On Monday, February 1, certified sexologist Megan Andelloux exited the Pawtucket City Hall, victorious in the final episode of a battle that began last September when the city’s zoning board prevented her from opening the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. The following day, on February 2, Andelloux opened the nonprofit adult sexual education center—furnished since September—which she describes as “your grandmother’s living room…just with a lot of sex stuff around.” The center will feature drop-in hours, workshops, and an internship program for those interested in the fields of sexual education and advocacy.
No School In Session
On September 26, after 12 years of teaching at colleges, nonprofits, and the Providence sex store Miko Exoticwear, Andelloux was set to open the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health at the Grant Building in downtown Pawtucket.
But on September 15, a Pawtucket policeman called Andelloux and ordered her to cancel the center’s grand opening on the basis of zoning concerns. A zoning official informed Andelloux that the area was zoned for residential and commercial use only—not for educational activities.
On November 30, Andelloux appeared before the zoning appeals board. The following Monday, the board upheld the initial decision.
After meeting with her lawyer, Andelloux decided to file for a special use permit in a last attempt to open the center. On January 25, Andelloux appeared before the city’s zoning board to present her case one last time. A week later, the zoning board announced their final decision, voting unanimously to grant Andelloux a special use permit. Two of the zoning officials approached Andelloux to express their congratulations.
Andelloux draws connections between the zoning controversy and her vocal opposition to Rhode Island’s indoor prostitution ban, which Governor Carcieri signed into law last November.
At a state legislative hearing in June, Andelloux spoke against the indoor prostitution ban. She expressed concerns that the ban would criminalize the actions of sexual trafficking victims and deter them from interacting with police.
Andelloux “fundamentally [believes] that people should have the right to do with their bodies what they want.” She said, “There are different reasons why people go into sex work; some are good, some are bad. [But] when you drive something underground it becomes worse.”
After the hearing, University of Rhode Island professor and anti-trafficking activist Donna Hughes wrote an editorial in The Providence Journal, calling the hearing “a sordid circus, with pimps and prostitutes coming forward to oppose the legislation.” Hughes referred to Andelloux as a “tattooed woman, calling herself a ‘sexologist’ and ‘sex educator,’ [who] spoke against the bill.”
The police officer who ordered Andelloux to cancel the center’s opening informed her that Hughes had emailed every member of the Pawtucket City council a few days prior, notifying them of the upcoming event.
What’s in a name?
Since the decision last September, Pawtucket officials have offered contradictory explanations for the city’s decision.
“This is really a straightforward zoning issue,” Ronald Travers, Pawtucket’s zoning director, told Women’s eNews in December. He cited a karate studio that faced the same struggle a few years earlier. But City Councilor-At-Large Albert J. Vitali, Jr. believes the city targeted the nature of Andelloux’s work.
“The title freaked everybody out,” Vitali told Women’s eNews. “The ‘sexual pleasure’ end of the title flipped a few people on their heads. They didn’t know what she was talking about. They assumed it was a strip club or something.”
Throughout her career, Andelloux, who holds certifications from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists and the American College of Sexologists, has emphasized pleasure. On her official website, Andelloux writes, “Why do I do the work that I do? Too often, the views on sexuality (medical and pleasure) distance themselves from one another. The medical world frequently turns its back on the pleasurable aspects of sex, and the thrill seekers are not interested in learning the hows and whys of what makes the body work the way that it does.”
“I absolutely believe that pleasure is a large component in terms of health,” she said, citing a recent study that showed individuals who use sex toys are more likely to get tested for STDs and pap smears.
Andelloux also questioned the relationship between her own gender and the looming controversy. “People have made comments that if a man was trying to open up the center, no one would have batted an eye. I’m sure it’s true.”
A Question of Rights
In November, the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke out against the zoning board’s ruling.
“After city officials received a letter saying this was going to be a hotbed of secret prostitution,” ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown said, referencing Donna Hughes’ email, “I think some officials just got tense about the notion of having a business like hers that dealt with sexuality.”
In a letter to Pawtucket Mayor James E. Doyle, the ACLU claimed that city officials “appear to have reacted to this misinformation reflexively, and inappropriately,” despite Travers’ assertion that the issue was purely a question of zoning.
“We argued that the city denied the permit based on a pretext, because there was no educational zone in the city and there were other tenants in the building engaged in educational activities,” Brown said.
Brown claimed that Andelloux’s case is an infringement of free speech. “Miss Andelloux wants to run a facility that will provide information to the public. It appears to us that the city was trying to prevent her from opening her center because of the type of speech she wanted to engage in.”
After the ACLU’s involvement, the city began to crack down on other nonprofits and businesses in violation of the zoning code. The Blackstone Chess center, another tenant of the Grant Building, received a summons. In an email, David Harris, owner of Blackstone Chess, called the zoning code “a convenient tool to use for discriminatory practices.”
He wrote, “In my brief research to defend against a summons issued to the Blackstone Chess Center, I discovered that the exact interpretation of the code used to stop the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health could be applied to dozens of downtown locations.”
Another Grant tenant, Jason Hogue, wrote in an email, “[This] has shed light on glaring zoning problems in the City that will need to be addressed if they want more development and business downtown.”
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Megan Andelloux’s struggle to open the Center for Sexual Health and Pleasure marks the final legislative saga in a year that was ripe with changes in Rhode Island’s regulation of sexuality. In 2009, Rhode Island criminalized both indoor prostitution and underage stripping, the prior statuses of which rendered the state an exception with regard to sexuality. As Andelloux rejoices in the fact that “Pawtucket is on board for people having access to information,” memories of her struggle will continue to complicate the state of sexuality in Rhode Island, one female orgasm workshop at a time.
Katie Lindstedt B’11 preferred Grandma’s furniture.