Awakening Our Sexual Exploration: A Conversation With Local Sex Shop Owners

by Amanda E.K.

For our winter issue, I sat down with Rose Kalasz and Tory Johnson—the owners of Denver’s only independent and woman-owned adult novelty store, Awakening Boutique—to talk about women’s health issues, how “call-in” culture transcends “call-out” culture, and how their store’s mission resonates with me in a very personal way.

I’ve been processing a lot of messages lately that I received about my body and sexuality growing up in the Evangelical Church. Many of those messages came from Purity Culture—a movement that encourages young people to not date until they’re old enough for marriage and to save all sexual expression and orgasms for your spouse. Though the aim of Purity Culture may be to save young people from heartbreak, disease, and early pregnancy, it more often results in a contagion of body shame, self-loathing for even the mildest sexual desires, and the belief that your body belongs to someone else (God, and then your spouse). This can stunt healthy exploration and confuse relationship boundaries, leaving many women to concede to marital rape because they think it’s their God-given duty to their husbands.

The first time I visited Awakening Boutique, my chest was tight with anxiety. I had to check in with myself and ask why this felt wrong. As a 32-year-old woman I knew logically that I had nothing to be ashamed of, but my body felt as though it was revolting against my mind. My hands were clammy, my knees wobbly, and I half-debated leaving as soon as I walked in. I heard the old voices in my head—the voices of church leaders and authors of books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye—telling me this place was for “lost” people, for people with no self-control who treat sex like an addiction to numb the pain of reality. The items on display shouldn’t be out in the open, but kept private only for those desperate enough to seek them out, as though sex toys were akin to illicit drugs.

Do I really still think that? I asked myself. Of course not.

But the thing about those messages is that they get wired into your brain and cause physiological responses—like fight or flight—that convince your body you need to escape, lest you succumb to Satan’s influence. More than five years after renouncing Satan as a real entity in my life and that mother fucker still influences my perceptions.

Maybe it was my determination to reclaim my body as my own that kept me in the store. I looked around the shop with my arms crossed, eyes low, scanning every display and getting more curious by the minute. I had so many questions but was too embarrassed to ask any of them. Questions like: What use do you put the egg-shaped toy? And why the hell is The Magic Wand so big? My curiosity was partially satiated when I overheard the shopkeeper explaining to a customer about a silicone string of gumball-like beads that had a ring like one you’d pull to make a doll talk. It turns out—as I overheard—that this string of beads was for inserting into your butt. Interesting.

Was it really okay to just talk about such things in casual conversation? I wondered. My brain was still wired to believe that sex was supposed to be shameful, despite that I’d been having it for years. Even exploring what I would come to understand as kinks.

When I told Rose and Tory over drinks at The Molecule Effect about my early experience in their store, they nodded knowingly.

“I used to be too embarrassed to talk about sex or my body,” said Tory, taking a sip of her Malbec. “Anyone who knew me when I was young would never guess that I’d grow up to own a sex shop. But I’ve found that being vulnerable about my story has helped others open up about theirs. Many of the people who come into our shop are too embarrassed to ask the questions they’re most curious about, but that’s why we’re here.”

“It’s such a universal confusion,” added Rose, “and such a universal want, to have a place where you can ask questions and find something you’d like to try, no matter your experience level or orientation. It’s universal to be curious and want to explore.”

“Right,” said Tory. “And there’s no such thing as an embarrassing or weird question, as long as you’re being safe and consensual.”

“If you want to stick a fist up your butt, that’s fine. It’s not weird,” said Rose, her red lips pursed in a no-nonsense expression.

I smiled. “You have no idea how healing this conversation is for me,” I said.

