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At this Burlington adult store, pleasure is an act of social justice

A person with long, straight, brown hair smiles at the camera. They are wearing a sleeveless white collared blouse, red lipstick and several long necklaces. They wear many rings and have light pink painted fingernails.
Isora Lithgow Creations
Beth Hankes owns Earth and Salt, an adult store in Burlington. The shop tries to take an inclusive approach to the adult toy marketplace. Hankes also offers several sexual wellness classes and workshops.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I visited a waterfront-adjacent storefront in Burlington called Earth and Salt. Owner Beth Hankes invites me into the garden-level store, tucked down a short alley on Maple Street.

Earth and Salt bills itself as a modern adult store, with bright lighting, exposed brick and a sleek, art-gallery feel.

“I knew I wanted it to look fairly domestic. I knew I wanted plants and artwork," Hankes said. "A lot of white surfaces, just so that it felt really clean and you know, as close to a boutique as an adult store might lend itself to be."

Rows of white shelves line the walls, where brightly-colored packaging and products of all stripes — even one with stripes — stand erect on their bases. Bookshelves are stocked with titles like, Better Bondage for Every Body.

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If there's an overarching ethos to the shop, it's that inclusive pleasure can be a healing force.

"Anyone who is basically wanting to access their pleasure in whatever that way that looks like for them, they can come and find something that works for them," Hankes said.

Hankes opened the storefront in 2020, aiming to de-gender the sex toy store model by embracing education and the erasure of stigma around sexuality and sensuality.

She's a frank-talk sex educator and a trusted tour guide to consent-forward, sex-positive pleasure for customers like Marina McCoy, who didn't particularly enjoy going to the sex stores that were around when she was younger.

"There's a different vibe, a very calming atmosphere [at Earth and Salt]. And the staff is very well-educated on the products and also sex education," she said.

More from Vermont Public: How Vermont is providing sex education as the country debates abortion access

Customer Jace Jamason appreciates Earth and Salt's focus on inclusivity. They say no matter what your relationship with your body is like, we all encounter shame about something at some point.

"I have found that Beth and the environment that she has created kind of helps allow you to explore where that shame might be coming from. And how to heal yourself with sex toys and also the literature that she allows in her space and provides as a resource," Jamason said.

Several white tank-top-style binders are arranged on hangers on a rack.
Mary Engisch
Vermont Public
Earth and Salt has a gender-expression section with binders, tuck kits and other products for folks who are gender nonconforming, nonbinary and trans.

Hankes' store has a gender expression section for folks who are gender nonconforming, nonbinary and trans. The store stocks products like binders, packers, thigh harnesses and tuck kits, a lot of which are not available in other stores.

Through its product and class offerings, Earth and Salt also supports businesses and sex educators from historically marginalized groups.

Devon Kerry is co-creator of a local company called Dark Desires Vermont that makes leather toys, like floggers and cuffs. Kerry said that the store's educational approach to sex and sensuality is why she reached out to work with Hankes.

Kerry, now Earth and Salt's senior retail and education associate, said Hankes' educational approach centers on the concept of "pleasure activism." Coined by author and activist adrienne maree brown, it means changing the world through social justice doesn't have to feel like work, but instead can be achieved through healing and happiness.

"Really, it's about the body being a political place," Kerry said. "And anything that we do to tune into our own sense of pleasure and play and joy is really quite a liberatory practice."

After all, Hankes isn't just interested in helping create heat in the bedroom. Part of what drew her to the Queen City in the first place was Burlington's burning enthusiasm for progressive causes.

Megan Roberts is the trans health and wellness coordinator at the Pride Center of Vermont. She says Earth and Salt has partnered with the nonprofit on local events and workshops designed for LGBTQ+ people.

"I couldn't be more thrilled at having a very inclusive, welcoming space for everyone and every body in the community," Roberts said. "You know, sexual health is a big component of individual health and wellness."

And that, Hankes said, is part of her goal: to be a warm resource for all and to move the needle as much as she can on social justice.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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