Zoë Ligon: Detroit’s Dildo Duchess and Sex Educator
WORDS BY: ARIELA KOZIN | REPORTING BY: ANNA NOLAN
Zoë Ligon: Detroit's Dildo Duchess and Sex Educator
This sexual renegade turns over Rock City.
We first discovered Zoë Ligon nestled in an Instagram pocket of Detroit-based artists. With a little digging beyond her impressive follower-to-like ratio, we found that she’s also an entrepreneur and advocate for humanity’s greatest pleasure. In 2015, Zoe opened the premiere sex shop Spectrum Boutique in hopes of starting an open conversation about sex in an otherwise conservative town. Each product at Spectrum is carefully selected to not just fulfill your partner’s desires, but also to promote self-affirmation.
When Zoe isn’t slinging bedroom delights, she is talking about them–writing headlines like “Why Butt Plugs Are The Incredible Sex Toy too Many of Us Are Forgetting About.” Sex is great, we all should do it, and the more that we talk about it, the safer it becomes for everyone. We speak with Zoe about how she turned her love of sex into a career, and how to not only get the conversation started, but how to keep it going.
What did you do for work before opening Spectrum?
I was working weird part-time jobs. A friend who was dating someone I knew was working at a well-known sex shop in Manhattan, so I started working in management there, prior to starting Spectrum. It’s kind of where I got a feel for, “Oh, this is how product ordering goes. These are the kinds of things that sell. This is how I talk about these things.”
Since there really is no track for becoming a sex educator outside of reading a bunch of books and hearing other sex educators speak, it was kind of my closest thing to going through sex-ed school. I actually was fired from that position, but it was still kind of the fire under my ass to realize, ‘This is my passion, this is what I love doing. I’m heartbroken that I don’t get to sell sex toys anymore. So I guess I’ll just start selling sex toys on my own terms.’
So that was the start of Spectrum?
I didn’t really have a concrete plan. I was living in New York, and I got an artist residency in Detroit. I didn’t know anyone. I only had friends of friends that I got put in touch with, but I felt very welcomed into the social scene. I wasn’t making much money for myself, definitely not enough money to start a business.
Then, my dad died completely unexpectedly, and I received money from him when he died. Having that really traumatic life event happen realigned priorities. Returning to New York was pretty bleak, so I decided to permanently relocate to Detroit at that point. I officially moved to Detroit permanently in April of 2015.
I still didn’t have a plan. I took a business class and found it completely irrelevant. They were talking about things that really didn’t even pertain to the adult industry. I can’t work with the typical investor. I can’t advertise in the typical way. Most financial institutions also don’t want to work with you if you are in any facet of the adult industry. So I had a very serendipitous meeting with a man who ended up being my start-up guru.
It’s very easy to judge other sex toy companies, because even the feminist sex toy stores that many people think women run have a man at the top of the financial pyramid. The only reason I was able to avoid that is because my money man was my dead father. I try to have a sense of humor about that. I don’t have anybody I have to answer to, and I’m not trying to meet a quota for some angel investor. That was very important in giving me the freedom to create Spectrum the way I wanted to.
I don’t have anybody I have to answer to, and I’m not trying to meet a quota for some angel investor. That was very important in giving me the freedom to create Spectrum the way I wanted to.
Spectrum a somewhat of a reflection of your openness with sexuality online. A lot of people are passionate about sex, but most people keep that passion hidden or in a private space. Why do you think people are so afraid of discussing sex openly?
I’m so interested in sex because it’s something that I deprived myself of for a very long time. I didn’t feel comfortable exploring it. It didn’t feel like something that I wanted to explore. I had such a womanizer for a father and seeing the way he would objectify women in front of me, his daughter, who was not much younger than the waitresses he would be flirting with–I just felt uncomfortable with sexuality altogether.
I’m beginning to realize the ways in which, even today, I’m lying to myself about what my needs really are. I don’t really want to have sex with anybody unless I have a huge wand on my clit. The average person does not even begin to understand how to unpack that.
It’s the way that we’re told to exist in relationships as a whole, altogether. That includes romantic relationships and monogamy-centric culture. We don’t have a template to know how to exist outside of that. You flip on any TV show, you’re going to see monogamous relationships, monogamous relationships, or people looking for monogamous relationships. If there’s any love sex narrative, it exists within manipulative monogamy. American culture sets the tone for culture in so many other countries.
Do you think Spectrum is a necessary feature of business development in Detroit?
Detroit does not want me here. Detroit is run by people with a lot of money, who are very conservative. These people, who create the zoning ordinances and regulations with the land, if they are liberally-minded, they are going to refer to what conservatives want. What conservatives want is for there not to be sex toy stores in Detroit.
That is why I don’t have a brick and mortar. I have a warehouse, and I very ambiguously talk about its location. If people want to come in, they email me and I set up a private appointment for them to shop. That being said, 99 of sales go on online for this reason. I originally wanted a brick and mortar, but that was not on the table for me, because of the land laws.
When you don’t see a store devoted to intimate devices, there are so many people, especially queer people, who would say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is the only way I’m able to be a sexual person. This is crucial to my identity.” A dildo is a very sentimental item, not just a punchline to people. They’re a toy, an appliance, and a tool.
A dildo is a very sentimental item, not just a punchline to people. They’re a toy, an appliance, and a tool.
How do you decide which products to sell in your store?
