Sex. Most of us have it, many of us enjoy it. While some talk about it more openly than others, conversations around our sexuality and sexual activities are widely considered a private matter—only to be explored or discussed behind closed doors. I once had sex with a person who could only ejaculate if I sat on his face. Another was significantly more turned on by the sight of my derrière than my visage, and almost seemed a bit bored by any attempts at eye contact, yet delighted when I let him touch my asshole. The most silent lover I ever had would carefully alternate between strong thrusts and slow movements, all the while never making a sound. Reflecting on these experiences, I quickly realise that I’ve discovered almost as much about other people’s bodies in the past decade as I have about my own.
At this point, as a writer, I can’t help but wonder, have I made someone feel uneasy? Intrigued? Amused? Ashamed? Annoyed? Aroused? We all have a right to experience feelings, and this is precisely where Other Nature comes into the picture—first, by striking up a conversation; then by providing individuals with a safe space where they can both ask and listen; and last, but certainly not least, by striving to communicate a sense of normality around the unique nature of every individual’s sexuality and sexual preferences.
Other Nature is a feminist, queer, sex-positive, eco-friendly and vegan sex shop located at the heart of Berlin, co-founded by Sara Rodenhizer in 2011. Eight years later, she remains as eager as ever to elaborate on the principles that have guided her vision since day one. “These terms can seem very loaded, but we intentionally associate ourselves with them so that people can understand how we make decisions. In practice, it doesn’t mean that you have to identify with these values. At Other Nature, everyone is welcome. It’s our hope that being in this space, taking in the cozy atmosphere and sex info in all its forms, will support people in feeling OK exactly as they are—whether they’re confident or nervous, whether they know lots already or very little. Mostly, the sex education that we get out in the world, both as kids and as adults, is extremely lacking and deficient...but you are not. Conveying this sense of “I’m OK-ness” is part of what we do in the day-to-day.”
Come as you are
The Other Nature team goes through great lengths to carefully select every item with the utmost respect for the diversity of its customer base in mind. Hence, whether you are flipping through erotic books or buying nicely-packaged butt plugs, you won’t find any misogynist content displayed on the store’s shelves. In addition to offering a wide assortment of sex toys, accessories, literature, porn, menstrual products and knick-knacks, the store also hosts regular workshops that invite you to dive deeper into topics such as blowjobs and dirty talk. The shop also puts on regular art exhibitions and events, as well as fun, educational home parties where customers can broaden their horizons in the realms of sex toys and period products. In a world where conversations around sex are often swept under the carpet, Other Nature is shaking up societal norms by providing people with a safe and welcoming environment where they are invited to discover, explore and express their sexuality freely.
Other Nature engages with ideas of societal norms and expectations on a daily basis—an inevitability when working in the field of sex education—leading the team to constantly question where these ideas come from and how they affect our sense of self and relationships to others. “Normal is just a construct we’ve created to make sense of our own experience in the world, and too often to judge other people’s experiences against our own. It’s a bit of a contradiction, because on the one hand, we’re saying that normal doesn’t really exist, but on the other, we’re constantly trying to ‘normalize’ ideas around sexuality and expand the definition of ‘normal’,” Sara explains. “Personally, I think the language of ‘normality’ is useful insofar as it’s a concept that’s part of people’s realities. But eventually, I’d like to see us all do away with it.” Sara can confirm in no uncertain terms that, if a customer feels at all insecure in their lack of knowledge around a topic, or their anxieties about a personal issue or sexual desire, they are definitely not alone. “People generally don’t talk to each other about sex stuff, so it’s no surprise that they feel weird or alone sometimes. But here at Other Nature, we talk to all sorts of people, and I can tell you: you are not the only one…no matter what it is.”
She goes on to point out the paradox around sex in our society, “Though most of us aren't talking to each other about sex, either because we're uncomfortable or it's considered taboo, sex is still everywhere around us. It’s on billboards. It’s in porn. It’s on TV. The problem is that, in these spaces, we are being told how we ‘should’ be. But that just contributes to our fears about being wrong in some way, which is straight up bogus. There are more interesting conversations to be had that will open people up to just how many different ‘normalities’ are out there, and how truly magnificent that is for all of us.” Though there is still a way to go, she seems confident that the future is looking bright for her cause. Across Europe and North America, shops, brands and services which embody values similar to those of Other Nature are steadily on the rise. Consequently, a wider audience is finding empowerment in the beauty of individuality and diversity. In the years to come, Sara has high hopes that we will be seeing more of these likeminded spaces.
An industry plagued by toxic materials and messaging
Other Nature’s eco-friendly and vegan principles shine a spotlight on the ethical practices, and the lack thereof, in the modern-day marketplace. Upon turning the conversation to sustainability, Sara is quick to underline that many sex toys are not inherently green, “We sell vibrators. These are not usually plastic-free. Our goal is to offer people more sustainable options than they would find in their average sex toy store.” Much like in the food sector, consumers in the sex toy industry are beginning to demand higher quality products, namely items that are more body friendly and easier on the environment. People are paying more attention to materials and labels, seeking out 100% silicone, non-porous and cruelty-free products.
Over the past decade, Sara has observed an industry-wide shift in supply to meet this demand—even in shops that are miles away from associating themselves with feminist ideals or prescribing to sustainability standards of any form. Consumers today can purchase 100% silicone toys in most mainstream sex toy stores. However, not all silicone is made equal in an industry that is severely under-regulated. As a result, it is not uncommon to find packaging presenting misleading information, and seemingly ‘healthy' products are often infused with toxic fillers to secure bigger margins. Most mainstream shops still carry an assortment of porous, highly toxic sex toys that contain dangerous chemical plastic softeners, called Phthalates. The negative impacts that these chemicals have on our health and the environment cannot be ignored.
