For some, the idea of being flogged with the skin of a dead beast might only add to the bondage-discipline sadomasochistic experience. But if you are not into the leather scene and you’re vegan, you may well be surprised to discover the presence of animal products in your sex life.
Most people are unaware that there are usually animal derivatives in condoms and lubricants. The dairy byproduct casein is used to soften latex and animal glycerine is used in personal lubricants.
As the mania for Fifty Shades of Grey removed the gag on private sexual fantasies and veganism gains currency, animal-free alternative sex products are entering the market.
On Kreuzberg’s Mehringdamm, you will find Other Nature, a feminist, queer, ecofriendly, vegan sex shop. Founded by Canadian Sara Rodenhizer and German Anne Bonnie Schindler, the original intention was not a vegan sex shop per se, but an environment that would be more inclusive and supportive than the usual sex shop.
Kitty May, director of education and community outreach for Other Nature, says that when the owners were considering how a sex shop could have an ethical basis — and were looking for environmentally friendly, fair trade, health-conscious and cruelty-free products — the overlap with veganism became obvious.
In the airy, bright shop, half of which is devoted to literature and porn, there is always tea on tap and vegan snacks available. A small sign on one wall pleads: “Please don’t steal from us or else evil corporate sex shops will take over the world.”
Evil is perhaps too strong a word, but most sex shops, often at basement level, are gloomy, dingy spaces with an air of cheating, sleaze and secrecy, videocabins at the back for masturbation. They are usually manned (or policed) by people on a demotivating minimum wage with little knowledge about the products and no interest in the customer’s sexual health and wellbeing.
Such shops tend to reinforce the patriarchy, the idea that sex is a penis and a vagina. Packaging is often misogynistic and products will make such claims as “guaranteed best orgasm ever”, playing on people’s insecurities and sense of inadequacy rather than their best interests.
Sex toys are often framed with a stag and hen party jokiness to them, instead of an adult, authentic way of dealing with sex, says May.
In contrast, the owners of Other Nature say they try to promote people’s sexual agency, and go out of their way to create a comfortable environment for sexual exploration for people who don’t fit the mainstream media stereotype — skinny, young white women and muscled, cisgender men having the time of their lives bonking each other under the gaze of mainstream media.
It is not often in a sex shop that you would find a wall display of realistic-sized flaccid penises rather than an armoury of tumescent dildos modelled on magnum-sized porn stars. The vegan sex shop has a number of such prosthetic products and “packers” — phallic padding devices — for trans males and people in the process of gender reassignment.
Many of the products are locally sourced. Dresden-based Kinky Vegan makes handcrafted, animal-free alternatives to leather gear such as cuffs, collars, thwack paddles and floggers. Berlin-based artist Anton Blume supplies whips made from used bicycle tubes and Bikesexual makes imaginative use of various recycled bicycle parts.
Whereas the ethics and awareness of safety has grown around textiles, food and cosmetics, May says the chemicals and materials used in many mainstream sex toys are unregulated and possibly harmful. All the sex toys sold by Other Nature are phthalate-free. The shop also stocks a range of products for alternative menstrual care.
Perhaps most controversially in the reading room are porn DVDs, which are in the crosshairs of feminist discourse. On its website, Other World describes most porn as “cheesy, unrealistic, boring and monotonous”, and quotes performance artist Annie Sprinkle as saying: “The answer to bad porn isn’t no porn … it’s to try to make better porn!”
Feminist pornographers are creating woman-centred sexually explicit films to depict “genuine pleasure” and challenge the stereotypical mise-en-scène of mainstream pornographers. Titles include Shine Louise Houston’s Crash Pad, Erika Lust’s XConfessions series and Berlin-based Danish photographer Goodyn Green’s Shutter.
Other Nature also runs workshops. This May, for example, there will be a class in “beginner bondage and tie-up improvisation” and a talk on “demystifying the orgasm”.