PAWTUCKET, R. I. (WOMENSENEWS)–Megan Andelloux’s clash with authorities in this heavily Catholic city of about 73,000 began two months ago.
After 12 years of teaching sex education at colleges, nonprofits, churches, schools and the Providence sex store Miko Exoticwear, Andelloux, a certified sexologist who frequently speaks at Brown University, wanted to create a "safe space for adults to be able to come in and access information about sexuality."
Andelloux’s classes cover everything from female orgasms to fellatio and expound on an intimate connection between health and pleasure.
A few days before the planned Sept. 26 opening of the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health in downtown Pawtucket, a policeman called to say she couldn’t hold her event. He cited her lack of zoning approval and objected to plans for a sex toy raffle.
A zoning official then informed Andelloux that she couldn’t teach classes either because the area was zoned for residential and commercial use. Since Andelloux’s battle began, a chess center and a weaving workshop have also come under scrutiny by the city.
Andelloux moved the opening event to a club in Providence, while she geared up to fight for the right to provide education and other resources in the building.
"This is really a straightforward zoning issue," said Ronald Travers, Pawtucket’s zoning director. Travers said the owners of a downtown karate studio faced a similar battle a few years ago and were eventually granted permission to open.
Andelloux appealed Travers’s decision, appearing before the zoning appeals board with 20 of her supporters on Nov. 30. The board will vote Dec. 7 on whether she can operate her center.
Andelloux’s efforts to open the center coincided with the run-up to the state legislature’s decision to ban indoor prostitution.
Before the ban was signed into law by Gov. Don Carcieri in early November, Rhode Island was the only state–besides parts of Nevada–where indoor prostitution was legal.
Andelloux voiced opposition to an indoor prostitution ban at a state legislative hearing in June, saying it would hurt victims of sexual trafficking by criminalizing their behavior, making it harder for them to get jobs and traumatizing them through interactions with police.
Her stance may have been what led local professor and renowned anti-trafficking activist Donna M. Hughes to denounce Andelloux on the radio, calling her a "prostitute" and a "sex radical." Hughes admitted on the same radio program that she wrote an email tipping off city officials about Andelloux’s plans to open the center. Andelloux was told she could not hold her opening event days after the email was sent.
Harvey E. Goulet, Jr., director of administration for the city, said he and some other city officials take special exception to Andelloux’s plans. "I would prefer that it not be in Pawtucket. That’s my opinion and that’s the mayor’s opinion . . . I think some of these things would be better off in an office somewhere than a storefront," he told Women’s eNews.
If the zoning appeals board votes against her, Andelloux will have 20 days to appeal her case in Rhode Island Superior Court.
"They’re trying to discredit me because I’m talking about pleasure," said Andelloux. "I was very deliberate in putting the (word) pleasure in there and I think it’s very important that we talk about (health and pleasure) together, because they’re connected."
"The title freaked everybody out," said City Councilor-At-Large Albert J. Vitali, Jr., who supports Andelloux. "The ‘sexual pleasure’ end of the title flipped a few people on their heads. They didn’t know what she was talking about. They assumed it was a strip club or something."
"It would be neat to have a Dr. Ruth in the city of Pawtucket," said Vitali, who added that he would want his 20-year-old daughter to be able to access such resources if she needed them.
Andelloux cited a recent Indiana University study that showed women who feel positively about female genitalia not only find it easier to experience orgasm, but are more likely to seek gynecological exams and engage in other health-promoting behaviors.
Her opponents, however, are uneasy about the self-pleasuring aids–dildos, vibrators, and lubricants–that she keeps as learning tools.
Andelloux said a city official recently asked her if she would be "inserting" the teaching devices or using them on students during class.
"People don’t often frame sex education in terms of sexual pleasure," said Lynn Comella, assistant professor of women’s studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "I really think that you end up with some confused people who don’t understand what that might really be about."
Comella sees the center as a continuation of over three decades of "feminist work around creating cultural spaces where the issue of women’s sexual pleasure and empowerment could be taken seriously."
Supporters Rally Behind Andelloux
Sex educators, activists and local supporters have rallied behind Andelloux by sending petitions to the City Council and speaking out about the connection between her work and the larger struggle for open discussion about female sexuality.
"If what she did was called the Center for Health and Education, no one would have blinked," said Brian Flaherty, director of development for the Boston-based nonprofit sex education group Partners in Sex Education. He added that some people become upset over the issue of women taking control of their sexuality.
If the zoning board approves Andelloux’s right to operate, she will also need the City Council’s blessing.
The all-male, nine-member council is about evenly split over whether to issue a license to Andelloux’s center.
"It’s not a sex shop, it’s a place to go to talk about problems," said City Councilor James F. Chadwick, Jr., who supports Andelloux. Chadwick said "untruths" were circulating about Andelloux’s intentions to open a sex shop instead of a teaching center that offers classes on female sexual pleasure, safety and achieving sexual satisfaction.
As Andelloux waits for the council’s decision, books with titles such as "Women’s Orgasm" and "America’s War on Sex" pack two bookshelves in the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. A stand near the entrance has pamphlets called "Correct Use of the Male Condom" and "Love."
A few couches circle a coffee table and colorful dildos and other teaching aids litter the shelves. In the corner is a glass cabinet covered with a heavy blue curtain. If you pull back the curtain, you find a display of sex toys.
Andelloux has covered the case to tamp down on the public controversy, which has focused on the toys themselves. One day, she hopes to remove it. But for now the curtain is drawn and the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health stays closed.
Amy Littlefield is a freelance reporter who lives in Providence, R.I.
For more information:
Megan Andelloux’s Web site