Oakland, Calif.’s Feelmore Adult Gallery isn’t your typical sex-toy store. Described as “part art gallery, part adult store, and part community resource center,” in Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, Feelmore is the kind of place where you can buy a dildo while also getting a flu shot (in partnership with Walgreens), catch a comedy show, talk politics, or ask a sex worker secrets of the trade. Founded by Nenna Joiner (one of very few queer woman of color owners in the industry), Feelmore fosters a boutique feeling with carefully curated items tastefully displayed — without the gaudy XXX-rated imagery that dominates many adult products.
“Packaging is everything in every industry except the sex industry,” Joiner tells The Advocate. “Given that the industry is dominated by mainstream Eurocentric standards of beauty, it is not serving the political and social sensibilities of our diverse customers. We can either choose a product that has imagery consistent with our vision, or we can remove it from the packaging.”
As she explained to Blavity last year, “We take items out of those kinds of boxes, so you don’t have this objectivity of body. I want someone to feel empowered by picking something up. I don’t want them to feel disempowered as they’re reaching for a product and there’s an image of a person on the box that does not look anything like them.”
Feelmore also offers products not found in other U.S. adult shops. Recently, Joiner says she traveled overseas to “learn about how culture influences [sex]. Along our journey we have collected unique products and artwork that speak to our clients’ sensibilities, giving Feelmore an authentic boutique feel. You can always get a sex product, but it is more difficult for you to come across manga-inspired products handpicked from Japan.”
After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’90s, Joiner served as a production assistant in her family’s film and television production company before going it alone to create “feminist porn.” Joiner says she produced the two films, A Drop of Color and Hell Brown: Real Sex in the City, in part to combat the dearth of people of color in the industry — behind and in front of the camera.
While there is some black talent in porn, Joiner says far fewer are owners. Likewise, black entrepreneurs aren’t well represented in the ownership of sex shops, which is why Joiner said she felt “this is where I need to be: on the business side of it.” On Valentine’s Day seven years ago, the then-36-year-old Joiner opened Feelmore.
Joiner argues that although Feelmore has been described as “a woman-run or feminist sex shop,” the business actually goes “beyond the typical sex shop narrative.” She told Rolling Stone that it wasn’t just a commercial space, “but a space that gives voice to the body, identity to gender, and context to race.”
Indeed, the store’s motto is “It’s More Than Just Sex.”
Today, Joiner tells us, “We have intentionally created a welcoming space that inspires all people to explore the vast dimensions of sex, sexuality, and intimacy. “For example, the store carries a wide range of books ranging in topics from sex to spirituality. “Sex is the thread that binds a relationship, but a relationship is built on many other factors.”
It was important for Joiner that Feelmore act like it belongs to a community: “Because we seek to contribute to healthy communities, Feelmore must model stewardship, interconnectedness, and holistic wellness. I see my work at Feelmore as a community empowerment advocate.”
Joiner recalls realizing, “I was not going to be that sex store owner who went around teaching people how to find a G-spot. Instead, my role is to encourage body-positivity and educate them on how to overcome their fears.”
One of the entrepreneur’s long-term goals is to design her own products — and she doesn’t intend to be limited to “traditional sex products,” but hopes to pursue those that grow her brand. “Feelmore is exceeding its physical retail space and transitioning into a brand that people identify with,” Joiner explains.
She’s also throwing around the idea of tricking out a food truck to sell sex toys in a mobile storefront. And Joiner is pursuing the possibility of opening a Feelmore in an airport. “As the retail industry continues to change in the U.S., businesses must find innovative channels,” she says. “We will continue to strive towards this unique opportunity until we take flight and sell our first vibrator in an airport!”