From Catholic School to Sex Is Cool
November 2, 2017
The outside of Pleasures of the Heart strikes fear throughout the hearts of many passersby. Squeamishness, yes, but also pure terror. Why? Because walking through the doors of this obscure San Rafael sex shop is like stumbling into another world—six-inch red latex heels, a vast assortment of fishnet stockings, erotic toys, and costumes of all kinds—all of which scare people pantiless.
I trespassed into this oblivion on a sunny Monday two weeks ago. I remember the thoughts scattering through my mind as I pushed open the door: What if someone from Marin Academy sees me go in here? Are people going to think I’m some crazy sex fanatic? The fear of others purely knowing I was in a sex shop and the resulting judgments I expected nearly deterred me from entering. When I shared my initial fear with Erika Bowker, the owner of Pleasures of the Heart, it rang a bell for her.
At age nineteen, Bowker ventured into Pleasures of the Heart for the first time herself. “I didn’t make it past the bra and stocking section. I had never entered a sex shop before, and even though I felt comfortable, I had no idea what I was walking myself into.” From this experience, Bowker is fully aware that it is a common feeling to enter the store with a pounding heart.
The fear around sex is apparent not only in the customers that come to Pleasures of the Heart but in Bowker’s peers too: “I was just having a conversation with some of my girlfriends, knowing that I own the shop, and my one friend was talking about masturbation and it was almost like she didn’t want to say the word masturbating out loud,” she recalls.
“I feel like people think I am a freak,” Bowker admits in regard to the judgments people make about sex shops. As the first sex shop in Marin County, Pleasures of the Heart is in its eighteenth year of entertainment, standing out colorfully amongst the furniture stores, restaurants, clothing boutiques, and flower shops on Fourth Street. Not only had Bowker never experienced a sex shop before owning Pleasures of the Heart, but she also had little knowledge and exposure to sex education throughout her childhood.
The Miracle of Life was truly a miracle for Erica Bowker. Up until the moment her fifth-grade class watched this documentary, Bowker didn’t know what sex actually was. Ironically enough, Bowker was born into a Catholic family and the discussion of sex was met with silence in the Bowker household. “My mom was a very strict Catholic and she never talked to me about sex. It was like abstinence, just don’t do it,” she recalls. Bowker couldn’t go home and ask her parents about sex because she thought it was taboo in her house. Instead of attempting to speak to her parents or peers, Bowker researched and answered her questions about sex in the library. Perhaps the documentary’s failure to feed Bowker’s curiosity inspired her to want to be a source of expertise for those looking for a more in-depth and honest sex education.
Bowker’s upbringing is a catalyst for her passion to provide sex education to people because she was deprived of it throughout her childhood. A lot of her inspiration of working in a sex shop comes from the fact that, “sex is something that is not talked about enough.” She makes the comparison of Victoria Secret Models being basically naked, yet “for some reason [people think that] walking into a shop that has intimate accessories is wrong or embarrassing.” As Bowker established her place in the San Rafael community and embraced being different, her work became that of educating and supporting people that want to explore their sexuality.
“None of us know everything about sex,” Bowker claims. When one thinks about a sex shop, one typically thinks of erotic toys. We don’t tend to associate education with sex shops, which is clearly a flaw and product of the stigma. For example, would you ever guess that there are books in a sex shop?
There are more than one hundred books for sale in Pleasures of the Heart, ranging from The Ethical Slut to The Multi-Orgasmic Man. Sex is advertised as impregnable which has the potential to be dangerous and harmful especially when safety repercussions like condoms or birth control are not talked about. Silence will not prevent STDs, negative body images, false sexual education, pregnancy or unprotected sex, but the information in the books in Pleasures of the Heart aim to.
The stigma around self-pleasure, especially for females, seems to illustrate how socially constructed sex is. We are exposed to media, video games, and popular culture which rarely encourages women to take control of their own sex lives. In movies like Fifty Shades of Grey, we are sent the message that a female’s sole purpose is to please the sexual needs of a man, rather than their own desires and pleasures. An even more embedded message within this is the stereotype of men having a greater sex drive, while women’s sexual desires are underestimated and belittled. However, women are not the only types of people who are scared to come in: “I’ve had men who walk in here and in a way, seem intimidated. They also seem shy and embarrassed to buy things.”
Erika Bowker is a modern day sex therapist. Even without a Ph.D., Bowker is trusted with the sex lives of a fair number of her customers: “Some people tell me their life story…I’ve had customers come in here almost crying. I really want to help that person,” she reflects. Bowker believes that the most important part of her job is the aspect of customer service that entails being available emotionally and being a good listener: “I feel like everybody has their own problems and that’s one of the things I have to know before I sell someone what they are looking for.”
Bowker’s ability to empathize comes from her own fear when she first stepped foot in Pleasures of the Heart.
It is Bowker’s top priority to make Pleasures of the Heart and the experience of entering a sex shop, a meaningful one for all different types of customers. She loves the idea of a safe environment where any type of person, regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic class, body size, or sexuality, can positively receive a sex education. “Sometimes people will walk into here and be like, ‘I’m too old for this.’ But you are never too old to experiment and dress up!” Her positive mindset rubs off on her customers, especially the elderly. She tells me of a couple in their 80s or 90s that would come to Pleasures of the Heart to buy lingerie.
You don’t have to look like a Victoria’s Secret Angel to be sexy — and Bowker is positive of this. When you walk into the bathroom of Pleasures of the Heart, instead of a mirror above the sink, there are stickers that read positive messages like, “I can do anything” and “You are beautiful.” Self-love is not something that we practice at a young age, however, with a newfound love and respect for ourselves, Bowker believes that we will feel more confident in the bedroom. “If someone comes in here looking for lingerie, we want them to walk out feeling confident. Everyone’s body type is different so we have to find the right piece for them. Trying that on and seeing yourself in that mirror and feeling comfortable before putting it on for that special someone is really important.”
No one remembers the Papyrus that was located at 1310 4th Street eighteen years ago, but everyone will remember Pleasures of the Heart. I sure will.