Introducing South Korea’s First Inclusive Sex Toy Shop
Tucked along a side street in an older residential neighborhood of Seoul, Pleasure Lab’s sleek charcoal grey facade is discreet by design, but its low-key location wasn’t exactly by choice. Government regulations stated that Pleasure Lab was not allowed to open within 200 meters from any educational facilities, including universities, to protect minors. And that’s how South Korea’s first female-friendly sex toy shop found itself neighboring a 24–7 Prayer Center and a cemetery for foreign missionaries.
Pleasure Lab is as much an outlier in Korean society as it is in its own neighborhood. “In Korea, people, especially women, were afraid of being stigmatized and seen as skanky or dirty or a whore, being called names,” co-owner and co-founder Jung-yoon Choi explained in an interview at the store. Sex toys are wrapped up in that culture of sex shaming, perceived as “really perverted to even talk about it or to use.”
Unlike many of her peers, Choi’s “first experience and impression of sex toys were really positive.” She went to college in Seattle, where she became interested in women’s studies, and stumbled upon Babeland, the pioneering women-friendly sex toy store. “I really loved it. I didn’t even know it was a sex toy store,” she said. She was especially impressed by the friendly and professional staff. Upon her return to Seoul in 2009, Choi wanted to find a space like Babeland, “to feel safe and explore, but there was none.” So after several years of dreaming, Choi finally quit her job as a freelance journalist to create it, along with her partner Eura Kwak.
Opening the store hasn’t been without its challenges, both regulatory and cultural. Since Pleasure Lab is the first of its kind in Korea, many of the government rules about the store weren’t clear. Some of the regulations, like the location restrictions and the ban on minors, were straightforward, but Choi shrugged, “I still don’t know exactly if I’m violating anything.”
Despite the legal complications of opening a sex toy store in Seoul, Choi and Kwak felt strongly about having a real storefront instead of an online store. A brick-and-mortar shop, they emphasized, is more valuable and well worth the risk. “It’s really important to touch and feel the vibration of the toys that you will be potentially using,” explained Choi.
Having a storefront could also help disprove the stigma against sex toys, as well as create a safe space in which to have these open conversations, so the duo made an effort to create a welcoming and well-designed shop. “Sex toy stores in other places, when you walk in, there’s zero design concept applied to it,” said Choi. “We wanted to make it more like a boutique.” With royal purple walls and white fixtures, the space feels clean and surprisingly bright. There are small bouquets of flowers tastefully placed on the shelves, between the vibrators and dildos, many of which are as tasteful and delicate as the store itself.
“We really look into the philosophy of the toymakers, that they really cater to the lifestyle of people and not just focus on the one purpose of reaching orgasm,” Choi explained as she guided me through the store. She showed off vibrators from Korea’s only sex toy manufacturer, Zini, one of which was designed to resemble a stalk of bamboo.
Most of the toys are imported from overseas, from brand-name companies including LELO from Sweden or Tenga from Japan. Choi is a big fan of Tenga’s Iroha vibrator, which looks more like a piece of mochi than a “personal massager” and comes with a glossy USB-connected charging dock: “I think this kind of product really caters to your lifestyle, that you don’t want a toy that looks like a dick, but something that’s beautiful and sophisticated.”
But not all of the toys are discreet enough to be mistaken for modern office art. Choi was proud that Pleasure Lab is Korea’s only retailer of Aslan Leather, made by a Canadian company specializing in high-quality harnesses. One of these was unapologetically displayed next to custom Spanish dildos, which customers could order in whatever size or design they liked. “We really like that,” said Choi of these made-to-order dildos. “That you really design your own pleasure.” Choi also pointed out the store’s sizable collection of butt plugs, which, she admitted, shocked some customers. “Some people got a little surprised. ‘Oh, this is for anal. Or lesbian sex.’ And they were like, ‘I didn’t know such things existed.’”
“We try to position ourselves as a female-friendly sex toy boutique, but it’s for everyone,” explained Choi. That kind of inclusivity and non-judgment of sexual preferences isn’t a given in South Korea, where discrimination against the LGBT community is systemic. Just this year, the Ministry of Education set guidelines excluding discussion of homosexuality in Korean classrooms, a policy condemned by Human Rights Watch as discriminatory in March 2015.
The lack of inclusive or comprehensive sex-ed in schools also means that some basic facts about female sexuality and health are glossed over; Pleasure Lab hopes to fill in the gaps. Cho’s partner and Pleasure Lab’s co-founder Kwak, a registered nurse, is spearheading an effort to promote safe sex. “She’d seen a lot of women suffer from lack of knowledge, health-wise, and also suffering from their husbands’ and partners’ STDs,” Choi explained. “And she believes the right education, practical education, is important.”
Despite all of the baggage surrounding female sexuality, the store’s primarily women customers seem to be unfazed, and the response to the store’s vibe and mission has been surprisingly positive. Though many of the store’s customers have been women in their 20s and 30s, who seem to be “very honest and curious,” said Choi, the store has also been attracting older customers who are looking for honest sex advice. “It’s a pity to see all of the women who come in here, women in their 40s and 50s, who tell me that they’ve never seen anything like this in their lives,” said Choi.
These are the types of questions that Choi is happy to help women answer, and she hopes Pleasure Lab becomes a resource, helping these women get in touch with their sexuality without shaming them further. “You know, they’re not children and they have much better experience than what I had,” she said. “It’s just this culture that closes out opportunity for women.”
But Choi is insistent that Pleasure Lab isn’t doing anything new. “I think it’s really late in this whole movement, so people look at us as doing something very provocative and revolutionary, but we really don’t think it’s anything revolutionary or provocative.”
It’s simply one more step toward giving Korean women the opportunity to learn about their bodies without shame.