On a recent white-hot afternoon, I cornered Rosemary Benitez in a quiet spot in her couples-friendly, family-owned adult boutique, Shades of Love. The shop is feminine, colorful, and cozy despite the occasionally lurid merch packaging — a perfect setting for a chat about gender relations, Texas politics, sexual liberation, spirituality, the recent Fifth Circuit ruling legalizing sex toys in Texas, and the rigors of running a successful family business.
Petite and pretty, with a dynamite hourglass figure, a killer dress sense, a fashion-forward bob, and a welcoming smile ringed in pinup-perfect scarlet lipstick, Rosemary Benitez is one hot missionary. She’s maybe the sexiest abuelita in Bexar County, too. At 40-something — “let’s leave it at that,” she giggles — she’s the PR and merchandising guru of Shades of Love. In addition, Rosemary Benitez is an impassioned sex educator, an encouraging friend to the repressed and the shy, and a genuine hometown evangelist for sexual health and happiness.
Here’s her gift: Talking to Rosemary is incredibly easy. She’s an avid and empathetic listener, friendly and attentive with an easy laugh; just the kind of person anyone could warm up to about the most sensitive of topics. And she knows it.
“You know, I always wondered all my life what my gift was, because God gives everybody something,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I found my voice. I found I can talk to people, and they talk to me right away.”
Shades of Love is a genuine family enterprise, by the way. As Rosemary says, “Everybody has a little share in the business, including my Mom and Dad. We talked to my parents before opening the business, and we wouldn’t have done it without their approval.”
Rosemary’s the youngest of four, the baby in the family. A native San Antonio girl, she and her siblings graduated from McCollum High School (“Except my sister Rita. She followed her boyfriend over to Harlandale,” she says). Second-oldest Rita Delgado is the majority owner of Shades of Love, while the oldest sister, due to her City-agency job, would prefer, understandably, to be known as Big Sis for the purposes of this article. There’s a brother, too, who did all the painting and build-out. And Rita’s daughter Lorraine helps out in the shop, making Shades of Love a tri-generational affair.
But it’s Rosemary who’s found her calling as Shades of Love’s public face. Harnessing her communicative gifts is both a joy and a challenge, Rosemary’s learned.
“I used the word ‘clitoris’ with one lady, and she was shocked. I want everybody to feel comfortable, so I said, ‘Would you prefer I used a different word for it?’ ‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘it’s just that I never heard anyone say that out loud.’”
Rosemary’s an unabashedly out-loud sort of person. But she sees herself as more than an un-bashful sex-shop co-proprietor. “I genuinely care about keeping couples together,” she says. “I’m the Mary Poppins of the sex industry!”
The Shades of Love sisters want the shop to be a multi-generational resource for sexual health. “I had a mother and daughter in here just today,” Rosemary says. Then she tells me a story about the “Just in Case” condom cases sold at the counter. A young customer in her 20s remarked to Rosemary that they were a great idea, because she didn’t like carrying them loose in her purse. A woman in her 60s, overhearing the remark, “laughed and said, ‘Back in my day, I didn’t have access to condoms at all!’”
Benitez and her siblings feel no conflict whatsoever between their family values and their sex-positivity. Rosemary tells me, “One of the things that really made us want to open the store and cater it to couples is that my dad, who’s a very stoic, Hispanic man, very quiet … he said, ‘You know what your generation doesn’t realize? Just because we get old doesn’t mean our mind is old. When I look at your mother, I still see her as that 16-year-old girl I met in junior-high school’… he was all for the store.”
Rosemary’s mother even helped out in the shop, about which Rosemary muses, “Mom had a bad habit … like when someone comes in, I can tell if they’re new, so I really don’t approach them, but Mom would make a beeline for them. I had to talk her out of that.”
Wow. Does Benitez attribute her open-minded attitude to her mother’s influence?
“My parents never made `sex` something dirty,” she says. “I don’t remember my mom ever telling me anything bad, anything negative, about sex. But then, my mom isn’t typical — she was the very first lady plumber in San Antonio! She broke a lot of barriers, and she was very outspoken, and said what she wanted, and what she expected, and she didn’t take anything less.”
