Sex Toys to Your Left, Sex Ed in Aisle 4
In the early 1980s, Lynn Raridon, a dance student at the University of Texas, met Mark Garfinkel through the local Austin punk rock scene. One day, she approached Garfinkel about a cross-promotion for a film at the arthouse theater The Varsity, located near campus where she worked. Garfinkel, the founder of a then-new sex shop called Forbidden Fruit, was impressed with Raridon's presentation and asked her to work for him.
Garfinkel didn't have a position for Raridon at Forbidden Fruit initially, but was pioneering a new concept called the "home party sale." Raridon got her start in the adult toy business with those parties in 1982.
"All of these companies basically went on to formalize what we started doing," Raridon said. "I would pack up boxes of the stuff and take it into women's homes, or people who identified as female, and sell them a bunch of toys to enhance their intimate relationships."
Raridon took over as store manager in 1985 and bought the store two years later, in part, to finance her dance habit, she explained. At the time, she was in a dance company, where she eventually transitioned to choreography as well as directing and producing musicals in theaters throughout Austin. She also spent 25 years as a dance and yoga instructor at Austin Community College.
Times have changed
Forbidden Fruit, located in the quirky North Loop neighborhood amid many thrift stores, is in its 41st year of business. Since her start, Raridon has witnessed firsthand the Austin community become more accepting of sex toys.
"It used to be that the majority of the people who came through our door would literally stand there and wait to make sure there's nobody watching them coming or going," she said. "Now, we've got whole families coming in. We've got parents bringing in their kids to help them find their first vibrator or their first masturbation sleeve. We're just seeing an incredible explosion of going beyond tolerance to total embrace."
The shop's history hasn't been without bumps in the road. The business recently weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 1989, Raridon was busted for obscenity, which she called "a very eye-opening moment." In Texas, obscenity laws remain on the books, but while never overturned, they were deemed unenforceable in 2008.
"It basically said if you sold anything that looked like your genitalia or anything whose primary manufactured, distributed or promoted purpose was for the intent of stimulating human genitals and lacked artistic or educational or scientific merit, it was obscene and illegal," Raridon said.
Raridon received a "no bill" from the grand jury, meaning it did not find probable cause for an arrest.
"I just had to keep a clean nose for two years," she said. "I couldn't get so much as a parking ticket or they'd come and take me away."
In the four decades Forbidden Fruit has been in business, sex toys have gradually gone from being primarily conceived by men to being more frequently designed by women. The heterosexual male concept was that every woman wanted something inserted, Raridon explained, but designers who had vaginas themselves stepped up to include the clitoral stiumlation they required for pleasure.
When women got more involved in the creation, design and manufacture of toys, there was a dramatic shift from products with the vibratory mechanism down at the base—"Because men are thinking they're going to want to insert it, too," Raridon said—to those with the mechanism at the very tip, making clitoral stimulation much easier, she explained.
"It really just exploded from there," she added. "We've been seeing toys that are twofers that have internal and external stimulation."
'We're just seeing an incredible explosion of going beyond tolerance to total embrace.'
In addition to toys being more versatile, there are now more toys designed for couples—such as vibrating rings—as well as sex-neutral toys that can be used regardless of a couple's orientation. Another advancement is how toys have gone from being made of substances such as rubber and latex to basically all toys being made from body-safe materials, such as surgical-grade stainless steel, silicones and borosilicate glass. Motorized toys that used to require batteries are now rechargeable and come with a USB cord. Many are Bluetooth-activated and controlled.
"Maybe they're in a long-distance relationship and they want to be able to play with their partner at a distance," Raridon said. "That's become really popular."
Another hot new item is toys that "blow and suck," she added, meaning they put out pulses of air and/or have suction.
The demand for anal products has also exploded over the past 10 years.
"Initially, it was people coming in and saying, 'I want to get something for my girlfriend,' and now it's like, 'I want to get something for my partner who's got a prostate gland because we want to figure out how to stimulate it,'" Raridon said.
The rise of BDSM and kink
Over the decades, Raridon has seen a destigmatization of adult items, from sex toys in general to anal toys to products used in BDSM play, which exploded in popularity after the novel and subsequent film "Fifty Shades of Grey."
While many people who practice BDSM were initially appalled by "Fifty Shades" because they believed the book and movie weren't accurate depictions of those types of relationships, Raridon saw a benefit.
"Look, don't knock it, because what it's doing is destigmatizing it," she said. "It's making John and Jane Q. Public go, 'Oh, maybe I want to try that.'"
Jonny Reynolds, store manager of Forbidden Fruit for the past 12 years, said his general rule is to help any customer figure out how to do BDSM and kink activities safely. (BDSM is a compound acronym that stands for bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism.)
"We can get into different restraints and bondage," Reynolds explained. "It's not so much like, 'Oh, yeah, here's $500 worth of product.' We can have an in-depth conversation, but literally, at the end of it, this $36 kit is what you need. I'll talk to anybody about anything, but I'm not going to oversell."
When "Fifty Shades of Grey" got popular, Forbidden Fruit figured out a way to navigate through that trend, he added.
"We actually did create our own pamphlets of this is what you read, this is what you asked for, this is what it actually is," he said.
'We're all about education'
In 1995, Forbidden Fruit began teaching classes about "alternative sexual health concepts," including classes on BDSM, fellatio, cunnilingus and anal health, Raridon said.
"If you figure out what you like, chances are if you share that information with an intimate partner, it's just going to strengthen that relationship and increase your longevity of a successful intimate partnership," she explained.
People who shop online for Forbidden Fruit's sex toys are "totally missing out," according to Raridon, because staff members pride themselves on working closely with toy manufacturers and distributors, and getting in-store demos. If the toy is motorized, customers can determine by the demo if it's powerful enough or too strong, she said.
"We need to have stuff out here that people can look at it, they can touch it, they can feel it, they can smell it," she added.
Raridon and Reynolds both said their favorite aspect of working at Forbidden Fruit is the human interaction. Reynolds said he doesn't hesitate to give customers more ideas.
"My whole thing is I like to jump in and be like, 'Oh, you're talking about anal toys?'" he said. "Well, I actually teach a couple of different classes on anal play."
Raridon said it's always a thrill to dispel customers' preconceived notions about sex and pleasure.
"You say something and you just watch their face and their mind just go 'Boom!'" she explained. "'Oh, my god, I never even would have thought that' or 'I'm not the only one?' or 'I could use that toy for that?' I love that interaction of helping people, giving them information that's going to help them achieve a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction."