Bad Vibes

A new law in Alabama may shut down the booming trade in sex toys.

Every couple of weeks, after their Wednesday night meetings, the members of a church group in Huntsville, Alabama, stop by Pleasures, an “upscale romance boutique” wedged between a Chili’s and a World Gym in a local strip mall. There, among glass shelving and faux Greek columns, they can peruse items such as the Kama Sutra Bedside Box, filled with scented massage oils, and the Silver Bullet, a tiny, shiny vibrator that’s one of the store’s best-sellers. “That,” says store owner Sherri Williams in a languid drawl, “and the Rabbit Pearl”—a bunny-shaped model made famous by its appearance on Sex and the City.

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Williams won’t reveal what her churchgoing customers purchase. After all, Pleasures is known for its efficient combination of salaciousness and discretion. “Women and couples need a place where they can buy sex toys in a boutique atmosphere,” says Williams, a 41-year-old single mom and Kentucky “country girl” who offers customers free coffee and private consultations upon request. “I’m like their sex therapist,” she says. “I make them feel comfortable.”

Business has been good since Pleasures opened in 1993. Sex toys fill a lucrative—and increasingly mainstream—niche of the multi-million-dollar-a-year sex industry (just visit Amazon.com if you’re in doubt). But Alabamans who take for granted the right to invade their own privacy in the privacy of their own homes may soon have to look farther than their friendly neighborhood sex shop: In February, a federal district court upheld a 1998 state law that criminalizes the production and sale of “any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.” The statute was ostensibly intended to eliminate nude dancing, but in the fine print, it also criminalized the distribution of sex toys. (Its sponsor, Democratic state senator Tom Butler, insisted that a zealous district attorney had put in the anti-sex-toy language.) Violations carry fines of up to $10,000 and up to one year of hard labor.

This latest ruling may signal the end of Williams’ long fight against a law she says smacks of puritanical hypocrisy. For eight years, she, a handful of sex-toy users, and a woman who hosts Tupperware-style adult novelty parties have been the lead plaintiffs in an ACLU-backed lawsuit challenging the ban as a violation of constitutional privacy rights. Similar bans have passed in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, but Williams has become perhaps the most vocal sex-store owner to challenge such laws.

Williams’ case has prevailed twice in district court, but the state has appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in turn has overruled the plaintiffs and bounced the case back to the district each time. (So far, the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case.) In his brief supporting the ban, then-state attorney general Bill Pryor argued that “the commerce in sexual stimulation and auto-eroticism, for its own sake, unrelated to marriage, procreation, or familial relations is an evil, an obscenity…detrimental to the health and morality of the state.” In the latest decision, a district judge concluded that, morality aside, the Alabama law “does not offend the human dignity” of sex-toy sellers and therefore was not unconstitutional. The appeals court is expected to weigh in one last time by this fall. Williams says she isn’t holding her breath for a victory. “I may finally be dead in the water,” she concedes.

Alabama prosecutors have agreed not to enforce the law until that final decision is handed down. In the meantime, Williams sells what she coyly calls “marital aids” online, running her site from Florida, just in case Alabama becomes a vibrator-free zone. But if it comes to that, Williams says she won’t go down quietly. “I will have gone from a hero to a martyr. They’re going to have to drag me out in chains.” Or maybe handcuffs—“Not just for law enforcement officers anymore!”—still on sale at Pleasures for just $8.64, tax included.