Think if you’ve seen one sex shop you’ve seen them all? Look again.
Michelle Temminghoff talks about what makes Passionfruit The Sensuality Shop in Melbourne, Australia, more than just an adult store.
Creating a sex shop with a difference
Passionfruit creator Michelle Temminghoff’s journey into adult retail began nearly twenty years ago when she ventured into a sex shop with her partner after a lovely evening in St Kilda. Expecting the visit to be an entrée to an even better night at home, the encounter left Temminghoff cold. ‘I went in there because I was feeling fun and adventurous and came out feeling the opposite,’ she said. ‘I was so put off. I felt tainted. I didn’t even want to go home and have sex anymore. It put me off the whole night.’
Temminghoff knew her experience wasn’t unique. ‘I remember some of my older friends wanting to buy a vibrator and saying they found it daunting.’ At the time, she considered it odd. ‘They were strong, confident women. Why should it be difficult when it’s something that’s going to improve your relationship and be a good thing for you?’ Now that she was inside a store with her partner, she understood their discomfort. ‘All the packaging, the pornographic look, the colours, the person behind the counter, everything was marketed to men. I thought, they’re missing the whole point. All of these things are actually for women, so why are they being marketed to men?’
‘I went in there because I was feeling fun and adventurous and came out feeling the opposite,’ she said. ‘I was so put off. I felt tainted. I didn’t even want to go home and have sex anymore. It put me off the whole night.’
According to Temminghoff traditional adult stores make women feel less curious, less adventurous, and bad about wanting to explore. ‘They make women feel a bit shameful, a bit dirty,’ she said. ‘A woman should be confident in her sexuality, able to visit an adult shop to seek out information, thinking of herself as a sexual person and trying to grow that part of her. It should be a positive experience.’
With that in mind, Temminghoff set out to create an adult store that is empowering for men and women. ‘We needed a place where people from all walks of life feel comfortable, and where products are marketed to the right person.’ The result was Passionfruit, a ‘sensuality shop’ where Temminghoff said people could come and feel good about their sexuality. ‘They can be in a beautiful environment, have great service, receive professional help and learn things.’
In the beginning
Back then, Temminghoff had no model for what she wanted to achieve. ‘I didn’t see anybody doing what I was so I didn’t really have anything to go by,’ she said. Her first step was to remove the product packaging. ‘I used to tear packaging off everything I bought and put it in our own satin bags and made beautiful displays.’ Temminghoff said the whole industry has come a long way since then. ‘The marketing towards women has improved, but you still get some products that have a woman on the box with her legs spread, and I think what woman is going to want that?’
‘I used to tear packaging off everything I bought and put it in our own satin bags and made beautiful displays.’
The biggest shift has come in the back end of the industry, the people who make the products. ‘They have proper designers, they package things really well, they look at their consumers, and they do market research,’ Temminghoff said. The retail side has lagged behind, however. ‘Many stores still have that porn feel to them and aspects that are off-putting to a lot of women,’ Temminghoff said. ‘The whole industry still has a bit of a tawdry aspect to it.’
At the opposite end are luxury adult stores. ‘They’re all very nice and lovely, but they go to the opposite extreme,’ Temminghoff said. ‘They tend to focus on high-end lingerie, sexy books and beautiful erotic artwork, and then have a few token toys on the side; I don’t consider them to really be an adult store.’
Temminghoff said Passionfruit sits somewhere in between. ‘It has a good selection of products that cater for a broad range of people, but is still luxurious enough that it’s comfortable for people to be in. It’s fun and beautiful, and people can get the kind of education that they want, including workshops.’
More than an adult shop
Passionfruit’s focus on education and workshops is another thing that sets it apart. ‘People in store want to know more about how to communicate with their partner, about techniques, the best way to give fellatio, and so on, so we’ve answered that with the various workshops that we run.’