Rosemary and her siblings inherited their mom’s strength of character, which came in handy. The other tenants in the shopping center at Bitters and West Avenue drummed up an unsuccessful petition once the adult-novelty angle of their store was known, and cops have made occasional forays into Shades of Love, complaining, of all things, about the exposed nipples on the tasteful nude paintings adorning the store. Indeed, Shades of Love and similar businesses operated in a legal DMZ until this past February, when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the long-standing ban in the Texas penal code on “selling or promoting obscene devices” (read: vibrators, et al.), ruling that such a ban violates the right to privacy under the 14th Amendment.
Still, now that sex toys are legally aboveboard, Rosemary doesn’t intend to change how she markets her wares. “I’m still not going to put a display of vibrators in the window or anything like that,” she says. Maybe Rosemary won’t, but Big Sis once scandalized the shopping center by making the window display a bit too … obvious.
“I came in to work one day and there were all these people looking in the windows, and you could tell they were not happy,” Rosemary says. “So I go up to the window, and there’s some mannequin with handcuffs on, and I’m like ‘Ohhh, my God.’ So I get in the store and I go “RITA, WHO DID THE WINDOW?’ And she says, ‘Well, Big Sis thought that people wouldn’t know what we really sell here …’ So I said to Big Sis, ‘From now on, Brainiac, you do the books, I’ll do my part, and Rita will do hers.”
How did Shades of Love build a clientele, I ask? The answer’s as grassroots-homegrown as the girl: “We did flyers on cars, in restaurants, everywhere. My mom — she lives on the South Side — she’d hand out flyers. We’d always put something tasteful on the flyer, you know, ‘Romantic gifts, lingerie … and more!’ So people would be curious: What’s ‘more’?” The discreet name of the family enterprise occasionally engenders comic confusion. “Under the Yellow Pages we’re under videos,” Rosemary says, “and sometimes you’ll have parents call in and they’ll go ‘I’m looking for this Walt Disney classic movie,’ and I’ll go, ‘Uhhh, we don’t carry those,’ and they’ll say ‘Well, what kind of movies do you have?” And I’ll say, ‘We carry adult movies,’ and then it’s either CLICK or it’s ‘Oh, rreeaallly?’”
Before her Shades of Love days, Rosemary was a stay-at-home mom of three young boys, married to their father for 16 years. She says of her marriage, “We had fallen into a marital rut. I was sleeping on the couch, and I thought, well, 16 years, this is what it’s like. This is it.” After her sons reached middle school, Rosemary felt she could help Rita out with the store.
She learned a lot.
Sighing, she tells me, “You’d be surprised how many men would come in here, saying that they don’t feel that sexual connection in their marriage. And I think women get to an age where they feel old, or they feel fat, they feel not-sexy, they don’t feel sexual, so they don’t wanna have sex.”
What advice would she give couples like these?
“Seek counseling, first.”
But she also advises, “Don’t do something that night feeling like it has to end in sex. People get so goal-oriented, like it has to end in intercourse. Just have a nice evening! A dinner, a bath, and let him know, let her know, this is just to relax. And, usually, if you do that enough times, `sex` starts to come back, little by little.” She adds, “Women are ovens, men are microwaves. It takes women a lot longer to get all warmed up.”
Often, this approach works. But sometimes it doesn’t. Rosemary has painful, first-hand experience.
“I started taking lingerie home, things like that … and my husband thought it was weird. His side of the family is very, very religious. Very Catholic. And we had some wonderful years and three wonderful boys, but you get to a certain age when you think, I don’t want to settle. I’m not going to settle. I want that real, passionate love.”
Towards the end of her first marriage, Rosemary experienced a middle-of-the-night revelation. “ I wasn’t drunk, and I’ve never done drugs. But one night, I was sleeping on the couch, and I woke up suddenly and just felt God saying to me the thing I always told other people: You make the same mistakes until you learn from them. Suddenly I knew it was me who was repeating the same mistake. So the next morning, I came into the store and told my sister Rita, ‘You know what? I finally get it. I’m ready to get out.’”
Rosemary and her husband divorced, and she’s currently single. Still, Rosemary remains sympathetic to the sexual concerns of marriage, an institution she still deeply believes in.
Rosemary’s concerned about the younger generation, too, saying that while she’s the mother of three boys, she worries about young women who seem to capitulate to “that Paris Hilton stuff. She alone has … sluttanized the whole country. My sister Rita has a granddaughter who’s 15, and she’s at that age where she thinks that’s the way to look sexy, not wearing panties, and showing everything off ... it’s really worrying.
