MARK: Let’s start at the beginning… Back in the mid to late ‘90s, you had a show on Ann Arbor’s Community Television Network (CTN) where you’d talk about sex, answer viewer questions, demonstrate various toys, and the like. How’d that show come about?
TANYA: The show was called Get Curious with Safety Girl, and it wouldn’t have happened had I not been lucky enough to grow up in a town with one of the country’s top public access television facilities. It also didn’t hurt that I was raised by wolves. Given the childhood trauma in my life, I could have easily become a crack whore. Instead, I channeled it into Safety Girl… I was a statistic, a high school dropout, a single mom on welfare. My family was convinced that I’d be having children every year, and living on welfare for the rest of my life. So, you could say that the Safety Girl show was kind of a weekly, unacknowledged greeting card to my family.
MARK: How old were you when the show started, and did you and your family ever reconcile?
TANYA: Wow, math! It was 1994. I was 23 years old, and my son was six. As for my family, I’ve given up looking for anything of substance from them. But there have been some good moments, like the time my mom saw an episode of our Ypsi Girl show, looked at me, and said, “Is that really you, Tanya? You’re so pretty.”
MARK: Are you still doing the Ypsi Girl show? I’d forgotten that you’d gone back to CTN with a new persona.
TANYA: We did “Ypsi Girl’s Happy ½ Hour Show” for three years, starting in 2009. I have one more episode that I really want to edit and air. It’s called, “Ypsi Girl’s Low Income Wedding.” I’m especially excited about this one because we got married in the alley in Depot Town, and partied at Frenchie’s, compliments of the Sidetrack. This is my 3rd marriage. I married my cameraman from the Safety Girl days. Strangely enough, he was also the wedding singer at both of my other weddings. 95 friends showed up, and only 4 family members! It was a magical event. This is especially true considering that we only had $200 to spend. But, thanks to a lot of support from our friends, and people in the community, it looked and felt more like a $10,000 wedding. It was a perfect event, with one little exception. I somehow got us thrown out of the Ypsilanti Marriott’s presidential suite on our wedding night. That’s a whole other story, though.
MARK: Speaking of Depot Town, do I understand that, at some point, you attempted to open a sex-positive shop there? What happened?
TANYA: Yeah. It was before the CTN show. And it wasn’t even a storefront. I wanted to lease office space above the Ypsi Food Co-op. It was made clear to me by local business owners, though, that I wasn’t welcome. I’d passed around fliers before a zoning ordinance hearing, in hopes of making sure that everyone felt comfortable with what I’d wanted to do. Instead, I was ambushed and vilified. I couldn’t believe it. Outside, after the meeting, as I was getting into my car, they were pointing their fingers and screaming at me. I lost the City Council vote. That was my first experience being rejected by an entire City… It got me ready for what would come later, once the show started airing on community access.
TANYA: I’d get a monthly report of call-in complaints from CTN. They’d include actual quotes from callers. They’d also include positive feedback. But the complainers always won. For the most part, they opposed the show’s time-slot, which was 9:00 PM. Some wanted us off the air, but most of those calling in with complaints just wanted us on after 10:00 PM. I think our being on right after a show called In Search of The Lord’s Way might have had something to do with it. People said that they were complaining in order to, “protect the children.” They felt the show was obscene and pornagraphic… I’d be the first to acknowledge that it was a provocative show, but I always tried to address safer sex issues responsibly, and stress the importance of communication and respect. My favorite complaint was from a woman who was watching an episode in which I demonstrated how to put a condom on a banana with your mouth. She was so offended that she actually called 911 instead of turning the channel.
MARK: What do you remember of the old Get Curious show?
TANYA: We produced one serious/educational episode each week, as well as one not so serious one. My thinking was that we’d get the attention of the high-risk population with our controversial shows, and they’d get in the habit of tuning in each week, enjoying and learning from both formats. But, oh, we had some bad ones. There was a period where we were censored, and couldn’t talk about sexual content. So, instead of giving up the show, we spoke in metaphors. One episode was like a cooking show. We called it “Cooking Up Censorship.” Butch Curious Laura and I dressed super sexy and beat eggs with a whip, and so forth. We wanted to demonstrate to the people trying to take us off the air that they couldn’t beat us. On another episode, I had a few (regular guy) customers from the Coney Island I waitressed at come on as guests. We chewed gum the whole time while offering relationship advice to callers. It was annoying as hell in retrospect. But, luckily for me, we had great local musical guests. They saved shows like that.
