazy visual pornography centered solely on heterosexual male pleasure has since become one where risque products are packaged in discreet, sleek boxes reminiscent of the Apple brand; where trans-identifying folks can obtain appearance-altering tools with the utmost safety. A place where even a 91-year-old woman can buy a pair of sexy stockings with her 75-year-old daughter (“We know what kind of store this is, young lady!” Chris recalls the women snickering as they hunted down their spoils) — entirely free of judgment.
But of course, the new level of pseudo-acceptance our society has seemingly gained for sexy-time has raised a whole host of new concerns along with it, like a surprise post-coital boner nobody was really expecting, and thus, everybody involved just tries to ignore until the problem solves itself.
Certainly, the advent of the Internet opened the door for individuals — equal parts curious, excited, uneducated and embarrassed — to embark on their own sexscapades without having to seek advice about such alien concepts as genitalia from any actual living, breathing humans beforehand. But while the discretion and vast (see also: often confusing and/or contradictory) wealth of information offered up by that digital void can be most useful for veterans to the game, Chris and Don are concerned it poses a significant risk to virginal voyagers.
“The Internet is a fabulous resource, and an occasionally terrible teacher,” Chris says. “My problem is that, because it’s become almost the only resource people have out there these days for sex education that doesn’t aim to embarrass, today’s teenagers are accessing porn and information online and don’t understand that the porn star they’re watching has had a fluffer for anal sex. She has someone to help her work into being able to have sex for an hour.
“Meanwhile, you get these young boys who say ‘I’ve seen this girl online and she does it,’ so he ploughs into the girl he’s with and he hurts her. And these girls watch stuff on the Internet and think ‘This is what’s expected of me?’ and are rightly terrified by it.
“So I fear that this generation’s idea of relationships and intimacy will be skewed, because the online only gives them a little part of the story.”
But according to Calgary sex therapist Cheryl McMeeken, whom I later consulted following my discussions with the sexy sales team, the harsh stereotypes we put on sexuality and more adventurous sexual acts, which are largely to blame for the secrecy with which we continue to discuss them IRL, are not necessarily something to be feared. Rather, our closeted behaviour persists because the subject matter is deeply personal.
“These are personal items and our personal sex lives we’re talking about,” McMeeken explains, “so we’re not going to necessarily want to ever tell our neighbours what we’re getting into.
“That said, since we’re seeing more of sex — it’s becoming more present in media and elsewhere — I think we’re getting desensitized to the idea of sex. And to be clear, it’s desensitizing in a good way, not a negative way. In the past, I believe we’ve been over-sensitized to it. But now it’s almost as if we’ve realized, ‘Well everyone has one, so why not?’ Even my mother has a vibrator, and good for her!” It is McMeeken’s belief that our society is, regardless of our relative snail’s pace, on the right track to cultivating a healthier understanding of our bodies and intimacy.
“You have to think back to the fact that we were settled by people that left Europe expressly because they wanted to express their religious values and Europe was becoming too liberal for them,” she reassures. “So really, in North America, considering the foundation we have, we’ve come a long way. We’ve just got to keep going in a forward direction if we’re ever going to catch up from that hangover.”
All Hands On Deck
But just keepin’ on keepin’ on isn’t quite cutting it for Chris and Don. While the LSOP team doesn’t disagree that folks deserve their share of sexual privacy (Chris and Don certainly know how embarrassing it can be to get the slow-clap from a neighbourhood construction crew after a day of not-so-quiet “product testing” at home), the pair maintains that, when speaking broadly about sex in our communities, the hush over the crowd that we have so far encouraged needs to be disrupted with the loudest of bangs.
Cameryn Moore, the Montréal-based playwright, actor, and self-professed sex activist behind Calgary’s incoming monthly Smut Slam events, agrees.
“Events like Smut Slam are a sign that taboos are decreasing in some ways. But at the same time, there remains a very strong backlash to sexual openness, and sexuality generally being discussed,” she says. “We owe it to ourselves and to each other to be honest about our experiences. That’s the only way we’re going to get more comfortable talking about it.”
