Portraits: 'Honey, they've got a full line'

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Zach Bergson, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published December 4, 2012

Name: Beth Karmeisol
Education: Masters in Public Health, University of Michigan
Age: 43
Hometown: Metamora, Mich.

How did you get into the sex store business?

I’ve been in business for 18 years and 20 plus years ago I was doing volunteer work with children, adolescents — age 13 to 19 — that were dying of AIDS. I saw a huge need to establish a sex-positive environment that disseminated consistent and correct information about sexual health in a positive way. In addition to being a retail environment that you can then purchase all of these products to help keep you safe — reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and infections, and unintended pregnancies — I wanted to promote the educational side of it.

Every single person that works for me has to be trained and has to have a background of sexual health, women’s health or men’s health that then we build upon in here. We’re not selling T-shirts: if someone comes in and buys a T-shirt somewhere and it's not the right fit or it's not the right color, it’s no big deal. But if somebody comes in and we sell them the wrong condom or a lubricant that’s not compatible with a condom then that’s a potential risk. The people here have to understand that sexual health and background.

What’s your educational background?

I’m a sexual health educator, but I also have a Masters in Public Health (from the University). In that way we’re very different, the promotion of education — first and foremost — is my mission. We’re also a HIV testing center. We provide testing the first and third Thursday of every month. That’s all free.

This is obviously a much different sex store that would normally see in a place like New York City. When you applied for a permit, did the city have strict guidelines that you had to follow? Recently, they’ve cracked down on places like Bongz & Thongz.

The city didn’t crack down on Bongz & Thongz; the city had already established zoning rules. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Ann Arbor, Royal Oak or New York City, every city municipality has rules and regulations regarding zoning of any business. It doesn’t matter whether it's this type of store or if it’s a restaurant or coffee place. Before you ever — as any type of a business person — go into a business, you have to know your zoning. It’s the first thing you have to do. That’s Business 101.

My background was scrutinized up and down before I opened up my doors.

Do you think a place like this undergoes more scrutiny than a normal business. Were there a lot of hoops you had to jump through?

My business license is an all-ages store. What that means is I’m not selling pornography, I’m not selling videos, I don’t have a “backroom,” I’m not selling nudity and magazines or things of that sort. There are certain rules about what pornography is and we’re not falling under that category.

But, absolutely you’re going to be scrutinized because, unfortunately, there’s still stigma around a vibrator. Even though vibrators are used as medical devices, especially for dilation purposes, yet they’re still being scrutinized as something dirty. There’s a Puritan attitude there that is unfortunate, because we’re all sexual beings.

Ok, we’re going to do a 180 now. What’s the best starter toy for a couple that’s never used a sex toy before?

It’s hard to answer that question. I can’t just pick something magically out of the air and present it. The biggest reason for that is perception. Consumer perception is everything and each couple has a comfort level. Questions have to asked before products can be assigned. Questions that I would address is: Are you looking for a massage item, a vibrating item, are you looking for a game? Things of that sort and then zero in accordingly.

But there’s no magical answer for that, because of that perception. I can’t take something off the shelf and shove it in your face and say this is the end-all-be-all product, because the person might look at me and say “Oh my god, that scares the crap out of me,” and they might be too uncomfortable to tell me they’re uncomfortable with it, and feel pressure to buy. And nobody ever feels pressure to buy in here, because we want the individual to be educated about the product and then make their decision about what is best for them.

Is there one bestselling toy that you have here?

The Lelo line, I will say, does really well for us, for a couple of different reasons. The quality of the product, its name recognition and we’re now offering all Lelo products on sale until the end of the year.

Could you give me some examples of the different Lelo products?

Honey, they have a full line. From start to finish, they have a full line of products. They start with a basic dildo — a dildo or a dong is a product that is non-vibrating. And then they move into internal and external products. Vibrators, that can be used for penetrative stimulation or external stimulation of the clitoris or penis. Vaginal, anal, cock-rings, they make a full line for everything. They have back massagers, dual stimulators — those that stimulate internally and externally for a female. They run from $40 to $200. A full range.

One of the coolest things that they have is a USB charged product, so you don’t have to worry about batteries. You just plug it into your computer and go. They have remote controlled items as well for partner play or if you want to wear the product through town and hold the remote control, you can do that too. You never know what’s going on in those lecture halls.

I’m sure you get crazy phone calls here. What’s the weirdest call you’ve gotten?

The one thing that is a little irritating is when you’re in the middle of something and you get the prank phone calls. Yesterday we were really busy and I was working by myself, and I had an individual call that was obviously a prank call. Any of the prank phone calls start off really hesitant and then they go into it, and then the person kept on asking for sex and wouldn’t stop. The funny thing is that the prank phone calls pick up when school lets out. When the parents are away, they have nothing to do so they think it’s funny to prank us. Sometimes you do know that somebody is on the other end pleasuring themselves and that’s very uncomfortable, but we can usually figure it out. We just state that that is inappropriate for this type of location, if you need help with something you need to take of that yourself.

The categories that define sexual relations can be limiting at times, what do you think the role of the Safe Sex Store has in helping these people come to terms with these definitions in reference to themselves?

I actually taught a class here to undergraduates called Human Sexuality and Gender Issues. Gender issue is a big deal and identity comes from within, and it’s very difficult to label somebody. My stance — it’s going to sound harsh — S3 Safe Sex Store, we don’t care who you or how you identify. We want to make sure that whenever or however you identify, you’re proceeding safely. That’s our number one concern.

If somebody is struggling with trying to find their identity — we’ve worked with numerous people and counseled them to the point where they’re on the brink of suicide. I have one particular case that this person was ready to commit suicide and I had gone to a hotel room and met this person, and literally talked them off the edge, because they didn’t see an out. He felt homosexual, but his outward identity to the world was heterosexual, and he needed to come to grips on how to come out. Today, he is an amazing, thriving, beautiful homosexual man. It’s really about building the confidence in the individual to establish their own identity within and making sure that they don’t feel judged.

Terra Molengraff contributed to this story.