Zoë Ligon, aka Instagram sensation @Thongria, is a sex educator, journalist, artist and the CEO behind Detroit’s online-based, independent sex shop, Spectrum Boutique (spectrumboutique.com). We spoke with her about body-safe products, sexual education and her quirky approach to slinging sex toys before she arrived in Las Vegas for this year’s AVN Adult Entertainment Expo. Ligon will participate in the Tiny but Mighty sex stores workshop (Wednesday, 4 p.m., Hard Rock Hotel’s Paradise Tower, Room 1A) and will demo the Archer Bowchair booth all weekend inside the expo.
What prompted you to open your online retail store in Detroit? The first thing I did in the sex world was not even really in the sex world. I started making paper collages when I was 18, and then when I moved away, I went to university in Manhattan, I was just like, oh, I’m going to make these sexy now. I was doing that for a couple years, being a DIY Brooklyn girl [laughs], and a friend of a friend was like, ‘I really like your collages. If you ever wanted to, I’m sure you’d have a really good time working at a sex toy store.’
I had worked at American Apparel, and I was sick of selling sweaters to people who don’t need them. While selling sex toys is retail at the end of the day, I never find myself being like, you need this vibrator. It’s more like, if you need a vibrator, I’m happy to guide you in the direction of your choosing.
Las Vegas is known as Sin City, but it can have a very hetero-normative, male-oriented view of sex. Have you noticed any similarities between Vegas and Detroit? Vegas and Detroit are both cities that got rich on a very particular type of industry. … I do think that because we aren’t coastal cities we get neglected. It’s really hard to be non-monogamous or non-binary or non-heterosexual or, I’d imagine, a non-white person in Vegas, just like it is in Detroit. We have a very conservative government here, we spend our tax dollars on sports stadiums instead of education—sh*t like that. It’s a very capitalistic driven economy. Arguably, everywhere is, but perhaps our two cities are more exemplar. And we also have a very large working class in Detroit because GM is here. I would imagine there’s a pretty big wealth gap in Las Vegas.
Why do you think your personality and brand have resonated so much with customers? I really don’t like the ethics and intentions behind companies that make really overpriced toys without any legitimate function for the price point. My customers want body-safe toys at an affordable price. Affordable is a relative term, but I try not to carry things over $150—I’ve been going for the sweet spot of $40-$70.
Why are body-safe toys so important? You certainly wouldn’t want to use a toy for the first time and walk away with a burn to one of your mucus membranes. I would never want to use a toy again if that happened to me. The first time I used lube, it was lube with glycerin, and I was like ‘This is terrible!’ It was like I poured acid on my crotch. And then I didn’t use lube for five years after that, and I had dry friction-y sex for the next five years, until I re-approached lube again.
If you’re in the mind-set of giving people ownership over their bodies and autonomy over their sexuality, it kind of is the antithesis to give them a product that could be harmful to their health.
What kind of chemicals should people avoid? Phthalates and parabens. Do your research on a company. It’s actually a very frequent issue of people being sold knockoffs. Buy directly from a trusted retailer or direct from a brand, do your research on that brand to see the way they use language around stuff and make sure they don’t use any mystery terms like “100 percent medical grade material.” That means nothing to me.
A lot of big-box sex toy retailers still sell products that aren’t body-safe. Why? First of all, not all silicone was created equal. … There’s all this verbiage, because this industry is very unregulated. Things that have been banned in children’s toys and cosmetics are still allowed in personal care products that are sexual, like lubes.
An inexpensive way of making a plastic soft is by adding different forms of chemicals into the material. The same thing translates into lubricants. Why do KY and Astro Glide still put glycerin in their lubricants when they know that it irritates a lot of people, mostly people with vulvas? Why would you continue putting this in your product when you know [that]? Because it keeps it cheap to make, I’d imagine.
Why do you feel it’s important to bring humor and openness—as you do on your Instagram account, which has more than 115,000 followers—to a conversation about sex? Sex can be very scary and daunting, and if something is really intimidating, sitting down and looking at a person clinically explain sex is probably not going to take you out of that headspace. I really think it does take a bit of goofiness.
I have been trying to not hide feelings of vulnerability, which I think go hand in hand with humor. Talking about things in a humorous way makes you vulnerable, so I try to lead by example. I think it’s one of the fastest ways to blast through those internal hang-ups that we all have to varying degrees. I’m not a perfect human, but I’m a peer educator and I’m happy to learn with you.
Why is it important to support independent sex shops instead of large retailers? I don’t have a brick and mortar, but you can shop assured I put my f*cking life into this for you. Making you happy is my one goal with this shop. … We’re also in a day and age where our political system is f*cked up, very conservative, and our money is our way of continuously being able to vote. We vote by saying, “These are the businesses I choose to support ethically—or not.”
How can learning about sexual positivity and sexual exploration help people learn more about themselves? When we’re talking about gender and sex, it makes so much more sense to think about everything being on a spectrum—hence why I chose my shop name [Spectrum Boutique].
Learning about your own body only helps you understand other people’s bodies more. Understanding somebody else’s body and the way it works can also help you learn about your own body, because again, we’re more similar than we are different.
I do think connecting with someone else’s body can inform your relation to your own body, and sometimes it’s a solo journey and sometimes it’s a partnered journey. I think it’s often easier as a solo journey, because you have less people’s opinions and emotions coming up. However you get there, whatever your body needs and whatever makes you feel the most comfortable getting there doesn’t matter. It’s really about taking ownership of your needs and not continuously suppressing things that come up for you.