Are Sex Shops Essential? This Business Owner Is Fighting Toronto City Hall To Prove They Are

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
When the latest lockdown measures kicked off in Ontario late last year, Veronica Kazoleas thought she was fine to keep her business open. Her Toronto sex shop, The Nookie, sells health and safety supplies and therefore, she believes, meets the province’s definition of essential essentials.
The city thinks differently. A few weeks in, bylaw officers slapped Kazoleas with an $880 ticket and a summons to appear in court. She fired back with an application for an emergency injunction, basically asking a judge to tell the city to leave her alone. (A city representative told Refinery29 that it can't comment on matters before the courts, but that sex shops are not included in the list of businesses that may remain open for in-person sales per the province's lockdown regulation.) Here, Kazoleas tells Refinery29 why she believes she's being unfairly targeted because of the nature of her business and why (yes! yessssss!) vibrators totally count as medical supplies.
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Let’s go back to late November. You’re running your store, thinking you’re operating as an essential business, and then what happens?
First let me say that I did shut down my business during the first lockdown last spring. Back then there was so much uncertainty. I didn’t feel like I could ask my staff to come in and be in contact with customers when we had no idea what this virus was or how to protect ourselves. But we have learned a lot since then and have been operating in a way that is safe and responsible. On November 23, the province announced that all non-essential businesses would have to switch to online ordering and curbside pickup. I checked the list of essential businesses and saw that I qualified. Just to be sure I called Ontario’s Stop the Spread Business Information line.
And they said what? 
The person that I spoke with agreed. A couple of weeks later, two bylaw officers came into the shop — one of them wasn’t even wearing a mask, which I thought was very disrespectful. They said I was not supposed to be open. I tried to show them the applicable products, but they said that “safety products” meant hard hats and boots. I told him that it doesn’t say that anywhere in the legislation, but they had no interest — they were rolling their eyes and laughing on the way out. A few days later the same officers came back and issued me the ticket. And about a week after that, I got a summons to appear in court. One for me, one for the store, and one for my minimum-wage earning employee, which I thought was really over the top.  
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A lot of businesses have been forced to shut down. What makes sex shops different?
Well that’s the thing, it’s not about a sex shop — what is a sex shop even? A rub and tug? A place where they sell porn? It’s about the products that I sell in my store. According to Schedule 2, Section 4 of the Reopening Ontario Act, businesses that sell medical supplies and businesses that sell safety supplies are considered essential and allowed to be open.

Sexual identity is something that people still suffer violence and discrimination for. Curbside pickup requires that you put your purchase on a credit card, which not everybody wants to, or in the case of sex workers, not everybody can.

And just to be clear, which one are you: safety or medical?
I am both. My store sells safety supplies — the kinds of things you might not be able to find at a pharmacy. Things like dental dams, toy cleaner, finger condoms. And then we also sell medical supplies, many of which are prescribed by physicians to treat medical-health issues. Kegel weights, for example, are often prescribed to women dealing with incontinence and other pelvic floor issues after pregnancy. We sell penis pumps and cock rings for men who can’t get an erection after treatment for prostate cancer. These aren’t things you can find at a pharmacy and they are 100% medical. And then there is another, slightly more nuanced argument, which is that sexual health is health, so lube, vibrators
Is a vibrator really a medical supply?
Absolutely it is. A lot of women use vibrators to manage anxiety and insomnia, but again, it’s the idea of sexual health as being part of overall health. We heard a lot about this earlier on in the pandemic when public health departments were talking about the importance of masturbation.
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Right! Exactly. It was so amazing to hear our public health officials speak so openly and non-judgmentally about sexual health. That’s part of why I’ve been so disappointed. Toronto mayor John Tory commented on the situation saying that you can get condoms at “pharmacies and so on” and I just thought, here you have this guy who has flown the transgender flag, who has campaigned during PRIDE. To have him reduce sexuality to this heterosexual male version was just so disappointing. It's also why a store like The Nookie is so important.
Okay, but can’t you just do curbside pickup?
I could, but that would get in the way of our ability to support marginalized communities. Think of a trans youth who’s wanting to get a packer for the first time. If that showed up on the browser history they could get kicked out of their houses. Sexual identity is something that people still suffer violence and discrimination for. Curbside pickup requires that you put your purchase on a credit card, which not everybody wants to, or in the case of sex workers, not everybody can. The other reason I don’t want to do curbside is because I shouldn’t have to. I believe I am being discriminated against because of the nature of my business, both as a store that sells sex toys and one that is focused on female sexuality. One of the things the bylaw officers said was that I wasn’t allowed to stay open because there was lingerie in my window. But look at Shopper’s Drug Mart, look at Mark’s Work Wearhouse. They sell things other than health and safety products.
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And you think the difference is that wooly socks and plaid shirts don’t offend certain puritanical sensibilities.
I don’t know what else I can think. I have been dealing with stigma for as long as the store has been open. Even longer, actually. It took me forever to find a landlord that would let me open in their space; because I was a woman talking about sex, they all assumed I was opening a massage parlour. And why did the bylaw officers target my shop in particular? The Men’s Room on Church Street was open, Northbound Leather was open. I know that two locations of The Stag Shop were visited and told that they could remain open. When I started The Nookie, it was because I wanted to create a space that was focused on female sexuality. I don’t know what it is about that that people find so threatening.
Where do things stand right now, legally speaking?
In January, we (myself and the owner of the Stag Shop) applied for emergency injunctive relief. The latest I’ve heard is that we will have a decision from the court this month. In the meantime, I am doing in-store shopping by appointment, which allows me to serve the community. I had a woman in the other day, a sex worker, who needed supplies in order to do her job safety. And I have had a lot of customers coming in to buy their first-ever vibrators, so they really need our expertise and to be able to see the products. These are people coming in saying, "I haven’t had sex in almost a year." That’s not healthy. And I can help.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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