Shriek! Behold, these obscene birds standing there NAKED! With CHILDREN around!
You know I’m a sex nerd wherever I go, observing and evaluating sexual mores and behaviors in nearly every setting I find myself. The doctor’s office. The airport. And my first trip to a zoo in my adult life this past weekend was no different.
My husband Ryan and I visited the world famous San Diego Zoo for his birthday and oh my, do I have observations and insights about animal sexual behavior to share.
1. Everyone is naked
Not the humans of course. But the flamingos? All naked. The two tigers with their testicles in plain view? Totally naked. The, koalas, capybaras, and slender-snouted crocodiles? Completely 100% naked!
If you practice mindful awareness while spending time with animals, it starts to dawn on you that concepts like clothing, modesty, obscenity of the nipples, buttocks, and genitals, even the idea of “nudity” itself, is completely socially constructed. Us humans, we just made it up.
And we torture ourselves with it. We apply value and meaning to unclothed bodies. We feel ashamed and embarrassed to be naked. We feel violated and uncomfortable at the site of other people naked.
The argument is that clothing makes us civilized, but walking around the zoo seeing every other animal in existence naked except humans, one wonders who is actually the most culturally advanced- us or them.
2. Gorillas don’t care about your social norms
In addition to giving zero fucks about American human social norms on nudity, animals could care less about our norms on breastfeeding. Personally I don’t even care for our breastfeeding norms, but that didn’t seem to stop other humans at the zoo from being rather disturbed by the gorilla breastfeeding situation.
About 60 onlookers including myself were peering through glass at three sleeping gorillas in their grassy habitat. One gently rolled over and began suckling at another one’s nipple. A zoologist pointed it out and explained mama was nursing her 5th son. Because the baby looked quite large, a number of humans asked his age. The zoologist said, “He’s 4 years old, although they typically nurse until age 5” and well, some people were not having it.
Offended eye rolls.
Cries of “What!? That’s too long.”
I’m no primatologist, but I feel really confident in saying that mama gorilla knows how much time is and is not “too long” to feed her own child. And as a sexologist, I feel really confident in saying that human social and cultural norms, rooted in sex-phobia and the sexualization of the female breast, is the lens through which these zoo-goers were evaluating mama gorilla.
3. Bonobos show us what we can be
Despite social pressure to the contrary, I often deign to dream and advocate for humans to be better in the way we treat each other and to finally outgrow our use of violence, poverty, greed, and cruelty to manage our societies. I believe we can fulfill our potential, and bonobos, our closest genetic relative other than chimpanzees, sharing 98.7% of their DNA with humans, remind us what’s possible.
Seeing the bonobos at the zoo reminded me of what’s possible.
Bonobos are a species of peace and kindness. While about 1 million humans die per year, year after year, at the hands of another human- war, homicide, drunk driving to name just a few of our most popular methods- there has never been a single recorded case, in either the wild or captivity, of a bonobo killing another bonobo.
They are highly empathetic and altruistic. They share their food and resources. They are especially good at regulating their impulses, and perceiving and being sensitive to distress in others. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it?
And here’s the part that makes them sexology’s favorite animal to study: bonobos have a matriarchal, egalitarian culture in which sexual activity is a tool of everyday life. They use sex to greet each other, resolve conflict, and form social bonds. Instead of a handshake, an argument, and a campfire, its tongue kissing, dry humping, and intercourse.
You know when humans are stuck in traffic, and get increasingly tense, annoyed, aggressive, and angry as everyone is vying for their spot to merge? To manage this stress, we turn to honking, cursing, maybe driving in a way that puts other drivers’ lives in danger, and in some cases, getting out of the car to engage in physical violence.
The bonobo equivalent, when a new food source is found and everyone is hungry, stressed, and vying for their turn at the fruit tree, they turn to community-wide orgy. They all fuck each other (except mothers and sons, that’s the only sexual taboo), the pleasure defuses the stress, and then all get to enjoy a peaceful meal.
Female bonobos, which in their matriarch have social status, are about half the size of adult human women but have clitorises 3 times the size. And they use them to manage a harmonious society. “GG”, or genital-genital rubbing, in which two female bonobos rub their clits together for a few seconds, as well as other varieties of sex, happens about every two hours in a bonobo’s day- to keep the peace, to say hi, to relieve anxiety, to pass the time.
People, we are fucking up at primating by not being more like bonobos.
4. And baboons show us what we wish we weren’t
If the bonobo exhibit reminded me of human’s greatest potential, visiting the baboons reminded me of human’s ugliest look in the mirror.
Baboon society is run by a rigid male dominated hierarchy in which one male has a harem of females that he gets exclusive sexual access to. The female children stay with the group for life, while male offspring go off and form their own harem. Multiple harem can join together to form a troop.
In this social order, baboons are jealous, competitive, and violent. The males get in vicious fights over females, they kidnap females from other groups, and attack and bite their own female members if they try to leave. And sometimes they beat and bite the females for no obvious reason at all.
And baboons are stressed. The incessant bullying, taunting, violence, and emotional cruelty based on social status, including low ranking members being ostracized from group grooming behaviors, and high ranking members getting first (and sometimes only) access to food and water resources, makes for a vitriolic existence.
But something fascinating happened, and it’s my all-time favorite story related to sexuality, aside from the invention of the vibrator.
A research team in Kenya was studying the stressful lives of baboons in the wild and the physiological effect of that stress on their bodies. But they walked away with a different insight entirely.
Several years into their research, the baboon troop they had been observing got into the dumpster of a nearby tourist area that happened to have scraps of meat infected with bovine tuberculosis. Because the aggressive alpha males, per their culture, fought off the others and took all the food for themselves, only the aggressive alpha males died from the tainted meat. And just like that, it was like ding dong the witch is dead, and this baboon troop of low ranking males, females, and children suddenly found themselves without their abusers.
