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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Kosher Sex Toys website's surprising campaign

NEW YORK – It’s not the kind of thing you expect to see when visiting a sex toys website. Then again, you don't expect to see a sex toys web shop to be called "kosher", either.

Dominating the homepage of, under tabs for “rabbit vibrators,” “glass dildos” and “bondage,” is the type of message you’d more likely in the pages of Ms. Magazine:

“Women are constantly objectified in advertising,” read large blue letters. “Did you know? 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.”

Gavriel C., the creator and owner of Kosher Sex Toys (who abides by his wife’s request not to use his full name) lives in the strictly Orthodox community of Lakewood, N.J. The father of two young children, he started the online store in late 2011 with the desire to bring bedroom fun to the frum.

“I thought there would be a need for it, and apparently I was right,” he told Haaretz.

The website — which is doubtlessly the only sex products site in the world to quote Talmud — quickly became a hit, with about 1,500 unique visitors and many sales on an average day, Gavriel said in an interview.

“We get a lot of traffic," he said. "I honestly didn’t think it would be so successful.”

He started the “objectification is not kosher” campaign because he found portrayals of Orthodox Jews in the media misconstruing his community’s views on modesty and sex.

“Any time I see a negative article about the Orthodox community, the issue of tznius [modesty] is brought up and how restrictive it is for women. Even if the article is about some financial crisis, tznius is brought up,” said Gavriel.

On the site, he explains to visitors what it is that Orthodox Jews “find offensive with the modern Western portrayal of women in the media, and why the need for a site such as mine exists. Nobody argues that the objectification of anyone — male or female — is a good thing and I hope with my site to bring an awareness to this, and to buck the trend of objectifying human beings to sell products.”

A radical campaign

The campaign is radical for the sex industry, says veteran reporter Steve Javors, managing editor of trade magazine Adult Video News and the AVN Media Network, who is Jewish.

“I’ve never seen language like this” on a sex products website, he said. “I think it’s pretty cool.”

But James Deen doesn’t like it. Deen, a Jew whose real name is Bryan Savilla, is arguably the most famous male porn star in America (and currently all over the tabloids for a sex tape he made with a reality TV star). He rejects the idea that porn objectifies any of its performers.

“If the party involved feels objectified, it’s their responsibility to leave. People forget that there’s personal responsibility in everything. I don’t think very many, if any, advertisers or hard-core pornographers have any intent to objectify anybody,” he said in an interview with Haaretz.

“People are operating a business," said Deen, who once made a porn video titled “Nice Jewish Girls.” "It’s not to create a negative stigma around body image. If the model feels objectified then they have the right to leave.”

Back in Lakewood, Gavriel has held on to his day job (which he declined to specify), keeping his online store’s inventory in a locked room at home and filling orders at night, shipping them in plain brown boxes.

Gavriel says that 60 to 70 percent of his shoppers are Jewish, based on their names and locations. “If we’re sending it to somebody in Montana I’m figuring it’s not somebody frum because how many Orthodox Jews are in Montana?”

And while Orthodox Jews may be interested in acquiring pulsating vibrators and furry handcuffs for bedroom pleasure, that doesn’t mean that they want to see the pornographic images generally used on sex novelty packaging and marketing. So Gavriel negotiates with manufacturers and distributors to provide inoffensive packaging for his shipments.

"A human being is not a prop"

Attitudes toward sex paraphernalia in the bedroom are changing among Orthodox Jews, says Gavriel. It’s “not because Orthodox Judaism would have seen the sex toys themselves as a problem,” he said. Rather, “there was the simple practical problem that up until recently buying sex toys meant exposing yourself to an industry that objectified woman and human beings in a way that Orthodox Judaism finds reprehensible.”

Gavriel doesn’t get any sex industry trade magazines or go to trade shows to see what’s new on the market.

“It would not be a great environment, at least not for me,” he said. “I speak directly to the wholesalers and ask them what’s been moving lately, and they send me stuff.” He first found them by searching for “sex toy wholesalers” online and emailing them.

Gavriel obviously isn’t from the anti-Internet segment of the religious community, though he did say he has received a few orders from people who live in communities like Meah Shearim, where going online is taboo.

While his site carries 66 different kinds of vibrating dildos, 28 different lubricants and positioning bolsters, along with a restraint kit (one of his best sellers, Gavriel says), objectification is the reason his site doesn’t sell porn.

“It’s not that we’re against sex,” said Gavriel. “It’s that a human being is not a prop. If you believe human beings have a God given value, you don’t have the right to debase yourself like that. It harms everybody who sees you. When girls see that, it changes the whole way they see themselves," said Gavriel, who also points out that it creates expectations for boys about what people should look and act like.

His biggest challenge thus far has been figuring out how to sell naughty lingerie without showing it on a female form. Trying to photograph sexy clothes off of a woman’s body or mannequin leaves it looking “like a pile of string,” he said.

Books are among the site’s popular sellers. One of them is “The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy,” written specifically for the Orthodox community by Rabbi David Ribner and Jennie Rosenfeld. Ribner, a sex therapist who is on the faculty of Bar Ilan University in Israel, also serves as a resource for the website's visitors, who can email him with questions.

Though it presents challenges, Gavriel is committed staying on the right side of the line between providing kosher instruments of marital pleasure and selling smut. In other words, provide the tools but don't supply the image.

Gavriel writes about his work as a holy calling. On the website, he references a story from the Talmud (he doesn't remember where) that talks about the excuses people bring to God when judged for their shortcomings. For those who claim to have been too poor to fulfill Torah, God will ask whether they were poorer than Hillel.

“So to all those that say that they need to objectify human beings to sell their product," Gavriel writes on, "I say, ‘I sell sex toys without the need to do this; so what is your excuse?’"

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