The Safe Sex Story

Nicholas Williams/Daily
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By Emily Pittinos, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 26, 2014

My first time entering the Safe Sex Store (S3) was on my 18th birthday. A group of other freshmen and I wanted to celebrate my new legality by doing something new and adult, so we stumbled through the glass door and into a wonderland of sexual delight. Rows of brightly colored vibrators in all sizes and shapes saluted us from their plastic stands. Giggling nervously, we ran our hands through a bucket of Magnum condoms, their gold wrappers glinting in the sunlight that poured in from the giant glass windows facing South University. We sheepishly eyed edible underwear. Varying versions of the Kama Sutra lined the bookshelves; they were mysterious to me, packed with secrets that felt forbidden in other places but seemed to proudly sing, “I’m sexy and I know it,” in this particular space.

We didn’t stay long that day — beef stroganoff was waiting for us in the dining hall — but I continued to think of S3 as a place of adventure. I hardly returned, but I liked the idea of the store’s presence. It was exciting to be inside; it seemed like a place of silly fun. Whenever I walked by, I cracked a little smile.

But S3 is actually much more than an emporium of dildos and flavored condoms.

BethAnn Karmeisool, a vibrant woman in her early 40s with a new set of braces and easy passion in her voice, started the store in 1995. It was the tail end of the AIDS crisis, which began in the late 70s and killed hundreds of thousands of people before anyone fully understood how the disease was even spreading. Though hope was slowly approaching people were learning how to prolong the disease’s transition from HIV to full-blown, lethal AIDS with incredibly expensive and often harmful drugs — fear was everywhere.

“People were afraid to hug each other. People were afraid to kiss each other,” Karmeisool said, her voice’s bright tone flattening into one of sadness. “20 years ago, when I’d be in a group of people and I’d say ‘What is your number one fear regarding your sexual health?’ They would say, ‘HIV, contracting HIV.’ People were afraid to die.”

Most of the hysteria came from a misunderstanding about the disease. People were getting bad information — many thought AIDS could be contracted from poppers, toilet seats and skin-to-skin contact — which led to panic amongst even those who were low risk.

At the time, Karmeisool was 23 years old with a job in corporate America. She was making plenty of money; she owned her own house and had two nice cars. But she was stunned that people were still contracting and dying from a disease that they could easily avoid if armed with the right facts. She wanted to help save those innocent lives, so she got involved. Karmeisool’s journey with sexual heath started at The Rainbow Connection, Michigan’s version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, where she worked with AIDS-infected adolescents. Eventually, with a little help from her proud and philanthropic parents, Karmeisool opened S3.

Though the sale of adult toys and products are Karmeisool’s means of staying in business, she is adamant that a commitment to promoting sexual health comes first. In fact, under especially difficult circumstances she has gone as far as giving away condoms and products to people who could not afford them. She even went back for her Masters in Public Health after opening S3 to reinforce her commitment to the store’s mission, which was always to provide “consistent and correct information about sexual health, but do it in a way that was open, normalizing sex, reducing stigma and making the store available to all people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, economic standing, religious values.” It’s crucial to Karmeisool that customers at S3 can ask any employee personal questions without feeling judgment, and get information that will improve their lives.

To ensure that this approach to customer service stays consistent, S3’s hiring process is extremely rigorous and selective. According to Karmeisool, each applicant must have previous experience with sexual health and education before they are even considered for a position. Also, because the store’s employees are a close-knit team, each applicant must be interviewed and approved by everyone who works there. If any worker has a bad feeling about an applicant like if they hesitated on the issues of transgendered people, or other non-normative lifestyles - they’re out; the team has to be certain and unanimous.

Once someone proves that they have the right soul and attitude for the job, they have to go through a lengthy training process. This includes attending classes on sexually transmitted diseases, which are administered by the state of Michigan and paid for with the store’s budget. They also undergo intensive training on every product in the store. Billy, a member of Sexperteam who started working at S3 in August, said he had to memorize the details of all the merchandise, from the lubricants’ chemicals to the sizing and types of condoms.

“There are five types of condoms, by the way,” Billy said with a smile, showing off the knowledge he worked hard to procure.

Karmeisool explained that the process is so intensive because Safe Sex Store has more responsibility to its guests than other merchandise-moving businesses. If a salesperson at the mall convinces someone to buy a hideous shirt, for example, the worst-case scenario would be returning the atrocity or cutting your loses. But at S3, “if somebody makes a bad decision in buying something, or they use it incorrectly and something happens, that could harm their life,” said Karmeisool. “It could alter their path and completely change who they are.” This is why, at this rare type of business where safety and good information come before sales, having a well-informed staff is extremely important. This may be especially true for a place that offers a large range of services like S3 does.

In 2010, Safe Sex Store added on-site HIV testing to its list of services. Each Thursday from 2-8pm, a test counselor from HIV/AIDS Resource Center (HARC) conducts this free, confidential and even anonymous testing in the store’s private back room. All it takes is a finger prick, 15 minutes of your time, and courage to get through the door.

