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February 27, 2014 - Image 12

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The Michigan Daily, 2014-02-27

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4B - Thursday, February 27, 2014


The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

From Page 1B
My first time entering the Safe
Sex Store (S3) was on my 18th
birthday. A group of other fresh-
men and I wanted to celebrate my
new legality by doing something
new and adult, so we stumbled
through the glass door and into
a wonderland of sexual delight.
Rows of brightly colored vibra-
tors in all sizes and shapes salut-
ed us from their plastic stands.
Giggling nervously, we ran our
hands through a bucket of Mag-
num condoms, their gold wrap-
pers glinting in the sunlight that
poured in from the giant glass
windows facing South Univer-
sity. We sheepishly eyed edible
underwear. Varying versions of
the Kama Sutra lined the book-
shelves; they were mysterious
to me, packed with secrets that
felt forbidden in other places but
seemed to proudly sing, "I'm sexy
and I know it," in this particular
We didn't stay long that day -
beef stroganoff was waiting for
us in the dining hall - but I con-
tinued to think of S3 as a place of
adventure. I hardly returned, but
Iliked the idea of the store's pres-
ence. It was exciting to be inside;
it seemed like a place of silly fun.
Whenever I walked by, I cracked
a little smile.
But S3 is actually much more
than an emporium of dildos and
flavored condoms.
BethAnnKarmeisool, avibrant
woman in her early 40s with a
new set of braces and easy pas-
sion in her voice, started the store
in 1995. It was the tail end of the
AIDS crisis, which began in the
late 70s and killed hundreds of
thousands of people before any-
one fully understood how the dis-
ease was even spreading. Though
hope was slowly approaching
people were learning how to pro-
long the disease's transition from
HIV to full-blown, lethal AIDS
with incredibly expensive and
often harmful drugs - fear was
"People were afraid to hug
each other. People were afraid to
kiss each other,"Karmeisool said,
her voice's bright tone flattening
into one of sadness. "20 years ago,
when I'd be in a group of people
and I'd say'What is your number
one fear regarding your sexual
health?' They would say, 'HIV,

contracting HIV.' People were
afraid to die."
Most of the hysteria came
from a misunderstanding about
the disease. People were getting
bad information - many thought
AIDS could be contracted fromh
poppers, toilet seats and skin-to-
skin contact - which led to panic
amongst even those who were
low risk.
At the time, Karmeisool was
23 years old with a job in corpo-
rate America. She was making
plenty of money; she owned her
own house and had two nice cars.
But she was stunned that people
were still contracting and dying
from a disease that they could
easily avoid if armed with the
right facts. She wanted to help
save those innocent lives, so she
got involved. Karmeisool's jour-
ney with sexual heath started at
The Rainbow Connection, Michi-
gan'sversion of the Make-A-Wish
Foundation, where she worked
with AIDS-infected adolescents.
Eventually, with a little help from
her proud and philanthropic par-
ents, Karmeisool opened S3.
Though the sale of adult toys
and products are Karmeisool's
means of staying in business,
she is adamant that a commit-
ment to promoting sexual health
comes first. In fact, under espe-
cially difficult circumstances she
has gone as far as giving away
condoms and products to people
who could not afford them. She
even went back for her Masters
in Public Health after opening
S3 to reinforce her commitment
to the store's mission, which was
always to provide "consistent and
correct information about sexual
health, but do it in a way that was
open, normalizing sex, reduc-
ing stigma and making the store
available to all people regardless
of age, race, sexual orientation,
economic standing, religious val-
ues." It's crucial to Karmeisool
that customers at S3 can ask any
employee personal questions
without feeling judgment, and
get information that will improve
their lives.
To ensure that this approach to
customer service stays consistent,
S3's hiring process is extremely
rigorous and selective. Accord-
ing to Karmeisool, each applicant
must have previous experience
with sexual health and education
before they are even considered
for a position. Also, because the
store's employees are a close-

knit team, each applicant must
be interviewed and approved by
everyone who works there. If any
worker has a bad feeling about an
applicant like if they hesitated
on the issues of transgendered
people, or other non-normative
lifestyles - they're out; the team
has to be certain and unanimous.
Once someone proves that
they have the right soul and atti-
tude for the job, they have to go
through a lengthy training pro-
cess. This includes attending
classes on sexually transmitted
diseases, which are administered
by the state of Michigan and paid
for with the store's budget. They
also undergo intensive training
on every product in the store.
Billy, a member of Sexperteam
who started working at S3 in
August, said he had to memorize
the details of all the merchandise,
from the lubricants' chemicals to
the sizing and types of condoms.
"There are five types of con-
doms, by the way," Billy said with
a smile, showing off the knowl-
edge he worked hard to procure.
Karmeisool explained that the
process is so intensive because
Safe Sex Store has more respon-
sibility to its guests than other
merchandise-moving businesses.
If a salesperson at the mall con-
vinces someone to buy a hideous
shirt, for example, the worst-case
scenario would be returning the
atrocity or cutting your loses. But
at S3, "if somebody makes a bad
decision in buying something, or
they use it incorrectly and some-
thing happens, that could harm
their life," said Karmeisool. "It
could alter their path and com-
pletely change who they are."
This is why, at this rare type of
business where safety and good
information come before sales,
having a well-informed staff is
extremely important. This may
be especially true for a place that
offers a large range of services
like S3 does.
In 2010, Safe Sex Store added
on-site HIV testing to its list of
services. Each Thursday from
AIDS Resource Center (HARC)
conducts this free, confidential
and even anonymous testing in
the store's private back room. All
it takes is a finger prick, 15 min-
utes of your time, and courage to
get through the door.
As to be expected, S3 does
their best to take the edge off of
the otherwise nerve-wracking

