Saturday, February 10, 2007


The Women Behind the “Rubber Rose” on Sexuality, Politics and Porn


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

This isn’t going to be your ordinary interview with the proprietors of a store that sells adult videos, novelties and sex toys. But then Rubber Rose, the store Carly Delso-Saavedra and Lea Caughlan opened five months ago at 3812 Ray Street in North Park, one block east of 30th Street and one-half block south of University Avenue, isn’t your typical sex shop. It’s the product of two passionate, committed activists in what’s been called “third-wave feminism,” “sex-positive feminism” and “womanism,” a political, social and sometimes even spiritual movement of young women who have grown up taking their own equality as given and don’t see any contradiction between being “feminine,” wholeheartedly enjoying sex and committing themselves to protecting and expanding the rights women of the “second wave” in the 1970’s fought so hard to win.

Rubber Rose hosts a wide variety of events, including fundraisers for local community organizations, political meetings, art shows (the store includes a gallery just off to the side of the main room), workshops on positive sexuality and sexual health, mother-daughter meetings and even a nude yoga class for men most Wednesday nights. They also offer an excellent selection of revealing clothes, sexual aids, videos, books, magazines (including a particularly compelling publication called $pread that defines its mission as “illuminating the sex industry”), candles, incense, batteries and what have you. They can be contacted by phone at (619) 296-7673 or online at

Zenger’s: Why don’t you each tell me a little about your background and how you got into this business?

Carly Delso-Saavedra: My background is in social services and working primarily either with youth or in the field of domestic violence and working with survivors of sexual assault. I did that for about eight or nine years, mainly for nonprofits. I got politically involved here in San Diego about 3 1/2 years ago, just before the war in Iraq began. In running around the streets and taking pictures, I started running into circles of people who were working on some pretty amazing radical things, in addition to their anti-war stuff. And in that I found Lea. I definitely noticed her at the protests as somebody who would just grab the mike and was already fired up and ready to talk to the masses, and also doing some radical woman-positive, sex-positive, Queer-positive activism within the anti-war movement. That’s how I found Lea.

Lea Caughlan: During that same time period, running around with Carly, I was finding a camaraderie with other female activists. My background has always been very female-centered. I was always working on women’s rights issues without explicitly being part of any feminist group. I had always been kind of the odd one out, always being the female in a mostly male-dominated situation. Over and over and over again I sort of put myself out there into more and more male-dominated territory.

During the buildup to the war in Iraq, like almost everybody else in the activist community, I dropped out of my other projects. All my energies went towards trying to stop the war. But even then, within activist circles, over and over again I found myself mostly in male-dominated territory, being one of the few female voices speaking out. As the anti-war activism died down, I and quite a few others shifted our focus back to women’s-rights issues, Queer-rights issues, and specifically to women’s and Queer-rights issue activists’ role within that movement.

We all have individual groups and our own agendas that we’re working on, so in my move back to Queer issues and feminist issues is where the idea for this store came about. We were really seeing a need to create a woman-centric space where women would feel comfortable, where anyone could feel comfortable in this space, and fulfill their dreams and have positive sexual health. And this store has space for all of that.

Zenger’s: One of the things you touched on was the whole idea of sex-positive feminism. People have the stereotype — and there’s some basis for it in some of the writings and statements of feminists in the 1970’s — that feminism was not just an attack on women’s sexual objectification and sexual exploitation, but an attack on sex itself, trying to create a model for women in which sex would not be such an important part of their lives. How would you define the term “sex-positive feminism,” and have you had any problems with other women activists you’ve worked with over those issues?

Caughlan: The term “sex-positive feminism” came out of the third-wave feminist movement. Like you said, the feminists of the 1970’s really took sex away from any attitude of being feminist or whatever. They were drawing that line so hard that a lot of people started referring to sex as a violent patriarchal act.

A lot of third-wave feminism came out of the early-1990’s punk-rock scene and the Riot Grrrl scene. Third-wave feminism came about among younger women who were inherently feminists, due to societal things around them and the ways the second-wave and first-wave feminists had already paved for them, the things that had already been fought for and won, so to speak. That wasn’t really the issue for them as much as just being female, being respected and still being strong.

Also, along with third-wave feminism came the term “womanist” as an alternative to “feminist.” Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca came up with that term because, along with “feminism” becoming like the big “F-word,” like “female,” like “militant activist,” like the bra-burning and all the negative stereotypes a lot of feminists had come under, it was also very much an upper-class and upper-middle-class white women’s movement. Women of color felt really ostracized from this movement , and chose the term “womanist” to describe women-of-color feminists.