And so of course the research team was riveted to see what would happen next.
As expected, the baboon society became relatively peaceful after that.
However there was a surprising twist. When alpha males from other troops, not raised in the post-tuberculosis culture of this troop, came around, they didn’t attack, assert dominance, or try to steal females and take over, as was customary. Instead of seizing on a power vacuum, they molded and assimilated to become a part of the new culture of peace.
It’s been 35 years since the death of the alpha males in this troop, and still no alpha males have risen to replace them, and they are still living a low stress and low aggression life.
We aren’t bonobos or baboons, flamingos or slender-snouted crocodiles, and we can’t necessarily look to other species as evidence of what we could or should be doing.
But personally I find it inspiring to study, for example, how sex is used for peace among bonobos, or how when it comes to the nature/nurture debate, aggressive patriarchal behavior among a group of baboons has been socialized out of existence. It gives me hope. And these are the thoughts I have when I go to the zoo.
It’s National Selfie Day, and I believe selfies, and the scrutiny of selfie culture, is a sexuality issue. Here’s why:
To take a photo of yourself is to take up space, and like yourself enough to be seen. That selfies, especially of women, POC, and queer folks, are derided as narcissistic and self-indulgent is exactly because there is social power to be lost by The Powers That Be when marginalized folks like themselves and insist on being seen.
Sexual and political subjugation and sexual and emotional abuse is easier when the object of this treatment thinks poorly of themselves. Abusers often tell their victims that they are worthless, and ugly, and no good in hopes that they will believe it, and society tends to say this in general.
But selfies are evidence that we don’t believe these negative things about ourselves, and this of course upsets those folks, and in an attempt to force marginalized people “back in line”, supporters of the status quo deride selfies, and ultimately, the selfie-takers self-love.
The words used to describe people who take selfies: vain, superficial, vapid, self-absorbed, have been used by misogynists to describe women who don’t hate themselves since time immemorial, and this is only just the most recent iteration of a very old refrain.
Sexy selfies REALLY get criticism because literally how dare you be sexual and not ashamed?
Selfie hate is all about people with power losing their power and grasping at straws to keep it.
When you take and post a selfie, not only are you unashamed of your body and sexuality (against all odds), not only are you loving on yourself (against all odds), and daring to be seen (against all odds) in a world that would rather you small and silent, but you are also taking control of the way you are perceived.
Want to be seen as sexy? You can take a selfie in your undies.
Want to be seen as adventurous? You can take a selfie at the top of a mountain.
Want to be seen as exciting? You can take a selfie on an exclusive tropical beach.
Want to be seen as interesting? You can take a selfie at your cool job or doing your unique hobby.
Taking a selfie is a sort of adult version of playing dress up. You can be whoever you want to be! And this just outrages people very used to the male gaze, the phenomenon in which women are almost always depicted through the male lens, in ways that are meant for men to enjoy looking at them.
A selfie quite literally turns the object into the subject, who gets to decide the lens through which they will be viewed by others. That's powerful.
To squash this power shift, selfies are ridiculed as being “fake”, filtered, and creating a false persona to the world, to which I say... “and...?” Strangers on the Internet don’t owe you authenticity or the intimacy of their “real” lives, faces, and bodies, if they don’t want to let you see it.
If noticing someone taking some selfies out in public, or if scrolling past selfies on your social feeds, rubs you wrong, I encourage you to be introspective about why.
Approximate read time: 42 minutes
Seven years ago, back in April of 2012, I embarked on a personal challenge. My objective was to spend my money exclusively at women-owned businesses, or corporations with female CEOs, for 99 days.
The idea started when I was making the drive from Pennsylvania to Washington, DC for a sexuality conference. I was listening to NPR on the ride and heard an interview with Maggie Anderson talking about her book Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.
Riveted, I bought the book when I returned home. At this time I was at the height of my Angry Feminist™ phase, and so I was inspired by Maggie to undertake a similar challenge with women-owned businesses. I got started right away.
My plan was to write a book about the experience, which I assumed would be a huge struggle, to make a point about the impact of being intentional about how we spend our money, the shortage of women in business and leadership positions, and what we all lose as a result of women’s relative absence from the economy.
I gave up just over a quarter of the way through, 25 days into the project. I never wrote the book, and completely forgot the whole thing until last week when I was looking for something else on an external hard drive from two laptops ago and found my field notes.
Wow. It was stunning to review my work. My past self was teaching my current self a thing or two, because I hadn’t remembered how damn hard it was. And frustrating. And sad, realizing the state of affairs of women in economic power.
I forgot about the pushback I’d received until rereading my notes. Can you imagine!?
I forgot about the incredible amount of time and energy it took to track down a woman-owned place I could buy something as simple as toilet paper.
I forgot about the sacrifices I made, the things I went without because a woman-owned retailer or service provider simply did not exist.
It makes me curious: what would happen if I tried this experiment again today? Would it be any easer? Have we made any progress? Do people still think supporting women in business isn’t really important?
It’s time for this experience from 2012 to finally see the light of day.
Notes for Context
In April of 2012 I was 26 years old. I was living in West Chester, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia with my boyfriend Ryan (now husband) in an apartment above my business. My business was a retail shop called Feminique selling vibrators, lube, sex books, and feminist merchandise, and as I do now, I also ran sex ed classes and workshops out of the store and on the road. I was also finishing up my doctoral degree, and between being a graduate student and trying to run a small woman-owned business, I was flat broke.
The following is mostly how things were originally written in my notes, for better or worse, but I have made some edits to provide further context when necessary.
