Hold on tight 

Our annual Love & Sex issue features the Nooky Box, XoticSpot, the beauty of first dates, how to make it rain in Big Sky Country and more

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Missoula company Nooky Box offers sex toy subscriptions

More than 200 people packed into the taproom at Imagine Nation Brewing on a recent January weeknight to celebrate the launch of a new Missoula startup. It was the kind of event that's hard to describe without sounding, well, raunchy. Friends ate pop rocks and kissed in one corner, while in another corner couples tried to guess which sex toy best describes their personalities. In one room, a cornucopia's worth of vibrators were laid out for revelers to admire.

Still, the party's vibe was more liberated than licentious, which was just what Meg Ross had in mind. Ross is the founder of the Nooky Box, a new sex toy subscription service she hopes will change how we think about getting off.

Nooky Boxes, which start shipping this month, are collections of toys curated around a theme that can help customers experiment in the bedroom. Ross says the idea came to her during a wine party with friends as a way to promote sex-positive lifestyles, regardless of relationship status, sexual identification or gender identity. Its launch is being funded in part through an online crowdfunding effort that raised more than $10,000 in the past month.

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By handpicking the products and shipping them straight to doorsteps, Ross thinks Nooky Box can remove the anxiety from sexual exploration, or the intimidating feeling of gazing upon a wall of dildos alongside other customers at the local sex emporium.

"We're taking away that scary factor so you can go straight into that positive conversation," she says.

She's doing that in part by avoiding the elements of the industry that promulgate narrow images of sexuality, like those that dominate mainstream culture. Her fundraising video, for example, uses upbeat music and colorful cartoon characters that wouldn't be out of place on Saturday morning television. "Yay sex!" is the company's slogan.

"What we want is for people of all shapes and sizes to feel comfortable, and if the image we're projecting is that you have to look like this to enjoy sex, we're not really encouraging people to be comfortable with themselves," Ross says.

Ross is making a point of catering to the LGBT community, a group she says is still underserved by the sex toy industry. Subscribers can choose from heterosexual, gay or lesbian packages, and may change at any time. Specialty boxes are also in development, like a bachelorette box, a lube box and a vibrator box, each of which will be sold individually. Each one will be filled with items that are tested by the Nooky Box team and that are made with body-friendly, recyclable materials. Ross is also working with a sex therapist to create an online advice column, tentatively called "Nooky U."

click to enlarge Missoula resident Meg Ross, founder of the Nooky Box, has created a sex toy subscription service that sends a curated collections of products to the buyer’s doorstep. Ross hopes it will help more people feel comfortable to embrace and explore their sexuality, whether alone or with partners. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula resident Meg Ross, founder of the Nooky Box, has created a sex toy subscription service that sends a curated collections of products to the buyer’s doorstep. Ross hopes it will help more people feel comfortable to embrace and explore their sexuality, whether alone or with partners.

Boxes will be shipped once every three months, at $80 a pop. The first ones, pre-sold to crowdfunding supporters, are about to go out. Ross says it's curated around the theme "sex is fun" and includes a vibrator, pop rocks, a feather tickler and her team's favorite lube.

"A nice big bottle of it," she says.

Derek Brouwer




Essay

Heart-shaped irony

The tricky business of being anti-Valentine's Day when you're in love

by Jamie Rogers

Months before I proposed to my wife, Carly, we spent Valentine's Day driving around Missoula looking for dinner. This scenario was of our own making: being jaded millennials, our plan to celebrate was not to make a big deal of it. We knew we were in love with one another and we didn't need a day on the calendar to remember it. Carly gave me a mix CD. I gave her a letter. Then we set out to find some dinner, if only to observe all the cooing couples and maybe to cash in on some drink specials. We agreed that any participation in America's day of romance would be ironic. This, at least, is what I thought.

The restaurants downtown were predictably booked, but with the mix CD playing on the car stereo we were happy to go for a drive. Carly is an irrefutable badass. I initially asked her out because she's beautiful, but I wanted her to like me because she's tougher than me. She also hated high school, which means she makes really good mix CDs. The V-day mix included songs by Alkaline Trio and The Murder City Devils, and when I listen to it now I feel lucky that such a radical lady agreed to marry me. But I'm smarter than I used to be.

After not finding a spot downtown, we headed south on Brooks Street and passed a dozen full parking lots before turning onto Reserve. By this point, our energy was festering. Regardless of how we felt about Valentine's Day, there was no denying the fact that this one was souring. The restaurants were crowded, full of couples agreeing to splurge on dessert, and there was no room for us. We were becoming the butt of our own joke, and so I did what any dude in his mid-20s would do: I made it worse.

