[14 July 2008]
I haven’t always had a problem with the concept of “kid friendliness” – as a kid, I was all for it. During the half-hour “adult swim” at my hometown swim club, my friends and I would gather like vultures at the poolside, waiting for the half-hour of boring grownup drudgery (known to them as a few moments of peace) to end. At the sound of the whistle, we would gleefully and obnoxiously cannonball back into the pool, almost indignantly reasserting our rightful preeminence. It was a kid’s world, and we knew it.
In the ensuing years, the whole “kid friendly” phenomenon hasn’t exactly played out to my advantage – I ceased to be a kid, I’ve failed to have a kid, and “kid-friendliness” has become more ubiquitous than pocket-sized celebrity dogs.
There appears to be no end to the proliferation of kid-friendly products, services, and establishments. Businesses formerly known as playgrounds of sin (“sin” generally being the most popular type of adult fun) have been transformed into plain old playgrounds, opening their doors to the onesie-wearing crowd. There are kid-friendly casinos, kid friendly-tattoo parlors, even kid-friendly bars. Kid-friendliness has pervaded even the furthest reaches of what once were the exclusive provinces of the post-pubescent.
I can’t help but feel defensively compelled to insist that I have nothing against kids – my niece and nephew are two of my favorite people in the world. In fact, it’s still possible that I’ll use the roughly three seconds remaining on my biological clock to have one of my own. I’m a fan of kids. And yet, there’s just something about trying to enjoy a grownup restaurant meal while a squalling baby spews pureed carrots from his angry little mouth that feels just a bit – I don’t know – unfriendly. Actually, I empathize with that baby. Just as he doesn’t want to be force-fed those carrots, neither do I want to be force-fed him or his three siblings.
But mostly, kid-friendliness is something to which most of us have become accustomed—or perhaps simply resigned. When we have a party, there’s a good chance that one of our kid friendly friends will bring their kids, bidden or otherwise. There will always be that lady at work who will bring her pencil-chewing, paperweight throwing progeny into the office. And yes, even in a bar, we might have to watch our adult language ‘cause there’re impressionable little ones around – we’ll just have to take those choice expletives outside with the smokers. There, at least – 15 feet from the entrance of the establishment, per that new grown up law—we can huddle against the elements and enjoy a semblance of mature company. Being strangers, we may not speak a word to one another, but the kid-free camaraderie is undeniable.
Recently, though, kid friendliness seems to have made an unprecedented and somewhat alarming encroachment upon adult territory – and by that, I mean the euphemistic “adult” territory. A newly opened establishment in Park Slope, Brooklyn is now purporting to be a kid-friendly sex shop. The store, which operates under the coy and possibly creepy double entendre “Babeland”, in the interest of providing a women-friendly sex shop, apparently features diaper changing stations, a “Sexy Moms Series”, and stroller accessible aisles. The décor is brightly colored urban boutique, and the displays are more subtly presented than those of the average in-your-face triple-X establishment.
I can’t say I disagree with the spirit of the place. The owners of the store have taken up the noble cause of eradicating the dingy, embarrassing stereotypes surrounding the typical sex shop and its clientele. They’re updating the traditionally yucky images of trench coat clad fetish freaks practicing self-abuse in dark corners. I can understand that. But is kid-friendliness really a necessary part of a sex shop? Do even sex shops need to become as benign (and about as sexy) as Old Navy where the tot tags along while mom shops? I guess it’s nice that this store aspires to be kid-friendly, but it seems to me that it’s in grave danger of becoming not at all sex-friendly.
It is, of course, an incontrovertible fact that there’s a time-honored causal relationship between sex and babies: the sex you’ve had is not entirely unrelated to the diapers you might change in the Babeland store. But is this a connection that anybody really feels like making? And is it really anyone’s idea of a turn-on? Despite the fact that sex at its most fundamental description is intended to populate the world with rug-rats, we generally try to keep this cause-and-effect separate, at least during the time that we’re having the sex. In a sense, maybe this disconnect is anomalous; maybe it’s a flaw in our wiring.
