Can you tell us a little about how the Pleasure Chest got its start?
The Pleasure Chest started in 1971 in New York, at the height of the sexual revolution. Founders Duane Colglazier and Bill Rifkin started out selling waterbeds, but found unexpected success in selling erotic novelties like mood lighting, cock rings, and handcuffs. They decided to turn the store into a full-fledged sex shop.
The company’s first location in the West Village in 1971, challenged convention by refusing to block out the store windows with XXX, which was standard for any store with adult material. Its founders aimed to create a department store feel. This simple principle continues to guide and set the Pleasure Chest apart today, now under the leadership of Duane’s nephew Brian Robinson.
What is your job title for the Pleasure Chest? How did you begin working there? What is your background concerning the Adult/Fetish Industry?
Currently I am a Sex Specialist and Sex Educator. The road here starts with me (as a Theater Education major at the University of Puerto Rico: Rio Piedras) putting myself through college working in the adult industry as an exotic dancer and nude model. About three years later, I moved to Miami and eventually transitioned into doing burlesque and teaching pole dance fitness. Upon relocating to California five years ago, I returned to stripping after a break up that left me broke and almost homeless. A burlesque performer I was dating at the time suggested I apply at The Pleasure Chest since I was looking for something with more regular hours. I interviewed and got the job, knowing that becoming a Sex Educator was my primary goal.
What do you love the most about working there?
I love having the opportunity to help people find the tools they need to better love themselves and each other. I love empowering people to feel comfortable in their sexual experimentation, exploration, and expression of themselves. Redirecting sex negatives attitudes and teaching people about consent is very rewarding for me as well.
In your opinion, what would you say are the company’s core values?
Sex positivity, pleasure based sex education, inclusivity, and adaptability.
What is the Pleasure Chest’s overall mission? How does the company go about accomplishing this?
To provide a non-judgmental, safe space where individuals are free to explore lifestyle products that will enrich their sex lives, regardless of spending capacity. We do this by hiring folks that are not only personally invested in their community, but are also actively a part of it, by carrying a wide range of products from low to high price points (which allows us to maintain accessibility to every demographic), and by offering free sex positive, pleasure-based, workshops and events to support and build up the community.
What is unique about your company and store? What do you feel customers can gain/experience uniquely there?
I believe the level of training we receive first and foremost sets us apart from other adult retailers in this industry. Not only from vendors, but from social justice groups as well. As the language around sexuality and gender has evolved, we have had diversity trainings to better serve all facets of the LGBTQ Community. We make a conscious choice to use gender neutral language, whether it is on the sales floor or in our classes. At the LA location, the team is really more like a family. With this being said, customers are met with friendly, compassionate, and knowledgeable staff. We hear them out, we laugh together, sometimes we cry together. We make sure they leave with what they need, knowing how it is used as well as how to clean and care for their product. They get a curated experience that you won’t find in many other stores or online.
Can you elaborate more on your events and classes that you have at your store? How do they help achieve the company’s overall goals?
For our sex education programming, we try to have a decent amount of variety of topics and instructors while still maintaining staples like Suck It, Live It, Love It (an oral sex class for everyone) and Butt Sex Basics as a regular part of our repertoire. Classes are a great way for people to experience a different facet of the store while they are learning something new or expanding on what they already know. Our workshops are always free, and if customers fill out a feedback form we offer them a 15% discount after the class. They get to buy a product(s) that they might have seen featured in the class at an accessible price, and we learn how to make our workshops an even better experience every time.
We also do community building events like “Performance Anxiety,” which is our comedy night, and Cirque Sexualle, a bi-monthly free burlesque show that showcases POC performers. These events all help the Pleasure Chest to achieve its goal of being more than just another adult retailer. We want to be a hub for the community as well, and a safe place to gather, learn, laugh and get turned on in ways that we aren’t typically privileged to in our usual lives.
What types of products do you sell? What companies in your opinion are the best?
