The gender binary constrains pleasure alongside gender identity. When you drop the pretence of the gender binary, greater pleasure becomes accessible. Unfortunately, many sex stores do not recognise the distinction between sex and gender. We spoke to Lauren Clair founder of Nikki Darling, Australia's first gender neutral sex store, about small business and inclusivity in the sex industry.
What inspired you to start Nikki Darling and what has your journey been like so far?
I was managing a sex shop in Richmond, Victoria and kept finding little inconsistencies with the company ethos and how it actually operated, and I kept thinking to myself - I could fix this, I could do this better, so eventually I put my money where my mouth was and took the plunge in opening my own business!
It’s been an interesting ride so far - I have learned a lot about e-commerce and a lot about how to slowly grow a business without falling into any dept traps, and I think I have now established a reputation in the community as someone who really does want to do it differently, and do it better.
You’ve taken an interesting step in opening Australia’s first gender neutral sex toy store, which is awesome! Why do you think it’s important for sex toys to be gender neutral and what steps have you taken to implement this?
This was the big one for me - even the store where I was working, which was basically the queerest, most feminist sex shop in town, still gendered products online and in the store’s layout.
The obvious problem with this is that there are a lot of trans and gender diverse people who get left out, and if you want a truly queer and inclusive environment, you need to accomodate trans and gender diverse people’s needs, but the less obvious problem was how restrictive and prescriptive that is more broadly.
The example I like to use is the bullet vibrator - because it’s a vibrator, it has traditionally been gendered as a woman’s product. But vibration can be pleasurable for all kinds of people with all kinds of anatomy, and so this simple entry-level product should be a consideration for anyone who wants to get to know sex toys.
It might seem silly now, but in 2015, this was entirely the norm. I mean, it kind of still is the norm - a lot of manufacturers and retailers insist on gendered language (even the ostensibly feminist and queer stores), and they are worried about their SEO rankings and sales suffering by not having “women’s toys” and “men’s toys” as distinct categories, but I’d rather stick to what I know is right than do what is easy.
And to be honest, when it comes to helping the individual, it doesn’t make it easier knowing what someone’s gender is. I need to know where on your body you intend to use the toy, I want to know your preferred colours and textures, and do you have any allergies? These are some of the useful things to know, but gender is irrelevant.
One thing I noticed and love when I first discovered Nikki Darling, was that nothing came across like your run of the mill sex shop. From the super cute toy illustrations to the disability section, there seems to be much more thought and consideration of those outside the able bodied straight cis person. Could you tell us a little bit about why you decided to go such a different route to other sex shops?
I found that sex shops in Australia would usually fit neatly in to one of three categories. The first is the standard adult bookstore - novelties and (often questionable) toys up front, porn up the back, and a bored attendant behind the counter. The second is the fetish store, lots of dungeon vibes and an obvious focus on kink and BDSM, whose sex toys are usually for more advanced or adventurous players. And lastly is the women’s sex shop - these stores are designed to be more inviting for “women and couples” than the traditional adult bookstore, but they tend to co-opt feminist and progressive language whilst being super cis-centric and kinda regressive..
And don’t get me wrong, I love a grimy alleyway sex shop or dungeon as much as the next smut-peddler, but what I envisioned for Nikki Darling was something for everyone - a space where sex is treated with playfulness and curiosity, but where the people are able to hold space for the inherent complexities of sex and sexuality, and can be there to support you on your journey and meet you where you are at, and I don’t think I could do that authentically without considering the intersections of needs that people come to the table with.
There are so many things I love about your store! I also noticed you have a strong set of core values you adhere to, to ensure that you are actively support sex worker and other LGBTQI+ organisation. Why is this important to you?
These are my people! I wanted to be very clear on what was important to me personally and professionally as I set out on this journey, and I am a part of these communities, either by way of identification or allyship, and being part of a community means showing up, giving back, and using the platform I have to lift up others and agitate for change.
Especially when it comes to sex work - a lot of adult retailers shy away from openly supporting sex workers rights because it doesn’t fit their brand, or they are afraid of upsetting the anti-porn bunch, and that sorta hypocrisy just doesn’t work for me. Whether you are working in the side of the sex industry that sells goods, or the side that sells services, we have more in common than not, and we are stronger together than divided.
Nikki Darling has been running since 2015 and you’ve been a sex educator for for much longer, how have you seen the landscape of the sex industry change as a vendor?
In so many ways! I think one of the most exciting things that I have seen is the push towards a safer and more inclusive industry, and it’s been phenomenal to watch this change come from the hard work of small retailers and sex toy bloggers. People like Epiphora (heyepiphora.com), Lilly (dangerouslilly.com) and Dirty Lola (Shag/Sex Ed A Go-Go), just to name a few, have been instrumental in shifting the industry into one that really celebrates small and micro businesses, demands transparency in manufacturing and materials, and considers diversity to be an asset rather than something to be ignored.
What has been one of the biggest challenges since starting Nikki Darling?
Getting into a brick and mortar store is my goal, and it is tricky, because much like with brothels, there ís seemingly no end to the added hurdles and red tape one must jump through. I had found a venue in Preston that was able to offer me some space to start out, but the council rejected me because I don’t fit in with their redevelopment plans for the area (which is to say, my dildos don’t suit their up-and-coming gentrification dreams and reclassified zoning). And another shared business space was concerned that “mothers and daughters” would sometimes walk past my store and be offended, which was laughable (but also frustrating), as mothers and daughters are some of my favourite customer combos.