Earlier that week, the lead singer of My Morning Jacket released a solo album. I'm not bashful about the powerful emotions that Jim James stirs in me, and his new record was good. At some point in our search for a restaurant with a table, our moods darkening, I decided to make myself feel better and said something to Carly like, "Hey, do you want to listen to this?" Given the context, it wasn't really a question. I ejected the mix CD before it had played through.

Carly didn't say anything about it—making a big deal of something I clearly felt was trivial would go nowhere. We'd talked about the superficiality of Valentine's Day, we agreed that we wanted to show one another how we feel everyday, not just when the calendar reminds us to. We didn't, however, agree that Feb. 14 would be a day to be inconsiderate. We finally found dinner at a grocery store hot bar. The dining area was empty and when we sat down, there wasn't much to say. We ate in silence.

Eight months later, I proposed to Carly because I was no longer able to imagine a future without her. I think she agreed for the same reason, and I think that is how you know you truly love someone. Marriage is affirming in ways I'm still wrapping my head around, but only if you're willing to deal with the crummier aspects of yourself. It's a tough exercise, but it's the truest way to show someone you care about them. And, really, it's what Valentine's Day is all about. Not lacy trinkets or heart-shaped stuffies or expensive desserts. Rather it's about recognizing you're not a perfect partner by showing the person you love that you'd like to be. Which isn't really so hard in my case; Carly has good taste in music.




Essay

Lasting impressions

Nowhere are people's standards lower than on the first date

by Dan Brooks

I go on a lot of first dates. When I was a young, drunk, urban person, I hardly went on dates at all, preferring to hook up at parties or bars and negotiate relationships from there. But that is a callow approach. In my advanced age, I have come to believe the main pleasure of dating is not sex or emotional intimacy. It's watching how strangers behave when they know you don't like them yet.

The first date is a terrifying contract. Two people agree to meet between five and 15 minutes after an appointed time, in a place where it would be difficult to murder each other. The coffee shop is good. The bar is better, but only for those people who have an ending in mind before the date begins. Dinner remains a classic mistake.

But the terms of the agreement are less interesting than the underlying contract. The participants in a first date commit to more than showing up. They agree to present the best versions of themselves. They will try to seem smart and attractive. They will act as though it were working. Above all, they will try to have fun.

Having fun with a stranger is virtually impossible. If we could do it reliably, we wouldn't need relationships at all. The charm of the first date lies not in the scant possibility that you will have fun, but in seeing how the other person reacts to this bizarre situation.

A lot of people rebel. By far, the most common thing I hear on first dates is "I don't do small talk." Many people respond to awkwardness by attempting a leap into intimacy. They ask where I'm from and whether I have any brothers and sisters, and then they move directly to their relationship with their mother and/or food, or with some previous date who has become their template for understanding everyone else.

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The classic leap into intimacy is to start talking about sex. One woman, many years ago, asked if she could kiss me as soon as we sat down. When I foolishly obliged, she added that she thought she could love me. It took me years to realize that a certain percentage of women will kiss you just to make you shut up.

One woman scheduled our first date for two hours after her mother's funeral. Another said the N-word about 10 minutes in, I guess hoping to draw me into a conspiracy. All these leaps into intimacy seek to overcome the discomfort of the first date by making it seem more like the third. It's a low-percentage play, but you see it a lot, probably because the people who employ it keep going on first dates.

Another popular strategy for dealing with the awkwardness of the first date is to fall back on prepared material. I used to do that, and dear reader, it is a prison without bars. I got very good at a handful of funny anecdotes, and every first date became like a movie I had already seen. Beware the person whose plan for dating is that you will have a good time.

Beware, too, the person who clings to small talk. They will betray you later. Every first date contains a moment when someone says something honest or surprising, even if it's only, "Do you want to go?" That's your window. You must leave small talk behind and climb through it to meet them on the other side, where you can talk about hard drugs or Bernie Sanders or how the date is over now because you don't like each other.

If you open this window and your date keeps talking about the weather, just go home. They are the kind of person who is liable to send you an email later demanding to know why you didn't try to kiss them.

There is no good strategy for first dates. That's what makes them wonderful. A first date is like a plane crash or high school: nobody has much fun, but when it's over the people who went through it together feel oddly close. They realize it wasn't as bad as it could have been, because someone else was there.

Once you've gone on enough first dates, that sensation of reassuring people becomes addictive. They show up self-conscious and full of dread, and then when you are normal and friendly, they express a lot of relief at you. It feels good. Nowhere are people's standards lower than on the first date. All you have to do is smile and ask relevant questions, and for a few minutes at least, you get to be the person they were looking for all along.




