Products like vibrators and dildos sit on the shelves for curious customers to touch and learn about. // Photo by Harrison Amelang
Western alumna Jenn Mason was on vacation in Nashville, Tennessee, when she wandered in a shop called ‘Her’. She had assumed it was a woman-owned sex shop. Finding a soap store instead, Mason, who was in the middle of running for the Bellingham School Board, walked out with another purpose for her life.
Mason slowly pursued the idea of a gender-inclusive, woman-owned, all-ages sex shop. A little over a year later, she opened WinkWink, a sex boutique in downtown Bellingham.
After deciding to open the store, Mason started to pursue the idea by meeting with people in the local community. A successful pop-up event on Valentine’s Day 2018 at Redlight, a bar in downtown Bellingham, proved to be the final push for Mason to open up the sex boutique. WinkWink opened to the public on August 3, 2018, just over a month after Mason got the keys to the location.
“I always thought that maybe I’d one day run for office, and maybe one day I would open a store, but I didn’t expect that those could happen at the same time,” Mason said.
Mason chose the name WinkWink because of its salacious reference to sex, combined with the comfortability of even her mom being able to say it without embarrassment. She said the name represents the aesthetic of the store.
Those who visit the shop find an open, modern space with different artists’ work hanging on the walls. The small but inviting space is filled with simple and cozy decor, an aspect that appealed to Western senior Rhododendron O’Boyle, a WinkWink customer.
O’Boyle said she liked the size of the space because it allowed her to wander without getting overwhelmed while always being within sight of an employee, should she need help.
Sections with books, lingerie, sex toys, personal lubricants and products for all bodies and sexual orientations are neatly organized with informational cards to go with every product. The cards are filled with information about each item including the price, instructions, ingredients and anything else useful or interesting, promoting a major goal of the store: education and openness.
Western senior Josefina Mora has been working at WinkWink since the shop opened and said the store is organized to ease customers into products from most comfortable to least. Books stand at the entrance of the store, followed by lingerie and eventually sex toys and other products.
Mora said Mason’s mission for the store is evident in the open, cheery and comfortable atmosphere of the shop.
According to their website, WinkWink hosts brief in-store informational classes every Friday evening for around 30 minutes. Topics range from “Intro to Vibrators” to “Butt Stuff Basics.”
The shop also has an additional space upstairs for classes including partner yoga, events and private parties. According to Mora, WinkWink is also trying to work with doctors and therapists in the area.
A lack of proper sex education has kept many people in today’s society from becoming comfortable with their own sexuality as well as with talking about sex, Mason said.
“Many of us become adults that are still lacking in the language and information to have the type of sex life that we’d like to have,” Mason said. “The classes are really to help broaden people’s understanding and skills.”
O’Boyle said while browsing, she found items not normally sold in traditional sex shops, including books on more than just different sex positions. The store carries material covering how to take care of one’s own body and understanding gender identities.
Prior to owning and running WinkWink, Mason worked as the education coordinator at Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services from 2005-2008. Shortly after, she held the role of development and education director there.
At DVSAS, Mason said she noticed a gap in the educational conversation about healthy relationships. While conversations often covered negative relationships, she said they rarely covered discussions of empowerment of people’s bodies and healthy sexual desires.
“I’ve always done important work, but I really wanted to do something that was important and fun,” Mason said. “There are few things more fun than getting to talk to people about sex all day.”
Mason also has a goal of keeping WinkWink an inclusive space for people of all gender identities and ages. She said while the store only sells to those ages 16 and older, people of any age can be in the store.
That inclusivity is reflected in Mason’s belief that sexual health and wellness are social justice issues. Because of this, Mason said WinkWink also carries items relating to gender identity, including packers, accessories that can be worn to mimic the shape of a penis, and chest binders, fabric that can be used to compress breasts. She said the store does fittings for such items in-person, being the first in Whatcom and Skagit counties to carry them in-store.
Employee Annette Parker met Mason through her involvement in the sex-positive community. Parker said she has previously worked at two sex shops, including chain store Lovers. She said WinkWink separates itself from other sex shops by focusing efforts on including people of any gender, sexuality and size.
