Sex Heroes is an ongoing HuffPost Q&A series by Voices Editorial Director Noah Michelson that explores the lives and experiences of individuals who are challenging, and thereby changing, mainstream culture’s understanding of sex and sexuality.
Tykables, the only brick and mortar storefront in the United States dedicated to adult baby diaper lovers (ABDL), is located in Mount Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. Its customers, John-Michael Williams, the store's owner says, include those ABDL who have a fetish or sexual interest in dressing like or pretending to be a baby; people who have a medical need for adult diapers and enjoy the brand’s options; and individuals, some of whom are on the autism spectrum, who find the diapers and child-style clothing provide a sense of comfort and stress relief.
To be clear, those in the ABDL community are not interested in sexual contact with children or babies, as some people mistakenly believe, but are interested in items and activities related to behaving like or pretending to be children. What’s more, some ABDL aren’t interested in role playing as a child at all and instead find pleasure in the texture or sound or feeling of clothing and pieces associated with the community.
Saying that people who identify as ABDL are misunderstood and maligned would be a colossal understatement. Even worse, not only do they face ridicule for having desires or inclinations that exist outside of what is considered by mainstream culture to “normal,” there are few places beyond the internet to express their identity, find community or buy goods related to their interests.
For those reasons, the mere existence of Tykables, which offers all three, is something of a marvel. What’s even more incredible to me, though, is that aside from some Mount Prospect residents who initially expressed concern about the storefront after it opened last spring, it’s operated for almost a year without incident. In fact, Williams recently told me that he hasn’t even experienced so much as someone ringing the doorbell and running away.
Williams chatted with me last week about what it’s like to visit the Tykables store, the biggest misconceptions about being an ABDL and much more.
The Huffington Post: Tell me about the typical Tykables customer.
John-Michael Williams: Our storefront is no different than our actual brand. There are really three main categories of people that we sell to: The adult baby diaper lover (ABDL) community. Then, we also have a lot of people who are incontinent or require, physically, to wear diapers, and who prefer our style and branding. And then the third category includes people on the autistic spectrum. They prefer our products over some of the medical products because we don’t focus on the medical aspect — we actually help them remove some of that stigma that’s associated with these products.
What does the store offer?
It’s designed in a very playful way. It looks very much like a nursery, with oversize baby items, like a seven-and-a-half-foot crib and an oversize rocking horse, among our other things around the store. And we have our diapers and our full line of clothing items: our Snappies bodysuits, our denim jeans that we make, our padded briefs and our diaper line.
Walk me through the experience of visiting the Tykables store.
[The experience] really depends on the person, but it’s in many ways like going to any other retail store. A lot of people come in here and want to talk to someone who is in the ABDL community. We get a lot of people who have never met anybody [who is also an ABDL] and who might be nervous about meeting other people [in the community]. This is a safe space for them to do that because it’s public, but it’s not. We get a lot of people that really don’t know anybody else [in the community], so, they’ll talk to us, they’ll buy our products. We get a lot of people who will do that before they go to one of the [ABDL meet ups that happen in Chicago] or even just before meeting another person [in the community].
There seems to be a lot of shame for many people with these kind of interests or desires or inclinations. Finding a community of likeminded individuals and a welcoming place like Tykables must be really important for them.
Our brand provides an actual location [to visit]. People come in and talk to us, get more comfortable and then consider going to some of the events we sponsor.
Whether you look at it from a fetish aspect or not, a lot of people feel shamed by having sex that is not the traditional, missionary man and woman — or man and man or woman and woman, perhaps — style sex. I find that odd. I find it strange that you can feel shame in something that makes you feel pleasure. I can’t understand that mentality. I get that people feel that way — I just don’t understand why. When people come here, sometimes we talk about that: what about it for them, do they get out of it? Everyone wants to fit in, everyone wants to be welcomed, everyone wants to feel loved — that’s something we all want. And when you’re different, it makes it difficult. And if you feel that others don’t value you, you might not value yourself and that’s very detrimental and very hurtful to one’s self. So anytime we talk to anyone here we always try and be as open and friendly as possible. To paraphrase RuPaul, “If you can’t love yourself, how the fuck is somebody else going to love you?” You have to love who you are, you have to be happy with who you are as the first step in accepting yourself or finding a relationship with somebody else. How can you expect someone else to love and accept you if you don’t even do it?
Tell me more about the distinction between those who are interested in adult baby diapers for a sexual or fetish reason and those who are into them for other reasons.
From a fetish or sexual standpoint, it’s pretty self-explanatory. They are aroused sexually, either through role play or from the product itself — the sound, texture or feeling. Or, for some people, there’s a humiliation aspect. It could be any one of those things, or something else I haven’t mentioned. It’s a really individual thing.
But it has nothing to do with children. I want to make sure we’re making that very clear. This is about wanting to act like or be children, not wanting to be with children, correct?
