I’m not quite so typical anymore. Most American women don’t sell sex toys for a living. But more are joining me every day because lots of women buy them—or should. I’ve learned that much since the creation of Safina, the company I founded to provide sex information and products for women. I’m now an official, if unorthodox, “sexpert.” Unlike the majority of sexperts, I have never appeared in a porn movie.
I don’t do inner sex goddess classes with hand mirrors and chanting. I haven’t hosted couples retreats in
the mountains where I advise lovers to gaze into each other’s
eyes and breathe in sync. You will never hear me spouting new age psychobabble about sexuality. My approach is the result of my personal, I dare say, typical sexual experience as a civilian—not a professional—sexual being, and a lot of research.
That said, I have also presided over hundreds of Safina Salons (more on Salons later), I’ve spoken with and lectured to thousands of women nationwide about sex, and I’ve conducted seminars and classes through the Learning Annex and other organizations on how women can improve their sexual pleasure. I’ve made gathering sexual information job one and have interviewed dozens of groundbreaking doctors and researchers in the United States and beyond. I’ve studied the history of sex from the ancient Greeks to modern presidents. For the last few years, my life has been all sex research, all the time. My life has made a 180-degree turn since my days as an advertising executive. It all began—the idea to start the company, and to devote myself to sexual education—with a question. A question that is common to most women but that often goes unasked. If Safina does nothing more (although it does—much, much more), I hope we adequately address the query, “Am I normal?”Dragging Sex Out of the Closet
I was living in Brussels for an advertising job when the President Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke. The Europeans were bewildered by our government’s reaction to the scandal. I was constantly asked to explain why our government cared about our president’s sex life when the women he saw were clearly over 18 and consenting. When I returned to New York, I noticed a concrete shift in our culture. Sex was a topic of open discussion on TV and in restaurants. Of course, people talked about sex before. But I’d never heard newscasters saying “oral sex” previously or Barbara Walters asking Ms. Lewinsky if the president made her “as a woman, happy and content.” It was my turn to be shocked. Meanwhile, Sex and the City was not just beloved in New York as it had been when I left, but it had become wildly popular all over the country. The ribald honesty of the characters made Madonna’s formerly shocking behavior seem quaint in comparison. Victoria’s Secret had boomed in my absence too and was now having runway shows broadcast on network TV with their “Very Sexy” collection, which was more Frederick’s of Hollywood than their formerly Victorian style. Staid magazines like Redbook, once full of recipes and mommy tips, now blazed tantalizing cover lines that were just as raunchy as Cosmopolitan.
You turn your back on a country for two years and look what happens! While I was gone, sex had moved to the forefront of the American culture agenda. And yet, when I met my girlfriends for drinks and the subject turned to their own sex lives, all I heard were the same vague statements they’d always made like, “My new boyfriend is awesome in bed.” No one spoke as explicitly, it seemed, as Ms. Lewinsky, and she did so only under subpoena. The new national openness was great in the abstract, but on a woman-to-woman level, sexuality remained a sealed state secret.Why Is Sex Such a Mystery?
Eating is essential for survival, like breathing, drinking, and sex. What could be more essential for our species’ survival than sex? We know a lot about how to eat, breathe, and drink. And although everyone can recite reproductive mechanics, you’d be surprised by the huge educational gaps in basic sexual anatomy and the physiology of pleasure. Don’t believe me? Tell me then, how long is the clitoris (answer on page 35)? What’s the difference between the vulva and vagina (see page 23)? Where and what is the prostate (see pages 89–93)? The perineum (page 96)? What are the four stages of arousal (pages 73–77)? I could go on (in fact, I do—for the rest of this book). We are all interested in sex, fascinated by it, obsessed with it. So why don’t we know everything there is to know about our bodies and what they can do? What’s standing in the way?
I’m convinced that the gap is due to how information is presented—as either too medical sounding and therefore impersonal or too explicit and therefore embarrassing. Sleazy sex book covers can be downright mortifying. I’ve long felt that buying one would reflect negatively on me (although who would care anyway? Strangers and cashiers?). Sex toy packaging and the dark, shady stores where you buy the stuff are even more off-putting. Even the outsides of those stores are sleazy. Why aren’t sex toys presented like cosmetics or lacy underwear instead of deviant gizmos for hookers? Sex equals sleaze in our consumer culture (and in our creative culture). No wonder people hesitate before seeking information and buying products or admitting the naked truth to their friends.
Hesitancy about sex dovetails into hesitancy about talking about sex with a partner. If I had a nickel for every time a woman told me, “If I tell him what I want him to do to me in bed, he’ll think I’m ‘slutty’ or ‘greedy’ or ‘demanding,’” well, I’d be drowning in nickels. It’s amazing that women can tell a hairstylist or a waiter in precise detail how to trim their bangs or cook their food, but women can’t bring themselves to say “not there, there” to the most important person in their lives.
I believe that open, honest, straightforward talk should be the norm in all relationships. This must include sex talk. Otherwise, you carry on, not enjoying sex as much as you could. Resentment and/or boredom grow. The result: isolation within a relationship. It seems contradictory to have fear and silence in a love union. It’s not healthy, but as I’ve learned, it is typical.
