I Built a Sex-Positive Dildo Empire. Here's What I Learned

Zoë Ligon is the founder of Detroit sex toy emporium Spectrum Boutique. She shares the lessons she's learned during her time in the industry—and why you can never use too much lube.
Sirin Kale
as told to Sirin Kale
September 6, 2018, 9:29am
Illustration by Soofiya Andry

My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?

This week, Zoë Ligon, founder of sex-positive sex toy store Spectrum Boutique, shares what she's learned about the world of sex toys. You can catch My First Time on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts.

The first time I ever bought a sex toy was an impulse buy. I was 18 and in the Village in Manhattan. I went into one of those tiny sex toy stores and thought, I’m going to buy a pair of handcuffs, like they do in the movies. I thought it was something that heterosexual couples did. I was very much following a societal script that had been set out for me; I don’t feel like I had full ownership over my body and sexuality until I was nearly 20.

I never actually used the handcuffs! Not even once. But I then bought my first vibrator at the age of 21, and that was it for me. I got a Magic Wand and it was fucking fabulous. I’d tried other softer vibrators, and those dreaded jelly sex toys that emit toxins and gases, and they weren’t for me. But when I got a Magic Wand I thought, Wow, I’m a power queen.

My parents were pretty progressive and there was a copy of The Joy of Sex on the bookshelf, but I never opened it up. Growing up, I wasn’t comfortable exploring that realm at all. Even in my very liberal public school, we never talked about masturbation at all. All we learned about was reproductive anatomy and the very basics of sex. I think that sex education in public schools in general is very lacking. When kids are searching for sex online and inevitably finding porn—which I don’t think is evil or inherently bad—you need to give kids a context for understanding it. I’m interested by questions of "how can we make young people porn-literature so that when they come across porn, they understand it’s a performance?" These are real issues the internet needs to address, because the internet is evolving faster than our national conversation on sex education.

I started working at a sex toy store called Babeland, which really prioritized the educational aspect of sex toys. I got a lot of experience working on the floor with sex toys, having customers come in off the street and talk to me. Babeland did a really good job of training me about anatomy, pleasure, and gender, and it laid the framework for me to do my own research. After a while working there, I started writing about myths I’d been confronted about from interacting with customers. So, for example, I’d write about lube, [like] why you need to use lube if you’re going to use a silicon dildo, otherwise there will be too much friction.

In 2014, my dad died unexpectedly. He left me a little nest egg for me to build my own dildo empire. I started a business called Spectrum Boutique, which is a sex-positive toy store based in Detroit. I think it’s important to talk about money in this industry. So many people in the sex business find it impossible to get a line of credit from the bank, because they consider it too high-risk. And there are not that many venture capitalists that are sex-positive, sadly!

All photos courtesy of Zoë Ligon

Starting my own business was cathartic. At my darkest hour, after losing my dad—who was my best friend—it felt like I found my light. It’s hard for me to imagine my dad seeing my current work, but when he was alive he was accepting of what I did, so I think he’d understand.

There’s nothing I enjoy more now than helping people select their own sex toys. So often, I get asked by women, “Why am I not able to have an orgasm from penetrative sex? What’s wrong with me?” It’s so sad that women place so much blame on themselves. To me, it’s obvious that the intimacy and sex we see depicted commonly in porn, television, and film is behind this. On the other hand, for men, there’s so much stigma around sex toys like masturbation sleeves. It’s like, real men get real pussy. Whereas for people using sex toys who have vulvas, it’s fetishized: She’s going to have some solo time with her dildo.

Photo courtesy of Zoë Ligon

There’s a huge lack of inclusivity when it comes to sex toys. It’s upsetting as a toy store owner who wants to have inclusive toys, and you can’t, because the manufacturers only offer them in a pale white color. So many sex toys that look like real-life genitals are only made in a white skin tone. That sends a message to people that these toys are not for you, and we’re not creating them for you, and you’re not our customer in mind. It’s alienating to people wanting to buy their first toys, although things are gradually improving.

There’s so much myth and stigma around using sex toys. Sometimes even I think, God, I’m such a high maintenance person, why do I always need to use vibrators, what’s wrong with me? But then I turn that part of my brain off and think, I’m a person, I need to have orgasms. There was a time that I wasn’t having orgasms, so what am I so upset about? But the stigma even gets the better of me sometimes.

I think that if we were all able to be candid and vulnerable with ourselves and others, we’d learn so much. There are no 'shoulds' when it comes to exploring your own self-pleasure. Approach your body with love and drop the expectation that you should always have an orgasm every time you masturbate. Listen to a sex positive podcast, wine and dine your body, and use lots of lube! It’s mind-blowing to think that you’ve had your body since the day you were born, and you can still explore it.