Rhode Island Monthly April 2010
BY TRACEY MINKIN
Megan Andelloux sits in row three of the Pawtucket City Council Chambers, awaiting a verdict. Beautifully poised in a navy blue, tailored vintage dress, her red hair lovely and tidy, her hands in her lap, her pumps set squarely on the floor, she looks like a young real estate professional requesting a zoning variance.
In my mind, she transforms into the heroine of her own comic book series. Her pumps become stacked spike-heeled boots, her demure fifties dress evaporates into a corset blazing with the colors of the American flag. Her red hair let loose and wild, she leaps from her chair, a rolled up copy of the Bill of Rights in one hand, a vibrator in the other.
This is about sex, she admonishes the cowering panel. You know it is! My center will open! People will come! Men and women will have, finally, a safe place to talk about orgasms and erectile dysfunction, safe lubricants and spanking. And it will be in downtown Pawtucket!
But tonight is not the night for super heroine triumphs. Tonight is just another night for battling the grinding bureaucratic machine that Andelloux, thirty-three, encountered last fall when she attempted to open her nonprofit Center for Sexual Pleasure & Health in Pawtucket’s Grant Building. It turns out that educational organizations may not do business in this building, and so the city’s zoning office shut her down. Her appeal of that decision, tonight, will be denied. This is not about sex, the panel will assert. This is about zoning.
She will not transform into an erotic, pen-and-ink protagonist. She’ll nod, knowingly, at the denial she suspected was coming her way. She’ll sit through the rest of the evening’s decisions, then powwow with her lawyer Michael Horan in the cold, clattery hallway outside the Chambers. They’ll plan her next attack, not with sex toys, but with paperwork. She’ll tell local press that she’ll continue to assert her right to do business in Pawtucket. She’ll assure friends that she’s not ready to give up. Not by a long shot. It’s not comic book behavior, but it’s a fight all right.
“Two things,” Andelloux says, tucked into the circa-1960s black vinyl sectional sofa in her CSPH offices, the 500-square-foot Ground Zero of her battle. The center is for counseling and classes, as well as distribution of literature ranging from safe sex to pleasure-related practices between (she constantly emphasizes) consenting adults. No sex takes place here and nothing is for sale. It’s Planned Parenthood with a little Lady Gaga thrown in; shame gets checked at the threshold while candor and humor make any question reasonable, any aspect of sex fair game. Andelloux says she loves the space because it’s an interior storefront. Patrons of any of the Grant Building’s tenants, from Flying Shuttles Studio and Blackstone Chess Academy to graphic design studios and Kafe Lila, enter through a central outer doorway to find individual businesses lining an interior gallery. From Andelloux’s point of view, this brightly lit, friendly vestibule provides privacy for anyone who might feel uncomfortable entering an organization dealing with sex, from the street. “Plus,” she says, “the building has its own cat. How homey is that?”
Andelloux embraces homey. She’s painted the center’s walls a cheery yellow and robin’s egg blue, colors more at home in a farmhouse kitchen than an office, and hung ephemera that reveal her collector’s mentality as well as her saucy take on sex. A vintage magazine ad for Lysol douches on one wall plays ironically against an oversized, pillow-like vulva puppet she uses for teaching, on a shelf below. On a nearby coffee table, four chunky pieces of stainless steel sit on a mirrored pedestal cake plate. They resemble oversize punctuation marks (they’re G-spot and prostate toys). She settles in to talk about the center with the warmth of a girlfriend dishing last night’s “Project Runway” over coffee.
She considers those “two things” — the two mistakes that brought her into the spotlight of the city of Pawtucket and onto the wrong side of narrowly interpreted zoning. She purses her lips, sighs. “I shouldn’t have testified about sex workers’ rights,” she says. “That got a lot of people angry. And I probably shouldn’t have put the word ‘pleasure’ in the title of the Center.”
