Frisky business: Athens establishments break stigma around sex | Arts & Culture
Despite her profession, Holly Berejikian, the manager of Sexy Suz Couples Boutique on Atlanta Highway, admits that she hasn’t always been able to feel comfortable around the topic of sex.
“Everybody I know felt shame about sex,” Berejikian said. “I think it’s just part of growing up.”
Berejikian has worked at Sexy Suz, which specializes in adult toys, lingerie and other sexual health and wellness products, for nearly 14 years. She first began as a part-time employee when the boutique was located in East Athens under a different name, Sexy Suz Adult Emporium. Now, she manages the employees, regularly purchases new inventory and connects with various product representatives in the adult toy industry.
While she has seen the industry become more progressive, many customers still come into the store feeling embarrassed. It is up to her to create a welcoming yet private environment that makes both her employees and customers feel comfortable.
“Giving people that safe space to come in and get advice [is] important,” Berejikian said. “We’re not going to show up at your Thanksgiving dinner, knowing all about what you just experimented with.”
Assistant manager Kenny Laney has worked alongside Berejikian for nearly two years. Laney understands that “sex can be an intimidating thing to talk about, especially with strangers in a retail setting.”
“It’s important to make sure our customers are comfortable, one, so they will continue to shop with us and, [two], to destigmatize the tabooness of sex toys and masturbation,” Laney said.
Sexy Suz regularly hosts events to further connect with and educate the Athens community. Some of these events include pelvic floor therapy classes, bondage demonstrations, erotic art shows and coming soon in December, naughty cookie decorating.
One of Berejikian’s favorite events was focused on men’s health and prostate care. The event was hosted as a way to promote the store’s men’s section and make male customers feel better represented.
“We’re trying to take the shame away but also be sensitive to the fact that men are embarrassed to buy [certain products],” Berejikian said. “We have [those products presented in] a horseshoe so when the men walk in, they can look…without having somebody else looking over and trying to see what they’re doing.”
Sexy Suz is one of only two sexual health and wellness-focused retailers in Athens. The other is Elations of Athens, a sister company managed by Starship Enterprises, which is located on Lexington Road. The nearest adult entertainment store, other than Elations and Sexy Suz, is nearly 40 miles away.
Tiffany Hope Rogers, vice president of operations at Starship Enterprises, believes everyone deserves equal access to pleasure.
“We provide high-quality sex toys at affordable pricing because we want to make sexual health, sexual wellness and pleasure accessible to everyone,” Hope Rogers said.
In the same way that shame pushes customers to avoid eye contact when entering stores like Sexy Suz and Elations, many people still find themselves feeling uncomfortable when it comes to discussing personal pleasure, according to Hope Rogers.
“Sexual health and wellness is about having access to safe, consensual and pleasurable relationships,” Hope Rogers said. “I think it’s the pleasurable part that people [don’t] want to engage with or pay attention to.”
One way the company tries to minimize this discomfort is by promoting educational materials through social media as well as its blog, “Bedside Manners.”
“Pleasure has to be a part of the…conversation and it has to be pleasure-based sex education,” Hope Rogers said.
Comprehensive sexual education
Kate Morrissey Stahl is a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Georgia and owns Revolution Therapy and Yoga, a sex therapy practice in Athens.
Like Hope Rogers, Morrissey Stahl believes that pleasure is key to one’s mental and physical well-being.
She helps her clients at Revolution work on pleasure enhancement, address issues of sexual dysfunction and work on questions of gender expansion and exploration.
As the only employee trained as both a yoga teacher and sex therapist, she often focuses on sexual health and pleasure during her weekly yoga classes.
“Yoga is certainly good for pelvic floor health, which is good for sexual pleasure, longer orgasm and reduction in symptoms like prolapse or other issues that people have,” Morrissey Stahl said.
One of her main research interests is “supporting pleasurable sexuality over the lifespan.” This means educating people, as they age, about different milestones and lifestyle shifts tied to their sexual health.
“We benefit from learning about how to engage in erotic ways over the lifespan, and it’s really different at different ages,” Morrissey Stahl said. “For really little kids, that might be being really clear about anatomy and what the different parts do… And then later [in life, that might be understanding] menopause, perimenopause [and] shifts in health that can happen.”
Later this month, Morrissey Stahl will host a pelvic floor health workshop for people experiencing perimenopause or menopause. She believes events like this are especially important considering most adults did not receive a comprehensive sexual education as children and still lack education on important changes as they age.
In Georgia, sex education is mandated in schools. However, it is not required to be comprehensive or medically accurate and must emphasize abstinence, according to the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States.
“[Abstinence-based sex education] leaves out the vast majority of what people need to know about engaging with other people, sexually,” Morrissey Stahl said. “There are just a lot of questions that are left unanswered, probably in part because people are worried that talking about sex will make people have more sex or behave in sexually irresponsible ways.”
Berejikian has witnessed the effects of a lack of sex education in some of her older and inexperienced clients, some widowers, who come in to purchase their first adult toy.
“They’re embarrassed because they don’t know how to use the internet. They don’t know where to get a vibrator,” Berejikian said. “And we have to be really, really careful not to shame them for being embarrassed.”
According to Morrissey Stahl, who teaches classes at UGA on trauma and sex therapy, adequate training in human sexuality is a fundamental part of human services.
“The truth is that lots of people get to, certainly undergraduate, and even graduate school without getting a broad based sex education,” Morrissey Stahl said.
Meg Wilson, a therapist at Revolution, began pursuing sex therapy as a result of their own upbringing in Central Louisiana.
“Our sex education was, at best, horrible and, at worst, terribly incorrect and shaming,” Wilson said. “It was largely my own journey towards knowledge and away from shame that made me interested in pursuing [sex therapy], to share with other people.”
Wilson primarily works with polyamorous, queer and neurodivergent clients on centering pleasure, navigating boundaries and more. They also run a polyamory support group and teach a masturbation and understanding orgasm workshop.
“I do think that there are some really cool pockets of education and resources available [in Athens] … even if schools aren’t able to offer the most accurate or comprehensive sex education,” Wilson said.
Struggle for acceptance
While some local businesses have embraced a culture of sex positivity, others have not.
“Certain places still won’t do business with us,” Berejikian said.
Both Berejikian and Hope Rogers have dealt with their fair share of complaints.
“There are so many rules and regulations about what we can and can’t say, products we can and can’t sell, and marketing we can and can’t do, because there’s still such a stigma and an outdated worldview on sexual pleasure and sexual relationships still around here,” Hope Rogers said.
From billboard companies to a popular fast food chain refusing to serve the store’s location, Berejikian says “it’s a fight everyday.” She hopes that Sexy Suz’s acceptance into the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce will finally “legitimize the business” in other people’s eyes.
“We’re showing up in these professional situations with dentists, with banks, with real estate agents,” Berejikian said. “It’s now up to the community to decide whether we fit in or not.”