My arousal was something I thought I had to hide. I once believed that God would punish me for masturbation—that because I’d felt pleasure on my own, he would take away pleasure from any partnered sex I would have. But when we—you, me, all of us—openly talk about our desires, bodies, needs, and kinks, we can start to corrode away the shame, the disgust with how we function. We can discredit the belief that we’re the only ones to think a certain thought, enact an unfamiliar fantasy. By connecting with others—whether a sex therapist, a meet-up group, or another curious friend—we can unlearn the narrative that it’s not okay to be attracted to multiple people. Or to dress as animals. Or to be tied up and spanked. There’s nothing wrong with curiosity. It’s okay to speak up and try new things. It’s okay to not like any of the things you try. Learning to love your body and its expansiveness for pleasure is a process, and doesn’t need to happen all at once. It’s okay to not want any sex at all.

Through sharing our stories, Rose and I discovered that we both have what’s called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (or PMDD) and endometriosis. PMDD is a condition that affects approximately 2-10% of uterus-owners and is often misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder. It is categorized by its cyclical symptoms that increase at ovulation and last for as long as two weeks until menstruation (the luteal phase). Affected folks experience extreme mood swings, feeling out of control, poor concentration and trouble with words, inability to make decisions, extreme fatigue, rage, sensitivity to light and sound, uncontrollable crying, periods of mania and depression, anxiety, panic, suicidal ideation, joint and muscle pain, and difficulty with work and relationships (among other symptoms). Not only do most women who have this disorder not know it exists, but even many doctors are unaware or undereducated about PMDD. (The best way to determine if you have PMDD is to track your daily symptoms for at least two months, then take your notes into a medical professional.)

Endometriosis is a disorder in which tissue similar to the tissue that lines the inside of the uterus grows on the outside and can spread to other organs. It causes severe pain that can prevent uterus-owners from going about their daily activities, and can be experienced on days when you’re not bleeding.

Tory and Rose are currently working with a pelvic floor specialist to be able to provide workshops at Awakening for womxn to ask the questions they feel their medical practitioners haven’t answered. Lack of information at the doctor’s office is a common experience for womxn, as is getting a misdiagnosis or unnecessary treatments that can lead to damaging results. Three years ago, my pelvic pain brought me to five different doctors, not one of whom mentioned the word “endometriosis.” It was only after talking with my mom and other women that I understood what was causing my pain.

Though Rose and Tory acknowledge that they’re not medical professionals or sex therapists, they want Awakening’s mission to include educational resources for underrepresented issues.

This conversation led the three of us to discussing when, and if, it’s okay to call people out for being one-sided, or miseducated (e.g. when someone asks inappropriately personal questions about a trans person’s body). Tory suggested that we “call in” instead of call other people out. “Calling in,” she explained, “is about having a discussion that helps move things forward. It doesn’t end up helping anyone to be divisive. It just makes people more upset. Calling in is more productive.”

Rose agreed. “If we’re ever approached with a topic we don’t agree with, it’s helpful to say, ‘Here’s what I saw that bothers me,’ or ‘I have a problem with this and here’s why,’ and ‘How can we reconcile that between you and I?’ rather than simply refusing to work with someone. Calling in allows for a learning opportunity for both parties without public shaming, and to explain why we take issue with something. Calling out only calls attention to how woke I think I am and how wrong I thought the other person was. It’s like sex: How do we make this good for you and for me?”


*If you’ve read this and feel like you have your own unique story to tell about your relationship to sex or your body, Rose has started Queen City Stories for the purpose of helping people give voice to their personal narratives around their sexual identities.

*You can find out more about Awakening and which of their two Denver locations is closest to you at awakeningboutique.com.


Amanda is the owner and editor-in-chief of Suspect Press, a writing instructor and a longstanding member of the Knife Brothers writing group. Her work has been featured on the Denver Orbit podcast and on Mortified Live. She has stories in Suspect Press, Birdy, Jersey Devil Press, the Punch Drunk Press Poetry anthology, and Green Briar Review. She’s currently working on a memoir about her sexual development while growing up in evangelical purity culture. Follow her on instagram @amanda.ek.writer

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