She may be right. After signing a lease for her fledgling nonprofit in May, Andelloux, a proponent of sex workers’ rights, decided to testify at a June State Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on eliminating Rhode Island’s statewide law allowing indoor prostitution. “I was terrified to testify,” she says. “But I felt some advocates were confusing trafficking with sex work, so I went.” Andelloux signed up to speak, lost her nerve and scratched off her name. “Then this woman stood up and said, ‘We need to stop sex…no…we need to stop sex trafficking.’ I thought this is a complete fear of sexuality. So I put my name back on. I thought, even if my voice shakes, I can go up.”
So up she went, but was dumbfounded when Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island well known for her activism on sex trafficking issues (and a proponent of eliminating indoor prostitution), took her to task afterward in a series of public forums. First, on June 24, Hughes described (but did not name) Andelloux in a Providence Journal editorial as a “tattooed woman calling herself a ‘sexologist and sex educator.’” Hughes also wrote that Andelloux was “a reporter for a prostitutes’ magazine called $pread,” adding, “I couldn’t make this stuff up!”
The next day, Andelloux penned her own letter to the Journal. “Let me introduce myself,” she wrote. “I’m the nationally certified sex-educator and derogatorily labeled ‘tattooed lady’ mentioned by Donna Hughes in her June 24 opinion piece.
“Putting quotation marks around my profession was insulting,” Andelloux continued, “and yes, I am a contributor to the sex-workers magazine $pread. Is it so shocking that sex workers can read?”
The heroine, suddenly, had a nemesis. “As an alum of URI (’97),” Andelloux wrote, “I would have expected faculty to develop a reputation for science and truth. Instead, it seems that Ms. Hughes would rather resort to right-wing scare tactics. Perhaps if ‘the Professor’ really cared about women, she wouldn’t attack us for the way that we look.”
Things got nastier. In a September 23 issue of Citizens Against Trafficking, an online newsletter published by Hughes and Melanie Shapiro, a student at Roger Williams University School of Law, an unsigned article titled “Sex Radicals’ Vision for Rhode Island” said:
“But the advocates for prostitution are still active in Rhode Island. In fact, a new center to campaign for sexual rights is trying to open in Pawtucket. The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health calls itself the ‘Dormitory for Armatory.’ The proprietor, Megan Andelloux, is a member of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, which is a subsidiary of COYOTE, the group that originally sued for decriminalization of prostitution in the 1970s. It too advocates for the decriminalization of prostitution. To date, the city of Pawtucket has prevented the center from opening, saying it violates their zoning ordinances.
“The sex radicals are entitled to free speech, but citizens of Rhode Island are entitled to resist their advocacy of prostitution and violence. The proprietor of the proposed center is a prostitute (she calls herself a ‘foot fetish model’) and a dominatrix. She is also on the ‘faculty’ of the Kink Academy in Boston, which holds ‘classes’ to demonstrate sexual sadism, masochism and torture. The classes often include live models. (The images are too obscene to include here.) One of the students at the Academy claims she became a ‘sex slave’ to one of the instructors and was ordered to prepare to be a prostitute. Andelloux claims to be a speaker on college campuses where she demonstrates whipping and has the students try on sex gear.”
Is this a fair portrait of Andelloux, or someone else’s comic book rendering?
Andelloux went to Mitchell College, a two-year institution in New London, Connecticut, for kids needing a creative approach. She quickly realized that “sucking at math” was not part of a career in marine biology. Meanwhile, she happened to take a quiz on facts about sex, reading that 80 percent of Americans failed it. She got one question wrong. A human sexuality course she took fit her passions. She changed majors and planned a dinner out with her parents to give them the news.
“Right before my mother put the hamburger in her mouth,” Andelloux recalls, “I said, ‘I’m going to be a sex educator.’ ” She cracks up at the memory. “My mother said, ‘Megan, girls can’t do that.’ My father shook his head. But I told them that’s what I decided I was going to do.”
Andelloux got herself into URI from Mitchell, graduating in 1997 with a major in Human Development and Family Studies and a minor in Human Sexuality. She moved to northern New Jersey and worked for Planned Parenthood as a sex educator. Developing a reputation as a “spitfire,” in her words, Andelloux got herself in occasional trouble for a little too much candor. “I had a mouth on me,” she says. Once, after finishing a Planned Parenthood presentation at a high school, Andelloux was approached by a student. “She told me she’d been having sex with her partner with no birth control. She was freaked out. We had this long conversation and then I told her I’d send her some condoms. I told her I’d address the package as [though] for a school project.” But when the girl’s moth-er opened the package, freaked out herself, and called Planned Parenthood, Andelloux was in trouble. “Oh yeah. I got in trouble. I kept my job, but I was in trouble.”