Literally everything! Novelties, lingerie, lubricant, massage oils, personal care items, condoms, books, dvds, couples toys, vibrators, dildos, harnesses, anal toys, masturbation sleeves, cock rings, kink implements, electro-play devices. I mean, it’s endless. In my opinion, companies that focus on sustainability and ethical production practices without sacrificing the quality of their product are best to me. In my book, that happens to be Fun Factory. All their products are made by hand in Germany where they employ locals who are unionized, are paid a living wage, and have healthcare. They don’t use any harmful chemicals in the production of their devices, or the devices themselves or the packaging. So, their environmental impact is neutral. That is a major turn on for me.
What do you feel the community at large faces right now? How can/does the Pleasure Chest try to help with this?
I think the greatest challenge the adult industry and sex worker community faces is dealing with the ramifications of our government creating regulations like FOSTA/SESTA, which only builds stigma around the sex worker industry, and makes it more difficult for sex workers to survive, rather than “prevent sex trafficking” as it claims to. Framing sex work as real work and supporting sex workers is something that the Pleasure Chest has always maintained a firm position on.
In your opinion, what is the best way to safely explore your fetishes?
Do your research. Read books, both instructional and erotic fiction to get a well- rounded perspective of what the expression of this fetish can look like. Identify what aspects of its expression resonate with you-what turns you on? Try things by yourself first so you don’t have to worry about what you look like in front of someone else. Once you get a good idea of what a ‘scene’ looks like for you, discuss with a partner, negotiate desires and boundaries, and above all else have fun! Give yourself permission to laugh and enjoy playing in new ways, it doesn’t have to be super serious.
In what ways can the Pleasure Chest help with sexual exploration?
I think this is where our workshops really come into play. We take topics from oral sex to g-spotting, to advanced anal, fisting, bondage and impact play, and present them in a way that is very digestible for folks still trying to decide whether or not they are into it. By demystifying and destigmatizing the different ways in which human beings can experience pleasure, we help take away people’s’ fear and shame around the experience of exploration by making it lighthearted and enjoyable.
How is the Pleasure Chest specifically tied to the Kink Community? Do you feel that most of your customers are kinky in some way?
In its early days, a huge part of the Pleasure Chest customer base were those of the gay leather community, and later the store became well known for its yearly “Glory Hole” parties. As time has gone by and BDSM has become more mainstream via mediums like the “Fifty Shades” series, our role has shifted in terms of facilitating conversations around what healthy D/s relationships and consent actually are versus what is presented in the media. One thing I have learned from these conversations is that “kinky” is a sliding goalpost. For some people blindfolds are kinky, whereas for more experienced folks it might not be. For some people, just the act of wearing a condom or doing it doggy style can be kinky. Our job is not to decide what is kinky or what isn’t -because it is truly unique to the individual. Our job is to be a resource people can turn to for receiving the tools and information about how to go about their kink in the most satisfying and safe way.
What does the Pleasure Chest want to offer in the future?
A major priority for us is having an even greater supportive presence in the LGBTQ and POC communities in the outreach that we do. We want to make ourselves accessible to those who face the greatest marginalization because of their sexual/gender expression. I think we understand that we have a responsibility, especially to this younger generation that is growing up during the #MeToo movement, to not only educate, but also lead by example in actively pushing back against the perpetuation of the sex negative, toxic masculine, rape culture.
What current projects is the company working on?
Most recently, we have started becoming more accommodating to our 420 friendly customer base. The legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes has created a unique opportunity for crossover into the adult erotic lifestyle product world. The way that we are responding to this growing trend is by exploring the varieties of quality hemp based products to carry as well as expanding our smoke shop section. I believe the integration of cannabis and the adult retail business is a great opportunity for evolution within the industry.
Any closing words?
I believe that the human body is an incredible biological miracle, and the possibilities for human sexual expression are as infinite as all the people that have ever existed, and will continue to exist as long as we inhabit this planet. Therefore, I believe it to be imperative that we never lose our curiosity towards exploring and unlocking all the many ways our bodies are capable of experiencing pleasure-ways we may have never imagined before, until maybe seeing a movie, or reading a book, having a conversation, or stepping inside the Pleasure Chest.
About Michelle LaBelle