Shelley Taylor thinks the world could use a little erotic adjustment.
The soft-spoken and seemingly mischievous owner of Venus Envy, the small, feminist, queer-friendly sex shop in the Byward Market, thinks, “We would be much happier people if we thought of ourselves as sexual beings and deserving of pleasure.” And if we were “willing to follow our parts.”
Taylor’s been teaching people about their parts and encouraging them to find what they like and what feels good, since opening her first Venus Envy store in Halifax seven years ago.
She recalls that it was then, at about age 29, after years of working as a caterer and chef, that she woke up one day and realized that she needed to do something that really spoke to her – something that she was passionate about.
“So I brainstormed and made lists of things that I really liked to talk about, and things that I liked to do. The list could just be wide open – no one was ever going to see it. A lot of the things on the list had to do with sex, sexuality, queerness, women’s stuff, feminism. A lot of the stuff on the list was really what I’m doing now.”
Venus Envy Halifax started off in a space even smaller than the little Parent St alcove that’s housed Taylor’s Ottawa store for the last four years. Now, like its sister store in Halifax, Ottawa Venus Envy is trading in its first little home for a larger location, this one on Lisgar at Bank, downstairs from the old Gays Of Ottawa office, in Ottawa’s burgeoning gaybourhood.
Taylor says she’s most pleased that the new space, set to open on Sep 2, is wheelchair accessible and will make it easier to offer customers the kind of sex-positive programming that Venus Envy is famous for. The store’s bookshelves on castors will roll back to allow for a never-ending slate of workshops in the space.
Taylor teaches a number of the workshops herself, at the store, around town and in tropical locations such as Thunder Bay, Antigonish and Sydney – any place not necessarily big enough to have its own feminist sex educators yet.
She explains how her passion for subversive sex ed is rooted in her own life experience. At 18, she contracted herpes. In her early 20s, she dated a man for four years who identified as gay. In both cases, she felt acutely shameful and isolated – like she was carrying a sick secret that was hers alone.
“I guess when I was about 24 or so, I somehow broke free of all that, and came through the other side feeling very sex-positive, shameless, happier – what I had had before. That was the beginning of thinking about sex and its importance to our day-to-day lives, in terms of how we feel about ourselves, our self-esteem and how we interact with the world as sexual beings.”
Of her full-time project now she muses, “I think that stores like Venus Envy can go a long way to normalizing sex and giving desire its due.”
As a small sex-positive business, it also allows her to be who she is personally at work.
Taylor is openly polyamorous and queer – she has, as a friend of hers says, a rather “fancy” identity. She’s married to a man, with whom she’s been together for 11 years, and she has a female partner of four years who lives with them as well. And they have four pets.
“There are not many places I could work and be open about having two partners,” says Taylor. “How many employers and co-workers would be really comfortable inviting me and my family out to the company picnic?”