Andelloux continued to butt heads with Planned Parenthood, so she leapt at the chance in 2001 to work at Miko, a well-known sex-toy shop in Providence, where she ran educational workshops full-time and worked the sales floor. When Miko closed in 2008, Andelloux reached her crossroads. “People kept telling me I should open a new store,” she says, “but I knew I didn’t have business sense. I know how to teach, how to make people feel comfortable, and I know how to talk about difficult concepts. [But] I knew my name, at this point, was too risque even for liberal organizations, so I started doing my own workshops.” One day last spring, as Andelloux was hanging posters for The Vagina Monologues, a passerby recognized her from Miko, and told her about a great place in Pawtucket that was looking for tenants.
On September 14, twelve days before the scheduled grand opening of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, Donna Hughes sent an email from her Blackberry to the nine members of Pawtucket’s City Council:
A center for “sexual rights” and “sexual pleasure” is opening in Pawtucket.
Twenty-six hours later, Andelloux got a call from the Pawtucket Police Department. Her opening needed permits, Major Bruce Moreau told her, and there were concerns based on activities advertised on her website (including burlesque dancing and a raffle of sex toys) that required special permitting. He shared the contents of Hughes’ email with her. Andelloux picked up her husband, Derek, a family medicine resident at Brown, and the couple walked up the squat, broad steps of Pawtucket City Hall into a confusing gauntlet of special event permits that led, ultimately, to having to describe the Center’s primary purpose to secure overall zoning approval — something Andelloux had never been informed by her landlords that she needed to obtain. She rushed through meetings in hallways and offices; she called city councilors to explain her mission.
Mostly, though, Andelloux worried that the words “sexual” and “pleasure,” pitched by an adversary directly to a council representing a famously Catholic city, might ignite further opposition beyond the inertia her paperwork seemed to be generating. She settled on stating the Center’s primary purpose as “education.” What she didn’t realize is that within the minutiae of the Pawtucket zoning codes lies the fact that a special use permit obtained by the developers of the Grant Building does not support educational facilities like schools. Andelloux never said she ran a school.
But it was that sole word, education, that prompted zoning official Ronald Travers to rule against the Center, and gave the Zoning Board reason to uphold his verdict.
Andelloux was caught in a knot of nomenclature, as binding as a corset, but nowhere near as fun. She prepared a new motion with Horan, this one to request a special use permit for her space, much like a yoga studio in downtown Pawtucket had obtained. They returned to the council chambers in late January, filing their motion and hastening to point out that she will engage in education, but on a scale that is consistent with the overall mixed use espoused by the city’s downtown plan. No one argued. No one challenged. Only one member asked one thing:
“So, you won’t be selling any sexual paraphernalia?”
No. No. Andelloux said, shaking her head.
Meanwhile, she rejected ongoing counsel from well-wishers to leave Pawtucket for more liberal and accepting (not to mention properly zoned) locations. She paid rent on her unoccupied space. She paid heat. She paid legal fees. She turned away paying clients. And waited for one more fight. The next step was going to be court.
Then, finally, it’s decision time again. Andelloux perches in her chair, her bright pink dress shifting under her nervously clenched hands. Her husband pats her knee from time to time. The zoning board rolls through decision announcements like a boss spins a Rolodex; it’s easy to lose track. Then Andelloux’s name pops through the bureaucratic fog. And, in a series of comments as mild and conciliatory as her previous hearing had been spiky and adversarial, the men who control her zoning destiny say yes.
Yes, they say, to Megan Andelloux, and several lean forward to their microphones to say, for the record, that they regret that things got off to a bad start. They mouth words of support, absolving their municipality of anything other than administrative vigor. They regret the tangle. They grant her permit. It’s almost, if you imagine an erotic comic book, like a bit of sex play. Yes? Yes? No, No… Yes!
It was just that easy?
