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A man walks into a sex toy shop ...

Early to Bed, an Andersonville shop selling a colorful array of sex toys and devices, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Searah Daysach began Early to Bed, her Andersonville shop, 20 years ago because she felt the experience of buying sex toys was not as fun as it should be.
Searah Deysach began Early to Bed, her Andersonville shop, 20 years ago because she felt the experience of buying sex toys was not as fun as it should be.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Searah Deysach doesn’t rush up to customers entering her shop. She likes to give them time.

“We find that if you immediately approach somebody, they shut off,” she said. So she waits before asking, “Do you need help finding anything? Do you have questions?”

They often do.

Early to Bed, 5044 N. Clark St. in Andersonville, is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it just marked its 20th anniversary. A milestone for any small shop.

And second, it sells sex toys. A visit seemed in order.

Alas, much of the store’s colorful stock defies description in a family newspaper. “Probe-y things and ball-shaped things and tickle-y things and twisty things,” is how Deysach put it. Often a single object will suggest an entire sub-realm of heretofore unimagined — at least by me — human psychology, such as the silicone squid tentacle.

“These are all rechargeable vibrators,” she said, giving a tour. “And then over here, we have a lot of vibrators that are battery operated, and then wand-style vibrators.”

What prompts a person to start such a shop?

“It wasn’t something I set out to do,” said Deysach, 48, who “just made up” her first name, Searah, in seventh grade. “So many Sarahs in middle school,” she said. “I was searching for my unique identity.”

Like any good businessperson, she saw a need: Shopping for sex toys was unpleasant.

“It was not the warm, fun, exciting experience I thought shopping for sex toys would be.” she said. “It was awkward, uncomfortable, disappointing. I felt shamed by people working in these stores. That was the ‘aha’ moment. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. Stores that sell these products are staffed by people who make you feel terrible for wanting the products.’”

The seed money came from her mother.

“Nobody gives a sex toy store a business loan,” she said. Credit card companies charge her more, insurance companies have dropped her when they realize her line of business. She can’t advertise on Facebook. The reason is clear.

“It’s 100 percent prudery,” she says.

Deysach noticed an odd inversion. Pleasure products are a rare realm where women have more freedom than men.

“They absolutely do. It’s this weird thing. We have this puritanical culture with a lot of stigma around sex,” she said. “When it comes to sex toys, the roles are almost reversed. Women are empowered to buy a vibrator. It’s seen as a self-care thing, this powerful taking control of your sexuality. For men, especially cisgendered, heterosexual men, buying a sex toy, getting this toy for themselves is not seen as empowering, but as sad and a stigma.”

Couples visiting the shop often have “this gorgeously exciting experience, and they are on the same page, exploring together, talking, having conversations about sex, which is what you want everyone to do,” Deysach said.

But not always.

“Then you see the opposite end of that, couples where communication is just not happening and we have to help facilitate that, because we’re looking out for people.”

Deysach and her clerks sometimes must be part marriage counselor, part referee.

“At least half of our male customers are shopping for their female partners,” she said. “We’re seeing more men being supportive, but sometimes it’s aggressive and unwanted. The guy is really invested in having his female partner want and use sex toys, but you can tell the woman’s not interested. We will be put in the middle of these clearly nonconsensual situations and have to maneuver to find out what the woman really wants.”

“Their staff are sexual educators,” said Jennifer Litner, a Chicago-based sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness. “They’re really great about the insights they provide.”

While I had Litner on the line, I wondered why people are often so uncomfortable when it comes to this realm.

“Masturbation is entrenched with lots of cultural messages,” Litner said. “In reality, a very natural part of sexual lives, also really helpful for partners to discover what satisfies them and how they want their partners to stimulate them. It’s taboo because of the cultural, religious and other values people hold. There’s a lot of shame.”

In some places. In others, a newfound boldness. These are not your mother’s vibrators.

“There’s been so much creativity, so much innovation, so much moving away from what you think of when you think of sex toys,” Deysach said. “Gorgeously designed, innovative products you wouldn’t be embarrassed to leave on your counter.”

Some people wouldn’t. It depends on whether you consider embarrassment a condition to avoid or overcome.