Facebook for strippers?

Yep, and the specialty social media site was developed in Missoula

A strip club DJ's main job is to keep the show running smoothly and keep an eye on the action. When Jeffrey Falgout was deejaying at Fred's Lounge in Missoula in the early 2000s, he observed that strippers needed a safe way to connect with their fans in the digital age.

"Every night dancers get asked for phone numbers, emails, 'Where do you work, where can I see you again?'" Falgout says.

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Some dancers might have public Facebook pages or Instagram accounts, but Falgout says many customers prefer a more under-the-radar way to follow a dancer. He and a partner came up with XoticSpot.com, a social media site for dancers and their fans. XoticSpot launched in 2009 in Portland, Ore., which has one of the highest strip clubs per capita in America.

Falgout has since moved XoticSpot headquarters back to Missoula, and it currently boasts users from Oregon, Montana, South Carolina and Texas. He also partners with strip clubs like Fred's and Fox Club to run their websites.

"Our bread and butter is we create a set of online tools for dancers to build their regular customer base in a safe and secure way without emails or numbers," Falgout says.

Dancers might fill out their profiles with sultry selfies, lists of their interests and links to the clubs where they appear, and customers can create profiles to interact with them. Perusing through the Missoula section of the site, a visitor might check out Chanel, a Fred's dancer who lists her weekly appearances along with "Come in and visit me. Xoxo!" Or a fan of Charlie, a Fox Club dancer with a short blonde bob, might be interested to know that Jan. 30 would be her last dance for a while. "Come see me off proper!!!" she posted, along with kissy face and cash emoticons. Other dancers, like Aaliyah, offer customers the chance to exchange private texts or purchase a video of her taking a shower. Some, like Mtangel, keep their profiles private.

"We're trying to be classy," Falgout says. "There's a lot of cool, dynamic ladies out there making something happen for themselves."

Kate Whittle




Essay

Modern lovers

Why the slow fade deserves a quick end

by Alex Sakariassen

About seven years ago, when I was living the pseudo-employed lifestyle so common among Missoula's post-graduation population, my afternoons were often dictated by the availability of one woman. We'd meet at coffee shops for marathon games of cribbage. We'd ski the cross-country trails on Lolo Pass until our legs screamed, and we'd stop for hot toddies on the drive home. Sometimes we'd just curl up on a couch watching "Heroes" until the immediacy of her schoolwork or my freelance assignments grew too pressing. Save for one tense status-related conversation, everything seemed to be going swimmingly.

I can't quite remember when the pivot happened, but the weeks of us-time suddenly ground to a halt. She became increasingly unresponsive, by call and by text. She stopped showing up at social gatherings, and when she did she appeared distant and distracted. Only in the hours after she left town for a seasonal summer gig did I finally get a reply with an explanation: She'd struck back up with her ex.

Any hard feelings I'd harbored in the aftermath evaporated years ago. We're still friends, still talk from time to time. She's married now and I couldn't be happier for her. The reason I dredge up the story of our sordid time under the Missoula inversion is that it marked my first real tumble into the bleak dystopia of modern dating, where relationships roll through town with the indifference of tumbleweeds and clarity is as rare as a Tom Hardy smile.

You see, up until a few months ago, I was living and loving and dating in blissful ignorance of this thing they call "the slow fade." Did I know about ghosting in a party context? Of course. Had women abruptly dropped off the map after a date or two? Sure. But prior to a coworker setting me straight on this little piece of contemporary vernacular, it had never occurred to me there was an actual trend.

The inevitable Google search that followed revealed dozens of articles on the slow fade. There were personal accounts, signs to watch for, coping tips and a shocking number of people in comment sections passionately defending the practice. A Slate staffer endorsed slow fading back in October 2013, writing that "if you go out with someone a few times and are just not feeling it, the clear, elegant solution is to just never text them. Ever. Again." I guess the superfluous punctuation was a way of telling the hopeless romantic masses to stick it in their collective Love Actually DVD box and smoke it.

What these defenders fail to grasp is that we didn't go from crawling out of the primordial ooze to inventing crazy stuff like edible underpants by peacing-out whenever we weren't "feeling it." The only way we advance as individuals and a society is by having someone tell us we done messed up. When you pull a communication Houdini, you aren't sparing someone's feelings or avoiding confrontation. You're depriving them an opportunity to better themselves for the next go-round.