Caring and concerned cool grandma that she is, for Chris, this more assertive motion begins with a reexamination of modern parenting, saying that parents need to wake up and smell the sensually-lit candles when it comes to giving their kids “the talk.”
“They need to understand that their children are interested in having a conversation about sex — even just about relationships. I’ve talked to lots of moms and got that conversation started, because they don’t want their daughters to know about pleasure.
“I say, ‘Here’s the truth. Your daughter, the moment that she’s got breasts and her period, is a sexual creature, whether you accept it or not.’ That kid will eventually become boy crazy or girl crazy, and the moment somebody touches them, without the right information, they’re going to think this sexual stimulation is ‘I love you.’ As soon as our kids can learn to own their pleasure machines, then they can have a healthier perspective on relationships.”
But the sex-ed doesn’t end there at the Little Shop. Rather, the store facilitates a whole new kind of learning for its customers, not just through their monthly BDSM workshops, but also by building an environment wherein people feel they can divulge their darkest, dirtiest, and dumbest in the pursuit of a better sex life.
“There are some discussions you absolutely have to have face to face — some things which deserve inflection,” Karl says when asked about the benefits of talking to a sexpert in store about your bedroom woes, as opposed to just throwing your money at the nearest computer and hoping for the best. “Nothing will send you to the hospital faster than trying to makeshift with things that might look correct. That’s where we come in.”
So sure, you could go buy your vibrators and condoms at the nearest Walmart with your milk and eggs, but you might just be missing out on some valuable information by choosing the novelty route and, at the very least, some of the greatest dick jokes you’ve ever had your conversational ice broken with.
“We love — no, seriously — we really love this stuff! We live, eat and breathe this stuff. So when you come talk to us, you’re not coming to someone who read the label on the toy box and is now trying to educate you. You’re talking to a participant, someone who has studied this — probably last night!” says Don with a wink.
Little Shop Of Taboos
“A lot of people, when they come in here, they’re shy, they’re worried about people seeing them, they’ve got their own judgments about themselves, they’re kind of hunched over,” Don demonstrates. “And I always tell those people, ‘You know what, treasure that feeling you’re feeling right now. How many other things in your life make you feel so embarrassed, so nervous? That makes you this excited? That’s because it’s important to you! That’s why it makes you feel this way!’
“So treasure that feeling and the taboo nature of it — it’s human nature. The second you tell somebody they can’t look behind that curtain, they immediately want to. It’s the forbidden fruit, and they know in their gut that it’s going to be good.”
“We’re just here to reassure people that whatever you want to do, it’s actually fine, as long as it’s between consenting adults, and nobody gets seriously injured. Sex is okay, and it’s important, and it’s good for you,” Don stresses, practically speaking in all caps, accenting every point with an elaborate flourish of his hands.
“The health benefits from orgasms three times a week are shocking! If some drug maker made the same claims about a pill they had, they would be making millions selling that thing! Sex is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the cement that goes over the cracks that form from day-to-day life.”
Yet despite the innate normalcy of liking, wanting, craving, and exploring sex, Chris and Don say carnal knowledge remains taboo primarily, not because of any sort of mass regulation on the thing, but because we limit ourselves from exploring experiences that we lack the comfort and maturity to process in a healthy way.
“I often see people coming in with the idea that, ‘I don’t need anything from this store,’” says Don identifying customers’ most prevalent misconception, that using sex toys somehow diminishes their own adequacy to give pleasure. “People think they should know everything about [sex] already, and if they do then what could they possibly need? And I say, ‘Well, no you don’t. Nobody needs anything from our store. You do not need a Lamborghini to drive to work; a Ford Fiesta will work just fine. You don’t need a Lamborghini, but fuck, it sure is fun to drive!’”
While the Little Shop of Pleasures team embraces openness and positivity, Chris acknowledges there will likely always be some level of taboo when it comes to talking freely about sex, “because the taboo is your judgment of it, not mine.” Karl echoes these sentiments, fully cognizant of his own good fortune in being able to discuss his job sans filter with most of his family and friends. But even with the support he has garnered from many of them, in the presence of more conservative company, Karl feels it is wiser to keep the status quo, clandestinely referring to himself as “a retail associate” for the benefit of some enthusiastically religious relatives.