“I think religion’s very important. Spirituality and self-respect,” she adds, although she’s circumspect about the Church — “I don’t go get ashes on my forehead, and I don’t do the Friday fish thing, but I do believe I have a very special relationship with God.”
Rosemary hopes that addressing the insecurities of the Mom generation will help heal the neuroses of their daughters. Body image is one multigenerational bugaboo, of course. “Everybody has an image problem,” she says, shaking her head emphatically. “I don’t care if you’re 5’8” and a size 4 … women think, my nose is too big, or too small, my ‘girls’ don’t salute like they used to … ”
This state of affairs has inspired Rosemary to host an ongoing series of seminars in the shop, one of the most popular of which instructs women how to strip for their lovers. The focus is less on Maxim-inspired pole-dancing antics than it is on personal empowerment. “I tell women in my classes, ‘You know what the sexiest thing you can have is?’ And they’re like, ‘What, big boobs?’ And I tell them, ‘No. Confidence.’”
She took over these classes unexpectedly; one night, the professional exotic dancer she’d hired to teach the class called to cancel, telling Rosemary, “Why don’t you do it?” Rosemary was initially intimidated, but found that her students embraced her real-life womanliness, and blossomed under her teaching. “I guess they thought, if she can do it, why can’t I?”
“I don’t always feel confident,” Rosemary says of her teaching persona. “But you know what you do? You pick somebody, like Sophia Loren, or anybody who you want to emulate. Sometimes I go out and I pretend I’m Marilyn Monroe, just giddy and playful, you know? I tell women, too: Walk into a building like you own it. Walk into a nightclub like it’s your nightclub. And the more you act it, the more you start to become more confident.”
As fun as Rosemary’s mission has been, it isn’t without its potential legal pitfalls. State Attorney General Greg Abbott recently petitioned the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans to re-hear the sex-toy decriminalization case en banc, arguing that “protecting morals is a legitimate government interest” and that allowing the ruling to stand might open the door to such unwholesome practices as “incest or bigamy.”
When I bring this up to Rosemary, she scoffs, “He’s ignorant. You know, it really pisses me off that people think that vibrators are this horrible thing … you know, just like men can’t always get an erection because blood flow isn’t there anymore, women’s circulation can slow down, too. And sometimes, manual stimulation does not do it. A massager will get that blood flow to those nerve endings again. Women come in here with doctor referrals after surgery! Docs send them over here, and they say, ‘Hey, talk to Rosarita, she’ll show you what I want you to get.’”
With Rosemary Benitez, the political is definitely the personal — and beyond that, there’s plain old anatomical problem-solving. “Women need lubrication!” she says. “Like, if you take antihistamines, it can dry you out. I think if anything, we help people to take care of themselves. At night, I don’t need to take any Ambien. I just use my little vibrator, and it’s better for you than using drugs to go to sleep. No pills! It’s just healthy!”
If mama ain’t happy ...
Local adult emporia are hardly the only route for customers searching for “adult novelties.” Passion Parties (passionparties.com/), a California-based company, supplies consultants with adult toys, lingerie, and edible creams to sell at Tupperware-style parties in private homes. I recently attended a dinner party given by my sister’s “Mommy’s club,” several of whom had attended one of these female-only, over-18 events. After some veggie lasagna and a couple of bottles of wine, the mommies were across-the-board enthusiastic about Passion Parties. One mommy effused that her husband was “all for it. We’ve already worn out the Rabbit we bought.”
Another mommy, too shy to attend the party herself, had her friend purchase a vibrator for her. “It’s still boxed in the closet,” she admits. “Maybe tonight I’ll break it out!”
But hosting adult toy parties hasn’t always been entirely legal. Just ask Joanne Webb, a Burleson, Texas, mom and Passion Parties hostess, as well as a former fifth-grade teacher active in her local Southern Baptist church. A couple of undercover narcotics officers arrested Webb in 2004 after she explained to them how to use the vibrator she’d just sold them. The case was subsequently dropped, but not before making national headlines.
Webb hasn’t been the only Texan arrested for purveying sex toys; a clerk in a Lubbock lingerie store was arrested in 2007 for selling vibrators after a police raid on the store, and in 2006 an El Paso adult bookstore employee was arrested for explaining to a female undercover officer that a penis-shaped device was meant for gratification and arousal.