I just do my research. Now that I’ve had this shop for two years, I understand the ways in which brands give stores financial incentives to retailers to carry their products. Or they will spread a lot of misinformation about a toy being the hottest new thing on the market, but then you read the reviews from sex toy reviewers, and nobody fucking enjoyed this. As the retailer, who works with brands, and maybe carries a different item from that brand, I learn that, “Okay. Well, the only reason these brands continue to sell a toy that is essentially useless to a human body is because they’re getting financial incentives to carry these things.”
I guess to sum things up, it’s a combination of testing things out on my own body, but–given that everybody likes different things–I try to read multiple reviews from multiple different experienced sex toy reviewers. I go through a lot of ridiculous product reviews to get to the good stuff. That’s where it’s a skill beyond basic entrepreneurship. How does it look? How does it feel? Is it body-safe? What are the ethics of the company carrying it? What are people with experience with toys saying about it? What are the consumers saying about it? It’s an amalgamation of all of those things.
How is sex education integrated into the store?
I like to think that it’s, ideally, equal parts empowerment, education, and pleasure awareness. You can talk straight education without making any mention of pleasure. I think that sex education-centric shops are not really a new thing so much, but I think it’s the specific tone, frankness, transparency, and sense of humor that makes my education different from the other shops. That’s not to say that other shops aren’t also honest and pleasure-centric.
I’ve made a few risky moves that have ultimately led me to this niche audience that I have. I’ve been really surprised to find out that my audience is very much people younger than myself, which I’m really happy to be hearing about. Not only does that make other businesses and investors and companies that work with me really attracted to me, it also means that I am speaking to a much more woke generation than me, and it’s going to continue to be that way.
So as I age beyond 25, which is where I am now, I realize that I can in no way understand what it’s like to be a college-aged kid anymore. With the more incremental time difference between age, we see more advancements. I think that, hopefully, once we get out of this current administration, progress will advance at an exponential rate because we’ve got the minds for it. We just don’t have the template and framework that is conducive to allowing that to blossom.
Where did you begin with sex toys and where do you suggest your customers begin?
The first sex toy I purchased was a jelly dong. It was in one of those West Village sex toy stores, and I was like, “This is a cool big one.” I got that right. I got the size right, but it was one of those that aren’t body safe and smelled like a shower curtain with with plastic softeners and phthalates–which are a chemical compound that has been banned in children’s toys but not intimate devices to this day. People will literally receive chemical burns from these toys, but because it’s the sex industry, they don’t care to fix it. I was using that dildo and I wasn’t having an allergic reaction to it, although it eventually, a year later, melted into a pile of sludge on a hot day. It was kind of this staircase of learning. I would get a new toy and that would be a new stair, and then it would be this plateau of not figuring anything else out and then having an organic realization that would lead me to the next tier.
When I realized I needed a new vibrator–what’s the deal with Hitachi magic wand shit–I went into Babeland and got this wand and an attachment with it that allowed it to be used internally. I sell the exact thing I first purchased at my shop, because this was the tool that made me regularly orgasmic, instead of just randomly orgasmic. Once I got the the wands and realized I like girthier things, I was just like, “Yes. I know my thing!”
You make collages too. Because your collages are inspired by sex as well, I’d love to know how you see art and sexuality overlapping today.
The only reason I’m in the industry today is because of those collages. That was kind of my safe way of entering the industry, because I was first using pin-up images with clothes on, and then I started using nude images with clothes off, and publishing them under a pseudonym. My friends knew they were mine, so the reason that the friend of a friend even thought to let me know about the position at that first sex shop I worked at was because of my art. I don’t think she would’ve even thought to recommend that otherwise. It’s very much a key ingredient.
Have you thought about Spectrum’s expansion at all?
As far as up-and-coming things for Spectrum, I’m adding bdsm supplies within the next month. I also want it to be a little more integrated with my online journalism. A lot of people find me through educational articles I write for Refinery or VICE. They find me in mainstream outlets and funnel down into my shop. I want to have it be a continuous knowledge center, but also I think we have enough, “Vibe tips for great anal” floating around. But, the more I’m able to be like, “I just came back from a conference. Here’s a few page, 1000 word summary of what I learned at this conference,” the more I am continuing to meld the way I very much make myself a lab rat for the world of human sexuality. I have people just asking my opinion on something, even something like more wellness related than sex related, like, “What do you think of coconut oil? What do you think of this shit?” So I just want it to be a more centralized place, where the other aspects of education that I’ve already been doing come together.
Any advice that you have for young women that are working against the masturbation stigma, which is dissipating but still there?
As far as working against masturbation stigma, it’s so hard to say for everybody. My blanketed advice is always get to know your own body before you can expect somebody else to get to know you. It’s much easier to guide somebody to pleasure you when you know how to pleasure yourself. In general, masturbation is that key to self-liberation and sexuality. Having said that, I think most people know that and they’re just kind of wondering how to get over that hump. It’s something that people don’t even know they deny themselves.
For a lot of people, that means having autonomy in other aspects of life. I think that a lot of people don’t even want to masturbate if they don’t feel comfortable with the body they’re living in. A lot of that can be doing work in investigating your gender identity and sexual needs and being very frank and honest in that. There is no one universal answer. It’s always going to be a process, and I know, for me, I just continue to learn more about my body. So I think maybe my advice would be to not be afraid of leaning into the vulnerable spaces that come with that, exploring vulnerability and leaning into those vulnerable places lovingly.