To begin, I had to decide if the women-only rule would apply to just my personal spending, or if spending for my business counted. I figured as far as suppliers go (such as sex toy manufactures and other vendors I relied on for my livelihood) - that would have to wait, but other business purchases would count and need to be women-only
I worked from home today to catch up on sleep after the MOMENTUM Conference, and to run business shopping errands. I had spilled silicone based lubricant all over the shop floor and ran out of paper towels, so I needed those. I was also working on a new book on female orgasm, and wanted to read what was already out there so I could make sure my idea was different enough to make it worth writing, so I wanted to make some purchases at a book store. And I finally had time to shop for a TV for Feminique to run the reality show, so I wanted to shop for a television. [I was producing a YouTube based reality show at the time called A Day in the Life of a Sexologist and desired to play episodes on a loop in my shop for my customers.]
For the purposes of the project, priority #1 was woman owned, I decided. Priority #2 is independent, non-chain. And then also important if possible is a business that is locally owned, has good customer service, good pricing, is blue*, and LGBT friendly. [*Blue refers to blue states, meaning a business that donates to or supports progressive causes. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream would be an example. Chick-fil-a would not.]
It started out easy. I called the local independent bookstore, Chester Country Book and Music Company, and learned they are woman- owned! An early win!
Then I spent FOREVER looking for an electronics store for the TV. There were two indie electronics stores in the area, both owned by men. Next I searched chains. Every single chain (Best Buy, Target, Radio Shack, hhgregg, Kmart, etc) are male owned or have male CEOs.
I figured my next best option would be to find a woman owned franchise of one of these companies. All except Radio Shack do not have franchises but rather each individual location is owned by the corporation. So I looked up all the Radio Shacks within my area.
I’m realizing how small my options are. What if the selection sucks? The service is rude? The prices are too high? The one that is woman owned is too far away? With so few options, it’s a gamble.
None of the local Radio Shacks are franchised, all are corporate, according to someone who answered the phone to the closest store. I called the main corporate number, and was met with rudeness that I’d reached the sales line, not the office line. No one picked up at the office line.
Frustrated and realizing how daunting this would be, I set out to buy the books and leave the TV for another day, and quickly pick up the paper towels on my way home from the bookstore. But I remembered no longer would anything be “picked up.” Now knowing how challenging it could be, I realized all of my shopping decisions would have to be planned in advance.
On my way out the door, I took the money from the cash register and realized on the drive to Chester Country Book and Music Company that I couldn’t deposit it into my business account until I found out if a woman owned the bank. I would have to plan ahead with filling prescriptions, the 4 gallons of milk I drink each week, the bars I party at. I couldn’t buy a stick of gum at the checkout line before planning ahead.
On my phone in the parking lot of the bookstore, I looked up places that sell paper towels. Our independent grocer sadly went out of business last year, so I knew I was looking into chains. Dollar Tree, Rite Aid, Giant Food, Acme, Walgreens- all the places one can purchase paper towels in West Chester are male owned. I came home defeated and empty handed.
I spent the next hour + researching woman owned grocery stores in my area. This is because I realized this project was going to be 100 times harder than I imagined so while I didn’t need groceries on day 1, I of course would sooner or later and wanted to make sure I knew where my next meal would be coming from, since it could realistically take days to figure it out.
There were two other locally owned grocers that I could find. Both male owned. Various configurations of the search “woman owned grocery stores” turned up nothing except search results for men’s articles on how to pick up women in a grocery store.
I listed the chains in my area to once again look them up one by one to see if the CEO is a woman, and if not, calling each individual store location and seeing if the franchise is woman owned. Giant, Acme, Wegmens, Weiss, Safeway, Shop Rite… all with male CEOS.
So first I called the Shop Rite and learned it was male owned, but they recommended I call the corporate headquarters to find out where the female owned franchisees are. The woman who answered at corporate, like the woman at Radio Shack, seemed really confused, so I told her it was a project for a book and that I wanted to write about my experience of shopping exclusively at woman owned businesses. She put me on hold, and returned asking for all of my contact information which she could forward to their media director to call me back. Media director?
She said because it was for a book, she couldn’t supply the information. I said, “You’re going to make it difficult for me to shop at your business? I want to support your business, and encourage others to as well. Why can’t you tell me how I can both shop at your business AND be in line with my values”. She said, “Well if you’ll be writing a book about your shopping experience, then it has to go through our media director”. I responded, “Well this conversation will be in the book too”.
I tried looking for databases to make this an easier process. I called The Women’s Business Development Center, an organization with a mission to “support and accelerate business development and growth, targeting women and serving all diverse business owners, in order to strengthen their participation in, and impact on, the economy.” They said such a list is “not something we give out”. I called the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce. No luck.
In addition to grocery store, I need to prioritize finding a laundromat.
I really hunkered down in securing businesses for the hard to find necessities- gasoline and groceries. My boyfriend texted me “any luck with women owned businesses? I want to get milk on my way home lol.”
I found a woman-owned business data base for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, which only lists chamber of commerce members so is in no way comprehensive, but I was happy to see woman owned businesses in a myriad of fields not typically female. There was an engineering firm, auto body shop, big commercial real estate firm, steel manufacturing company, landscapers, a renewable energy company, a construction company, a software company, and a plumbing and heating outfit.
But no grocer.
I finally discovered Swann’s Pantry, a small closeout grocery store with a Hotmail.com business email address in Exton, PA, over 7 miles from home and way out of the way, that was co-owned by a woman and her husband. I’ll take it. I sent Ryan there to pick up milk.
Then I searched for gas stations. I first came up with a promising site called “women-owned gas station- gas pump girls”. But it was a niche porn site of hot women pumping gas.
When I searched for “women owned super markets” I found how to pick up women in a super market. When I search “women owned gas stations” I get hot women pumping gas. This was not the direction I was hoping for.