Third-wave feminists and womanists all come into this category of reclaiming our bodies, our sexual selves, our sex, our sexual health, our sexuality, our centralness, our eroticism. And by reclaiming that, taking back the ownership of that allows a woman to determine her own worth as far as a sexual human being. So that’s where the politics behind the store are, too, because you be a strong woman and a sexy woman. You don’t have to be either-or. You can be vice versa.

Being a sex-positive feminist involves going even beyond that. It involves taking notice of the sex industry and the females that are in it, and asserting that women in the sex industry can also be feminists. You can be a sex worker and be a feminist. You can work in the adult industry. You can work in a mostly male-dominated industry and still own your own sex. We’ve hosted an art show that’s literally based on activist-feminist criticism of the sex industry. It’s a sex-positive sex workers’ art show, done by people in the sex industry that see their work as sexual expression. They see themselves as poets and artists, and see their work as a form of activism. By being sex-positive feminist sex workers, that in itself is an act of protest and an act of changing the stereotypes, especially within the activist community.

Delso-Saavedra: The focus here is on creating a space where it would be comfortable for women to explore their sexuality, where they can feel free to ask questions and bring their partners. There’ve been a lot of women coming into the space with their partners, and feeling comfortable enough to ask questions.

Caughlan: There are different sections in the store, so if you’re uncomfortable with one you can start focusing that way or slowly ease yourself into another area. There’s always something here that you can feel part of.

Zenger’s: How well have you done so far, just in terms of how many customers and how many sales? And what’s been the mix of your customers: women, men, straight, Queer?

Delso-Saavedra: I think it’s been about a 40/60 split as far as men and women coming into the space. And it’s been about the same split in terms of sexual orientation, which I find incredibly fascinating. That speaks a lot to the work that we’ve done and to the background of our trying to make this space as gender-neutral as possible in terms of the toys that we offer and the different items we sell. We’re not making assumptions about someone’s sexuality or sexual orientation or gender identity or all of that.

Zenger’s: I know some other adult-oriented businesses have struggled with the city and its elaborate rules and what you can and cannot do, what you can stock, where you can locate and all of that. Have you had any of those kinds of problems?

Delso-Saavedra: Yes. In doing our research to open up the store, we ran into all of that. We were faced with the decision whether to open up the shop with the original idea of having it be a porn shop with more sexually-explicit merchandise, carrying more of the videos that we’d selected and like that, or to choose the neighborhood, to really focus on being here in North Park. In this location, we need to keep all our “sexually explicit” merchandise, or at least what the city defines as such, down to 15 percent or less. So as a result, we have a small section for all of that. It’s also given us room to expand into other areas.

Caughlan: It allows us to be in the neighborhood and attract people who are browsing around in the other shops around here. It becomes part of the shopping experience, part of the neighborhood-walk experience, an educational experience. For whatever reason they come into the store, it’s not simply because it’s a sex shop. It’s broadened what we can offer people, and it makes the different conversations about sexual health and sex that much easier, because we are very focused on the clothes and the books that are here, not just the other stuff. It also allows us to have our doors wide open, and have huge windows in the front, where if we were specifically an “adult store” the doors would have to be closed and the windows blocked up — which could have worked, too, but that’s not the way we envisioned it.

Delso-Saavedra: It’s really more kind of like a private area, like there are sections in our store. We can provide feminist-theory books to people that are 16 and 17 years old. This can be a store where a mom and a daughter can walk hand-in-hand and introduce a little talk about birds and bees, so to speak. Had we been exclusively a sex-toy shop, we wouldn’t have been able to do some of the things that we’ve gotten to do in this space, like have all ages in our gallery. We plan to have a mother-daughter day where we can invite women who have daughters who are 10 to 14 and need to start talking to them about developing bodies and body image and introducing them to how to talk about sexuality to their daughters. We couldn’t have that in a space that was in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of San Diego, which would have been where we’d have had to locate if we were specifically an “adult store” as the city defines it.

Caughlan: To answer the question that you had before, how are we doing, how are our sales and stuff like that: really amazing. We did our estimated projections and budgets, and thought about how much we’d have to make per day in order to survive, and for the most part we’ve done it. We’ve done it since the day we opened our doors. For our first event, three days after opening, we had 75 people. From when we opened, and even before, we’ve had friends coming to help us out. We’ve actually piqued their interest in what we were doing: construction stuff, painting, doing the fixtures and stuff like that.