I’ve only re-watched a handful of the shows over the past 15 years. Now, being a mom in my 40’s (my daughter is 7), I can’t believe some of the stuff we did and got away with. Like, on one episode, I acted like a CEO who’d hired an outcall erotic massage girl to come to my office for service. She undressed me to a point, climbed on top of me, on my desk, and proceeded to give me an erotic massage while I interviewed her in character. And that went on for the entire show. Even with no nudity, I understand why some called it porn. Personally, for my she-go (ego) back then, the most embarrassing show was the one where Geoffrey Fieger was our guest. He hijacked that show. I’ve never been more nervous on TV. But it won some awards thanks to him.
It’s probably worth mentioning that our show got inquiries from Warner Brothers. They’d heard about our “At the Movies” episode, where Butch Curious and I reviewed porn films and gave them each a “clits up” or “clits down” rating using vulva puppets. But it was too raw for them. We also got contacted by producers from MTV, HBO’s Real Sex, and The Arsenio Hall Show. But there wasn’t really a category for for what we were doing… We just didn’t fit.
I did, however, get flown out to New York once, to be a guest on CNBC’s Real Sex with host Bob Berkowitz. They had a list of things I couldn’t say and do on the show. The topic was – the vulva. They didn’t want me to call my vulva puppet Hillary, which is what I called it. And they didn’t want for me to make it talk. I was OK with some of that, but, when they said I couldn’t say the word “honey,” I got annoyed. They wanted me to say “spouse” or “mate” instead. They kept coming back to the green room with more rules. After meeting Bob, and getting the most awful, fishy, pretentious handshake from him, I walked out, five minutes before we were supposed to go live.
No matter how annoying, boring or controversial, that’s the beauty of our public access television station. There are no network executives and advertisers telling you what you can do and say. You can experiment and play around with ideas on the air, and, if you’re a viewer who disagrees with what’s airing, the station encourages you to come in and voice your opinion on the air.
MARK: Back to the space you tried to open in Depot Town… What were you planning to do there that got people so upset?
TANYA: I wanted a space for private consultations. I’d also wanted to start a Gourmet Love Basket delivery service. I was going to Washtenaw Community College at the time, and I’d wanted to become a sex therapist with my own practice, which would include the sale of sex toys.
MARK: How was it that you came to this line of work?
TANYA: It was a natural step for me. I was a new mom at 17, and I started selling lingerie to make money. I was doing home parties. Then, at some point, I began to incorporate sex toys and safer sex products. And, at 19, I decided that Safety Girl was going to be my life’s mission. I wanted to share my story with other teens, and offer them alternatives to having intercourse. Before I knew it, I was being invited to speak to organizations all over Washtenaw County, even at university events.
MARK: And you grew up around here?
TANYA: I grew up in Ann Arbor, starting in the early ‘70s. We lived in Arrowood. Back then it was public housing, and I was shuffled along with my peers between different schools during the bussing period. It was a nightmare… I like to say that I’ve lived on both sides of 23. Most of my adult life, I’ve lived in Ypsi. I only returned to Ann Arbor so that I would qualify to do the television show.
MARK: Have you given any thought to the idea of bringing Safety Girl back to television?
TANYA: Actually, I want to do it this year. There were 93 episodes in the original run, and I’d like re-edit them, add new footage, and show them again, adding apologies where necessary. We started a crowdsource campaign to help with the work. Assuming it happens as planned, we’ll start shooting new footage this spring. And, while we’re at it, I plan to shoot a few brand new Safety Girl shows on topics that I didn’t cover the first time around, but are important to me.
MARK: For the past few years, you’ve been doing business in Ann Arbor, on Liberty Street, in the basement of what used to be my friend Laura’s store, Liberty Street Video… How’d you end up there?
TANYA: I was at the end of my rope. I told my husband that morning, in tears, as he dropped me off at work, “After today I give up.” We were really struggling financially. I was working at a public relations firm in January 2012, writing short blog articles. No matter how hard I tried to make a living, though, it just wasn’t working. I was even picking up voice-over work at night, and taking side jobs handing out flyers. That day, though, I checked my email, and found a response to a note I’d sent to the owners of Bongz & Thongz nine months earlier, after reading about the trouble they were having. I’d told them, in my original note, about my background, and I explained how I could help them move their merchandise. And apparently they wanted to discuss the possibility of working together. The next thing you know, I’m skipping around, smiling from ear to ear, beaming in gratitude. I didn’t know how exactly it was going to happen, but my dream of having a store was going to come true.
