Local businesses take sexuality out of the gutter

Ten years ago, when Lori Stepner Battaglia was musing about starting a business in Downtown Ventura, she didn’t expect to open a lingerie and adult store. But she was divorced with kids and working three jobs, so she looked through the Yellow Pages to figure out what Ventura didn’t already have. In the days before Victoria’s Secret arrived at the Pacific View Mall, the unexpected answer was: a lingerie shop.Passion2

Aphrodite’s Lingerie and Gift Gallery initially carried only women’s intimate apparel until Battaglia started receiving requests from female customers reluctant to enter the adult store down the street. But Battaglia, who says she grew up reading #The Joy of Sex#, had never even seen a sex toy. Afraid to put them on display, she instead hid the inventory behind the counter, where customers knew to ask for the "black bag."

"I felt like a drug dealer," she jokes.

Now, visitors eager to test Aphrodite’s promise to cater to "all moods, sizes, and budgets" can bypass Felina and Claire Pettibone lingerie and take stairs up to a "Rec Room" or "Couples Enrichment Center" displaying products that run the gamut of silliness and taste, from color copies of the Kama Sutra and scented massage oils to bachelorette party favors and naughty board games.

Although Aphrodite’s earns distinction as perhaps Ventura County’s first lingerie store with such offerings, it certainly hasn’t been the last. Thanks in large part to the nationwide growth of the Victoria’s Secret chain, lingerie – and the heightened, feminized sexuality it embodies – has increasin

gly moved out of the bedroom and into malls and main streets. Once viewed as the purview of perverts and prostitutes, shops that specialize in intimate attire and adult products are now the hip new boutique down the street where your grandmother could, and probably does, shop – without shame.

New Diva on the block

Beth Santillano, co-owner with her husband, Daniel, of Diva: The Passion Boutique in Ventura, resembles her shop: Sporting a black blazer with a pink leather flower over a hot pink camisole, she captures the mood Diva projects – professional, but fun; classy, but sassy.

Recently relocated from Laurel Street to Telegraph Road for better exposure, the 2-year-old store has expanded into an airy space that gradually segues from lacy nighties and pin-up corsets to pleather bustiers, dildos, oral sex dice ("for consenting adults only") and the Super Sex Deck: 52 Ways to Please and Tease.

Despite the array of toys, Santillano says her business qualifies as a lingerie store, rather than an adult, store – a distinction the city makes based on the square footage dedicated to so-called "novelty" items. For Ventura, that ratio must remain less than 10 percent.

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Even so, the city has faced complaints from residents who claim the shop is too close to neighboring Anacapa Middle School and St. Bonaventure High School. If that is the concern, Santillano says, "They should go to the mall" – a location she believes is far more likely to attract junior high students – "and see what’s sold there."

If anything, Santillano says, the publicity has increased her popularity. She faces a steady stream of customers delighted to have found an alternative to Victoria’s Secret – and a little something besides. 

"The idea was for a place where women would have access to adult products they wouldn’t feel comfortable purchasing in other ways," she explains.

Santillano prides herself on the quality of her merchandise and her ability to educate her customers. She reads up extensively on the latest products, teaching women to avoid products made with glucose and dangerous phallates, chemicals used to soften plastics that have been banned from children’s toys in Europe, but are still permissible in the United States. (The government’s classification of adult toys as "novelty" items removes them from the scope of formal regulation.)

Santillano strives to provide her customers with the right product. The intimate information that goal requires means, "sometimes, people tell me things that they would never tell their doctor. It’s like being a cross between a bartender and a psychologist," she says with a laugh.

Though she still gets customers who are shy – older men have been known to break out in a cold sweat and one 50-year-old woman even disguised herself in a hat and sunglasses to avoid detection (that is, until she bumped into her neighbor) – Santillano says increasingly her customers are baby boomers who bypass the lingerie to stride confidently toward the toy display.  

"As we’re all aging and living longer, our sex lives are also aging and living longer. For a lot of ladies it’s like, ‘I’m not dead yet. I want to keep going.’ There’s still time to explore and try new things."

Mrs. Jones and the Puritans

When Joelle Saxon opened Mrs. Jones Boudoir in Old Towne Camarillo in Feb. 2006, she was not prepared for the local papers’ refusal to carry an advertisement for her store that, in her mind, was perfectly acceptable. It featured the black-and-white torso of a woman in a half-laced corset (The #Reporter# was not among the papers that refused to publish the ad). Saxon, who moved to the United States from Paris more than 30 years ago, says the papers complained that the ad portrayed a fetish. Accustomed to the latitude of Europe, where sex is seen as "a naturally occurring body function," she realized she still had some adjusting to do.

Passion4"There is still that old Puritanism that exists in America," she says. "There is a fascination with sex. At the same time, it’s still not quite OK. It’s still undercover a little bit."

Tastefully appointed in polka dot drapes, chandeliers and leopard print carpet, Mrs. Jones Boudoir takes its name from the Billy Paul song about an illicit affair, but it is also meant to evoke the privacy of a woman’s quarters. Specializing in a broad array of upscale European brands, the shop carries unusual sizes (including 30Fs and 44Gs) by designers such as Janet Reger, Myla, Jonquil, and Aubade – exquisite $400 creations encrusted with real pearls, along with pretty sets by American designer Betsey Johnson starting at $40. The average customer usually spends between $80 and $100 on a bra.