We’ve had that interest, that support and that customer base, and I think that is really a testament to how needed a store like this was: a safe space to discuss all the things that go on here. It’s exciting to be able to feel like that, especially coming from an activist background. Going into business is an interesting experience for anti-capitalist feminists, but making a successful and lucrative business out of this allows us to have the community space next to it. By making the store successful, we can offer 1,600 square feet of space to nonprofit groups for fundraisers, to bands to come and play, whatever. That’s exciting, because it ties us back to our activist roots.

Zenger’s: Tell me something more about the events that you do here: the art shows, workshops, etc.

Caughlan: We always envisioned having the space so we could do workshops and host authors and speakers, whatever. The workshops that we’re having now include a kissing workshop that’s happened a couple of times. The first one was women-only, but the next one was all genders, all orientations, whatever. And the next one will be an all-women event again, and then we’ll have another mixed one. March 3 is the next one.

We’ve had a workshop called “The Great G-Spot Expedition: Charging Unlimited Territory,” led by Metis Black, owner of Tantus, Inc., the company who makes most of our toys. We also have Laura Jane from Fish on a Stick Talent coming in to do a fundraiser every month for some organization. We’re raising money for the San Diego Indie Music Fest, which is in its third year on March 3, and we’re also hosting one of the stages as well. Then we’ve had a fundraiser the women’s Leather group called “Sugar and Spice.”

Delso-Saavedra: The ORGANIC Collective is having their second annual Menage à Coup d’Êtat on February 11 to raise funds to work on border issues. There’s a class in Male Nude Yoga on most Wednesday nights. The instructor is Tracy Keane. We’ve had five or six people show up from the flyer, and I think it’s going to go to where it’s a full class soon. Any time someone wants to do a female nude yoga class, we’ll be up for it. We’ve already had offers from women who would pay just to observe. We also have the Nutterbuckets Prom, which is a lot of fun, on February 18.

Caughlan: It’s their “Happy Fucking Valentine’s Day Ride.” They’re an all-girl bike gang, one of a number of different biking groups that have started up for the social thing of going out, having fun and riding bikes. The others are the Cretins, the Kutters, the Saurs and Electric Warriors. They’re going to be getting together and doing a big bicycle ride and dance after. The ride starts at 5:30 p.m. in Balboa Park, and then the prom is here from 8 to 10 o’clock. (For more information about this event visit

Delso-Saavedra: I think it’s “Trashy-’80’s” attire. Also on that same day, February 18, we’re going to have the Mother-Daughter Teatime “Let’s Talk About Sex” talk.

Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed is that you guys are open during Ray at Night [an event the second Saturday evening of every month during which art-oriented businesses on or near Ray Street stay open later than usual]. I was wondering if you’ve had any interesting experiences of people strolling in here as part of Ray at Night and what they thought about this space and what you do.

Delso-Saavedra: Ray at Night is an event that can bring up to 700 people into our space. We get that pretty much on a monthly basis, which is really amazing. Our experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. We’re really explicit about having expressive material in our store. There’s a sign posted before you walk into the space warning that you’re going to find some stuff here that you might find offensive if you take offense to sexually explicit material. So people check themselves at the door, or whatever.

We have the advantage in this space of being able to have the retail end of it be really separate from our gallery space, so we can have all-ages openings for the the gallery shows every month, with D.J.’s and music and people hanging out. They can be out there for the entire event, while in the meantime we’re cycling people through and they’re getting exposure to the space for the first time.

Zenger’s: How do you see the future of this store and your activities in general?

Delso-Saavedra: As our store grows more stable, I definitely see being able to turn around and support a lot of activities in the community where we were once more hands-on activists, like the Menage à Coup d’Êtat; and also being able to have our gallery space as something to offer to the community for them to have like a comfortable meeting space, something that’s always open and that supports the different groups politically. To be able to expand on that is really important, because there are a lot of activist non-profit groups out there — maybe not even non-profit — whom we want to be able to use our space for fundraisers and that.

Caughlan: I’d also like to see us continue to push the envelope as far as the radical edge of being sex-positive and sexual health, keeping involved in those issues like we are currently. This has become our form of activism. This has become what we can give back to the community, as far as our radical thought processes, and what we can do as far as changing the society in that sense. So we want to continue to stay on the other level and continue to push those issues. That’s really important to us. Of course, we want to make our store as successful as we can so we can continue to have that community space we can offer to other organizations.

Delso-Saavedra: Also, I think we’re beginning to be an educational resource for people who are curious about different sexual communities that are out there but maybe have never had a place to get their questions answered or to have some positive exposure to those communities. Being able to connect people who are interested in Leather to the Leather community or whatever community that’s out there, in order to connect them to the BDSM community and have that exchange happen. Be a space where people can connect with ways and realize that there’s more out there, and connecting them to those communities.