SoHo Journal: The Magazine of Arts and Politics in SoHo and the Hamptons Soho Politics Blog Hamptons Politics Blog

August 31st, 2008


by Joelle Panisch

Clair Cavanah Talks About How She Founded Her Famous Sex Store and the Tribulations Along the Way.

Rachel and Claire.

When Claire Cavanah founded Toys in Babeland in 1993 with best friend Rachel Venning she was a green feminist, fresh out of the liberal wonderland that is Brown University. She had convictions, tenacity, and a vision of social revolution that probably reflected her naivety better than her chance for success. The ladies opened their first “women-friendly, sleaze-free” sex shop in Seattle to mixed opinions, including disapproval from Claire’s own father. After all, though the early nineties were a time when the liberal sexual revolution was beginning to influence a more mainstream public, there still was a strong religious and conservative opposition.

But in spite of controversy the businesswomen persevered, fumbling at times but learning most–if not all, according to Claire–of the business along the way. And somehow their little shop-that-could became something of a cultural phenomenon, offering women and people of the LGBT community in particular a safe haven for exploring their sexuality. Babeland (as it officially changed its name to in 2005) is a sex shop unlike others in that, aside from its vast selection and highly esteemed products, it’s also a statement. This is more than the openly gay Cavanah and Venning ever could have dreamed of while lounging in Cavanah’s Seattle apartment debating the foundations of feminism and defiantly seeking the title of non-conformists. And little did they know that 15 years down the road she would have three New York stores, a tremendously successful catalogue, and still be watching it grow; the 15 year anniversary was celebrated with the opening of the Brooklyn location in Park Slope last May.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Claire Cavanah and ask her about her beginnings. It was girl talk of the best kind.

SoHo Journal:
What were your parents like?

Claire Cavannah: My mom died when I was very young so I was raised by my dad, my gay brother and my straight brother. So I joke that I was raised by wolves…the only girl, in Wyoming with all these guys. My father was a naval officer and a physician.

SJ: What was it like for your gay brother growing up in Wyoming?

CC: Oh awful, terrible. He had it way worse than I did growing up because homophobia is viewed so differently with boys than it is towards girls. I was the tomboy, ya know. My energy, which was sort of masculine, was much more accepted, allowed and enjoyed than [was] Kevin’s femininity. He was ridiculed; it was sad. Very, very sad. My dad sent him to survival camp, you know, and my middle brother really liked it; he would say “lets go shoot some stuff!” You know, and Kevin was like, “I just want to go see A Chorus Line…”

SJ: Was it religious?

CC: No, No religion at all. It was libertarian. He moved there because you didn’t have to lock your door and he could have a practice, he had a good practice. He told me later that he moved there because of the lack of culture. He was like, ‘I didn’t want you going to ballet class.’ As if.

SJ: There were no sex shops, cultural sex stores, anything like that?

CC: Oh no. There weren’t even movie theaters to speak of.We would go to Denver to go on movie binges.

SJ: Was your brother openly gay?

CC: He didn’t come out to me until I came out to him when I was in college. But now when I look back he was just so gay the whole time. It was very hard on him. And you know when Mathew Shepard was crucified in Laramie it was like nothing’s changed.

Where did you go after Wyoming?

CC: I went to Brown. It was good for me.

SJ: Is that where you found a sense of self?

CC: I mean I just sort of muddled my way through. It was a great place to be for learning the underpinnings of everything progressive. I took philosophy classes, studied films, and was an activist. I was a feminist activist, like Brown turns you into a feminist activist. I started sleeping with women. It was a great place, great place to grow up in a way. But you leave a place like that thinking you are God’s gift to the planet earth and I had to be taken down a bunch of times. ‘Where’s my perfect job and my perfect house?’ You know…I have a child now and I’m wondering how that’s going to be for him.

SJ: The cycle of life…

CC: Oh I know, I think about him all the time, he’s two and a half…I want him to speak Mandarin.

SJ: So how did you wind up in Seattle?

CC: I moved to Seattle to be with Kevin and then I met Rachel who was my business partner; we were just best friends and we ran around and did crazy things together. And she went to business school and was looking to start a business and wanted to have a business partner. We talked about ideas and I didn’t really want to have a coffee shop or a record store or anything like that. And then we came up with this idea. And it was cool and it had legs. Everything I learned in college was about sexuality, sexual expression and gender differences, oppression. So we found a way to get to do that all day long. To talk about it, to talk to people about it, help people have better sex lives.

SJ: Did you feel at the time what you were doing was brave?

