Photo Essay: Early to Bed Changes the Feminist Sex Toy Scene During the Pandemic

early to bed products

“Paper Bag” by Fiona Apple plays in the background as Merril Doty and Nicole Guappone spend their afternoon shift unboxing dildos, packers, vibrators, gender gear, lube and other sex products to fulfill the extensive online and pick-up orders Early to Bed has seen in the last year.

When COVID-19 hit, things changed for Early to Bed like many other small businesses, but as more people spent their days inside secluded, sex toy sales spiked. Owner Searah Deysach has spent the last 20 years creating the most feminist and inclusive space at Early to Bed, but as 2020 began and we faced difficulties like never before, she knew their operation would have to change.

The doors were closed, then open, closed again, and then re-opened as we entered “Christmastime” in the sex toy industry – Valentine’s Day. Deysach shared that the sex toy business has not suffered in the ways others have and sales have even increased.

“People are home more; they’re spending less time going out and not having casual sex in the ways they used to,” she said. “It is such a unique time for self-pleasure, but for so many people this is also a really unsexy time.”

The USPS carrier for Early to Bed, 5044 N. Clark St., picks up 4-6 mailing bags full of products each day to be shipped out. Online orders steadily rose from 25-30 a day before COVID to now 40-60 every day, and in-store pick up orders increased from about one per week, to now multiple per day.

Guappone spent her shift on this day as the “shipping shifter,” getting into a rhythm with the blue order sheet in one hand and using the other to search the store for products. She shared that the packaging they use is always a generic, unmarked USPS box – “we want our customers to feel safe ordering from us.”

While Guappone is filling orders, Doty is unpacking new inventory and answering multiple calls she will get that day. Doty is a trained sex educator and has put her training to good use helping shoppers on the phone to figure out the best sex toys for them and offering educational advice about pelvic health. Recently, she had a conversation with a grandmother from Texas asking about binders for her grandchild.

“Normalizing and talking about sex toys and our other products is just so important,” Doty said. “I had one phone call from a cis-man, and he said, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, this is a compliment, but you make talking about this stuff really unsexy.’ I am not a phone sex operator. I am just here to talk about what you need and the tools available to you, it’s basically going to a hardware store.”

Early to Bed has changed the narrative on accessible sex education during the pandemic. Doty works on creating educational videos for the store’s Instagram page that are often flagged due to violating community guidelines that work against spreading equitable sex knowledge.

Thirty-minute phone calls, guests asking to see dildos at the door, a lube shortage due to the overwhelming use of hand sanitizer bottles, Instagram messages asking for sex toy advice – the history of the feminist sex toy store has been forever altered, with Deysach and her employees at the forefront.

“Pre COVID, much of the answers to our phone calls were ‘No we don’t sell dick pills and yes we are open until six,’” Deysach said. “Now, it is way more helping people over the phone and navigating what toys they are interested in. We are helping people more than ever before.”

early to bed exterior

Early to Bed, a feminist sex toy store at 5044 N. Clark St. in Andersonville, re-opened their doors for limited shopping hours on Jan. 21 after being closed since November.

early to bed sanitize

Early to Bed always had an online presence, but sex toy exploration has changed for all of their customers. While they were closed to in-person shoppers, some local residents would call ahead and ask to stand in the entryway, no further than the hand sanitizer sign, to see what some toys looked like in person.

Early to Bed Owner Searah Deysach

Owner Searah Deysach said she feels grateful and lucky to maintain her staff during COVD-19 and says her situation is very unique.

early to bed merch for mailing

When an order comes in online, an employee who has been assigned as “shipping shifter” prints the order and then looks around the store for the product, usually from the backroom.

early to bed's nicole guappone

Nicole Guappone was shipping shifter this day and spent the afternoon getting into a rhythm: order sheet, product, packaging envelope, check, repeat.

early to bed products on display

Products continue to come in, and displays are set up to welcome customers back after being closed since November.

early to bed register

An element that in-store customers have missed is the feminist and welcoming nature of the shop and the small trinkets near the cash register. In the background, you can hear feminist indie rock playing and see multiple art pieces of vaginas and orgasm empowerment.

early to bed lube

Lube bottles have been hard to come by during COVID-19 because of the run on hand sanitizer.

early to bed's Merril Doty

Merril Doty, a trained sex educator, takes one of the many calls the store will receive that day, some lasting up to 30 minutes. Sex education is a large part of what Early to Bed does and has completely changed with many more of their customers calling and asking questions or private messaging them on Instagram.

early to bed use your words

“Lovely and frustrating” is how Doty described the switch to virtual sex education. She helps make educational videos and often has content flagged because Instagram claims it goes against their community guidelines.

early to bed browsing

Customers are only allowed 15 minutes to browse for the limited shopping hours but are encouraged to shop online if that is a safer option for them.

early to bed art

Both Doty and Guappone shared how much they enjoy working under Deysach. “I love working for a feminist business, it’s really nice to feel like I have the agency to do my job and to do it well,” Doty said.

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Sam Stroozas is journalism graduate student at Northwestern University and writes about gender and sexual health issues. Follow her on Twitter @samstroozas.