Finally, I located a Citgo station franchise in Ithaca, NY- 238 miles from my home, which was owned by a woman named Diane. Obviously this would be problematic so I called asking if I could buy gift cards from their location to use at Citgo stations near me. I knew the answer would be yes. It’s a corporate chain. If anything they should be happy I’m going out of my way to support them. I was put on hold, and then the person on the other line said she’d call me back. So we wait.
In the meantime, I decided to start looking into gas chains and calling corporate headquarters for a list of woman owned franchises, like I did unsuccessfully for electronic stores. I started with Sunoco. The man who answered at the main corporate office gave a rude “and who am I speaking to?” when I asked if he could help me find a woman owned franchise.
I changed my tactic and said “I’m a Sunoco customer and recently undertook a personal challenge to shop at female owned businesses, so if you have female franchisees, I’m wondering if you could let me know where they are so I can continue being a Sunoco customer and stay in line with my values”. His voice drastically changed. “Oh wonderful! It’ll take me awhile to look it up but I will find out and get back to you.” So we wait.
I was happy to avoid making purchases today. I thought it would be an easier day. I could not find a woman owned bank, so I opened an account with a credit union account, which are non-profit and thus have no owner at all, of any gender. In the meantime, I was upset that I had to deposit cash from the register at my male owned bank, but couldn’t bounce the business checks I’ve recently written, so this was my first “cheat”. But I’m trying to remember this is only a personal quest, and applies to my business when possible.
I did want to switch everything over to my new credit union ASAP, but before I could I needed to order checks. I thought, “no problem”, and then realized I’d have to find a woman owned check company, since the credit union doesn’t print their own checks. There are thousands of companies if you google “order checks”. And they all have 800 numbers where the receptionist is unlikely to know the gender of the CEO. I gave up after calling three places.
Every Wednesday my friends and I play pub quiz at a local bar. It’s free, but it was hard to go and not order food and drinks. Male owned.
Today I called another check place, owned by a man, but they said they knew of a woman owned competitor. I called the lead to confirm they are indeed woman-owned, they are, and I ordered my checks. Yay!
Meanwhile someone from Select Greater Philadelphia, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping attract businesses to the Philadelphia area and helping regional businesses grow, returned my call with a list of woman owned gas stations. Yippee! I called the ones I recognized and there was no answer.
I need clay because I’m developing molds for vibrator prototypes. Of course Michaels, AC Moore, and Joanne Fabrics have male CEOs. Again I turned to Google to look online for woman owned arts and craft stores and found one, in Nebraska, that was co-owned by a woman. I placed my order, already grumbling at paying double the cost of the clay just for shipping. But at check out I and see they ship UPS, which has a male CEO. I had to call and ask if they’d ship USPS, and paid $11.63 in shipping for a $5.99 order that if there were more women in business, I could have picked up at the drug store or craft store locally.
Tonight, I went to a business networking event and learned that the 711 located just 6 blocks away is owned by two women. Yay! A place to get milk in between grocery trips!
In talking with others about this project at the networking event, I found that people were meh. Most said politely “oh, how interesting”. One man said “I’m going to shop at only male owned businesses for 99 days”. Ugh. The woman next to me quipped, “that’ll be a 2 page book. It’ll be easy!” Ha!
I worked long hours today and didn’t buy anything. Easy day!
After learning that the 711 in town is woman owned, and because we were already out of the 2 gallons of milk from Ryan’s trip to Swann’s Pantry 4 days ago, we headed over. Just to be sure, I told the woman at the register of my project and she seemed un-phased. Unimpressed. I wanted to confirm it was woman owned, but she didn’t know. The male clerk next to her did. We bought two more gallons of milk and eggs.
Ryan and I had a hankering for a cold snack on a delightful spring day. We passed Rita’s Water Ice and assumed we couldn’t go but I called. They weren’t sure if it was exclusively female owned or if the owner’s husband was a joint owner. Good enough. We got gelatis.
Continuing to read Maggie Anderson’s book on “shopping Black”, I noticed a stark difference between her experience and mine. As she described it, other Black people were supportive of her cause, and eager to help. But I found women weren’t really appreciative of me supporting their business. The “women supporting women” thing didn’t seem to resonate, or feel meaningful to them in anyway. Everyone, including most other women I’ve dealt with so far, have either been confused by my endeavor, or annoyed that my project required them look ownership information up for me. It saddens me that too often women don’t seem to stick together in ways that other marginalized people do.
It’s Easter. I had Ryan drive to New Jersey for a family dinner because I’m reserving my gas until I can figure out where my next fill up is coming from. The days are ticking down until I have to find out. I’m speaking at a college in New York on Wednesday. I will have to know by then.
On the drive to dinner, I realized how much I consume. We talked about camping this summer. Oh yes that sounds great! Wait, can I find a woman owned camp ground? Later, we saw a car with those little family stick figure decals. Ryan joked that we should get one of us and our cat. I said sure. But where do you get them? And are they women owned?
At Easter dinner I shared my new project with my extended family. It was called “sexist” and “anti-male business” and it was lamented that women and minority owned businesses should be plentiful because they get all the government contracts. Argh.
One of the 5 books I’m currently writing is about my personal experiment of shopping exclusively at woman-owned businesses for 99 days. I’m on day 8 and I hate life. The idea of doing this for 91 more days gives me anxiety. It’s truly an evil experiment because there are NO women owned businesses. Sure, there are women owned boutiques and knick knack shops, but no woman owned businesses for daily living needs.
I haven’t driven in a week because I can’t find a woman owned gas station. I have no clean clothes because I can’t find a woman owned Laundromat. I will be without my educational tools at a college workshop I’m facilitating this week because I can’t find a woman owned office supply store. It sucks. But realizing how difficult this is, is all the more reason it needs to be done and written about.