In the wake of this revelation, I grew increasingly frustrated by how often a trend I never knew existed had factored into my dating life. I'd established connections with smart, funny, engaging women—women who actually appeared charmed by my work stories and doughnut addiction—only to have them vanish without explication. And I began to realize that the slow fade is symptomatic of my bigger beef with romance du jour. Dating used to make sense. You asked someone out, you laughed over coffee and tried not to talk about politics, you maybe kissed and you repeated until it felt okay to update that Facebook status to "in a relationship."

Today people always act as if they have one foot out the door. Terms like "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are treated like precious relics guarded by booby traps and a feeble Templar knight. Calling feels weird so you text. Direct contact has become an inconvenience, especially when it comes to the uncomfortable breakup chat. As comedian and Modern Romance author Aziz Ansari put it in an interview with Vanity Fair last summer, "It's easier to send a text to split up with someone than to have a conversation and, you know, deal with the ramifications."

Listen, I'm far from perfect. I've broken off one or two romances by text before. But each was well-articulated and only sent after an attempt to hash things out in person. While technology may afford us endless dating options, that's no excuse to use it as a smokescreen when the initial buzz of flirtation wears off. All that does is prove right every millennial hater who's ever accused this generation of being dismissive, narcissistic and detached. If I've got bad breath, tell me. Otherwise how will I remember to buy mints?




Making it rain in Big Sky Country

A newbie's guide to Montana strip club etiquette

The first time you walk inside the neon-lit confines of Missoula's two strip clubs, you're likely to encounter a more intimate, friendly kind of experience than in bigger cities. Dancers at Fox Club, located off Brooks Street near Southgate Mall, might stride onstage in broken-in cowboy boots and gracefully unbutton flannel shirts. The small stage at Fred's Lounge offers a chance to get up close and personal with the dancers. It doesn't take many visits at either club to become a regular.

The cozy atmosphere also means that what happens inside a Missoula strip club doesn't always stay inside a Missoula strip club, warns Riley, a former exotic dancer who asked that her stage name be used for this story. When she hung up her stilettos to work as a bartender under her real name, she would sometimes encounter people who recognized her from her time as a dancer.

"I had a couple people recognize me and say, 'Hey, you're Riley, right? Do you work somewhere else?'" she recalls. "Or they would hit on me. And I would always say no."

So be aware that if you recognize that woman in your poli sci class from her nimble athleticism on a stripper pole, it's most polite not to mention it.

But otherwise, most rules of a strip club are nearly universal.

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"It's a titty bar, not a petting zoo," says Evelyn, who spent four years working as house mom at a strip club in Missoula. (Out of privacy concerns, she declined to give her last name.) A "house mom" works as a stage manager, keeping dancers organized, doling out their pay and keeping an eye on the place to ensure that everybody sticks to the rules. Perhaps most important: don't touch the dancers. They're providing visual entertainment, and nothing else. Not that customers and dancers alike don't try to bend the rules.

"Every dancer is different and has their own different set of personal rules," Evelyn says. "Sometimes those personal rules aren't in accordance with the club rules, and that's where I came in."

Evelyn says drunk women in bachelorette parties are some of the worst offenders when it comes to obnoxious behavior in the club, especially if they try to get up and dance to show off. She recalls that her favorite response to those women was to tell them, "If you're interested in employment here, you can apply online. But in the meantime, this girl is getting paid to dance. Not you."

It's also crucial to tip, and tip generously. If you're going to sit up at the stage to watch a dancer's performance, you are obligated to pay for that service by placing cash on the tip rail around the stage. The bare minimum (pun intended) is $1 per song. The more you tip, the more a dancer is likely to pay attention to you and perform tricks.

"If you can't afford to throw money at a real live human in front of you who's dancing, literally bending over backwards to do cool stuff to impress you, stay at home and watch Internet porn," Evelyn says.

Some customers enjoy throwing bills at the dancer, or "making it rain." That's only okay if you're prepared to lay down a lot of cash. Don't crumple up a few dollar bills and toss them at the dancer.

"It's demeaning," Evelyn says. "And it's so important for people to understand that strippers are people too, and they have feelings and they have lives outside of this club. This is just their job."

At Missoula's clubs, dancers are employed as independent contractors, similar to the way hairdressers rent booths from beauty salons. Dancers are self-taught, and it's not unusual for them to get offered a job after winning an amateur night, like the monthly competition at Fox Club, Riley says. Dancers are expected to provide their own costumes and high heels, too, which can be pricey. Since strippers don't get an hourly wage, the cash from tips and lap dances are their only wages. Riley says that's why dancers walk around the club and approach customers, because they're hoping that you'll buy a private dance. Keep in mind that even during the intimate closeness of a lap dance, the customer is still not supposed to touch the worker. Riley says many venues, including the Fox Club, have night-vision cameras in the private VIP lounge to keep a watchful eye on everything that goes down—or anyone who tries to get down.