As to be expected, S3 does their best to take the edge off of the otherwise nerve-wracking and clinical test. You can wait for your results by browsing the store’s collection of vibrators, chatting with one of their charismatic employees, chowing down on an Insomnia Cookie, or getting emotional support from Jake, the therapy dog - a golden retriever/Labrador mix who can be found lounging in the sun by the front entrance.

Mike Wallace, S3’s test counselor from HARC, said the most important asset to this test site is its many other functions. Someone could be coming in on a Thursday for a variety of reasons, from picking up a Valentine’s Day gift to replenishing their supply of Trojan condoms. Those who walk into S3 for an HIV test are hardly noticed by the outside world because the store doesn’t have the same stigma that may come with entering a clinic.

When I joked about the HIV-testing being a “covert operation,” Wallace replied, “Yes, it’s covert. But it’s no back door operation.” And he’s right. The store is a fun cover for those being tested, but it is also elegantly professional and supplies support for issues I never would have imagined.

While we talked in S3’s small, clean storage room, Karmeisool showed me a hand vibrator that fits onto the wrist and tips of the fingers. Usually, this product is used to increase sexual arousal, but apparently there’s more to it than that.

“We have actually sold that to a customer whose daughter has cerebral palsy,” she told me, tapping on the box with a picture of a woman’s beautiful hand draped in white wires. “It’s an awesome way to get vibration to the muscles to try to get them to communicate with the nerves and do massage therapy.”

S3 also has women coming in for a variety of gynecological issues. Brittany Batell, the store manager who was recently accepted into a dual masters program with the University’s School of Social Work and School of Public Health, told me more about the health side of the business. “We’ll get referrals from a lot of gynecologists, OBGYNs and sex therapists in the community,” she said, her eyes shining with intelligence and pride. “Women come in here because they have sexual pain so we can hook them up with a better lubricant and a vaginal dilator set.”

Both Batell and Karmeisool explained that it can be hard for women to tell their doctors about their chronic sexual pain. For one, doctors often only have about 15 minutes on average to spend with each patient, so if someone is shy about discussing their sex life, it can be difficult to cut to the chase. Secondly, it isn’t easy to physically point to a problem’s exact source. This is why S3 sells informational books such as Why Sex Hurts, which has the most comprehensive drawing of female genitalia I’ve ever seen, along with tips and exercises for over-coming pain.

The Safe Sex Store even has a female social worker on staff to help field questions about sexual issues that may not be physical in nature. This woman is Alexandria Champagne, who recently got her Masters in Social Work from the University where she specialized in sexual and domestic violence counseling. As can be expected from the versatile employees at S3, Champagne’s knowledge is also multi-faceted. Her expertise extends beyond abuse and into the world of playful bondage. She is even releasing a book this March called “Knotty Time! A BDSM Safety Guide, ” which will help newbies explore kink in a fun and secure way.

However, despite the good that disseminating all of this sexual health information does, its taboo and sensitive undertones can come with a set of social risks for those who work at S3.

Batell and Billy mentioned that every once in a while disrespectful people come in asking inappropriately personal questions about what the employees use on their own time — inebriated sports enthusiasts wandering into the store on game day are the most likely culprits.

Billy said that asking aggressive questions about his own experience with toys and condoms goes beyond unprofessional. It is actually a form of sexual harassment, and in the past he has reminded hecklers that he could report their behavior to the authorities if they pushed their luck too far. Batell added that some people just don’t immediately see that working in the Safe Sex Store does not make the employee’s sex lives up for discussion.

“I can give you the specs on anything in here,” she said, “but (those questions are) personal.”

Karmeisool sometimes runs into similar trouble when she’s in social settings, like dinner parties where people are programmed to shake a stranger’s hand and instantly ask, “So, what do you do?” It’s not that Karmeisool is embarrassed about her profession; on the contrary, S3 seems to be her dream turned into a reality. It’s just difficult for the average person to see past the sex swings and latex at the front of her business and into the sexual activism and support she performs on a daily basis.

“You’re always, always, always having to defend yourself, which is crap,” she said with a nervous laugh. “You know? It really is crap because sex is a part of who we are. We’re all sexual beings.”

However, Karmeisool said that she doesn’t let these skeptics get in the way of her mission to help others with their intimate issues. At the same cocktail party, once handshakes are in the past and a few glasses of wine have been poured, near-strangers will often ask her questions about their sex lives. They wonder how to combat their dryness and chronically half-mast members; how to get their husbands to touch them in the spots that make them purr. And Karmeisool answers them — willingly, patiently and without judgment.

And this commitment is really what it comes down to — S3 is brave about sex so that we can benefit from their knowledge and be comfortable solving serious sexual problems that would feel unmentionable in any other space. These passionate sex educators don’t let micro-aggressions or cocktail party judgment stop them from disseminating the clear and crucial information that could save people pain, and even save some lives.

They will help anyone, no matter their gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religion or how much money they can spend, because they want us all to be happy, healthy sexual beings. Whether their guests are teenagers sheepishly investigating condoms for the first time, college students shopping for cake pans in the shapes of penises, 70 year old couples exploring lubricants, someone concerned about his or her HIV status or pedestrians just coming in to giggle about furry handcuffs, Safe Sex Store is meant to be a venue for open communication, reliable information and unwavering support.