Lent, the solemn period of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus that is celebrated by many Christian denominations, kicked off yesterday. This six-week period invariably puts faith questions center-stage, and yet it always surprises me the number of people of faith who come to me for advice about their relationships. Despite the vaguest allusions to having been brought up Catholic, I also receive questions from Protestants, Jews, and Muslims on a regular basis. I suspect people know that even if I don't know the answer to their questions, I'll have no qualms about going in to find it for them.
Photo by Jason Brackins (Flickr)
People like to imagine that wanting to have great sex is a secular characteristic, when in fact, it's a human one. One of the most fascinating things I have learned over the course of the years I've spent writing about sex is the demand for sexual aids in the bedrooms of the faithful, all over the world. In the past three years, some of the most popular sites selling sex toys have been those catering exclusively to the needs of their respective flocks.
Thirty-eight year old Haluk Murat Demirel is one such visionary. He didn't envision becoming a sex toy mogul. Like many entrepreneurs before him, he moved into the market when he identified a consumer need that needed to be met. This need happened to be sex toys -- presented in a manner that wasn't too explicit and thus counter to Muslim teachings.
Since launching in October, the Turkey-based Halal Sex Shop has become incredibly popular, offering shoppers both sex toys as well as advice. The name of the shop clearly states its mission -- "halal" means adherence to Muslim law.
Turkish Muslim sex toy shop (screengrab)
"We don't sell vibrators for example, because they are not approved by Islam," Demirel told Reuters. Among his top sellers are pleasure-magnifying creams for women, cock rings and libido enhancers.
The notion of creating sex shops to meet the needs of people of faith is not a new one. Three years ago, Kosher Sex Toys made a splash across the web shortly after its launch. The site, which also hoped to bring pleasure to couples without going against Jewish teachings, stripped toys and sex aids of their explicit packaging. Unlike the halal sex shop, the kosher shop offered vibrators, dildos and bondage kits -- its main goal being providing tools to married couples to increase their pleasure without objectification.
"Women are constantly objectified in advertising," the New Jersey-based site read. "In the U.S. over 10 million women suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other image-related sickness. 97% of women admit to having at least one 'I hate my body' moment each day. Even products being marketed specifically for women use marketing that objectifies them. Four out of five women are unhappy with their appearance. Objectification is NEVER necessary. Objectification is NEVER acceptable. Objectification is NEVER kosher. Respecting people as people. Not objects."
Though the site became inactive sometime after April of last year, it was wildly popular while it was up. In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz last year, founder Gavriel C. said that he hadn't expected the site to be so successful.
American Orthodox Jewish sex toy shop (screengrab)
"I thought there would be a need for it, and apparently I was right," he said. The then-25-year-old and father of two launched the site after he and his wife realized it was impossible to learn about sexual aids without exposing themselves to explicit imagery, which runs counter to the concept of "tznius," or modesty.
To get the shop off the ground, its strict Orthodox founder spent a nontrivial amount of time rewording product descriptions and negotiating with sex toy manufacturers and distributors to get different packaging. Rabbi David Ribner, co-author of the Orthodox-focused The Newlywed's Guide to Physical Intimacy eventually became an advice columnist for the site.
Gavriel estimated some 60 to 70 percent of buyers were Orthodox. He even noted that he'd received a few orders from people who lived in Orthodox communities where going online is taboo. Two of his most popular items were a bondage kit and furry handcuffs.
When the Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex, was approached by the New York Post for comment about the popularity of these items, the rabbi set them straight: "The greatest misconception in pop culture is that religious people are pious in bed. In fact, Orthodox Jewish couples are taught, once they get engaged, to have phenomenal, shout-out-loud, swinging-from-the-chandelier sex."
Advice and sex aids are far more common among Christians, who believe -- not unlike Rabbi Shmuley Boteach -- that within the bonds of matrimony, the chandelier's the limit. As long as you don't use the products by yourself! Self-pleasure is a strict no-no. The site Covenant Spice tells shoppers:
Some couples may feel as though there is a taboo when it comes to shopping for sexual aids; but in a committed, healthy, Christian marriage, sex is just one of the ways in which your love and connection can be expressed. Through this website, we are able to offer couples -- just like you -- access to fun, high-quality sexual aids that will allow you to fully express the love and commitment that you share. We consider ourselves a powerful vehicle for better exploring Christian intimacy; providing our couples with a resource for sex toys that are relationship focused so that you can better connect, better communicate and better enjoy lovemaking.
If you are a Christian, lingerie, sex toys and other sexual products may have previously seemed out of reach because of the stores and websites where you would have to go to make a purchase; many of which are uncomfortable to visit. Our website is meant to make the purchase of Christian sexual aids comfortable for married couples; something that you can do together from the privacy of your own home. A healthy sexual relationship is a part of a healthy marriage; it's important to enjoy each other in the bedroom just as much as you do in other areas of your relationship. As a Christian sex toy shop, we make it fun, safe and affordable to take your sexual exploration to the next level.
American Christian sex toy shop (screengrab)
Like the halal and kosher shops, Covenant Spice has no nudity or models on its site. They sell bondage kits, as well as vibrators, prostate massagers, ben wa balls, paddles, edible body paint and sex furniture. Fifty Shades of Grey items are in stock and ready to go.
"We are aware that many things on this site may come as a surprise to someone from a traditional or more formal Christian background," the site warns. "We would encourage you to pray together as a couple and seek the Lord's wisdom. Only purchase items that you would both feel comfortable with and enjoy. Be willing however to try new experiences if you spouse displays an interest in them. We believe if you search the scriptures with an open mind you will be blessed as you discover the playfulness, passion and satisfaction that God has created to be a part of your love life."
In 2012, a Polish sex shop opened for Roman Catholics, though it pales in comparison to the others listed. Unlike the other sites, Alkowa Malzenska does feature models, but it offers no sex toys.
Polish Catholic sex toy shop (screengrab)
Its hottest items seem to be tools to help women identify where they are in their menstrual cycle, thus enabling them to avoid pregnancy by abstaining from sex during fertile periods. Natural family planning is the only form of birth control approved by the Roman Catholic Church -- and for all the jokes about Catholic girls' appetites, apparently when we think sex toys, the first thing we come up with is an ovulation test.
I am disappointed.
What does your faith tell you about sexual aids? AV Flox is the editor of /Slantist, a blog about relationships and sexuality. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, and Facebook /anaiis.