It’s been frustrating, but today is the first day I was actually near tears. I needed a damn easel paper pad for jotting audience brainstorming ideas at an upcoming college workshop. The local family owned office supply store I normally shop at, I learned, is owned by a father and son. So I searched for chains.
Office Max: Male CEO.
Office Depot: Male CEO.
Staples: Male CEO, who incidentally last month was on the record saying he thought breastfeeding mothers were hurting the economy. Fuck.
I found two other smaller office supply businesses within a reasonable driving distance from me. One is male owned, one co-owned by a man and woman (which counts in my book) but they didn’t carry the easel paper pads. Double fuck.
I decided I can’t do this on my own. I need help with compiling a list so I can eat, clean myself, and drive.
Then… I learned that BJs wholesale club is women owned! That gives me food, paper towels, and office supplies! Hot damn!
I also put pedal to the metal about gas stations. I called back Diane’s Citgo in Ithaca and spoke to the owner myself. She was super sweet and helpful. And she seemed impressed with the project- the first person to do so! She asked me to keep her posted on project and how to follow the blog about it.
Next, I called Sunoco headquarters back to see how that list of woman owned franchises was coming, but they had no information. I called the Shell and Exxon Mobile corporate office, and neither had any information on franchises either and suggested calling each station individually.
Calling each station individually is really a needle in a haystack search! I was already spending a few hours per day calling around to track down women owned businesses. Google searches weren’t turning up much because I’m finding, curiously, that businesses aren’t actively promoting their woman-owned status on their websites, which is making them unfindable in searches.
But calling around continued to seem like my best option, so I listed gas stations I pass by often and wouldn’t have a hard time finding. This included Gulf, Hess, Lukoil, Chevron, and Valera. Using a location search, I started with the closest Gulf station, named Hallman’s General in West Chester. The man who answered the phone was mumbling, slurring, and about as helpful as a screen door on a submarine.
Me: Hello, do you know who owns this location?
Me: Who is the owner of this store?
Him: Why do you need to know?
Me: Well thank you so much for your great customer service, but I’m doing a school project on female owned gas stations and was wanting to know if this is location is one I can add to the list.
Him: I don’t know.
Me: You don’t know? Do you know who the owner is?
Me: And is that person a man or woman?
What the hell? Ass.
This was not encouraging me to continue on in this manner, so I called the Chester County Chamber of Commerce hoping they could help. I explained the whole story and got a “nope”.
So I guess it’s back to calling up local gas stations one at a time. I called the second closest Gulf station, and the man who answered there was much friendlier but said he had no clue “of any female owned gas stations in this area and I’ve been doing this for a long time”.
I find that people respond better when I say this is for a school project versus a personal vow, or even a book. The attitude seems to be, “I’ll help you because you have to, but if you’re doing this because you want to I’m going to treat you like a total kook.”
Moving on. I called the closest Exxon station to me. They put me on hold, but they didn’t tell me they were going to put me on hold, they just put the phone down and I could hear them talking to people in the background for quite some time. They never returned, and they just hung up. Not only is it hard finding woman owned businesses, but it’s also really hard to find businesses where people aren’t super rude to paying customers who need customer service that’s a little outside the box. Like, hello, I’m trying to give you my money, and you’re acting like taking my money is this huge inconvenience.
As a woman-owned small business owner myself, I pride myself on giving my customers the time and attention they deserve, and struggle for every dollar I earn. It is just so infuriating that these male owned businesses can be flagrantly rude to customers, and keep being financially successful.
I discovered womenowned.com. That’s potentially promising! [The website is now defunct.]
I called the Small Business Administration, the federal government agency that provides support to entrepreneurs and small businesses. After a 5 minute hold, they informed me they have no list available.
I called the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce (the 3rd different Chamber I’ve attempted to seek help from) and they told me to phone something called the “Corporation Bureau”. The Corporation Bureau put me on hold for 17 minutes, then came back to the line to say a list of woman-owned businesses does not exist, but to try the Department of General Services, an agency in the Pennsylvania state government, as they offer services for minority and women owned businesses and would have a list.
I called. There was no answer, and I left a voice message.
Anger and panic are starting to come over me as I think about how I am going to get gas before Wednesday when I will be travelling to New York. While listening to the radio in my car again, I heard a commercial for a new Walmart opening. It made me mad. I thought about how many businesses that women owned could go there instead, in a different economy, that had different values than the ones we clearly have in our society.
That huge corporation is taking the place of what could have been a grocer, a home goods store, a toy store, an office supply shop, a family owned local electronics chain, a clothing and shoe store, auto shop, and pharmacy.
Then I thought- shit! My slut pills would run out in a few days and I needed to find a woman owned pharmacy pronto! [This is around the time that we were having a national debate about oral contraceptives (wait, aren’t we still?) and a grad student named Sandra Fluke testified before a Congressional committee about why, in her personal experience, it’s important that employer-health insurance not be allowed to not cover birth control pills, as Hobby Lobby was trying to do. And then Rush Limbaugh called her a slut, and so for a short time some of us were mockingly referring to them as “slut pills”.]
Once again, I did some googling, and found and called a female owned pharmacy. They are located in California but I wanted to see if she could ship my birth control pills to me. The person who answered said the owner would have to call me back.
Next I called the Temple University Pharmacy Department to see if they knew of any recent graduates who are women and starting their own pharmacy business. The person who answered the phone there also said they would have to call me back.
But BID, the West Chester Business Improvement District office returned my call, and they said they will send me a list of women owned businesses in downtown. Most of them I already know of, as a business owner in the downtown myself. From what I already know of my fellow West Chester small business owners, this list would help me as far as going out to dinner, but not so much with getting gas and refilling my prescription.
