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The world’s first sex shop for people with cancer is “super queer”, gender-neutral and sparking the conversations everyone else is afraid to have.
Sex with Cancer is more than just a sex shop. Co-founder Brian Lobel, who created the project with Joon Lynn Goh, describes it as “an artwork, a business and an advocacy campaign… It’s all three things together, and they all inform each other”.
The core idea, he told PinkNews, is to “get people to have better conversations about sex and intimacy and illness” – in other words, conversations that a lot of us are scared of having.
“There are a lot of reasons why people are bad at talking about sex with cancer,” said Lobel.
“They have to do with the seriousness of the situation, charities which are trying to lead with questions of inspiration and survivorship, and of course, sex is like a little bit more controversial.
“It’s not as safe as an inspiring walk up a mountain, or a child achieving something nice.
“It’s also because doctors and nurses aren’t well trained on these things, and it’s also because the government has stripped the NHS back so much that if a consultation is seven minutes long, you might not feel able to talk about the things that need a bit more time.”
He added: “I’ve been very interested in marginalised experiences of cancer and illness, whether that is queer people’s experience of cancer, trans people’s experience of cancer, Black people’s experience of cancer, whatever those stories were.
“And I kept coming back to this big… I don’t want to make a gaping hole joke, but there’s a gaping hole in the conversation and research about sex and cancer.”
Sex with Cancer pulls together art, film and writing to create a rich variety of resources for learning and exploring difficult topics, but the most innovative element is how its shop brings learning and sex toys together.
Toni Lewis, Sex with Cancer’s sex shop curator, explained that the team gathered around 200 questions about sex and cancer, before “distilling” them into the 25 most asked.
“The shop is a direct response to those questions that have been asked,” she said.
“The most frequent things that came up were about body confidence and new normal and changed bodies, about libido and fatigue, about erectile dysfunction, the ability to orgasm, not having an interest in sex.”
Customers are able to select a question, receive answers from experts like psychosexual counsellors and cancer nurses, before being recommended sex toys and products that might help them on their journey.
“The shop is really different in that it’s not just about trying to sell you products to make you come,” said Lewis.
“It’s about your relationship with yourself, and your relationship with intimacy and sexuality.”
She continued: “A lot of the products are for solo play, or you’ve got products in there that are for at-distance play that consider people that might be in hospital, we look at sensory deprivation and how we can actually explore intimacy, pleasure and orgasm without having to have penetration as part of that.
“We’re super queer, we make sure that all of our products are queer-friendly, gender-neutral and don’t necessarily just require one man and one woman, or one penis and one vagina.”
Lobel added: “[Sex with Cancer allows people] to think that they deserve to ask questions, hear answers, to think they deserve pleasure. This is the kind of this is the journey that a lot of people aren’t going on.”
Sex with Cancer is ‘queering the process’ because ‘anyone who is marginalised has a political experience of cancer’
“People think that cancer is not political,” said Brian Lobel, before pausing and correcting himself. “Cisgender, heterosexual, white people.”
He continued: “Anyone who is a marginalised person in any way, whether they’re Black and they’re seeing inequity in healthcare and treatment, whether they’re queer and seeing that no one is speaking to them in the right tone, they’re talking about fertility and pronouns, whether people are so sick that they have to be with families, but those families might misgender them… We know that anyone who is marginalised has a political experience of cancer.”
Lobel added that “living firmly in the mainstream with cancer is also terrible”, but continued: “To add on all these other things… I think it had to be queer people that made this project, or if not queer, have a real queer sensibility that says, ‘Our pleasure is is part of us. Our shame is part of us. Our bodies, and what we love, and what we hate, is all part of us.’
“I think that is informed by breast cancer activism, it’s informed by AIDS activism, it’s informed by disability activism, and of course a lot of reflections on race and class.
“So we’d like to put ourselves right in the centre of those amazing communities, because they really inform the politics that I hope will make Sex with Cancer really long-lasting.”
Lobel, who had testicular cancer when he was 20, knows first-hand the specific struggles that come with being a queer person with cancer.
“I had cancer, about a month after I came out as queer,” he said.
“And that felt like a very cosmic response that maybe I hadn’t made a correct life choice.”
Laughing, he added: “I literally got cancer in my genitals!”
“So, number one, there’s cosmic judgments around things, there’s a spiritual element of it,” said Lobel.
“Then, there’s a social element of it… There are so many assumptions that are made about cancer that are about nuclear family – you’re getting along with your parents, you have a beautiful wife at home, you have a desire to get out and play sports, fertility is the only thing that’s important to you, you’re only having sex to create a child.
“Most of the talk that’s about sex and cancer is about fertility, fertility preservation, sperm, eggs, etc. That is really important… But that’s usually where it stops.
“There is very little about pleasure, very little about a doctor or a nurse or charity worker looking at you and saying, ‘What are you thinking about? What are you nervous about? What’s your support system?'”
He added: “So, the straight journey of cancer is you get sick, you’re supported by family and friends, you live or you die.
“And I think with Sex with Cancer, we’re saying this is a much longer game much much queerer. You’re going to love your body, you’re going to hate your body, you’re going to feel shame, you’re going to feel love, and all these things together. Which I find really exciting.”