Temminghoff said in her experience men find it easy to know what they do and don’t like and feel less shame about their sexual desires than women. ‘Women are on a bit of a journey and they don’t really know what they want and how to get it.’ Passionfruit’s workshops cater to that need. ‘A typical customer is an over-30s professional woman who might have just come out of a long relationship where her sex life wasn’t very satisfactory and wants to get in the groove and be more confident.’
‘People in store want to know more about how to communicate with their partner, about techniques, the best way to give fellatio, and so on.’
More recently, Passionfruit has begun collaborating with professionals in the health industry, providing education on how to communicate with patients around their sexuality. ‘Health professionals are at the coal face, talking to people after things like prostate surgery or breast cancer, which affect people’s sex lives. They just don’t have the education and resources to help people that way,’ Temminghoff said. ‘Once people have gone through such horrible health circumstances, it’s really important that they get their relationships back together and feel comfortable and confident and sexy, because sex is one of the most important things in life.’
‘Take men with prostate cancer who feel if they can’t get an erection any more it’s a huge loss or women in their thirties who have breast cancer and have issues with their whole body image, where their vagina almost sticks to itself. There are ways you can talk about bringing sensuality and intimacy back into your relationship, but it’s difficult for a urologist or oncologist to talk to patients about that. It’s not really their area of expertise,’ Temminghoff said.
Some health professionals will go out their way to learn about sexuality but Temminghoff said they are the exception. ‘The ones who do come in are often quite embarrassed and don’t know how to talk about it,’ she said. Passionfruit offers information sessions on how health professionals can support clients in recovering their sexuality. ‘We might have a group come in for a tour of the store. Our staff will give them a glass of champagne and show them what people come to our store for, what they are asking, how we talk to them, and what sort of products we suggest. We’re teaching them how to communicate and educating them about the tools that are available so they can pass that knowledge on’
‘We might have a group of health professionals come in for a tour of the store….We’re teaching them how to communicate and educating them about the tools that are available so they can pass that knowledge on.’
Temminghoff sees her role as bridging the gap between the medical and the personal when it comes to sex. ‘Many women have physical issues, like vulvadynia or vaginismus, where sex is painful or impossible. They may go and see a physiotherapist, but the physio might still be thinking in terms of dilators and medical tools that will just clamp you up immediately, rather than how a new vibrator or breathing exercises might help.’
Part of the problem according to Temminghoff is the lack of research into women’s sexuality. ‘They still no idea what causes vaginismus,’ she said. When we only teach medical and allied health professionals about solutions that have empirical support, it can be very limiting. ‘Tantric breathing exercises can really help people who are uptight, for example, but physios aren’t always going to study that type of thing or know what it’s about,’ she said.
The weird of working in a sex shop
Temminghoff said we all have a sexual side, we just don’t acknowledge it. ‘It’s such a normal part of life, like going to the toilet or getting your period, but we don’t talk about it.’ She pointed out that while TV, advertising and magazines bombard us with a particular kind of sex; our actual sex lives remain hidden. ‘We still have so much shame around sex,’ she said.
When Temminghoff meets new people, she tends not to mention what she does for a living. ‘You feel like you have to justify yourself all the time,’ she said. ‘People make assumptions about you. Oh, you’re that girl who works in the sex shop. It gets old pretty quickly.’ At the same time, it gives her a bit of enigma status. ‘You see people looking at you, thinking, she’s got that interesting job! They’re a bit starry eyed, and I don’t mind that.’
‘It’s such a normal part of life, like going to the toilet or getting your period, but we don’t talk about it…We still have so much shame around sex.’
People also assume Temminghoff must meet some fascinating people. ‘People are always saying to me, you must get some real weirdos, but one of the most surprising things is that most of our customers are just everyday people. They’re not out there, they’re not crazy, they don’t have mad fetishes, they’re not running around in a raincoat, they’re just really ordinary people,’ she said.
What really surprises Temminghoff is the number of women who lack sexual confidence. ‘Even the most confident woman in her job and her everyday life can still have a lot of issues around body image. She wonders if she’s good enough, she asks, Will he like me if I do this? and How do I ask him to put a condom on? To me, that’s the most surprising.’