Those Lollicocks look oddly phallic...
and clinical test. You can wait
for your results by browsing the
store's collection of vibrators,
chatting with one of their charis-
matic employees, chowing down
on an Insomnia Cookie, or getting
emotional support from Jake, the
therapy dog - a golden retriever/
Labrador mix who can be found
lounging in the sun by the front
Mike Wallace, S3's test coun-
selor from HARC, said the most
important asset to this test site is
its many other functions. Some- -
one could be coming in on a
Thursday for a variety of reasons,
from picking up a Valentine's Day
gift to replenishing their supply
of Trojan condoms. Those who
walk into S3 for an HIV test are
hardly noticed by the outside
world because the store doesn't
have the same stigma that may
come with entering a clinic.
When I joked about the HIV-
Wallace replied, "Yes, it's covert.
But it's no back door operation."
And he's right. The store is a fun
cover for those beingtested, but it
is also elegantly professional and
supplies support for issues I never
would have imagined.
While we talked in S3's small,
clean storage room, Karmeisool
showed me a hand vibrator that
fits onto the wrist and tips of the
fingers. Usually, this product is
used to increase sexual arousal,
but apparently there's more to it
than that.
"We have actually sold that to
a customer whose daughter has
cerebral palsy," she told me, tap-
ping on the box with a picture of
a woman's beautiful hand draped
in white wires. "It's an awesome
way to get vibration to the mus-
cles to try to get them to com-
municate with the nerves and do
massage therapy."
S3 also has women coming
in for a variety of gynecologi-
cal issues. Brittany Batell, the
store manager who was recently
accepted into a dual masters
program with the University's
School of Social Work and School
of Public Health, told me more
about the health side of the busi-
ness. "We'll get referrals from a
lot of gynecologists, OBGYNs and
sex therapists in the community,"
she said, her eyes shining with
intelligence and pride. "Women
come in here because they have
sexual pain so we can hook them
up with a better lubricant and a
vaginal dilator set."
Both Batell and Karmeisool

explained that it can be hard
for women to tell their doctors
about their chronic sexual pain.
For one, doctors often only have
about 15 minutes on average to
spend with each patient, so if
someone is shy about discussing
their sex life, it can be difficult to
cut to the chase. Secondly, it isn't
easy to physically point to a prob-
lem's exact source. This is why S3
sells informational books such as
Why Sex Hurts, which has the
most comprehensive drawing of
female genitalia I've ever seen,
along with tips and exercises for
over-coming pain.
The Safe Sex Store even has a
female social worker on staff to
help field questions about sexual
issues that may not be physical in
nature. Thiswoman isAlexandria
Champagne, who recently got her
Masters in Social Work from the
University where she specialized
in sexual and domestic violence
counseling. As can be expected
from the versatile employees at
S3, Champagne's knowledge is
also multi-faceted. Her expertise
extends beyond abuse and into
the world of playful bondage.
She is even releasing a book this
March called "Knotty Time! A
BDSM Safety Guide, " which will
help newbies explore kink in a
fun and secure way.
However, despite the good that
disseminating all of this sexual
health information does, its taboo
and sensitive undertones can
come with a set of social risks for
those who work at S3.
Batell and Billy mentioned that
every once in a while disrespect-
ful people come in asking inap-
propriately personal questions
about what the employees use
on their own time - inebriated
sports enthusiasts wandering
into the store on game day are the
most likely culprits.
Billysaid that askingaggressive
questions about his own experi-
ence with toys and condoms goes
beyond unprofessional. It is actu-
ally a form of sexual harassment,
and in the past he has reminded
hecklers that he could report
their behavior to the authorities
if they pushed their luck too far.
Batell added that some people just
don't immediately see that work-
ing in the Safe Sex Store does not
make the employee's sex lives up
for discussion.
"I can give you the specs on
anything in here," she said, "but
(those questions are) personal."
Karmeisool sometimes runs
into similar trouble when she's in

social settings, like dinner parties
where people are programmed
to shake a stranger's hand and
instantly ask, "So, what do you
do?" It's not that Karmeisool is
embarrassed about her profes-
sion; on the contrary, S3 seems to
be her dream turned into a reality.
It's just difficult for the average
person to see past the sex swings
and latex at the front of her busi-
ness and into the sexual activism
and support she performs on a
daily basis.
"You're always, always, always
having to defend yourself, which
is crap," she said with a nervous
laugh. "You know? It really is crap
because sex is a part of who we
are. We're all sexual beings."
However, Karmeisool said that
she doesn't let these skeptics get in
the way of her mission to help oth-
ers with their intimate issues. At
the same cocktail party, once hand-
shakes are in the past and a few
glasses of wine have been poured,
near-strangers will often ask her
questions about their sex lives.
They wonder how to combat their
dryness and chronically half-mast
members; how to get their hus-
bands to touch them in the spots
that make them purr. And Kar-
meisool answers them - willingly,
patientlyand withoutjudgment.
And this commitment is really
what it comes down to - S3 is
brave about sex so that we can
benefit from their knowledge
and be comfortable solving seri-
ous sexual problems that would
feel unmentionable in any other
space. These passionate sex edu-
cators don't let micro-aggressions
or cocktail party judgment stop
them from disseminating the
clear and crucial information that
could save people pain, and even
save some lives.
They will help anyone, no
matter their gender identity,
race, sexual orientation,
religion or how much money
they can spend, because they
want us all to be happy, healthy
sexual beings. Whether their
guests are teenagers sheepishly
investigating condoms for the
first time, college students
shopping for cake pans in the
shapes of penises, 70 year old
couples exploring lubricants,
someone concerned about his or
her HIV status or pedestrians
just coming in to giggle about
furry handcuffs, Safe Sex
Store is meant to be a venue for
open communication, reliable
information and unwavering

Safejy is the golden rule.

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