When you hear the words “sex shop,” you might imagine a shady den of sin dealing in condoms, handcuffs, and fleshy-looking hunks of silicone—definitely not the kind of store where you’d strike up a friendly conversation with the cashier. Blame it on America’s ultra-conservative approach to sex education: When people are made to feel ashamed of their sexuality, the pursuit of pleasure becomes a shameful thing.
But Maia Kaufman, a student in the New York City School of Visual Arts' Design for Social Innovation program, wants to change preconceived notions of what a sex shop can be by blurring the line between sexual health and sexual pleasure. Her vision? The V-Store, a retail space where medical professionals and sex educators come together in a one-stop shop for sexual well-being.
As a longtime sex educator and sex shop employee, I was immediately interested in the concept, which falls somewhere between a health clinic and a traditional sex shop. And while Kaufman's bigger vision is still in the design stages, lucky for me, a pop-up prototype of The V-Store will be open in New York’s Soho neighborhood this weekend.
“It’s not like a gynecologist’s office, where the power dynamic is clearly skewed and patients might feel vulnerable or shy,” Kaufman explains of the V-Store concept. “But it’s also more health-focused than your average sex shop.”
With nurses on-staff and plans to include a pharmacy, The V-Store would be a place for women—cis and trans alike—to get the answers and products they need to maintain their sexual and reproductive health. That means things like contraceptives and prenatal vitamins, but it also means masturbatory aids, sexual lubricant, and more.
The V-Store would serve women at any stage of sexual development. “The store will be laid out in a sort of linear way—starting with things for younger women, like contraception and vibrators, then fertility aids, post-pregnancy products, and products that aid with issues facing post-menopausal women.”
Kaufman, 30, began developing The V-Store nearly a year ago, as a final project for her design thesis class. A film major primarily interested in the arts, she was in her mid-20s when she noticed the number of laws restricting access to reproductive health for women skyrocketing. “At that age, I was just starting to be politically engaged, and the more I paid attention to these issues, the more I felt compelled to act.” Kaufman came to SVA determined to use her background in the arts to make a difference in the world of reproductive health.
While she initially envisioned a “Wal-Mart for reproductive health,” Kaufman ultimately decided that sexual pleasure was just as high a priority—and for good reason. “The conversation around sexual health is changing,” she says. “We’re seeing so much innovation around issues of women’s health, from THINX [period panties] to women-oriented condom companies, and to me, that’s a sign that we’re ready to talk about sexual health, and especially women’s sexual health, in a new way. I want to take all the innovation I see happening in these different places and bring them together in a space that encourages open communication.”
Communication and community-building are just as important to The V-Store’s model as any of the products on display. “One thing I found in early prototypes was that, in the right setting, people can actually get excited to talk about their experiences, fears, and desires,” says Kaufman. “One of my biggest design challenges was creating a physical space where customers could feel comfortable asking questions, getting involved in conversations, and really engaging with the educators and experts on staff.”
The solution? Comfy seats and conversation-starting placards placed strategically throughout the store to inspire conversations, either with an employee or with a partner. Indeed, while The V-Store will cater primarily to women’s needs, Kaufman stresses that the store is open to everybody. “Gender-neutral isn’t exactly the right word, but it’s certainly not gender-exclusive,” Kaufman explains. After all, “women aren’t the only ones with questions about women’s health and pleasure.”
In addition to sex toys and sexual health aids, the pop-up shop open this weekend will feature educational workshops (including one on pelvic floor health, by yours truly) and the chance to talk one-on-one with sex educators, health professionals, and Kaufman herself. “During the pop-up, we’ll be collecting lots of feedback,” she explains, “and after it’s over, it’s back to the drawing board to figure out what worked and what didn’t.”
The future of The V-Store is still evolving: Kaufman says there may be another pop-up this summer, and potentially a brick-and-mortar location either in New York or in Portland (where pharmacies can legally prescribe birth control, making The V-Store a true all-in-one reproductive health resource). But while the project itself may be uncertain, Kaufman is not. “I think this is the perfect time for something like this,” she says confidently. “More and more, people are standing up for women’s health and sexuality. I’m just happy to contribute the sea change, however I can.”
Haylin Belay is a NYC-based writer and sex educator exploring the intersection between identity, sexuality, and health.