The Funny part about us being at the old Liberty Street Video space is that I had Safety Girl shows available there for free local renting. I even had my very first video there, which I’d made before the television show, back in 1991-1992. I feel so at home here. People who used to work at the video store pop in and reminisce about the crazy fun times they had here. There’s a heartbeat down here. I feel it everyday… And the wire art snake wrapped around the tree out front is still here!
MARK: As I understood it, when Bongz & Thongz first opened, they were going to be selling bongs on the street level, and thongs (and other sex-related items) down below, where you now operate your Get Curious shop. When you came in to take over the lower level, did Bongz & Thongz move their thongs upstairs, or did they just become a bong store? I’m sorry if it’s a dumb question, but I never really understood the way all the pieces fit together… And, along the same lines, are the folks behind Bongz & Thongz your landlords, or do you work for them?
TANYA: Initially they wanted me to work for them. I wanted to work for myself, though. So I made them an offer. And, with the help of my friends, I became their tenant. I sublease the lower level. The Bongz & Thongz owners operate a fun headshop upstairs. They gave me a real shot at this, and I’m grateful. I had a store over 20 years ago, a block down the street. In that case, the landlord got greedy, and I had to close. That’s when I tried Depot Town. So, I feel like my entire adult life has come full circle, and I love having a chance to do this again.
MARK: How’s business?
TANYA: The store will have been open for two years in April. We can pay the rent and bills, and afford to replenish the inventory. Sometimes mystery money shows up just when we need it. I feel blessed to be able to do this again.
MARK: What kinds of stuff are people buying these days?
TANYA: That’s the most fun part about my job! People come to me, describe what they’re looking for, and I get to gather a variety of those items in the store for them to choose from. I love being able to serve as a personal sex toy shopper. Vibrators, remote controlled vibrators, and high-end couples vibrators that women wear during intercourse are always in demand. Kegel balls for internal toning and “clone a willy” and “clone a pussy kits” are always popular, as are restraints, and vibrating cock and tongue rings. As for the most popular seller, that would be our Adult Mystery Bags. They’re different themed mystery bags filled with toys and adult surprises that compliment whatever the theme may be. Themes include; Kick Ass Blow Job, Oral Fixation, Happy Ending Erotic Massage Parlor Kit, Two Girls and a Bath, Gay Night In, and, my personal favorite, Existential Crises. We also make customized Mystery Bags. Customers tell us their budget and their kink level, on a scale of 1-10, and we tell them not to peek as we shop for them and make their bag. Kink Level 10 is the most popular. People keep coming back for more, and treat them like trading cards among their friends.
TANYA: Yup. I add several items to a bag so they trade with each other. Someone might already have a tube of anal ease, but could use some arousal gel, and so on.
MARK: Let’s say my Kink Level is 1 and I’ve got $250 to spend… What might I get?
TANYA: It’s different for each person/couple. But, to give you an idea, for you I might put in some provocative fortune cookies and Kama Sutra brand products (like their kissable massage oils, and bath products), along with an erotic massage video, a PG-rated lovers boardgame, a few feather ticklers, a body paint kit, sone lubricant, and a pheromone infused massage oil candle.
MARK: Now, what if I’m suffering from Kink Level 10, but only have $5?
TANYA: Funny Mark! I would surprise you with hot anal lube and a baby Jesus butt plug.
MARK: I’m not in the market for either, but that sounds like one hell of a deal… So people can really just drop in for a $5 anal lube, like at a Jiffy Lube?
TANYA: Yup, self-serve of course.
MARK: I’m curious as to trends… What’s a trend you’ve seen develop over the past few years that you think people not in the industry would be interested to know about? For instance, I don’t know how this would manifest itself in products, but I just saw a headline yesterday triumphantly announcing that “FULL BUSH” was making a comeback!
TANYA: Oh, hell yeah! I sure hope that’s true. Pubic hair has gotten such a bad rap. I think it’s because of the porn industry. I would love to see ‘70s porn make a comeback as well, when hairy privates and armpits and real boobs were considered sexy and natural.
Regarding trends, what I’m especially tickled pink about these days is women increasingly taking on the dominant role in bed and pegging their men! (Pegging is a term that Dan Savage came up with.) I love seeing more and more men comfortable enough in their sexuality to want to explore anal play and prostate massage. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside seeing this happen. Twenty years ago, straight men wouldn’t be doing that. They were too “butt conscious.” They’d just never do “that.”
