Heroes of Masturbation - Sherri Williams

Heroes of Masturbation - Sherri Williams

In honour of Masturbation Month, I thought it might be fun to write some posts about the heroes of masturbation.  These are people who have defended our right to jerk off, however we want, as long as we are causing no harm to others.

I've already written extensively about my main hero of masturbation, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, so I will skip her in this series.  Instead, I'm going to start with Sherri Williams.

I've mentioned Williams a few times in some of my posts but I don't believe I've ever dedicated a whole post to her.  This morning, I was asked a question on Facebook regrading places in which it is illegal to sell sex toys.  I was reminded  of Williams and her valiant fight for our right to buy toys if we bloody well want to.

Sherri Williams lived and worked in Hunstville, Alabama, where she owned a sex toy store called Pleasures.  In 1998, the state legislature enacted an anti-obscenity law which, among other things, made it illegal for "any person to knowingly distribute, possess with intent to distribute, or offer or agree to distribute any obscene material or any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for any thing of pecuniary value."

This was Sherri's entire livelihood.  As it was for other retailers and business owners.  She fought the law and actually won.  in 1999 a federal judge ruled that there was no reasonable basis for the law.  But the state wasn't about to give up on it.  They appealed to the circuit court and won.  

Williams appealed that decision, prepared to take it right to the Supreme Court.  She invested a huge amount of time and money and a great amount of emotional labour in seeing the decision overturned.  Sadly, she lost when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.  The law was upheld.

I met Sherri in 2012.  It was another of those wonderful serendipitous moments where I sat down to lunch at a trade show and introduced myself to the people at the table.  The woman sitting next to me was none other than Sherri Williams.

She told me that the fight to repeal this unfair law had cost her a lot.  While her store remained in Alabama, she herself moved to Florida because of the harassment she endured regarding this case.  She received multiple death threats.  She no longer felt safe in her own home.

Although it would have cost her, Williams could have easily shut down that store. In the end it probably would have cost her far less financially than all of the court battles and legal fees.  But for Williams, it was not just about the right to run a business.  It was about the right for people to do as they wish with their own bodies.  She knew that her businesses were not hurting anyone, in fact, as I well know, probably helping a lot of people, and should not have been subject to this Draconian law.  She was willing to pay the price that she did to keep fighting for the rights of everyone to explore and experience their sexuality as they wish.

Her Alabama stores still exist.  The law makes it possible for people to purchase sex toys if they are for a 'medical, education, or scientific purposes'.  So Williams asked well-known sex therapist Marty Klein to devise a very simple questionnaire for her.  Each customer is asked to fill out a very short form that confirms that they are purchasing the items in the store for a 'medical, education, or scientific purpose'.  She keeps all of these questionnaires on hand should she ever be brought up on charges again.

And this is just the thing.  She hasn't been brought up on charges again.  Police and judges have far bigger fish to fry than Sherri Williams' sex toys stores.  So why all of this fuss, all this time, all this money, all this stress for Williams and her family and her employees?  It's because there are people on that legislature that want that law to exist should they ever need to use it.  It covers a wide swathe of activities, not just selling sex toys.  For anyone who decides that they don't like what someone is doing, they can report them to the police, just as they did to Sherri all those years ago.

And that's why it was important for her to fight that law.  Although she didn't win in the end, she gave it her very best shot.  She could have simply given up. It may have made not a lot of difference to her personally in the end - given that she figured out a way around it anyway.  But it wasn't just about her - it was about the next person who finds themselves on someone's shit list simply for offending their sensibilities.  It was to defend those who are just exercising their right to be sexual people and to act as grown ups do.

Williams might not have won the case, but she won my respect and the respect of a lot of others in the industry.