“It isn’t that I ever feel ashamed to work here,” he clarifies, “but admitting that you like sex can almost feel like coming out, in a way.” It is for this reason that Karl appreciates a certain level of taboo, for giving his customers the opportunity to act boldly in exploring a facet of themselves that can be a pretty unsettling can of worms to pop open.
“It takes guts to come into your own,” he continues. “When people come here, they are often sharing their most intimate, guarded secrets with me so I can help them, and that is not a fact that is lost on me.” Don’t be fooled, the team confesses, sometimes working in a kinkster’s paradise has its pitfalls. Hearing about nothing but people’s “cocks” and “cunts” all day can be rather like “sandpaper to my ears,” says Karl of the foul language shoppers sometimes think it’s perfectly fine use (spoiler alert: it is not fine). And, this store like any other is subject to the soul-sucking wrath of inventory day (hanging up over 600 pairs of panties in an afternoon can be exhausting). In perhaps the most teeth-grindingly cringe-worthy of encounters, Karl even had one unfortunate customer come into the shop one day to get their toy serviced, only for Karl to realize that the man currently had the anal plug in question fully inserted as Karl was testing the remote’s new batteries. But it’s all made worthwhile, he ascertains, for those few diamonds in the rough that crop up from time to time. “Recently, I had a woman come in asking me for the quietest, most inconspicuous vibrator we carried,” he recalls. “Turns out she was from Liberia, and was taking the toy back to a friend of hers who had just been widowed. Poor woman hadn’t had a decent orgasm in months.” Sex toys are strictly prohibited by law in the region the women were from, but Karl believes that, by introducing them to one particular air pulsator that looks more like a facial massager than a masturbation machine, he may have just been able to help bring some joy back into someone’s life at a time when they are overwhelmed with grief.
Indeed, above the inherent humour, the discomfort, the connection, and even just the sheer pleasure, the one thing that keeps this crowd going is the thought that their expertise can help someone find happiness again from within their own bodies.
“My primary objective, whenever I see someone who is clearly struggling with themselves — confused about their sexuality or the kinks they might have, or wondering about just even the mechanics of their own bodies, I’m wondering how I can help you feel more normal. I want people to understand that they aren’t the only kinky bastards out there!” Karl says.
“Sex makes the world a better place,” Chris asserts, her eyes fixed firmly on Don, who nodded, “and so are we.” I couldn’t help but agree with them — regular reproduction is kind of what sustains the human race, am I right? I settled back into the vaguely torture-dungeon-reminiscent armchair, as close as I imagined I would get to being calm about the whole encounter, for the time being. After all, there’s no denying sex is a strange and mysterious subject (even if only because we make it so), and maybe it always will be. But at least in as much as feeling and respecting that, we can all relate.
“One orgasm at a time?” I offer. Feeling confident, I wanted to try my hand at their euphemisms.
“Every now and then, two orgasms at a time,” Karl is the first to respond with a grin of approval. They had finally broken me.
“A whole string—!” Don chimes in.
“A whole freight train of orgasms!” Chris cheers. “Orgasms for everybody!”
As the days grow colder and we all find ourselves stuck inside, in greater need of ways to keep warm, the LSOP team will be making their rounds to convention floors all across Southern Alberta. If you or someone you know are looking to expand their sexual horizons this winter — maybe even do a bit of bold Christmas shopping — look no further than the Calgary Taboo Show (November 10-13), the Edmonton Taboo Show (November 17-20), or even the Little Shop’s own sex education workshops (which in the past have included topics like the illusions of power in BDSM, scheduling sex like your taxes, and using toys with a partner because “you can’t tickle yourself!”), hosted in-store at the end of each month.AB, Alberta, anal, butt plug, Chris Nelson, Don Wilheim, fetish, Fleshlight, Karl Sandberg, Little Shop of Pleasures, lubricants, sex, sex education, sex positivity, sex shop, sex toy, sexuality