The February 5th Circuit ruling seems to have done away with the dark days in which bookstore clerks and party-hosting mommies live in fear of arrest by undercover cops, and sane grown-ups have to pretend they’re buying Rampant Rabbits in order to decorate cakes.
— Sarah Fisch
We’re number two!
Did y’all know that San Antonio ranks as “America’s second most lustful city”? Sure enough, according to a December 2007 Forbes.com article, SA ranks second only to Denver in per-capita “over-the-counter contraceptive purchases”.
Surprised? As a native San Antonio girl, this ranking makes some intuitive sense to me. After all, we’re a Latin-rooted city of soul, charm, and, Lord knows, warmth; why shouldn’t our libidos match our weather?
I’m definitely prouder of SA’s status as America’s Second Most Lustful City than I am of our Forbes standing as Third Most Obese City, Seventh Most Sedentary City, or, perhaps most worryingly, Third Most Jealous City. The aggregate picture Forbes paints of San Antonians is of impressively enthusiastic horndogs, but with a dangerous tendency to hunker down on our ever-expanding butts while obsessing about real or imagined rivals.
But let’s focus on the positive. San Antonians love sex, and numerous medical studies have correlated good sex with good health. Getting bus-ay reduces stress, boosts immunity, boasts calorie-burning cardiovascular benefits, improves sleep, and builds relationship intimacy. And we shouldn’t discount the health perks of solo sex, either, according to experts. For women, masturbation strengthens the pelvic floor muscles (thus preventing urinary incontinence in later life), increases orgasmic response with a partner, and eases menstrual cramps, while males doing the Han Solo may reduce their risk of prostate cancer.
San Antonio resident Eva Longoria publicly touts sex toys as a surefire route to satisfaction. In the February 2005 issue of Self magazine, Longoria gushed, “I didn’t begin enjoying sex until I started masturbating. Before that, I really wasn’t sexual. I bought my first vibrator three years ago. It’s a shame I didn’t discover it sooner. Now I give Rabbit vibrators to all my girlfriends. They scream when they unwrap it. The best gift I can give them is an orgasm.”
— Sarah Fisch
Cheap, Fast, and In Control: A Brief Review of the Adult Video Megaplexxx
The cashier’s desk at the Adult Video Megaplexxx at Nakoma and 281 seems to be staffed entirely by smiling, ponytailed young women who look for all the world as though they’re working summer jobs at Old Navy.
The manager on duty, polite yet curt, gives his name as “John” and stipulates that he can only give me two minutes for questions. He asserts that the Fifth Circuit ruling has had “no effect whatsoever” on his business (which is part of a chain), and that the SAPD has never, to his knowledge, investigated the store. He says that “Sixty-five percent of our customers are women and couples,” and that he makes an effort to hire female employees in order to make the store “feel safer” for lady patrons. And maybe it’s women voters who consistently vote the Megaplexxx the Best Adult Toy Store in the Current’s annual Best of SA readers’ poll. (It’s also one of the biggest distribution spots for the paper ... read into that what you will.)
After I’m left to my own, erm, devices, I peruse the store’s offerings. Adult Video Megaplexxx lives up to its name; it’s primarily a video store, with sections labeled All Male, All Girl, Box Sets (hee), Amateur, and Classic, and further broken down by studio: Vivid Video, Hustler, the dreaded Seymore Butts. Gay DVDs definitely have it all over straight ones, title-wise — CyberBears Booty Call, Bareback Bus Boys, and Hot Buttered Cop Porn are among my faves. I am, however, momentarily fascinated by the cover of a straight DVD, entitled All Up In Her Grill, featuring ladies wearing Flava Flav-esque dental fronts. Yipes. I wincingly hope they’re being very careful with their partners’ parts.
Adult Video Megaplexxx also sells a fairly standard range of adult novelties, from the Basix Rubber Works 7-inch vibrator at $19.95 to the more feature-heavy Rampant Rabbit at $54.95. Well-organized and clean, the Megaplexxx felt no more lascivious or personal than an outing to Target. A Target full of plastic weenies and latex vajayjays; efficient, convenient, and decidedly corporate.
— Sarah Fisch