The internet abounds with sites selling sexual wellness products, which can be delivered to your house in the nondescript packaging. For many people, that privacy is imperative.
Others prefer a more hands-on experience, and for them, Asheville is home to a small but mighty cadre of shops selling sexual wellness products ranging from sex toys and vibrators to lubricants and lingerie. These shops allow customers to explore products in person, learn from experienced salespeople and get personalized recommendations.
There’s no one-size-fits-all for our sexualities, explains Jenny Shealy, a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist in Asheville. “It’s about having optimal wellness for each of us, which looks different for each of us.”
Different shops cater to different demographics. VaVaVooom, which has locations downtown and in West Asheville, sells a wide array of lingerie, sex toys and kink toys. The downtown shop has a distinctly feminine feel to it, with comfy armchairs and Georgia O’Keefe-style artwork on the walls. Store manager Jenay Martin says she’s heartened by seeing mothers coming into the shop with their daughters, believing it sends the message that sexual pleasure is important.
Boutique Royale: Lingerie & Gifts sells lingerie, including sexy costumes, and features other products for sex, such as strap-on harnesses, positioning cushions and frisky board games and card games. Owner Patrick Kennedy says customers sometimes wander into his store near Biltmore Village expecting a traditional lingerie store and are surprised to see it sells dildos and paddles as well.
Sex shops are regulated under state law as selling “sexually oriented devices,” making them different from “adult establishments” that include adult bookstores, adult motion picture theaters and adult live entertainment. Both Kennedy and Martin say that the absence of pornographic material like DVDs or magazines allows the shops to welcome customers of all ages.
Safe (sex) toys
Asheville’s shop owners know their health-conscious consumers care about what’s in their Kegel exercisers as much as their kale. They pride themselves on choosing to sell body-safe products made consciously with the user’s health and the environment in mind. “It’s something people should know about,” says Martin of body-safe sex toys.
Both shops carry products that are regulated as novelty toys and as medical devices. The distinction matters: novelty toys are viewed as “entertainment” by regulators, and therefore are unregulated. This means that novelty toys can be made with glass, or chemicals like bisphenol A, phthalates or polyvinyl chloride, of PVC.
Medical devices are another category found in sex shops. These are meant to treat a health condition, typically a sexual dysfunction or pelvic or urinary tract health issue. Medical devices are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and they also may be eligible for reimbursement under a Health Savings Accounts or Flex Spending (while novelty sex toys are not).
Many sex toys are made from “petroleum byproducts — plasticized, rubberized materials that are used internally and can actually break down inside your body and mucous membrane can absorb that,” explains VaVaVooom owner Lisa Genevieve Ziemer.
She says VaVaVooom sells only sex toys made with medical-grade, body-safe silicone and all products are given a flame test — i.e., passed over a flame to see if they melt — before the shop purchases them for sale. (“A medical-grade silicone will not ignite or smoke if you put a flame to it,” Ziemer explains.)
VaVaVooom’s body-safe silicone toys range from clitoral and wand vibrators, C-rings and even a remote-controlled vibrating couples’ massager. The shop also sells several stainless steel toys, which can be used for stimulating the G-spot or the prostate. VaVaVooom also sells European sex toy brands like LELO, as Europe’s regulations on body-safe materials are stricter, Ziemer says.
In her sex therapy practice, Shealy says she sometimes encounters clients who are squeamish or shameful about personal lubricants. “I typically bring it up when we’re talking about pleasure, [asking] how do they feel about these things?” Shealy explains, speaking as if a client: “‘Why should we need lube? We should be lubricated enough!’” She notes that movies often depict heterosexual couples unrealistically — “she gets wet really quickly, he gets hard really quickly and then sex is over within two minutes.”
Real life is not so simple. Vaginal dryness has both physical causes, like breastfeeding, and psychological causes, like depression, according to Healthline. Menopause, when the female body decreases the production of estrogen, and cancer treatments like chemotherapy can also lead to dryness. For this reason, personal lubricant is considered a Class II medical device by the FDA.
Both shops carry numerous water-, oil- or silicone-based lubricants to cater to different personal preferences. VaVaVooom, for example, carries a water-based SLIQUID lube containing food-grade menthol, which warms with friction. And Kennedy notes that his customers seek out a variety of options due to skin sensitivities. For example, someone who is prone to yeast infections may want to avoid a water-based lube, which contains glycerin that can lead to an overgrowth of yeast, according to SELF.com.
Kennedy also carries the gluten-free lube brand Intimate Earth, which is vegan and doesn’t test on animals. (He notes an Intimate Earth product called Soothe Anal Glide is popular for anal play.)
Pelvic floor problems
Not everyone who enters a sex shop is looking to spice up the bedroom. Martin says some customers are referred to VaVaVooom by their physical therapists for help with strengthening their pelvic floor.
VaVaVooom sells a vibrating pelvic floor wand called the FeMani Wand, which is registered as a Class 1 medical device with the FDA as a therapeutic vibrator. (The product was proposed for use in a clinical trial for nonpharmacological interventions for vaginal atrophy, but the trial was terminated due to slow recruitment.) FeMani wands come in different sizes and also can be used for vaginal dialation by transgender women.
The pelvic floor can be strengthened through Kegel exercises, and both VaVaVooom and Boutique Royale sell various balls and exercisers that can help. The WeVibe BLOOM, which comes with three different weights for pelvic floor toning, is one product VaVaVooom sells, as well as a “Kegel exercise tracker” called the Elvie from Dame products.
Pleasure is everything
The entertainment-vs.-medicine division among sex toys doesn’t capture how many individuals use sex-related products for pleasure. And pleasure is a component of sexual health.
In Asheville’s sex shops, embracing pleasure is often what they’re selling. “There’s no reason that this needs to be scary or weird,” Kennedy says of buying sex toys. “It shouldn’t be any different than shopping anywhere else.”
Ziemer says she’s conscious of creating “an atmosphere that’s supercomfortable for individuals and couples. There is no shaming going on, no judgment going on.”
She adds that she aims to employ people who have a “solid interest” in sexual wellness work, which includes employees knowledgeable about kink and about LGBTQ sex. All her staff undergo a 20-hour training program as a prerequisite for working there.
VaVaVooom sells numerous books about safe sex, including safe kink. “We have a lot of reference books — we’re big on books!” she says.
Although they are selling toys that buzz, or attach to the bedpost, Asheville’s sex shop owners see themselves as guides.
“We try to stay within the educational realm … and then help them make choices based on what they think their needs might be,” Ziemer says. “You are in possession of your own body and your own pleasure.”