CC: Um, well it was a vision, it was a true vision. We saw what it could be in Seattle and nobody understood what I was talking about. When I talked to all my very best friends except for Rachel, they were all like, what? You are going to open a what? For who? Until it was open and happening it was like living in the desert. It didn’t feel brave as much as crazy. You know, when you have an idea and nobody gets it that makes you kind of crazy until people can see what you’re talking about. And there was a real sacrifice with my father—he didn’t like the idea to the degree that we stopped talking to each other for about a year. He was on the USS Kitty Hawk at the time in the Persian Gulf. So I told him I was opening a sex store. It was a very bad conversation, and we didn’t talk for a year. He doesn’t even remember this happening, but it happened. I hung up on him and then he went to war. A good, perceptive, emotionally well-balanced person asked me, ‘is this something that you really want to do? Are you willing to pay this price to open the store?’ It was such an astute question but at the time I was like ‘of course I’ll make that sacrifice—if I let [my father] tell me what to do I wouldn’t do anything fun at all.’ Now that I’m more mature I see where she was coming from; I really should have considered it at that point.

Well, obviously it worked out well…

CC: But I was opening myself up to permanent divorce—you can divorce your parents right?

SJ: Well, also at the time you didn’t know the direction that society would turn, you know. It is a very brave thing to do. I guess in retrospect when you have a dream realized it seems sort of obvious but at the time it’s very hard. As a feminist, were you trying to say something to women about their sexuality?

CC: We used to have an interesting housing situation and we’d sit in circles and ask ‘Are you a feminist?’ and it would start huge fights.

SJ: Was Rachel the same way?

CC: My impulse is healing more, you know having seen a lot of damage done to women and their sexuality, and for Rachel it seemed like it was more about sexual liberation. It made a great synthesis for us though. And we were trying to provide a space that felt like a vacation from all the messages that you get from society. As a gay person walking around, it was great to be in this utopian space where I’m not hearing that I’m too fat or too masculine or whatever. That I’m fine how I am, that my body is fine and my sexuality is fine and I deserve pleasure.

SJ: You must have had some sobering experiences because sex can be wonderful and pleasurable but there is also the dark side.

Gosh, people don’t always think about [sexual abuse] but it’s huge in what we do. I’m not a survivor of sexual abuse at all but I feel for people who are. And women have to bear the brunt of a lot of what’s dangerous about it, with disease and pregnancy.

SJ: Were you prepared for that?

CC: I don’t know if I was expecting it; probably not. Looking back, talk about a young naive person, throwing off my family and just forging ahead. No money, we had nothing. We learned everything we know on the job. I mean, we knew a little bit about the product from what we had each used before.We each sort of had our activist background and our understanding of women’s realities and the human condition. I don’t remember any sort of revelatory moment. But there have been such great strides made in the fifteen years that we have been in business as far as talking about it.

SJ: That’s true, and with dialogue comes accountability.

CC: Yes, and girls and woman have more opportunities and are thought of less as property.

SJ: And you contributed to that as well.

CC: That’s very nice of you to say. There’s this celebratory, out-there, happy, happy, happy part to sex that we all need to be around and talk about and encourage. I have less contact with customers now, unfortunately, but we had good times talking about it.

SJ: Sex is messy, its silly, its funny—it’s not what it looks like in the movies. I really like the aesthetic of the store. It’s so neutral. There’s no imposition.

CC: Aesthetics is such an important part of sex that if you try to please someone with imagery you are going to alienate another person and we wanted to sort of create a very neutral atmosphere to welcome people of all orientations and backgrounds.

SJ: Do you think the media has had a negative impact on sexuality? You know, with seeing every young star’s snatch left and right on the internet.

It’s so complicated. As I said, I’m a parent and I’m starting to wonder what part of privacy and modesty I should embrace. I certainly miss certain things before celebrity culture and Paris Hilton’s crotch was everywhere.

SJ: When there was mystery…

It’s definitely better than the alternative, than true restriction. If you allow for someone to decide who gets to see what then you’re screwed. But I don’t know how people raise girls today. I mean, I am raising a boy but in some ways it’s the same—in the sense that I want him to be a good man.

SJ: Like you said with your brother being criticized, it affects men just as much as women, I suppose—the gender specification of qualities.

Homophobia against men is definitely a type of sexism and misogyny. It’s like an anti-feminine kind of thing. Its despicable to be a homophobe because many are saying it’s a man not being a man.

SJ: What do you say to your critics?

CC: What do I say? I don’t have to talk to them very much. The most opposition we have faced has been in terms of business–like getting loans or renting space.We have always had to do a song and dance to get the spaces that we’ve gotten. I mean, our brand is really well known and our concept is great and people get it, but it’s still considered to be the adult industry and there is a stigma. Yeah, we’re in the sex business and dealing with media and chipping the culture a little bit but we have to have landlords and we have to have credit processors and we want to get a loan and a line of credit and we want to grow and you need money to do that and there is very little understanding of that—and we are a very good business, we do very well.

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