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'It's just sex': Lion's Den responds to criticism of new store while celebrating its 50th year

Lion's Den recently opened its 45th location on the south side of Indianapolis. Now in its 50th year, the sex retailer talks about the work they've done to normalize the conversation around sexual health and becoming an inclusive space.
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Posted at 4:36 PM, Sep 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-19 13:02:11-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Sex is slowly becoming less taboo.

Sexuality is becoming more acceptable to talk about for several reasons, including pop culture, social media, and even higher education.

Our society is more inclined to talk about sexual health than ever before, but it certainly hasn't always been that way — and some may say we still have a ways to go.

From Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo not being allowed to share a bed on-screen in the 1950's sitcom "I Love Lucy" to Cardi B's most recent performance during the 2021 Grammy Awards — the evolution of human sexuality quite literally requires an entire course to understand.

"That's something that we talk about a lot on our team; how can we make people feel less ashamed about asking questions about sex and asking questions about intimacy, pleasure, reproductive health, and so many other things that involve our industry," Melanie Smolter, a digital marketing specialist for Lion's Den told WRTV. "Unfortunately, that is something that we deal with on a regular basis is there are lots of people that push shame, and we try to push against that as much as we can."

Lion's Den, a midwest-based self-described "adult novelty" store, probably knows better than any other retailer that sex has not always been quite an open topic of discussion as it is now.

Since first opening in 1971 in Columbus, Ohio, Lion's Den has experienced protesters, lawsuits, zoning restrictions, investigations, and more.

As the retailer celebrates its 50th anniversary, Lion's Den has opened its 45th location on the south side of Indianapolis — its second location in the city. Soon they'll be opening their 46th location.

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Inside Lion's Den on the south side of Indianapolis. Photo taken September 2021.

Despite the constant pushback over the last 50 years, Lion's Den has continued to grow. Both in revenue sales and engagement from communities. It's growth that Lion's Den says proves that their services are necessary, especially to overall health.

One of the most significant spikes in sales and engagement came at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when they closed all of their stores for two months.

"Our online sales spiked like 300% when our stores went down. And the great thing about that was we reached a different demographic and a different customer. And, what in turn happened was when we opened the doors back up, our sales have spiked," Pete Potenzini, Lion's Den's director of marketing, said.

The retailer also offered virtual toy parties. The gatherings had previously been in-person, but they've been held online since the pandemic. The sessions garnish upwards of 1,000 people registering for the monthly parties.

"It just is a really good way for us to connect with our audience and be able to talk about these products and what they're good for and different scenarios and just ask specific questions that people want to know but may sometimes feel a little intimidated in asking about," Smolter explained.

Lion's Den wouldn't be the only one who saw immense growth in engagement and sales at the height of the pandemic.

According to the New York Times, Adam and Eve reported a 30% increase in sales last June, and WOW Tech Group, which owns sex toy companies We-Vibe and Womanizer, reported over 200% higher online sales.

Although society has evolved in its acceptance of the sex industry — especially just in the last decade — the backlash of opening sex shops persists, especially in rural areas.

With the Lion's Den opening on Southport Road, the company faced backlash from south side residents who live in the area.

Whatever the reason — whether due to its location (directly across from a Cracker Barrel) or the monument sign going up — the new sex shop was met with opposition. With that opposition, though, came support.

When WRTV first reported about the south side Lion's Den facing pushback from nearby residents, most community feedback leaned toward supporting the business.

That support was not surprising to Smolter, who says she sees the positive engagement every day as a social media manager. But it was on the shocking side for Potenzini, who's been with the company for nearly a decade.

"I'm surprised that there were as many supporters. And maybe not supporters, but just like 'hey, who cares?'" Potenzini said.

"I just wish, personally, that people would take the initiative to actually like I said, go into a store," Potenzini continued. "There is nothing threatening. There's nowhere on the building, in the building, where anyone is going to be harmed or in danger."

Autumn Lowry, a nearby resident of the newly opened Lion's Den, was one of the dozens to comment on WRTV's Facebook post.

"I believe healthy sexuality is important. I've always found these types of stores to be healthy, and staff is knowledgeable about their products," Lowry told WRTV. "Generally, the staff is female and for women to have help navigating their sexuality in a safe space is important. I would say that people who are against it that they should keep an open mind."

Fostering the safe space Lowry mentioned is what Lion's Den has been doing for the last 50 years and continues to do, Smolter said.

"Our customers ... want us to succeed because they understand that 'hey, this is just sex,'" Smolter said, laughing lightheartedly.

"It is difficult when people are judging your store and judging what you do without actually fully understanding it. And understanding all the services that we provided to people within the community in Indiana," Smolter continued. "(We offer) LGBTQ services, we got products for women with cancer, we have products for all sorts of people, every type of gender, we have kink stuff, we have soft stuff, we have you know — there's so many products for an array of any type of sexuality."

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A photo of the Lion's Den on Southport Road. Photo was taken Septetmber 2021.

Columbus Monthly once dubbed lion's Den as a "Porno Powerhouse" in 2005, which Potenzini says the numbers prove is no longer the case, as their overall porn sales are only 6% of the retailer's revenue.

Lion's Den says their spaces are inclusive, where anyone can come and learn more about their individual sexuality, or their partner(s).

It's a conversation that's being broached in bigger metropolitans, pop culture, in media. Still, Potenzini says their stores are needed in rural areas where the discussion of sex "isn't even broached."

"In some of these areas, I think ... we have to like, put a flag in the sand and say, 'here's a safe space, come on in, no judgment and, we will help however we can,'" Potenzini said.

Between Potenzini and Smolter, the negative comments come in abundance — they're used to it. However, it's the comments that tell them because of Lion's Den's services, they now feel as though they deserve pleasure, Smolter said. Or maybe a customer learned something about themselves that they didn't know their entire life, Potenzini explained, and those are the ones who make their jobs worth every fight they encounter.

As Lion's Den rounds out its 50th year, the company looks forward to continuing to normalize the conversation of sexual health.

That includes on the south side of Indianapolis.

"I am really proud to work for a company that is normalizing this conversation and normalizing just all the different interests that go along with discovering your sexuality and taking care of sexual wellness, so I hope that those that were upset by our location being there come in!" Smolter said.

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at shakkira.harris@wrtv.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.