Sex education resources aimed at older adults are scarce and difficult to access. Carefully curated adult shops are filling that role by educating their staff and providing educational materials and products chosen with older adults’ sexual health and pleasure in mind.
sex education, adult shops, sex shops, sexual health, pleasure
“I recently started having trouble reaching orgasm. This never happened to me before. What can I do?”
“Can you help me find a way to keep my (penile) erections strong? I get them but then they just … go away!”
“I lost my partner 10 years ago and am ready to start dating. I don’t have a clue what I need to know!”
“I’m as dry as the Sahara Desert down there. Help!”
“I’ve always wanted to try ___________. Where do I learn more?"
Many older adults struggle to find the answers to these and other common sexual health questions. These questions have remained constant in the 26 years I’ve been educating the public in sexual health. Some may ask their healthcare provider, but very few do (Agochukwu-Mmonu et al., 2021). Healthcare providers are not trained to ask about sexual health and rarely question patients about sexual function or satisfaction. Providers also may be uncomfortable talking about sex. This means that even if they are prompted to do so, they may choose to skip those questions, or their discomfort serves as a cue to the patient that it isn’t a topic that can be safely discussed.
When the topic comes up, either by the patient or provider, there are few solutions available for the provider to offer. Medicine offers limited solutions to the questions and needs such as those listed above. Most of these issues are not things that a medication or procedure can improve or solve.
It's hard for a person to know where to look for answers. The internet will offer a wide range of answers and resources, but it can be tough to ascertain which sources of information are accurate, particularly for people who may not be internet-savvy. Many people older than age 65 tell me they don’t trust the internet or don’t know how to use it effectively.
Some may stumble across a local shop in their search for information and realize that the shop also offers education on sexual health. Others will ask friends for suggestions and end up at a shop because a friend had a good experience or heard that it was the place to go for similar needs and questions.
Need for Sex Education Strong in Elders
There is a strong need for accessible sex education for older adults. Many online sources are youth-oriented and may not feel safe to older adults. A carefully designed, comfortable adult shop provides a unique opportunity to “educate through retail” by offering a familiar environment in which a sometimes-difficult topic may be explored. It can offer creative and accessible solutions to a wide variety of people from many cultures and backgrounds through sensitive answer curation and a well-trained staff.
One resource available in many communities now is at least one well-curated adult shop with an orientation toward offering accurate sex education. They offer places to accomplish two things at once: they allow the person to engage in the familiar act of shopping when they need items of a more personal nature, and they provide a place where one might find the education and skillfully recommended products to help them meet their needs for exploring or improving their sexual health and intimacy. Some of these shops also offer websites where consumers can get answers to common questions as well as suggestions for resources that might be useful.
‘Many online sources are youth-oriented and may not feel safe to older adults.’
In the adult retail products industry, there has been an increasing emphasis on including sex education in the services staff provide. Shops, including some of the larger chains, are investing in education for their staff to enable them to answer questions about basic sexual health and function. Some shops put a lot of time into training their staff to allow them to answer more in-depth questions and offer customers support in problem-solving to address many of the most common sexual health concerns and desires.
A welcoming adult shop will also engage with the wider community to better reflect the diversity of the people living there. They may invite feedback that makes the shop better able to meet the needs of the people it serves. Adult shops often offer classes, sponsor book events, and participate in community events that increase their ability to convey that they are a resource for all people to learn, explore, and grow sexually and in their intimate relationships.
Feminist Sex Shops Have Been Educating for Years
Shops that consider themselves “feminist sex shops” are at the forefront of this type of in-depth education of staff and customers. These shops strive to be inclusive of all genders and orientations as well as presenting environments that are welcoming to people of all cultural and religious backgrounds. They often offer educational books in addition to the typical offerings of personal lubricants, sensual products, adult toys, and sometimes lingerie.
For example, the store I own, A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center in Madison, Wisconsin, educates the staff in accurate anatomy and physiology of sex for people of all genders and orientations. Like other feminist shops, they also teach staff how to:
- Create a comfort level that allows the customer to ask any question.
- Offer validation of the concerns and experiences to reinforce that everyone is “normal” and not experiencing something “weird,” or an issue without a solution.
- Ask questions that help the customer define what they want or need to help the person choose the products or educational materials that will best fit their situation.
- Help each person define sexuality and intimacy on their own terms by redirecting questions like “what is the most popular…?” or “What is your bestseller…?” and instead encouraging them to explore products with an eye to what fits best for their unique situation and level of comfort.
Examples of other shops that do this in their brick-and-mortar stores include:
- Smitten Kitten (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
- Sugar (Baltimore)
- Early to Bed (Chicago)
- Good Vibrations (San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Palo Alto, CA, and Brookline, MA)
- Babeland (Seattle, New York City)
- Forbidden Fruit (Austin, TX)
Some shops develop strong relationships with clinicians of all kinds in their community. These relationships may be created either by clinicians reaching out to learn what is available through their local shop, or the shop reaching out to the clinical community and educating clinicians on what products are available and what educational resources they offer. The shops with strong connections to the clinicians in their community are the most likely have products that will best solve issues. Clinicians can feel comfortable sending clients and patients to these shops to answer questions the clinician may not have knowledge about or time to answer.
“Feminist sex shops” are at the forefront of in-depth education for staff and customers.
A Woman’s Touch has strong interrelationships with clinicians in their community. It maintains an active outreach program that sends out lubricant samples and educational brochures on topics that range from how to choose a personal lubricant, pelvic floor health, erectile function and dysfunction, and sexual health and pleasure after menopause. They have worked with clinicians to design a medical device for maintaining sexual health and function after cancer treatment and menopause. The shop keeps a resource list of clinicians in their community that provide pelvic floor therapy, women’s health specialty care, couples therapy, and sex therapy. Community clinicians refer patients when they have questions and concerns around sexual health and function.
How can you discover those shops that might serve as a resource to you and your clients/patients?
- Look at the adult shops’ web sites to see if they have any educational content or mention offering education in their stores.
- Visit shops in your area to see how comfortable they are, how you might describe each shop to a client/patient to help them feel comfortable going there for products and education.
- Ask the shop staff if they maintain referral lists to use when customers have need for professional services related to sexual health and wellness. If they do, ask if you can leave business cards to give out.
- Ask the shop for flyers or business cards to offer your clients/patients. Ask if they offer free samples or other items that would help you share them as a resource.
- Sign up for their mailing list if they have an email newsletter or event announcements.
With a bit of effort, you will find many adult shops that focus on quality products and education can be a vital part of your referral network when a client or patient has needs or questions focused on sexual health, function and pleasure.
Ellen Barnard, MSW, CSE. Owner, A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center, Madison, Wisconsin. Barnard may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: ComicSans/Shutterstock
Agochukwu-Mmonu, N., Malani, P. N., Wittmann, D., Kirch, M., Kullgren, J., Singer, D., & Solway, E. (2021). Interest in sex and conversations about sexual health with health care providers among older US adults. Clinical Gerontologist, 44(3), 299–306.