I posted on Facebook saying that I need a hotel in Stony Brook, NY for my college sex ed event, as well as a place to buy gas and birth control pills. Folks were actually super helpful, and pointed me to two websites; the Directory of Certified Minority and Women-Owned Businesses at nylovesmwbe.ny.gov, and Your Exclusive Directory of Women-Owned Businesses in New York, at womanownednewyork.com [now defunct.]
Wow! I wish Pennsylvania had these types of resources!
The first website, part of the New York state government website, said there are no woman owned hotels or motels on all of Long Island. The second website listed one Bed and Breakfast, but it was not local to the college I was speaking at, and not what I’m looking for. I just want a simple traveler’s roadside hotel to lay my head. This is so frustrating! I figured I’d forgo the overnight accommodations, fill up on coffee, and make the long drive home after my workshop, but there are probably no woman-owned places to buy coffee on the highway. AHHH! [This was before Airbnb was a thing.]
Back to our friend, Google. I looked up female CEOs of hotel chains. I couldn’t find any of course (Holiday Inn, Hyatt, Best Western, Motel 6, Red Roof, Super 8, Days Inn, Travel Lodge all have male CEOs) but I did find happen upon a list of Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs and learned that Campbell’s soup and Kraft Foods are women owned, so when I switch to buying only woman-made products as well as womea owned retailers, I will know what I can eat.
This list also said… drumroll… Sunoco has a female CEO! Her name is Lynn Elsenhans, and she earns $12 million a year. I’m PSYCHED! And confused. Wikipedia lists a male CEO, and there was no mention that the entire corporation was overseen by a woman when I called their headquarters inquiring about woman-owned gas stations. It makes me wonder why, and if other information I have is also incorrect.
I texted Ryan “Guess what!!?? Sunoco has a woman CEO. I can buy gas!!” and I followed up with “And she makes $12 million a year”. He responds “haha that’s good! But how much does an equal male gas CEO make?”
Point taken. Sigh.
I also learned from Facebook comments that Exton Pharmacy at Marchwood, 7 miles away and with an aol.com business email address, may be woman owned as well. I called to see if it’s true, and a man answered.
Me: Hi, are you the owner?
Me: Oh, who is the owner there?
Him: Why do you need to know?
Me: Well, I’m looking to potentially be a customer, but I’m picky about who I do business with and I want to know who I’m doing business with.
Him: Ok, hold on.
For the life of me I do not understand why everyone has gotten snippy when I inquire about the business owner. A million people a day walk into my shop and ask me if I’m the owner. And I’m sure they ask my employees when I’m not there. People like to know who they are spending their money with, what is the damn problem?
Today I also received letter from Diane’s Gas in Ithaca. She sent me my gift cards, plus a hand written letter asking to let her know if she can continue to be helpful. FINALLY! Someone who seems appreciative that I’m giving them my business, and seems to understand why this is important.
I set out for Stony Brook, New York to do a workshop on sexual language and slang. Before I left I filled my car up with Sunoco gas. About 5 miles down the road, my car dies. DEAD.
Ironically, it died right in front of a Sunoco (well not RIGHT in front of, I had to cross the over pass, in a dress, which I had to hold with one hand to keep from blowing up and exposing my ass).
I assumed the problem was the car ran out of oil, because I needed an oil change but didn’t get one because I hadn’t yet found a woman owned place to do it. After running inside to buy some quarts of oil and putting it in my engine, it became apparent the oil wasn’t going to help. Seeing my vehicle in distress on the side of the highway, a cop stopped by to help, and long story short, my car was towed to a male owned garage and the cop dropped me off at a male owned car rental so that I could continue on my way to teach my class. Bah. Two more cheats.
This incident convinces me that the only way supporting exclusively women-owned businesses will ever work is by planning ahead for every conceivable purchasing need. In a pinch, or emergency, it would be nearly impossible.
Because I work, I couldn’t drop off my rental car until after 5:30pm, when Ryan could drive me home. As such, I was charged for an extra day, and I was pissed. More money forced to be paid to a male owned business, and more cheats. [This was before Uber/Lyft was a thing.]
In the meantime, I was trying to find a way to get rid of my car. I asked the garage not to work on it, and that I would be have a junk yard pick it up. He said I have by Sunday.
I’m stressing out about getting my car out of this man’s lot- the garage the tow company decided to bring my car because it obviously couldn’t sit on the side of the highway. The guy is nice enough to let me park it there without making money on it, but he needs the space, obviously.
Friday night I took Richard, my BFF, out for his birthday dinner. I realize how much I dine out. It’s ridiculous. We decided on West Chester because it’s full of indie restaurants, as opposed to chains, which are less likely to be women owned. Plus it’s delicious and supporting the local economy, other factors that are important to my purchasing decisions. We go to Limoncello, Rich’s favorite place. Amazing Italian food, great service, and family owned, with women in the family as co-owners.
Ryan and I went to the garage to locate my car title in the glove box, which I’ll need in order to sell it to the junk yard. But the garage is closed all weekend, and they have my car key, so I can’t get in the glove box. Panic!
We also picked up my birth control prescription at the Exton at Marchwood Pharmacy. It is bare bones, basically two metal shelves of cold medicine and a counter. Not a business I’d likely choose to patronize outside of the challenge, but I got my pills, so yay!
I needed hair dye for a forthcoming video shoot of my YouTube show, A Day in the Life of a Sexologist. It turns out Swann Pantry is in same parking lot, so we went there to stock up on some food. But they don’t sell hair dye.