Megan Andelloux nods and smiles.
She looks unthreatening enough, perched on the edge of a table in a large classroom at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut. Andelloux is indeed speaking on a college campus and receiving $500 for the two hours she’ll spend with 100 young men and women packing this room on a chilly fall evening. She has, indeed, allowed her feet to be looked at, photographed, and massaged by paying clients as a foot fetish model — although this never has involved genital exposure or contact, much less touching above her knee, she says. Yes, she has been paid to create educational videos for “Kink Academy,” a website that celebrates every aspect of consensual sex. And right now, yes, she’s tugging a strap-on harness up over her clothing to demonstrate for her audience what she describes as one of her favorite lube tricks.
“This one is great,” she says as she yanks the harness, complete with large synthetic phallus, into place around her hips. She grabs a plunger-bottle of lubricant; it looks like a hand soap dispenser that sits near a powder room sink. She tucks it into the harness — where a gun would sit in a holster.
“Okay!” she calls out, her rigging complete. Her voice reminds me of a home ec teacher’s — both perky and bossy. If it weren’t for the subject matter, she could just as easily be demonstrating how to sew a wrap-around skirt.
“So when you’re having sex with a strap-on, and your partner is getting really hot, here’s an amazing finish,” she says, and gives the bottle a couple of swift plunges that release spurts of viscous liquid. The audience knows exactly what this simulates and loves it. The kids cheer. Andelloux opens her eyes wide, nodding at their response. “See? See? Isn’t that cool?”
In these two hours, Andelloux’s workshop will range from this kind of taboo-busting demonstration to ardent discussion of safe ingredients in lubricants and sex toys (“If that dildo has a smell, it’s made overseas with dangerous synthetics. Don’t buy it.”) She’ll take dozens of questions penned on index cards, some of them endearingly naïve. She’ll give advice that is bumper-sticker outrageous, but gets to serious healthy practice. “Don’t put anything smaller than six inches up your butt,” she orders, reminding her audience that the anatomy of this part of the body is not equipped to expel items. “Once something gets lost up there,” she continues, “the only way you’re gonna get it out is at the emergency room.” As the kids hoot, she eyes them. “And trust me, you don’t want to be that patient.” Her mix of medical terminology and slang, sometimes folksy, sometimes colorfully current, makes her advice easy to embrace. It’s a remarkable marriage of tone and content. If Rachael Ray and the Marquis de Sade had a lovechild, it’d be Megan Andelloux.
After she finishes up by — yes — taking volunteers for a fully clothed spanking demonstration that raises the roof, students surround her and linger for nearly an hour, asking questions and inspecting the few vibrators and lubricants for sale. The fun and safety of sex takes her on the road like this nearly weekly, speaking to groups large and small, running sex toy parties for private clients, doing events at sex toy shops, attending and presenting at conferences. She creates “Tearin’ It Off,” a weekly podcast with WBRU at Brown University, and writes numerous columns for online sexual and feminist health and advocacy sites. She will appear, unpaid, in an annual production of The Vagina Monologues in Providence. For a sexologist, this cobbled-together assortment of education and entertainment keeps rent money coming in, and for Andelloux it is also, she admits, a bit of a calling.
“My parents were 1950s WASPs,” she says, describing her traditional upbringing in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. “I was totally raised in that environment.” The youngest of three kids (but fourteen and eighteen years younger than her sister and brother, respectively), Andelloux watered her activist seed with an issue embraced by many girls: animal rights. She became a vegetarian at fifteen.
A year later, Andelloux developed a quirky obsession. “I had a thing for memorizing sex facts,” she says, “you know, statistics. When people masturbate, average breast sizes…I would spout these off to my friends during supper.” Still passionate about animals (and specifically about orcas), Andelloux planned to study marine biology at the University of Rhode Island. Then she was date-raped. “I had a series of sexual assaults take place in the summer before my senior year, including the very first date I ever went on,” she says. “I was seventeen. I’d gotten good grades up to that point. After that summer, my grades plummeted, I had nightmares, I reverted to wearing baggy clothes, and I hung out with the ‘bad girls.’ My grades were nowhere good enough to get into URI.”