Awakening Boutique launches Saturday, August 18, and is nestled inside Modern Nomad at 2936 Larimer Street. The shop will stock “high-end, non-toxic, eco-friendly sex toys” as well as handmade lingerie, books and decor, handpicked by owners Tory Johnson and Rose Kalasz, to create a sex-positive “space for people to learn and explore their sexuality.”
Friends since preschool, Johnson and Kalasz even bought their first vibrators together at a big-box novelty store when they were eighteen, giggling through the whole experience like, well, teenage girls.
“I felt weirdly embarrassed about it, so I dragged Rose along, and we kind of wandered around, looked at everything, giggling at the big intimidating things. There was a whole lot of giggling, and we finally went over to the very beginner section and picked out something really cute,” Johnson says.
Though she remembers going home with a vibrator that looked like a tube of lipstick, Johnson also remembers feeling uncomfortable, too.
“When you don’t see yourself in the packaging or products, it’s just gross and weird, and you want to leave,” she says. “We feel like even though a lot of toys are made for female pleasure, it’s all about the male gaze. Like the little French maid costume. If a woman feels empowered by that, that’s great, but I feel like a lot of these are stereotypes of what a woman is to be for the male gaze; she’s a vessel for male pleasure and not an entity of her own.”
“I talked to so many women my age who said they’ve never been to a sex store, who were like, ‘I’ve always felt intimidated...and that’s really surprising to me. Denver’s a super-progressive and modern city,” Johnson says.
Denver once had other feminist sex-toy shops, Hysteria and Smitten Kitten, but both shuttered their doors years ago.
Earlier this year, two life-altering events pushed the women to take the plunge and open the business they had talked about: Johnson was laid off, and Kalasz found herself newly single. It seemed like the perfect time to start over.
Even though Awakening seeks to inspire female empowerment, the women soon found out that the shame of sex is practically built into the business.
“We got turned down immediately for a bank account because of what we sell,” Johnson says. “Even though a lot of the products we sell are T-shirts and candles and home goods...just because we have adult toys and things that are of a sexual nature, we got turned down.”
They were also barred from using Paypal or Square to facilitate sales and nearly lost their website.
Urban myths about sex also circulate among people on the street, some of which make it hard to open a shop — but the women pride themselves on being able to change minds.
Johnson says people think that you have to be an expert to go in; you have to know what you like to go in. "I think a lot of people think you have to be a little bit kinky to go into sex shops, and I think all of those are absolute misconceptions."
In addition to selling handmade lingerie and body-safe sex toys, Awakening Boutique will also host events ranging from dramatic readings of cheesy romance novels to seminars on intersectional feminism.
In recent weeks, Johnson and Kalasz say, they have been drinking wine and sharing Shake Shack fries on the floor of the boutique, discussing feminism and how to live by their ideals.
“Feminism is equality for all. Whether it be for gender, for sexuality, for identification, our feminism is very intersectional,” Johnson says. “We feel like a lot of feminist movements in the past have left out people of color or the LGBTQA community or non-binary folks, and we are very committed to keeping our feminism as intersectional as possible and using our privilege and our platform to raise the voices of people who have been silenced in the past also.”
Awakening Boutique's grand opening runs from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, August 18, at Modern Nomad, 2936 Larimer Street.