When I was in my early twenties, I had a boyfriend who was enthusiastic in bed, but he had the attention span of a flea. He’d leap from one thing to the next too quickly. I’d just be getting into his hand motions when he’d suddenly change pace or completely stop to start something else. It was unsatisfying for me, but he seemed to be having a great time. “I should be enjoying this,” I kept thinking. He was doing his best, after all. In frustration, I tried to keep him on track by saying, “That feels fantastic” and “That’s perfect.” But he didn’t take the hint. It must be me, I decided. I take too long to get into a groove. It’s my fault. I vowed to just get used to it. I didn’t get the chance though. He dumped me for an ex-girlfriend. I was stunned. Our sex life didn’t come up in the “it’s not you, it’s me” exit interview, but I wondered if he knew it wasn’t good for me. His no-longer-ex must have been happy with his style. The fault rested in my lap. Again, something was wrong with me.
The end of a relationship always raises questions. You can see why I was busy asking myself, “Am I normal?” at the conclusion of this one. I decided that the matter was too important to wonder about. If I was ever going to have the kind of open, honest relationship I wanted I knew I’d have to figure out what normal was and how to better communicate. So I set about learning everything I could about relationships and sex. I talked openly with a few close friends about these issues, and I found out that they had the same problems and concerns. When I saw that our culture was shifting to a more open discussion about sex, I knew that
I could help make that discussion happen. I was sure there was a lot of information out there that needed to be made more accessible. I read every book I could find about sex and relationships (still do). I attended workshops and interviewed gynecologists and urologists. I read
medical journals and talked to the doctors who authored the studies. I interviewed every type of sex worker. I’m social by nature. I can talk to anyone, about anything. I’ve found that no topic interests people as much as sex. Once people see you as a nonjudgmental, interested stranger, they’ll tell you anything—far more than they’ll tell friends—and it was all very fascinating and informative.
Meanwhile, all of this research cut severely into my day job at the advertising agency. So I quit. I took a deep breath and called my mother and told her what I’d done. “Great,” she said. “What are you going to do?” Suddenly I realized that she thought I’d landed a bigger, better advertising job at another agency. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never talked to her about sex since we’d had “the talk” when I was a kid. Nervous as hell, I blurted out, “I’m going to start a business. For women. A sex information and sex toy business. Not sleazy. Like something you’ve never seen. In the same format as Mary Kay or Tupperware but high-end. Sophisticated and affordable. Chic and smart. Useful information and pretty products. Nice packaging.”
Mom said nothing. I’d stunned her silent. “Are you still there?” I asked terrified that she’d hung up.
“I’m here,” she said. “I’m just thinking about it. You know, I think it could work.” She actually believed that my company could fill a need in the marketplace. I can’t tell you how important her support has been to me.
Most of my female friends and coworkers cheered me on too. But my straight male friends and associates (and, it followed, many of the bankers and investors I sought out for financing) thought I’d lost my mind. They didn’t see what need my business would fulfill, and they didn’t believe women would want to host Safina Salons in their living rooms. And they definitely didn’t think I’d sell anything or be able to find salespeople. I heard the same “It’ll never fly” dozens of times from men. Each time, I have to admit, it hurt.
But they were wrong. I eventually found an important supporter who believed in my idea—my dear friend John. John had experience starting up small businesses. His guidance and confidence kept me going (John, this is my official “thank you a million times, I couldn’t have done it without you”). With his business-end support, I devoted myself completely to my sexual education. And that quickly evolved into the pursuit of educating others.A Company Is Born
After my book research, I had to go into the field to buy and sample sex toys. To inspire me, I bought a big blue dildo and kept it on my desk. I stared at it when I was on the phone and as I collected the product sources and catalogs. It startled me when I entered and left the room at first. It was so big, so blue, so penis-like. When the doorbell rang, I’d hurl it into the closet. After a few days though, I got used to it. My cleaning lady, however, wasn’t prepared for the shock.
“Oh my god!” she screamed when she came in and saw it for the first time.
“What?” I asked. Immediately, I saw where her bugged-out eyes were staring. I was mortified. My newfound comfort level was shattered. “Oh, Lisa, don’t worry about that,” I said. “It’s for my new job. I work at home now.”
She looked at me with rank horror.
I realized what I’d just said.
I said, “Wait a minute. You don’t think I’m working with that, at home?” I shook my head. “No, it’s not like that.”
She tilted her head now. Very confused. I picked up the dildo and said, “It’s just plastic. I’m going to sell these to women who need them.”
Lisa had heard more than enough. She said, “I don’t want to know. I’ll just dust. You get out of here and I’ll just dust.”
A few weeks later, my mantle was crammed with sex toys from all over the world. I’d been buying each and every sex appliance I could find and was gathering quite a collection (eventually honed way down for Safina’s catalogue). I came home one afternoon just as Lisa was leaving
“Okay, I’m ready to listen now. What is this new job?” she asked.
I sat her down and explained things. Shocked as she’d been when she first saw Big Blue, it couldn’t have equaled my surprise when Lisa asked if I could recommend a product for her. As soon as she asked, I knew I was in the right business.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Best You'll Ever Have by Shannon Mullen with Valerie Frankel. Copyright © 2004 by Shannon Mullen. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.