When we’re hungry for food, we’re generally aware of—and enthusiastic about—the natural end result eating, then being full. Using the same logic, perhaps when we’re filled with unbridled lust we should also be thinking, sating that desire, about a houseful of soon to appear kids. Yet, I can’t help but feel that that might just be the least sexy sentence I have ever written. Really, does anyone want to hearken back to the days of utilitarian, hetero-centric baby-factory sex? Gee, that thought sets us back in our advances in human sexuality oh, at least 100 years.
Another perfectly worthy aspect of this store is its aim to present a more feminist type of erotica and sex play. Rather than catering to exaggerated, objectified male fantasies of big-breasted bimbos and freakishly clinical penetration shots, this store is more geared toward “real” women and couples in loving relationships. Once again, I should (and do) commend the goal of portraying a healthier and less exploitative version of female sexuality.
The thing is, I don’t necessarily know that “real women” are clamoring to multitask their sexual fantasies with tending to their baby’s gastroesphageal reflux. It seems like an overly dramatic transformation for female sexuality to go from depersonalized, fake-orgasmic sleaze to an episode of the Teletubbies. There appears to be a disturbing Mars/Venus polarity at work here: it’s either crass, male-centric hardcore or a cutesy, saccharine sexuality that is puerile to the point of seeming deranged.
For example, the store apparently displays condoms in candy jars and provides a workshop called “Creative Sex with Ducky Doolittle” (yes, apparently this is a real human adult, but still). A waterproof vibrator called the “I Rub My Ducky”, which is described as “as discreet as he is adorable”. Even the Muppets are involved in their marketing: “Why won’t Ernie get out of the bath? Because he’s got I Rub My Ducky!”
The assumption that women with children regress sexually to pre-K levels is one that I find disturbing, and hopefully erroneous. I have many friends and relatives with kids, and I get the impression that when the lights go out, they want to leave Sesame Street as far behind as they can. They’re not looking to be Dora the Sexual Explorer under the covers either, thank you very much.
I also can’t help but marvel at the potential logistical problems inherent to a kid-friendly sex store. It’s bound to invite all kinds of etiquette problems and blurred lines of conduct. Breast-feeding, for example, could easily take on a different, much more icky vibe in such a store. Any anthropomorphized vibrators (which I’ve never quite understood anyway, but to each his/her own) could easily be misunderstood and subsequently misused by the little ones who have not yet learned to share their toys. Plus, there’s always the possibility of those “eccentric”, potentially undesirable store patrons who might not match the ideal IKEA profile the store seems to be courting. Can such (ahem) “consumers” – and in all fairness, should they – be kept out of such a store?
I read a quote from the owner of the store, discussing a former customer whose particular predilection was to come to the store “dressed as an infant wearing a cloth diaper, sucking on a pacifier and clutching a rattle.” How perfect! In a setting with diaper-changing stations available, would this customer demand to be changed? And in such a setting, wouldn’t he have the right to ask?
I suppose it could be said that a store of this kind fosters open, healthy dialogue about sex between parents and kids. I’m certainly not suggesting that children ought to be sexually repressed or shamed, or that they shouldn’t be educated about sex in an open and healthy manner. But really, this isn’t about the sexual education of children. This is about dragging children into the sexual world of adults, a convergence most societies generally try to avoid. Sure, kids should be able to learn about sex without stigma or humiliation. I just don’t think junior needs to accompany mommy when she shops for a dildo-and-harness kit.
The way I see it, kid-friendliness is now well on its way to taking over ever last bastion of that mystery once known as “adulthood”. Will kid-friendliness finally absorb adulthood once and for all, leaving us all in a perpetual pseudo-childhood? And what about the young recipients of all of this “friendliness?” I can’t help but wonder what they’ll grow up to be like.