Absolutely. It has nothing to do with actual children. The gratification comes from the objects or the role play and the persons themselves “being” the child. From a fetish standpoint it could be like… being treated as a child can be a degrading thing. If someone has a sexual response to being degraded, then being treated as an infant can be very embarrassing.
Tell me about the non-fetish side of it.
For people who are into it for non-sexual reasons, it’s more of an emotional response rather than a sexual stimulus. There’s a comforting aspect for them. A lot of the things we offer are just that — they’re meant to be comforting. They’re meant to be something innocent. So, as far as these people go, there are two real segments in that crowd: There are people who are on the autism spectrum, and then those who are not but who still find it comforting. People who are autistic or more specifically have Asperger syndrome, often times have social anxiety, and products like our can offer a security blanket of sorts which help them deal with stress or anxiety. For those who aren’t autistic, it can also be a way for them to forget about their cares — to be a stress release. It really is as simple as that for a lot of people. The biggest thing as far as stress relief comes from the actual product themselves. It’s basically an accessory to the moment, whether it be the diapers or anything else that we have. And some people who are incontinent buy our products because they remove that stigma for them. It brings back some of the innocence from childhood rather than being a medical product or rather than being an overtly fetish product. It’s also very personal for different people. I could probably give you a thousand different answers and I still wouldn’t cover all of them.
What are some of the biggest myths or misconceptions about adult baby diaper lovers?
You touched on the first one already: that it involves children and it does not. That’s the biggest misunderstanding. I think that most people’s first reaction isn’t that it does involve children, it’s just that it might. They didn’t want to assume that it did, but that’s the first place that they went to. And I can kind of understand that but we answer this question all the time: no. It doesn’t. From a fetish side, people think that if someone is a ABDL, they must be into water sports or scat, which is not true. I know a large portion of people don’t actually enjoy using the product, it’s just about wearing it. They’re not looking to use the product. In fact, most people in the community, whether they have a fetish or not, do not use the products to go “number two.” People think that because you’re wearing a diaper, you must be using it and using it fully ― no. Not true.
What would you say to someone who says if you’re an ABDL, then you’re sick or deviant or that this is not sexually healthy?
Without any additional context, that could be answered in several different ways. The first question I’d ask is “where is this coming from?” because people can be dealing with a lot of internal hate sometimes. So is this someone who actually might be an ABDL but doesn’t want to accept that? Being a gay man from the South, I’ve met a lot of gay men who are not OK with gay people. But from the another perspective, you just have to ignore it. I hate to say, “maybe they’ll go away,” but in some cases, when someone else cares so much about what I do or the sex that I have, it’s like “do you really think you’re going to win this argument?” If somebody cares enough about what you do in your bedroom to complain about it when they’re not even involved, do you think that there’s a logical rationale behind that? You can tell them whatever you want — the common response would be, “we disagree.” I don’t know that you can ever convince some people otherwise. You be polite and you can disagree with them but in some cases… if they don’t actually want to have a real conversation and ask the questions, I don’t even bother trying to convince them because I don’t think I could.
What has been your proudest moment since opening Tykables?
It’s not any one particular moment, it’s the one moment that happens all the time. It’s the moment when people thank us for being so open and for making products that make them feel better about themselves. We get thanked all the time but once in a while you get an email that is just so personal and you can tell that you actually made them feel so good — the products that we make, the events that we go to, the events that we sponsor and put on — when something we do actually makes a difference in someone’s life, that’s it. And thankfully, it’s happened frequently but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s that one thing that makes it worthwhile. You always have to deal with customer service issues. You always have to pay the bills and the taxes. There are all of these things you have to do when you’re in business. Sometimes you there’s that moment when you’re about to throw your computer across the room and then you get that email and you think, “OK. It’s OK. It was worth it today.”
What would you say to someone reading this right now who’s interested in the ABDL community but hasn’t been able to take part in it or may be scared to take that first step?
My advice is you have to be comfortable with who you are. As long as whatever you’re doing isn’t harming you or someone else, then there’s no reason not to enjoy. As I said before, there’s no reason to feel shame in pleasure. If you deny yourself pleasure, it’s a horrible thing. About four years ago Dan Savage was talking about one of the companies that I owned at the time, it was a social networking site, and I think he said it best: whether straight or gay, mainstream or not, sex is bizarre. We all look silly doing it. We all look silly in the pursuit of it. We do silly and stupid things in the pursuit of it. But when it comes down to the enjoyment of pleasure and sex, it doesn’t matter if we look funny or not. And he basically ended it by saying he would never laugh at an adult baby but he hoped that he could laugh with one about everything that we do that’s bizarre and funny. And at the same time, don’t deny yourself pleasure because you fear someone might make fun of you or you fear rejection. Don’t miss out on something that makes you happy because of fear.
For more information about Tykables, head here.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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