Dildos, ranging in size, colour and anatomical correctness, dangle off the back wall at Venus Envy.
Getting to them means walking past everything else the Barrington Street sex shop and bookstore has to offer. Menstrual supplies for the health-conscious sit near a package of “Kinky Sex Coupons.” Condoms, in various sizes and flavours, are on the ends of bookshelves that house titles such as Getting Off and Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving.
Standing in the middle of it all is Maggie Haywood, who has managed the store for 13 years.
“We all need to be self-reliant when it comes to our own pleasure,” says Haywood, something she feels is missing from conventional sex-ed.
“What kids are being taught is very dryly anatomical without any sort of pleasure focus,” she says. “I think that being able to talk frankly to kids about pleasure and their bodies and making their own boundaries is really important.”
What happens when kids aren’t taught about the pleasurable element of sexuality? Well, they just might take matters into their own hands.
Rachel Worth-Cappell was seven years old when her big sister caught her in the act. Hiding behind a chair in their family living room, armed with a back massager, Worth-Cappell was making her first sexual discovery. Now, the 23-year-old Haligonian laughs just thinking about it. At the time, she felt nothing but embarrassment.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I felt the need to hide it.”
Her sister’s reaction was the worst. “She shamed me,” says Worth-Cappell.
But sexual behaviour at a young age is not uncommon. To Lisa Kelner, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and developmental psychologist, pleasure-seeking behaviour is just part of how we’re wired.
“As for masturbation specifically, ultrasound pictures show fetuses touching their genitals,” she says. “It seems to be part of human sexuality from the start.”
Kira Tomsons, a Dalhousie feminist philosophy professor, agrees.
“Little kids do masturbate,” she says. “The reaction of parents is almost overwhelmingly to stop them and prevent them, and they engrain the sense that there’s something wrong with what they’re doing.”
Tomsons is also quick to point out that the shame is not felt equally between genders.
“One of the things that women haven’t been taught how to do is how to pursue their own pleasure,” says Tomsons, adding that the language we use proves there’s a male-focus. “For example, ‘jerking off’—that’s specifically something that’s oriented to how men engage in masturbation.”
Haywood puts the gender difference a bit more simply.
“Just from being sort of alive in the world, boys get the sense that, ‘oh, there’s this thing down my pants that I can play with,’” she says.
Michael Beedie, a fourth-year Dal student, made this discovery around age 10.
“I don’t think I should have done that, but I liked it,” he remembers thinking at the time. He says the pleasure was accompanied by “a sense of shame and secrecy.” For Beedie, these feelings were quickly remedied by talking to his friends.
“Everyone was doing it,” he says. “It was normal.”
For Worth-Cappell, it took much longer to embrace the act. “It’s fairly recent, in the last two or three years, that I realized it’s kind of a beautiful thing,” she says.
Haywood says this difference is fairly typical.
“Masturbation, for guys, has always been just a bit more visible, more talked about,” she says. “For example, it’s fairly rare to find a 20-year-old man who doesn’t know how to have an orgasm.”
In contrast, she says it’s very common for women to have never climaxed.
“Off the top of my head I can name half a dozen books devoted to ‘how the heck do I have an orgasm?’” says Haywood, “and those books are exclusively for women.”
Lots of females enter Venus Envy with this problem, she says.
Haywood says the fact that it’s so common “points to something lacking somewhere in terms of what we teach young girls about their bodies.”
Tomsons says there are positive ways for parents to treat their youngsters’ sexual behaviour, such as telling them that masturbation is private rather than something they can not do.
“It sort of shifts it from something that’s shameful to something that is positive but appropriate in a certain domain,” she says.
According to Kelner, it’s more important than ever for parents to talk to their kids about sexuality because there’s so much misinformation available, especially online.
“As a society we are moving more and more toward education and communication about topics of sexuality that were taboo,” Kelner says, adding that it’s not always simple to do so. “Culture and religion have great impact into how parents were educated about sexuality and in turn how comfortable they are in discussing it with their children.”
“It is difficult to discuss self-stimulation with children when you are not totally comfortable with the topic from your own childhood,” says Kelner.
Luckily, adults who want that alternative education have it available to them in Halifax. Venus Envy has developed women’s orgasm workshops that are all about reaching climax alone.
“Being able to fulfill certain needs on your own is important,” says Haywood. “It’s sort of like, what if you had to rely on someone else to feed you all the time?”
On that note, she says there are many common household items that can aid in the process.
“We should all be buying local,” she says with a laugh. “Carrots and cucumbers are ever-popular and inexpensive.”
With files from Katrina Pyne, News Editor.