It is the 100 year anniversary of the Titanic sinking. I was JONESING to see the 3D rerelease of the movie in theaters. I had the day off today and wanted a date night with my sweetie. I was so upset to think there would be no way we could see it because there are so few indie theaters, and I assumed none of the chains would have female CEOs. I looked into it anyway and was pleasantly surprised to learn the second largest theater chain in America, Regal Cinemas, has a female CEO named Amy Miles, who earns $4,454,225 per year.
Next we remembered that one of our favorite little spots in West Chester, the Olive Branch, is woman owned. We dined there, eating outside, and then saw the movie. We got popcorn, and flavored sprinkles. I am now obsessed with flavored popcorn sprinkles. Such a lovely date night.
At the crack of dawn this morning I went back to the car garage. After being on the phone for a few hours, I was able to find a junkyard place that:
I wanted to thank the man for letting me use his lot by offering to send him lunch. But, of course, I couldn’t find a SINGLE woman owned food place that would deliver to his area. Poor guy got shafted.
I worked in the shop all day, then did a nude photo shoot at night as part of the A Day in the Life of a Sexologist show in which my body would be covered in insults I’ve received from people over the years offended by my sex-positive work. We were going to use marker, until two days before the shoot, the hair/makeup artist said we needed liquid latex.
Had I known this I would have ordered some from my supplier (remember I own a sex shop, and liquid latex is used as a kink item), but I didn’t have enough turn-around time for it to be shipped at this point. So I had to find a way to track some down, and the videographer was able to get some at a woman-owned sex shop in Philly where he lives. Crisis averted.
Also, I REALLY needed hair dye. I could not find any woman-owned retailers that sell a damn bottle of hair dye (BJs, 711), so I went to a woman-owned salon down the street. $68 was not in my budget at this time, but sometimes that’s the name of the game when you want to support other woman-owned entrepreneurs.
Today I drove to The College of New Jersey for another sex ed speaking event, this time for “Sex: Am I Normal?” It’s been such a busy week and I didn’t buy anything, although I did get gas. Thank god for Sunoco.
? [I don’t know what I meant by this…]
I worked late today, and then had two friends over for a dinner party. I’m getting the hang of this, and knowing I can’t just call to order a pizza anymore (there are no woman-owned pizzerias around here], I planned ahead by making mac and cheese and mozzarella stick that I had in my freezer, and of course popcorn with flavoring. I’m really now obsessed.
It was a BEAUTIFUL, warm, and sunny Saturday today. I was working my ass off (being self-employed, it’s feast or famine, and I am in the throes of a very lucrative, but 70+ hour work week this week) but I actually had a spare 2 hour window, which incidentally was over lunch time. Ryan and I decided to grab lunch, someplace with outdoor seating to enjoy this beautiful day. I went back to Limoncello.
They had a delicious $10 lunch buffet special with seafood pasta, a gorgeous outside patio, good service, and is partially woman-owned. When a business treats you right (and finding businesses that treat me right has been an incredible struggle these last 20 days) you keep going back and giving them your money!
Back at work, I taught a Fellatio 101 class tonight. And I realized the carrots we use to practice the blow job techniques on would be a problem. The only place that sells carrots of the three places I found to get groceries, is BJs (HA!), but their locations are few and far between so not something I can run and get in a pinch for fellatio classes. I had to buy them tonight at a male owned grocer. :( Another cheat.
With my mom, we went to the South Jersey Vagina Monologues for my last production of the year. [I went to all the college and community production of the Vagina Monologues in the tristate NJ/PA/DE area to help fundraise at this time.] She was going to pick up a pizza and asked me to stay for dinner. I had to decline because it was a male owned pizza shop. She tempted me by saying she’s paying, but I still declined. The whole ride home smelled DELICIOUS! But I didn’t cheat.
Today I learned that Doc’s, a male-owned seafood restaurant down the street, is having a clambake this upcoming Saturday for only $35/person for 1.25 pound lobster plus all you can eat clams, mussels, shrimp, and more. I am OFFICIALLY angry about this project.
I’ve decided now that it has been a few weeks and I have mostly gotten the hang of it, I will now attempt to also buy products produced by woman-owned companies. I REALLY hope those flavored popcorn sprinkles are made by a woman.
Nope- not woman-owned :(
No shopping needed today!
No shopping needed during the day today. I had to decline a birthday party invitation for Friday night though because it was being held at Planet Hollywood, which has a male CEO.
I’ve been searching for food many by women-owned companies, now that I’m adding manufacturing into the challenge, in addition to retailers and service providers.
Campbells’s CEO is Denise Morrison so I can eat soup, Peppridge Farm products, and V8 products, Swanson broth, and Pace sauces.
Kraft Foods CEO is Irene Rosenfeld, who has an annual salary $16.9 million, and this includes Bakers, Kool Whip, Jell-O, Caramels, Jet Puffed, and Planters.
I still need a TV for my store. I had a hard enough time finding a woman-owned electronics retailer, but maybe I can find a TV manufacturer with a female CEO and buy it directly.
Male owned: Phillips, Panasonic, LG, Vizio, Samsung, Sony.
Female owned: Enseo, an electronic company specializing in digital media for retail, which is what I want but it seems complicated and expensive. Guess I’m screwed.
This is a transcript of the live chat I had with customer service at globialindustrial.com, where I’m looking to purchase a white board A-frame sign for the sidewalk outside of my business.
Agent: Hello Jill.
Agent: Kindly hold on as I check your request.
Customer: ok thank you
Agent: Please visit our site and you get all details.
Customer: I was not able to find whether the company is owned by a man or woman on the website. Could you direct me the place on the website where I could find that?
Agent: I'm sorry
Agent: If you have any stock related issues please go on.
What? It reminds me of the check people in that there are hundreds of websites with 800 numbers and no one seems to know what’s going on. After two hours of unsuccessful looking, I had to purchase the business sign from a male owned store, but purchased abiding by some of my other qualifiers in that it was a small business, and had friendly customer service.
