Sex boutique faces resistance locally


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Two Iowa City women would like to open a boutique downtown featuring bright colors, reading areas with coffee tables, a warm atmosphere — and an array of sex toys.

Julia Schaefer, 27, and Madison Montgomery, 21, have been trying to open a "sex-positive" adult book and accessories boutique downtown since February, but Iowa City zoning restrictions, as well as resistance from building owners and landlords, have forced them to reassess their business venture.

"We've run into roadblock after roadblock," Schaefer said. "We haven't really gotten a lot of positive feedback."

Building owners the women said they had spoken with could not be reached for comment.

Iowa City zoning regulations restrict adult-classified businesses from being within certain distances of schools, daycares, churches, parks, and other areas, leaving limited space downtown or even near downtown.

"That's done to protect the community from what could be perceived as negative externalities," said Jann Ream, Iowa City code-enforcement assistant.

Iowa City is home to the adult store Romantix, 315 Kirkwood Ave. But Ruby's Pearl, a feminist sex shop more similar to Montgomery and Schaefer's vision, closed in 2005 because of financial troubles. Because less than 25 percent of its merchandise was classified as "obscene," Ruby's Pearl, located on Market Street, avoided adult-store zoning and tax restrictions.

"That's how we legitimized the business, not that I think our business was illegitimate," said Gypsy Dolgos, a former co-owner of Ruby's Pearl. "But in order to circumvent those regulations — they're kind of oppressive."

But regardless of the regulations, Schaefer and Montgomery said they hope to find an Iowa City location by late May or early June.

"We're not all about suddenly changing society's view of sex," Montgomery said. "This is about fun."

Sex-centered stores carry a certain stigma, said Les Margolin, a University of Iowa human sexuality professor. People often associate the stores with lower-class neighborhoods, and they believe "decent people" avoid those businesses, Margolin said.

"Certain types of businesses are stereotyped with neighborhood decay, and [landlords] are worried about their investments," Margolin said.

Searah Deysach said she ran into similar problems when opening her Chicago-based sex boutique, Early to Bed, in 2001.

"It seemed like a knee-jerk reaction just because they heard 'sex,' " she said.

Iowa City City Councilor Connie Champion said zoning rules are enforced for a reason.

"Sex is always positive, isn't it? But I don't think it belongs downtown," she said, noting Iowa City's young foot traffic. "It's not Interstate 80."

But Schaefer and Montgomery, a UI junior, said their shop, the Toolbox, will stay away from selling videos or DVDs, instead providing educational information.

Women-friendly adult stores that "offer a warm, educational environment" are beginning to pop up all over the country, suggesting a shift in the adult industry, Deysach said.

Babeland, an adult boutique with locations in Seattle and New York, attributes its success to community outreach.

"We are an established and active part of the community," said Jen May, the chief operating officer of Babeland. "It really is about finding the right location and landlord who is willing to bring you on."

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