A 20th-Anniversary Interview With The Founders Of Babeland

Babeland is hands down my favorite place to buy sex toys, and I’m on a first-name basis with the person who usually helps me at the Bergen Street location (hi, Artemis). Its store design is hip and well-lit, inviting and completely sex positive. How can a design be sex positive, you ask? It places products in the spotlight without stigma. And the toys it sells are well-made and body safe. Its staff are the most knowledgable staff ever in the history of staff (all of them are sex educators). And guess what?! 2013 is Babeland’s 20th anniversary year. Happy birthday, Babeland!

I caught up with Babeland founders Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning to chat about starting what is arguably the most visible lesbian sex-toy business in the country. And of course I couldn’t resist asking about their personal favorite toys as well.

Happy 20th anniversary, guys! Can you tell us a little bit about how you started this company 20 years ago?

Claire: Thanks, Autostraddle! We opened our first store in Seattle in 1993 because we wanted a better place to shop for sex toys, and we figured at least some people probably felt the same way. We were concerned at first that every lesbian who wanted a dildo or a vibrator would find their way in and buy a toy and that would be the end of it! Luckily that’s not what happened. Also, it just seemed like a blast — we were young feminists, we were dykes, we loved sex, and it seemed like a way to get to create something meaningful and get to talk about sex all day and hang out together.

What’s been your favorite moment running Babeland thus far?

Claire: That’s an impossible question to answer (so many!), so I’ll pick the one that came to mind first — walking in the NYC gay pride parade in Babeland’s big beautiful vulva costume, handing out lube. The slow shift from the parade watchers in midtown looking horrified to the parade watchers in the Village whooping and shouting their love and delight — it was incredible. Plus one of my friends came out by walking with our float that year — quite a way to come out, walking around with a giant pussy!

Just fyi, this is the giant vulva costume of which we speak. via Babeland #

Just fyi, this is the giant vulva costume of which we speak. via Babeland

Rachel: Leading a cunnilingus workshop and the joy of everybody laughing and sharing tips and celebrating pussy munching.

Can you give one piece of advice for someone who’s never been to a Babeland before? Or hell, even bought a sex toy before?

Claire: Have fun! Go in with a sense of humor and right-sized expectations, and you’re on your way to a good experience.

You guys have published Sex Toys 101 and Moregasm. Do you have any more publishing projects planned?

Claire: No solid plans right now but we’d like to use new technologies to spread the message — e-books, apps. We have had some requests for the second volume of Moregasm.

I think two of my favorite aspects of Babeland are (a) the design of the stores and (b) your amazing staff. How did you conceptualize the look and feel of this toy-buying experience? And how do you find your amazing people?

Claire: People first — they are amazing. We find our sex educators through ordinary means these days (word of mouth, Craigslist). Our new hires go through about 20 hours of training, then several shifts shadowing another sex educator to make sure they know what they’re doing before they go out on their own. People who apply to Babeland know what they’re getting into — a sex-toy company on a mission to make sexual pleasure an okay thing to want and ask for and get. It’s like a pool of self-selecting awesome people who want to do this work.

And the look and the feel — we knew when we opened that we wanted to create a warm, bright, pretty, friendly place to shop. At first we did our best designing the space and the ads, and got help from friends who had great ideas. Over the years we’ve worked with artists and designers who understood what we were getting at. Now we have our creative team on staff and that makes for a consistent look. We feel lucky to have such great talent in house!

Favorite toy in the store? Go!

Claire: Njoy Pure Plug!

Oh, cool! We reviewed that one recently — many of our readers are already familiar with it! Rachel?

Rachel: Jaguar Harness!

Favorite Babeland workshop that has ever happened? Go!

Claire: Another tough question! Our workshop program is at the core of our business, and our workshop teachers are devoted to getting accurate sex information out there. I admire the hell out of them. To pull just one experience out of the whole program, I really loved the times we hosted Staci Haines, the author of Survivor’s Guide to Sex, a book about reclaiming your sex life after childhood sexual abuse. I think Staci really changed some lives at Babeland. Sex is such a powerful part of life. I am proud to have helped to create a space that not only celebrates healthy sex, but where people can come to heal the wounds they may have endured.

The concept of sex positivity makes an appearance in your mission — and we at Autostraddle spend a lot of time discussing sex positivity. Would you tell us a little bit about how each of you defines sex positivity for yourselves? What tenets of sex positive culture help you most in your business decision making?

Claire: My definition of sex positivity has mellowed a lot over time. Now I just want sex to be in the light of everyday life, on a personal level and in public culture, free of judgment and anxiety. It’s all the compulsion around sexuality and sexual expression, the urgent messages we get to be one way or another, that makes sex so controversial and fraught with fear and shame.  If we could each have authentic understanding and acceptance of our sexuality and identity, that would make a sex-positive world. In business, sex positivity has always guided our product selection, our choices regarding the aesthetics of the brand and supporting our staff in who they are.

Rachel: To me it starts with not criticizing bodies, but accepting, appreciating and enjoying all they do for us. And not censoring desire, but exploring it and seeing what’s there for ourselves. And letting other people enjoy what they do (consensually of course) without judging or thinking it’s gross. Business-wise, that means inclusion in our imagery and rhetoric and offerings for a diverse range of people.

What have you learned in 20 years of running what is one of the most well-known gay-owned businesses in the U.S.?

Claire: For Babeland, we balance a mission of promoting sexual vitality with keeping an eye on the bottom line — over the years we’ve gotten better at maintaining that without lurching.

What’s can we hope to see in the next 20 years of Babeland? What’s your wish list like for the next two decades?

Claire: More Babeland stores is at the top of the wish list! We would love to make the Babeland experience available to more and more people. And on our big list: comprehensive sex education in schools, legalizing sex work, full reproductive rights including access to abortion, equality for all and a queer woman in the White House!

I think those are wish list items we can all get behind. Thank you both! Head over to Babeland to grab your body-safe toys, books and videos.

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Freelance writer and fiction author, Geekery Editor for Autostraddle.com and Fiction Editor for qu.ee/r Magazine. Keep up with her at her website.

Ali has written 270 articles for us.

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