Teaching Sex Holistically

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We have sex toy shops and sex education classes, pharmacies and OB/GYNs, but we don’t have a place that acknowledges the intersection of all four. Both the pleasurable and the medical aspects of female sexuality must be addressed, however, because sexual and reproductive health are inextricably linked with sexual satisfaction and excitement.

This does not mean that sexuality necessarily relates to, or involves, reproduction. Indeed, according to Dr. Logan Levkoff, a renowned sexologist, the ubiquitous misuse of “vagina” in place of the anatomically correct “vulva” is a telling symptom of the social refusal to acknowledge the larger picture of sexuality as being more than reproduction.

“The fact that we call the vulva the vagina is really problematic and indicative of how little we know, or maybe even worse, how little we care about women’s sexual organs and function,” Levkoff tells BTRtoday. “We make our purpose to be strictly reproduction, which is why most of the time we only talk about what goes on inside instead of what goes on outside.”

This reductive way of talking about female sexuality, and by extension sexuality in general, contributes to a narrow and counterproductive vision of what sex is.

“Talking about sexuality is about more than talking about vaginal or anal or oral sex,” says Levkoff. “Sexuality isn’t what we do, it’s who we are. Sex is any and all kinds. It might be things that we do at some point in our lives but that means different things to us as we grow up and we figure out how we want to express ourselves.”

It’s this kind of holistic view of sexuality, as being part of but greater than the sum of the sex acts that we partake in, that necessitates space to address all sexual concerns as they relate to one another.

Currently, society has space to talk about how you want your orgasms to happen (though not nearly enough space to do so) and space to bring your concerns about urinary tract infections, but there is no space to do both at once.

Enter The V Store. The V Store is the holistic pop-up shop brainchild of Maia Kaufman, a student in SVA’s MFA Design for Social Innovation program. She envisions a store that is a sex toy shop, workshop space, clinic, and pharmacy all in one.

BTRtoday sat down with Kaufman to talk about her vision for the shop. For her, it started from her awareness that the women around her had deeply misinformed notions regarding their own bodies and sexualities.

“Either they were looking things up on the internet or talking to friends and family, none of which really gave them accurate info,” she says. “So my question was ‘how do I inject accurate info into the living room conversations that are already happening, or how do you make that living room conversation happen in a new space?’”

Demystifying female sexuality is a necessary step in holistic sexual education. For Kaufman, this involves breaking down the reductive dichotomies of femaleness and female sexuality:

“You’re told to act in two different ways all the time,” she explains. “Be aggressive and be nice, be feminine, yet tough. The different ways you’re expected to act don’t mesh up with each other. My idea also came about from the separation of sexual health and reproductive health and the two not existing in the same space. They’re looked at very separately and have their own realms. So breaking through that barrier was important for me.”

Three prototypes preceded the final pop-up shop installation, which took place last weekend. The first was just Kaufman and a friend in a coffee shop, acting out questions. The second was a makeshift store in a classroom, which included local sex educator and host of Sex Ed A Go-Go, Dirty Lola, a nurse friend of Kaufman’s, and people in Kaufman’s extended network of friends and coworkers. They were invited to come and ask any and all sex questions, be they about orgasms or UTIs. And ask they did.

“People said it felt like a community. Which is not really something I had thought of in terms of the design of it,” Kaufman recalls. “I pictured a single person or a group of people coming in together but not them interacting with each other as much, which is what ended up happening. At one point Lola started talking and half the people in the room sort of migrated around her and started talking and sharing stories. It was just amazing.”

The role of men came up, as one of Kaufman’s male teammates was involved in the prototype. She sent him to “see if it would change anything.” The female participants reported that it made them a little uncomfortable, but only because they felt that talking about their sex lives would make him uncomfortable.

The third and final prototype took place at a store space in Bushwick, where passers-by could participate. Kaufman reported a similar, and surprising, level of closeness and openness amongst the participants. She also reported a similar response to the few males in the group. That is, the women felt uncomfortable speaking openly around the men but mostly for the sake of the men themselves.

This reaction to the presence of men in a space with women talking openly about their sex organs and lives is particularly revealing of the taboo that both Kaufman and Levkoff aim to break through.

“The whole point of the store is to make the subject less taboo,” Kaufman stresses. “Girls talk about periods at the bar, they talk about it when they’re home together. A lot of women do talk to their doctors about these things, even if they only go once or twice a year. But when you see it on TV or read about it or are talking about it in groups with guys, it’s a very different conversation. And I don’t think that’s healthy or necessary.”

Kaufman hopes to move forward with another V Store pop-up this summer and intends to establish a permanent store in the future.