I have no idea why I suddenly stopped after day 25. My notes don’t provide any explanation. And I don’t remember. But if I had to hazard a guess, it was that adding shopping not only of women owned retailers and service providers, but also manufactures, to the challenge, such that literally every single thing I consumed had been women owned or run for the entire length of its journey to my hand, from suppliers to manufactures to shippers to retailers, was in practicality, impossible. At least on a self-employed grad student budget.
But even with only completing a quarter of the journey, I learned a ton! Here were my major takeaways:
There are not enough women in business. And I have no idea if this is borne out in the research, or even if there is any research on this, but based on this experience, it seems that the businesses’ that women do own are largely higher end, specialty, boutiquey, and artisan, and less accessible as everyday replacements for male-owned businesses for general consumer items.
There was a place to rest my head, but it was a fancy bed and breakfast. There were no women-owned alternative to the Holiday Inn.
There was a place to buy clay, but it was an artist’s specialty art boutique. There were no women-owned alternative to Michael’s Arts and Crafts.
Thankfully during these 25 days, I was not in need of any clothing, but this is a phenomenon I’ve been aware of since as I’ve shopped for clothes my entire adult life. Certainly, there are places to buy clothes from women, but they are often high-end boutiques that sell strappy summer dresses and wedges and such. I’ve never personally found a women-owned alternative to Target, TJ Maxx, Kohl’s, or Macy’s where you can buy a pair of jeans, t-shirts, and sensible shoes for everyday life.
Why? Well, if I had to take a guess not rooted in any economic research, if there even is any, I’d say that because business and entrepreneurship has been a men’s domain for so many centuries, and many businesses and trades are passed down to the sons of the family, there is more sociological infrastructure for men to start these types of businesses, and secure capital for these types of businesses, given that they’ve proven successful in the past.
Because of this roadblock for women, if a woman starts a business, it’s more likely she has a passion for the particular area of commerce, vs commerce for its own sake. She’s more likely to be passionate about hospitality, or art, or fashion, and want to run a small business doing that work, and is less likely to want to create the next affordable hotel, craft, or clothing corporation for the sake of being an entrepreneur.
Women owned businesses seem to almost never wear their women owned status like the badge of honor that I think it is. This made women owned businesses difficult to locate.
Family owned businesses usually proudly advertise that fact. Probably because we culturally love the idea of a family owned business. We envision ma and pa in the back baking the rolls and little Billy and Susie sweeping the shop stoop and running the till. Family owned businesses know that being family owned is an asset.
Do women owned businesses think being women owned is a liability somehow? A month before this journey began, Elise Andrew started a Facebook page called I Fucking Love Science, sharing memes and jokes about popular science and it went viral. Then when the world learned the account was managed by a woman, she started receiving sexist harassment and scorn. Maybe female entrepreneurs would rather avoid similar attention?
Organizations with the stated mission of supporting small businesses, or even specifically women-owned businesses, fell short in my eyes of helping consumers patronize small and women-owned businesses.
If anyone were to take this up as a personal challenge today, I highly recommend planning where your consumer needs will come from well in advance of commencing the journey. I was so hungry to get started that I jumped right in without lining up the necessities, like food, gasoline, and medications. Maggie Anderson planned her buying Black experience years in advance. I was so eager, I dove right in before I even finished her book, and learned that little tip…
Holy consumerism! I never considered myself a materialistic person, but wow, do I consume A LOT. And coming to this realization further underscored for me that it’s incredibly important to be intentional and thoughtful in what I consume, and from whom I consume it. After those 25 days, I may no longer choose to drive through the night instead of sleeping at a male-owned hotel, or choose to go without an oil change instead of patronizing a male-owned oil and lube shop, but I do still think about where my money goes and try to make spending decisions that, within reason, align with my values.
This includes not shopping at Walmart, McDonald’s, or Papa John’s for the last 10 years, Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby for the last 7 years (since the birth control exemption issue I mentioned earlier), and only spending money at Amazon once in the last two years. I try to shop women-owned when possible, but if it’s not, I try to prioritize locally, independently owned businesses over corporate owned.
I’m tenacious. Yes, I quit a quarter of the way through. But damn, I’m impressed with myself. I spend hours and hours and hours on the phone. I was resourceful. I made sacrifices. I gave up pizza! And a birthday party! And shelled out extra money for things I knew would be cheaper if I cheated on my mission. Showing up late to Stoney Brook University because of my car breaking down, and not having all my teaching supplies due to the lack of woman-owned office supply stores, made that presentation… not my best work. Which was a reflected in a lukewarm write up about in the school newspaper.
And I still have the $50 gift card I bought from Diane’s Citgo station in Ithaca, NY. Turns out, the closest Citgo station to me in suburban Philadelphia was 15 miles away, and my travels over the years never had me passing that station to fill up, and it seemed silly to drive all the way out just to get gas.
Then I moved to San Diego, and we don’t have any Citgo franchises in California.
So it was hard, it cost me money, and convenience, and a lot of time. But I think I ultimately was able to make the point I set out to make:
We need more women in business.
We need to make it easier for women to excel in business.
We need to support women owned businesses. With. Our. Dollars.
We are missing out on not only the financial security that comes from being a successful entrepreneur, but the marketplace is missing the creativity, ingenuity, and general awesomeness that women bring.
I invite you to comment and engage in this ever-growing digital sex ed library and community! I know it doesn't quite have the instant gratification of posting a comment on Facebook or Instagram, but it also doesn't have the corporate anti-sex censorship, so comment away! Just be kind.
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All content © Dr. Jill McDevitt, 2019. Permission to print and download for personal use only. Materials may not be shared on social media or elsewhere, and may not be used commercially.