Sara explains how Other Nature is tackling these challenges, “We see a lot of deceptiveness with manufacturers, which is why it’s so difficult for customers to know what they are getting. We are extremely selective with our partners and only work with brands that we trust and are in constant communication with. We take a lot of time to find and meet the people we choose to work with, and we favour working with smaller companies—especially women-, trans*-, and/or queer-owned companies. At the same time, we want to offer a broad range of toys for many different bodies. So it all comes down to striking a delicate balance—we need to find enough brands that we actually want to work with, while still catering to people’s diversity.” Thus, the team at Other Nature can guide its customers in the right direction based, not only on their desires, but also on their priorities. While some people may be more interested in purchasing products from queer manufacturers, others are more concerned with choosing brands that minimise their CO2 emissions.
The Other Nature team prides itself in its holistic approach. As an example, they recently came up with a plan to work with existing partners to reduce excessive packaging in favour of more sustainable solutions. They plan to contact brands one by one and present them with insights and ideas about how to put this into practice. “It’s in their power to change that” Sara bluntly states. “Yes, the government can force companies or industries to change, for example by banning plastic bags, but it’s more of a statement if it comes from them. There’s no good enough reason not to do it right now.” Indeed, cost factors aside, there is nothing to dictate that synthetic products cannot be packaged in more Earth-friendly, responsible ways. Whether these seeds will bear fruits remains to be seen.
They can, and they do
While Sara lives and breathes Other Nature, she is by no means a one-woman show. Almost a decade into the business, she feels blessed to be surrounded by such a passionate and dedicated group of individuals who propel her vision forwards. Other Nature’s Store Manager Lukas, for example, shares Sara’s penchant for ethical manufacturing. In her own words, “He loves researching the different products, and getting the know the ins and outs of them all—we’re both really nerdy in that sense. I also really appreciate his chilled vibe as it keeps the store in balance, especially when things get hectic.” Kitty, the Director of Education and Community Outreach is constantly working to broaden the store’s customer base with her hands-on approach, expertise and commitment to both youth and adult sex ed. Then there is Maja, Other Nature’s politically engaged Online Shop Manager, who contribute valuable perspectives from and to the work that they do outside of the shop. Most recently, Ali joined the team as the Toy Party Coordinator to manage what Sara jokingly referred to as Other Nature’s “army of toy party facilitators” who bring Other Nature into homes all over Berlin and beyond.
She also attributes a lot of her strength and determination to the positive support they receive from the local community, “Our neighbours have been very friendly and welcoming. In general, I feel everyone in Berlin has been so encouraging. Every day people come in and tell us what a great space Other Nature is and how comfortable they feel here. We don’t get paid much, but this is definitely a big part of the reward.” However many responsibilities Sara finds herself juggling simultaneously, the interactions with and feedback from customers on the floor remain the elements she loves most about her job.
The foundation for a better future? Education.If you were 'lucky’ enough to have had some form of sexual education in school, you probably learned cis*normative basics that men have penises and women have vaginas, and unprotected sex leads to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Perhaps you were even shown some informative slides or videos before being tasked with pulling a latex condom over some lengthy wooden object. Most sex education for youth does very little to shed light on the fact that humans are complex and unique sexual beings. It is rare that concepts of gender or sexuality are built into curriculums in schools, which is a great cause for concern in Sara’s eyes. “The free porn they [teenagers] see online is their sexual education. And that is—if you look at much of the porn out there—quite problematic.” Despite the hurdles they face as an over 18’s-only space, Other Nature is committed to bringing better sex education to people of all ages, and dedicates resources towards supporting and educating youth in Berlin. For one, they arrange private appointments outside of the shop with trans* and non-binary youth who want to try on a range of gender expression gear, such as packers, breast pads, or binders. They also offer a not-for-profit all-ages programme for gender expression gear, called The Fitting Room. And, of course, their online sex info and advice pages are extremely helpful and accessible to anyone.
*Note: someone is cis-gender if the gender they were assigned at birth (“It’s a girl!”) matches their current gender identity (“I am a girl/woman.”).
One (wo)man’s pain is another (wo)man’s pleasure
Some of the most common questions asked by customers who visit Other Nature are around the topic of pleasure. Whether it’s the penis or vagina, prostate or G-spot, people seem especially eager to learn more about the body’s various parts and erogenous zones. Sara reasons that pleasure is so connected with feelings of safety, comfort, and self-knowledge, which makes it central to how we experience ourselves and each other as sexual beings. Whether in the form of an in-depth anatomy lesson, a quick in-store chat, or an involved consultation, the staff is continuously working to encourage a sphere of learning and exploration. “The world of curiosity and pleasure opens up when you take down barriers to education and self-discovery” Sara explains.
Today, Other Nature’s product range, services and customer base are wonderfully diverse. While the business is flourishing on many fronts, there is still much work to be done if you examine the mental and physical state of society as a whole. In addition to continually seeking to inspire their existing community, Sara and her team are always working to reach out to new people. They are highly invested in findings ways to engage with individuals who would perhaps not usually walk into the store—in the past, this has included adventures such as a toy party at the Museum der Dinge and stall at the green trade fair Heldenmarkt. With lots of exciting workshops and events on the agenda, it will undoubtedly continue to be exciting to follow Other Nature’s norm-challenging journey in the months and years to come.