College freshmen coming to Madison won’t be the only young adults around town come fall. Madison’s alternative sex shop, A Woman’s Touch, will also be celebrating its 18th birthday later this year. Started in 1996 by partners Ellen Barnard and Myrtle Wilhite, A Woman’s Touch is one of the few feminist, body-positive sex stores established in the Midwest.
Today, A Woman’s Touch is located at 302 S. Livingston St. on the Near East Side, just off Willy Street. According to Barnard, “A Woman’s Touch is a place for people of all identities to explore their sexual options in a safe, non-threatening setting.”
The store is the opposite of the sleazy adult shop paradigm. Tranquil music plays as customers ask questions and mill around tasteful displays of massage oils, butt plugs and lingerie. Shelves of working vibrators, dildos and opened packages of condoms are displayed so customers have a chance to gauge the weight, intensity and feel of products. Everything is meticulously labeled, with helpful charts and anatomy diagrams in abundance. Myriad free brochures, ranging from “How To Choose An Anal Toy” to “Cervical Self Examination” are scattered among displays.
The shop makes sure to emphasize safety and consent in sexual practices, Barnard said. Products are selected based on an internal matrix of practicality, reputation and affordability for the average consumer. Some products like numbing creams, edible panties and metal cock rings are not carried because they are potentially very dangerous.
To Barnard, who holds a masters of science in social work, the shop is both a community resource about sexual practices as well as a place of business.
While people of all ages shop at A Woman’s Touch, college students looking to explore safer, more pleasurable sex are frequent visitors. According to Barnard, the most common questions among young women revolve around how to achieve orgasm or how to avoid pain during sex.
“Sexual pleasure is something that is not taught in formal education and rarely taught by parents,” Barnard said. ”Unfortunately, the process of sexual pleasure is not intuitive for a lot of young women, which can lead to unsatisfying or painful sex.”
“For young men, questions tend to center around how to please their partner and how to find the right condom,” she added.
There is no shortage of questions for employees, and Wilhite is available to answer legitimate medical questions about sexual health needs. While it may feel awkward to explain your needs to a stranger, these employees are experts.
“When someone comes up to us and says that they have a weird question, it’s usually something we’ve answered several times that week,” Barnard said.
But the sexual education does not stop there. Currently, these two sexperts are completing professional webinars for health care providers. During the school year, they hold public classes with topics like “How to Pleasure a Man,” “How to Discover Your Inner Sexy Self” and “How to Talk Dirty.” Barnard and Wilhite talk to women’s recovery and cancer survivor groups in the local community and are often invited to campus events. Last spring, they held a workshop on enhancing communication for the Campus Women’s Center.
While A Woman’s Touch might be a sex store, the owners ultimately hope its function will be much more.
“The store will always be here, but many times, it really feels like we are running A Woman’s Touch to fund sexual education in the community,” Barnard said.