Then of course there is the uneven e-commerce playing field - ask any e-commerce expert and they’ll tell you that to be competitive you need to take out advertising on social media, which would be fine if those sites would have me, but of course they won’t, because we’re deemed too risky for their conservative investors. It’s a never-ending series of added challenges that most businesses never have to consider, but it forces me to get creative, and teaches me to really value word of mouth advertising, and further reinforces the importance of community.
What’s something you wish we could change about the sex toy industry?
The big one was the gendered nature of the industry, and five years in, I feel confident in saying that I have contributed to that change occuring in my industry, which makes me so, so proud. In the future, I just want to see a greater acceptance of sex-based businesses in physical spaces. Like, I want to see artisan dildos popping up at the Queen Vic Markets, and really, I just want my industry to be treated with the same autonomy and respect that other retailers enjoy.
I have to ask this, because I have to ask this, but what is your favourite sex toy or your top 5?
Of course you have to ask! My all-time, desert island, top five sex toys are:
- SpareParts Joque Harness - A perfect harness, in my humble opinion - it’s super durable, adjustable and machine washable, suitable for a variety of bodies and works with a good range of dildos and bullet vibrators.
- Fun Factory Tiger Vibrator - Fun Factory is my dream sex toy manufacturer. They have been doing fun and playful sex toys for years now, and this textured, flexible, rumbly silicone vibe is one I always keep charged and ready for whenever I’m feeling like a good time.
- Njoy Pure Wand - Can’t find your G-Spot? Let the Pure Wand find it for you. This is 1.2 kilograms of pure stainless steel, polished to perfection, and the curve - oh that curve. It’s also been a really useful massage tool for my dodgy shoulder (I love finding de-pervertable uses for my toys!)
- Tenga x Keith Haring Foundation Cups - I LOVE art toys, and the collab between the Keith Haring Foundation and Japanese toy makers Tenga has been thrilling me for years. The texture of the masturbation sleeve is formed by embedding tiny little Haring designs - so you can literally jack it with Haring, how good is that??
- Satisfyer Pro 2 Air Pulse Stimulator - This style of toy was one of the most exciting innovations of the 2010s, and this particular model has an ergonomic handle, replaceable heads and is super silent with a good range of intensities. I’ve never had more orgasms in a single session than I have with this toy.
Honourable mentions go to Funkit Toys Nofrilldos, Sliquid Lube (especially Sassy and Silk), Fun Factory Sharevibe, Rosebuds Crystal Plugs and Uberlube Silicone Lube.
What are some tips you would give to clients shopping for toys for their favourite workers?
Chances are, the worker has already thought about toys they might like to try out, so if you can ask them for a toy wishlist, you’ll be able to be certain it will be something they’ll appreciate! However, if you want the gift to be a surprise, then the safest bet is a gift voucher - Nikki Darling vouchers are emailed to you automatically, so all you need to do is forward the voucher code on to your gift recipient, and then they can get the added fun of browsing the site too!
If you really want to surprise your favourite worker with a physical gift, then consider toys that are quite universal, like a nice bullet vibrator or a wand vibator - these are good, multi-purpose toys that most people can find an enjoyable use for. And don’t forget the lube! There are few things sexier than someone who knows the slippery, pleasure-enhancing values of lube.
Who are some of your favourite sex educators and why?
My favourite educator to work with is Louise Bourchier, who started their sex educator life at roughly the same time as me, and we’ve managed to interweave our respective journeys together across the years - Louise’s classes are frank, funny and factual - which is everything I strive for with my branded workshops. Cyndi Darnell is also such an important sex educator, who was creating space for meaningful conversation locally for years with the deeply missed Pleasure Forum. Having her back in podcast form with The Erotic Philosopher is such a delight, and her Atlas of Erotic Anatomy and Arousal is one of the greatest educational resources in my toolbox. Kate Kenfield, the founder of Sex Geekdom and Tea and Empathy, was instrumental in shaping the ways I think about both professional community and empathy as a skill. And Gala Vanting is another educator and activist who has always pushed me to think harder and go deeper, and who taught me so much about how to hold space for the difficult stuff, while making space for the sublime.
And I of course love bloggers like Epiphora and Lilly, as well as newer-comers like Carly from dildoordildont.com, who do amazing work when it comes to consumer sex education and pull no punches when it comes to holding this industry accountable. And I will forever be indebted to Tristan Taormino, who has been at the forefront of both the modern sex education and feminist porn movements, and one of the first sex educators I really engaged with at the start of my own journey. I could really sit here and list favourite educators all day, including Nina Hartley, Ericka Hart, Dr Carol Queen, Ducky Doolittle, Dirty Lola, Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Barbara Carrellas, and so many more! And whilst we may diverge on some of the specifics, I’d be remiss to leave out Betty Dodson - a true pioneer in sex toy-focused sex education, whose masturbation workshops are the stuff of legend.
There’s been a lot of buzz around innovations in sex tech over the past few years. Any predictions for the future for sex toys?
We were already seeing more toys for people to use together when they are physically apart (yes, there’s even an app for that), and I think COVID-19 will be speeding up the hunt for the Next Big Thing in remote-operated toys. And more broadly, we’re going to be busy arguing about android sex dolls for a while yet, I suspect.