Evelyn adds that it's important to let a dancer know up front if you're not planning to buy a lap dance.

"I'll say, 'Hey, I'm not gonna buy a lap dance. If you want to sit here and BS, that's okay. I understand you're at work, though,'" Evelyn says. "At the very least, if you're trying to engage a dancer in conversation, buy her a drink or throw her a couple bucks for her time. You're paying for their attention."

That brings up the final rule about strippers: They're not actually hitting on you. Well, almost never. But don't get your hopes up.

"There are exceptions to every rule, there are girls who go home with customers," Riley says. "But I was absolutely never that person."

Kate Whittle






click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters





Essay

Happily ever after

Finding romance within the daily grind of a successful marriage

by Gaaby Patterson

My husband, Dan, and I met on my 21st birthday, a fateful encounter at the Rainbow Bar in Billings, where the floor was sticky and the air thick with cigarette smoke and bad decisions. It wasn't a Hollywood "meet cute," but I had a gift for seeing potential in dive bars and drunken boys.

A few nights later, I pointed at Dan through the smoky haze of yet another bar and said to my friend, Pete, "I'm going to marry him." To which Pete said: "I will bet you $5,000 it'll never last." He knew both of us and was understandably confident as we shook on it.

Dan and I moved in together two weeks later (which is how normal people date, I'm pretty sure) and spent our first year together burning it all to the ground. We really dug each other, so we had that going for us. But we were feral children with no tools for living, each of us selfish and self-centered to the extreme. Neither of us had ever really seen what a loving and committed relationship looked like and we weren't interested in seeking out that knowledge. So not only were we making it up as we went along, but all our rules were based on what was best for ourselves, not the relationship. This looked an awful lot like mayhem.

On yet another drunken Thursday night at the end of that first year we got into a particularly heinous fight. On Friday we decided it would be best to separate for the weekend, figure out if we even wanted the same things. We both knew we couldn't continue to do what we'd been doing. We were both very tired. On Sunday we met at high noon, and very early into our talk, he fell off the couch, onto one knee, and proposed to me (which is how normal people propose, I'm pretty sure). I, of course, said yes, because that was going to fix it.

That didn't fix it.

What fixed it was a profound shift in our thinking, a conscious daily decision to stay and do our best to love each other. Like, no matter what.

Cicero said, "The first bond of society is marriage." I can tell you, he didn't mean it in a good way. The concept of marriage is archaic. For a very long time it was solely a means of control, a tool for political stability, security for seed. Even today, because of this history, marriage sometimes gets a bad rap. Marriages that actually last get it even worse. Like if you're married longer than six minutes it's inevitable you'll end up one of those couples who stare past each other in restaurants. Or if you like having sex with one person for 20 years you might be the very definition of "boring."

But evolution is a powerful thing. Over the course of time, human beings have somehow managed to blend the concept of marriage—which is mostly commitment—with the concept of romantic love—which is mostly delight. Marriage has become meaningful, a contract both people make the choice to enter and uphold. It has become something sacred.

"Marriage is hard," Dan says when I ask him what he thinks about all this. "You have to work at it. And it's up to you to create something beautiful there. Maybe that's the essence of the romance of marriage: work."

It's a terrible thing to say, but it's true. You don't say, "I do," and then marriage becomes some involuntary act. You have to keep making the same choice. Every day.

And if anything is a catalyst for personal growth, it's marriage. Binding yourself to someone forever tends to bring all your character defects right to the surface. This happens because there's security. You can work through that noise to become who you're meant to be because no one is going anywhere. Marriage doesn't work that way for everyone, of course—especially if you met at the Rainbow—but it's worked that way for me and Dan.

There's something so romantic about that kind of commitment. Dan has seen me evolve. The fun-killing, neurotic lunatic he met 20 years ago is (mostly) very different from the woman I am today. Now I have stretchmarks and self-esteem. The drunken fool I met 20 years ago had no discernible skills other than making me laugh and drinking away student loan money. He wasn't actually the man of my dreams when I met him. I got to hang out with him while he became that guy.

Choosing to stay for 20 years—through pregnancy and miscarriage, through career changes and personality changes, through the death of parents and the unbelievable learning experience that is childrearing—is anything but boring. It's romantic as hell.

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