Instead of organizing products by gender, WinkWink organizes them by body part. Sex toys are categorized as “penis toys” or “butt toys” to keep from making assumptions about customers’ genders or the genders of their partners.
“When I used to work at Lovers, I would have transgender people come in, and we didn’t have anything to offer them,” Parker said. “It was one thing that was important to Jenn, that we agreed on. We would be all-inclusive.”
This includes inclusivity for body types as well. Parker said the lingerie the store carries comes in sizes XS to 4XL, and said she’s able to offer special ordering on certain items, something she couldn’t do at Lovers. Even though providing this many sizes can be pricier, Mason said inclusivity is always worth the investment.
According to Mason, many traditional sex shops are also outdated and tend focus only on the pleasure of cisgender men. She said having a woman-owned sex shop helps reach a wider audience and meet more people’s needs.
O’Boyle said people who weren’t used to gender and size-inclusive spaces could have a lot to gain from a place like WinkWink in terms of their own sexuality.
“There’s so much information [WinkWink] can give you on how to have safe, protected and fun sex, which is really nice,” O’Boyle said.
Mason said with the current political climate and conflicting messages in society regarding sex and sexual desires, stores such as WinkWink and the messages they present are important.
“I am a lifelong feminist and all of the work that I have ever done has been focused on people who have been marginalized,” Mason said. “I’m always going to do my best to center marginalized people.”
All four staff members at WinkWink, including Mason, have taken a 16-hour course from the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. According to Mason, all of her employees have experience working in sex shops and histories of activism.
“I myself speak Spanish as well, so I’m also trying to reach out to my community,” Mora said. “It’s trying to be more inclusive, and trying to get people to think of sex as a health issue instead of just a pleasure issue.”
Mora said having customers ranging in age and experience has lead to many positive educational experience in the community. She said many WinkWink patrons are younger and have newer ideas.
“Bellingham is still kind of a small town, we think of it as progressive, but there’s still that lack of understanding,” Mora said. “We see people who come in and they’re not totally familiar with the items for trans folks or non-binary folks.”
O’Boyle said she found the place to be clean and feel comfortable as compared to other places she’s been in.
“There are a lot of people who rightfully feel uncomfortable in traditional sex shops and feel that there is sort of an engrained degree of safety when the shop is run or owned by a woman,” Mason said. “It gives people an idea of what might be different about it.
O’Boyle said while shopping, the employee working answered all her questions and inquired about their interests, making the experience more comfortable.
“If I was interested in something she was like ‘We don’t have that but tell me about it, I want to learn more,’” O’Boyle said. “They’re open to new things, to hearing what their customers have to offer and what they want in store.”
Mason said another aspect she feels strongly about is the health and safety information of sex toys. She said all of the products sold at WinkWink are safe and non-toxic, unlike many of the products available on the market.
Sex toys can typically carry anything in them because they are considered novelty items, and as a result, not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, Mason said, specifying that they can contain components not even allowed in the soles of shoes.
“Having a place where people can shop and say these are all toys that are healthy for us and healthy for our bodies, to me is a revolutionary act,” Mason said.
Mason also considers WinkWink to be a politically-involved space, hosting political fundraisers and voter registration. Considering this to be an important move in today’s political climate, Mason said she hopes WinkWink can be a place where control over people’s own bodies is constantly affirmed.
“There is an ongoing war on people’s bodies,” Mason said. “To take away people’s rights based on their bodies, and to take away autonomy over people’s own bodies.”
The store’s tagline, “Pleasure is our Revolution,” is representative of Mason’s belief that with the role of sexual politics throughout history, a place which allows every individual to own and affirm their gender, sexuality and desires, is both a goal and a revolution.
“All of us need to have our eyes wide open about the ways that conservatives want to legislate our bodies and that their actions will impact the people who are already more marginalized,” Mason said.
Juggling her life as the owner of a sex boutique with her role as a mother, wife and Bellingham school board member has been a more positive and well-received experience than she expected from her community, Mason said.
Mason, who was voted downtown Bellingham’s Resident of the Year in 2016, loves the community and wants to continue to promote education in all aspects, across the board, she said.
“I want to show people if sex isn’t something to be ashamed about, then I should be able to be an elected official and own a sex shop at the same time,” Mason said. “That’s what it means to live your values.”