"Lingerie is the first thing that goes on and the last thing that comes off," Saxon notes. "So it’s got to be functional, and it might as well be pretty."

The right bra, she says, cannot only "take off 10 pounds and 10 years," but infuses its wearer with a fresh sense of her own femininity.

Donna Ober, a 55-year-old Camarillo resident, says lingerie like this "makes you feel good even if no one sees it." She gestures to a lacy marigold bra and panty set. "How could you have that on and not feel beautiful?"

The challenge at Mrs. Jones is "educating the woman to accept her femininity – accept it, validate it, respond to it." Occasionally, a woman will return a gift from a husband or boyfriend with the complaint that it’s impractical. That attitude is a mistake, Saxon says.

"I try to explain to her, ‘Come on, there’s a message here. There’s a compliment that he’s paying you. A man that buys you lingerie is telling you he sees you as hot.’ "

Saxon hosts regular after-hours Men’s Nights, evenings at the store where she provides wine, sandwiches and models to allow men unaccustomed to purchasing lingerie to shop and ask questions in a comfortable, nonthreatening environment. It’s not uncommon for men to lay down $300 or more during events like these, Saxon says, though women might hesitate to spend the same amount on themselves. It’s because they want their wives and girlfriends to have something "special that’s not trashy."

Though Saxon encourages such romantic gestures, she urges women to take responsibility for reinvigorating their own love lives – even those often too exhausted by the competing demands of careers and motherhood to feel excited by the prospect of love-making.

"The big problem that women have today is lack of desire," Saxon says. "We’re too tired most of the time. How do you bring desire back? Just making the effort to put on something a little risqué, a little different, will put you in the mood. You have to participate. You have to revive your own flame."

One key is introducing variety into long-term, monogamous relationships that could otherwise become monotonous. To that end, a "Play Room" in the back displays an array of lubricants, oils, DVDs, and high-end sex toys, including satin handcuffs and a vibrator available in platinum, gold, and stainless steel. An adjacent "Fantasy Closet" carries fishnet stockings, garters, corsets, and the ever-popular nurse and schoolgirl outfits. And for customers who need a more explicit how-to, Saxon directs them to two of her favorite books: Sadie Allison’s #Tickle His Pickle# for women, and Dr. Ian Kerner’s She Comes First for men.

Particularly for older customers, such educational books and products can open up a new world of sexuality never before experienced. One 65-year-old woman had been married for 30 years but never experienced an orgasm. Now with her second husband, Saxon says, her only response was, "Wow."

Madeline Highwart, Saxon’s part-time assistant, attends Moorpark College and plans to become a marriage and sexual counselor. She considers this opportunity to observe and interact with couples early preparation for her career.

Highwart recalls a middle-aged woman who came in recently looking for something daring. She was also on her second marriage, and had been with her current husband for about six years. She left with stockings and "a little black number." A week later, she was back to thank them. "You saved my love life!" she told them.

"She came in glowing," says Highwart, beaming a bit herself. "It brought the spark back."

Avon in the bedroom

When the Kama Sutra company was founded in 1969 with the goal of encouraging couples to make love instead of war, its marketing efforts focused on young adults in the throes of the sexual revolution. Now, nearly 40 years later, that demographic has stayed loyal even as newer, younger customers have discovered the Thousand Oaks-based distributor’s line of erotic oils and body creams. Kama Sutra products, which are sold in all three stores mentioned in this article, now appeal to a wider range of customers than at any other point in company history, says Senior Vice President Beverly Pollington Sirjani.

Saxon, who carries the original Oil of Love and Body Soufflé in Chocolate Crème Brûlée, says, "They’re the class act – the officially accepted brand. If your grandmother is at your bridal shower, she’s not going to get offended by this."

Sirjani says she has noticed a shift toward greater public openness to sexuality since she started working for the company 3 ½ years ago. Despite Kama Sutra’s reputable history, friends initially raised their eyebrows when she described her new job. She corrected them, explaining that Kama Sutra was more akin to Avon than a hardcore adult brand. Increasingly, she observes, people are "looking at sexual wellness as part of your overall wellness, rather than something that you hide away."

Kama Sutra’s products, which include Honey Dust edible body powder, Lover’s Paintbox kissable body chocolates, and Intensifying Gel for Women, aim to foster intimacy between couples.

"They make you stop and touch each other and spend time with each other," Sirjani says.  They invite couples to "treasure each other, cherish each other."

For stores like Mrs. Jones, Diva and Aphrodite’s that occasionally still struggle for legitimacy in Ventura County, Kama Sutra may appear as the ultimate symbol of a brand that has "arrived" in the public consciousness. Certainly the businesses seem to be aiming for the same things – like "intimacy and interaction and playfulness," according to Santillano.

Or, as Sirjani puts it, "I think sometimes people are scared that if we allow these products to come out of the closet, the whole society will fall apart. I think it’s the opposite. … Sexuality is not something we should be afraid of. Handled in the right way between two consenting adults, sexuality is as much a part of life as eating and drinking. It’s a way to say ‘I love you.’ "