Shop was about more than sex, owner says

Jill McDevitt rings up a sale of liquidation items at Feminique in West Chester.
Jill McDevitt rings up a sale of liquidation items at Feminique in West Chester. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 28, 2013

WEST CHESTER When West Chester borough officials told Jill McDevitt to remove a sex tool from the window of her sex shop, her response was not to quietly comply. Instead, she threw a shirt embossed with a profane phrase in the window as well.

That phrase cannot be printed in this newspaper.

In fact, a lot of the things promoted by McDevitt - a witty, often shocking sexologist with a devoted online following - are not fit for public consumption.

That, McDevitt says, is the problem.

"What happens if we say the word clitoris? What happens if a child reads the word clitoris?" she said, her tone giving away that she thinks it would not be that big a deal. "Especially if they have one. Which 50 percent of them do."

The word might make some uncomfortable. But McDevitt, 28, who lives with her husband in West Chester, says it's her life's mission to get people talking about topics that make them blush.

Maybe that's why things did not work out between her and the borough.

McDevitt closed her sex shop and feminist education center, Feminique, this month after five years in business. What brought the Upper Darby native to close a business she said was profitable has been fodder for debate since.

McDevitt, a onetime columnist for Philly.com, said she had endured years of discrimination by prudish town officials and residents.

St. Agnes Catholic Church, two blocks from Feminique, appealed her business permit shortly after she opened her shop. That effort was dropped, but the borough has since passed stricter rules on adult entertainment downtown.

More recently, McDevitt sought approval to put her logo, the outline of a female figure with a heart over the pelvis, on the sign in front of her store. One city official likened the heart to pubic hair, a depiction he said was illegal.

When McDevitt opened the store, she agreed to a stipulation barring the display of a host of human body parts on her packaging or signs.

She was cited for violating it just once, over the sex tool in her window. And city officials are quick to note that her new sign was approved.

The real problem, Mayor Carolyn Comitta said, was that McDevitt began pushing the rules she had signed off on.

"This had to do with, you know, agreeing to something and then asking for more and being upset if you're told, 'That's not what we agreed to,' " Comitta said.

Putting aside her tensions with the borough - about which McDevitt has published one book and is writing a second - McDevitt says she still planned to close her store this year.

Her sights are set on things West Chester can't offer: High-profile speaking gigs. A television show. A nationally recognized sexologist brand.

This month, Johns Hopkins University invited her to speak to its pre-med students. The topic is to be determined, but her presentation on the female orgasm is in the running, she said. She typically charges $2,000 per session.

The same week fans were cleaning out the last of her merchandise, a production company approached her about starring in a reality show pairing a sexologist with couples struggling with intimacy, she said.

She was quoted in the December issue of  Cosmopolitan talking about - what else? - clitorises.

"It's my thing," she said of the sex organ on which she has hung her career.

McDevitt - who received a doctorate in human sexuality after taking classes at Widener University and completing her dissertation through the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality - says society subjugates women by not allowing them to embrace their sexuality. And, she says, pointing to research that agrees, promotion of healthy sexuality leads to fewer sexual assaults.

"If I could change one thing in the world, it would be - and it's two sides of the same coin - that everybody would view sex as pleasurable, and thus nobody would use sex as a weapon," she said this month in an interview at her shop.

Beside her on the sofa was a pile of plush sex-ed props, including a fetus, sperm cells, and a menacing chlamydia microbe. Near the front window, packages of racy Halloween costumes were stacked against a wall. McDevitt looked briefly for the infamous window-display item - a harness of sorts - but said it had already been sold.

The pale pink storefront just off West Chester's main street, which McDevitt opened when she was 22 on a credit card with an $8,000 limit, was always just a venue for her message, she said.

The sales provided an income, and the building gave her a space to hold classes on topics such as the Kama Sutra and foreplay.

But she said the shop also provided a place to connect with her customers, from women looking for a little adventure to victims of sexual assault struggling to overcome trauma.

"That's what West Chester is going to be missing. It's not about dildos," she said.

(McDevitt gave away 428 vibrators last year to promote her sex-positive mantra, she said.)

Bonnie Chandler of Media found Feminique shortly after her husband of 30 years, David, died of a brain tumor in 2011. The two years before, she said, had been filled with operations, loss of income, a home foreclosure, and a funeral.

She visited Feminique looking for a negligee. Inside, she says, she found that and exactly what she needed emotionally, "not invasively more or coldly less."

"I was thinking . . . let me just stick a little baby toe in and buy something pretty that will remind myself that yes, I've been through a grueling ordeal, and it was ugly. But I am beautiful," she said. "And my life remains."

Today Chandler, 57, does not remember what she bought, only that it was silky and colorful and lush.

When she found out Feminique was closing she got in her car immediately and drove to West Chester. She and McDevitt hugged and cried. And she left with some lingerie.

McDevitt's critics say that that side of her store did not come through and that the scantily clad mannequins, harnesses, and sandwich-board advertisements for 10 percent off lubricants on rainy days were disrespectful to the surrounding community.

McDevitt makes no apologies. She got people talking. That always was her goal, she said.

"I was never here to make a business. I was here because I had something to say," she said. "And now I'm saying it."


tnadolny@phillynews.com610-313-8205

@TriciaNadolny

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