Another trend I am especially excited about is seeing adult women bring their moms in to purchase them their first vibrator. For many of them they’ve never experienced an orgasm before.
MARK: I think, back in the early 1900s, when men fought against giving women the vote, this is exactly what the feared might happen… Pegging.
TANYA: I would never had made it in the 1900s.
MARK: Are you aware of active attempts to shut you down? If so, what’s the reasoning?
TANYA: Knock on wood! No. We’ve been shut down for a day or two, and we’ve been raided. It didn’t have anything to do with me. I just happened to get stuck in the crossfire between Bongz & Thongz and the feds. It’s been pretty quiet lately. For a while, we had undercover cops coming in and asking where they could buy drugs. But, that seems to have stopped. I do, however, experience a certain level of resistance in the business community. Like, when I first opened, Chase Bank conducted a secret investigation of the business. They came into the shop without telling me. They closed my credit card account without any notice, after four months of being their customer, and just a few days before the Ann Arbor Art Fair. I couldn’t accept credit cards, and all of the ATM’s around here were out of cash. I lost a lot of business. They treated me like a criminal… no written notice or even a phone call. They just yanked it away. I came to find out that it was because of the nature of my business. I’ve also been blackballed and blacklisted by some of the community’s major media outlets. Whenever something like this happens to me, I can’t help but take it personally. It re-opens childhood trauma scars. I feel violated, like I have nowhere to go for help. I also hear on occasion from business owners how they support me privately, but can’t publicly. All this kind of resistance just because I mainly promote women’s sexual liberation. It can be challenging. The only thing we can do is to keep educating the public that sexual health is just as important as diet and fitness, and judgment about what consenting adults do behind closed doors is unhealthy, and no one’s business… Except mine, of course.
MARK: What can you tell us about the history of sex-related retail in Ann Arbor? As I understand it, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was adult retail on Fourth Avenue, but, at some point, people were able to push them out, sending them to Ypsilanti and elsewhere. Is that pretty much what happened?
TANYA: I remember walking past one of those stores with my mom when I was young… From what I’ve heard, they were pretty seedy. And they had other stuff going on in there other than just selling toys, magazines and porn. Like you said, though, it’s my understanding that City Council changed the zoning for 4th Avenue so as to keep that type of traffic out of town.
MARK: I should probably reiterate that your store isn’t “adult retail” in that traditional sense. You’re not, in other words, selling dirty magazines and operating peep shows… How would you describe your shop to folks who have never been inside?
TANYA: I hear from some of my regulars that the shop is kind of Malcolm McLaren’ish in personality and feel. I like that, considering his background, and my love for punk rock. As for me, I describe the shop as a portal to a sparkly sex-positive universe where all kink levels are welcomed, and it’s always consensual and non-judgemental. We have something for everyone here, from local art, and locally made bondage wear, erotic art, vintage lingerie, costumes, reading glasses and jewelry, to beautiful sex toys, and pussy pockets, and BDSM accessories, and anything in between, to weird stuff like voodoo dolls and god-awful discontinued sex toys that I keep behind a curtain. I won’t sell them. For a donation, though, I’ll let you peek.
You should stop in Mark, and check it out. I have disguises available at the door for those who don’t want to be recognized…
MARK: This is kind of a tangent, but, given that you make your living catering to people’s fetishes and the like, I’m curious if you could tell me whether or not we have any “female maskers” in the area? I just want to prepare myself, should there be a possibility that I might look up from yard work one day to see a large man in a rubber Suzanne Somers mask standing on the sidewalk, staring at me… not that there’s anything wrong with that.
TANYA: I love that visual Mark, but sadly no I have not run into any maskers yet. If I ever do I’ll make sure to mention you. It’s funny how, with the internet, the most extreme minority of everything get’s all the attention. This is another trend I’ve noticed, and I hope that others in the industry will pick up on if they haven’t already. I have to educate and help young adults to understand that, just because, for example, polyamorous relationships and 50 Shades of Grey are popular in the media, it doesn’t mean that everyone is doing it, and there are risks involved. Sadly, a lot of young adults have to learn the hard way.
MARK: Anything special going on for Valentine’s Day?
TANYA: Sure, a free hug or spanking with any purchase, and free shipping and a discount if they mention you in a sexual context… You can order online here… And, just to let everyone know, I don’t drop-ship. I make sure everything’s in working order, and all charged-up before I send it out, along with a personalized note and a little surprise included.
update: If you’ve never seen the old Safety Girl show, here’s a clip: