Separation of church and sex shop: Could there be common ground?

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Above: Sophia Raymond posted a message on Facebook to help clarify her intentions. Click to watch.

Sex sells. That is a fact of life. So, I wasn’t too surprised to see the “sex shop” story making the local news rounds in advance of tonight’s Zoning Board meeting.

But something about the name of the woman requesting a variance for the Manchester Street storefront in question, Sophia Raymond, was familiar to me.

Turns out I know her.

Sophia Raymond.
Sophia Raymond

We met back in October. She was about to go “Over the Edge” of the Brady-Sullivan Tower on Elm Street to raise money for the American Cancer Society. I did a short video interview with her about her motivation. Raymond told me it was about facing her fears.

One of them was heights. Another, spiders.

But she was mostly facing down the fear that cancer brings along with it when it enters your life, uninvited. She is an eight-year survivor of pancreatic cancer, which motivated her to make the most of the life she has left to live. As a wife and mother of five, she’s looking forward to plenty of thrills and spills yet to come.

Rappelling down a 12-story building was a good way to remind herself how beautiful life can be from out on an occasional limb.

Proximity of proposed "Embrace" intimate adult products store on Manchester Street, and the Zeal Movement church on Chestnut Street.
Proximity of proposed “Embrace” intimate adult products store on Manchester Street, and the Zeal Movement church on Chestnut Street.

Tonight Raymond will be out on a different kind of limb. The variance she seeks is from an ordinance on the books that prevents a “sexually-oriented business” from being within 500 feet of a church, or about 1½ football fields, for perspective.

As the crow flies, the space she’s hoping to open on Manchester Street technically encroaches on The Zeal Movement, a non-denominational church that operates from the former Manchester Police Department on Chestnut Street. It’s a space that is also home to 1269 Cafe, a non-profit outreach to those who are struggling, homeless or just down on their luck.

Zeal Pastor Jesse Clinton says he’s met with Raymond about the shop she’s proposing. She reached out to him to discuss the situation, including the fact that the one thing that currently stands between Raymond and her proposed shop is his church. It’s been hard to find a suitable space, she says.

“The issue is that the strict ordinances for ‘sexually-oriented’ businesses are tough. I’ve been looking for over a year. I am limited to the CBD district, and within that, there are restrictions about certain distances from churches, schools, parks, and like business. So there isn’t a lot to choose from, it narrows it down a ton,” Raymond says. “This is the first place that I have come across that only has one grievance.”

Clinton says he is neither for nor against the proposed business.

As a man with a ministry in the heart of a city under siege by poverty and drugs, he is always looking for lost souls in need of redirection. He’s actually intrigued by Raymond’s motivation, and would like to explore the possibilities for collaboration of some sort, as two people who care about their community – if she can get over the variance hurdle.

They wonder if somewhere in the 500 feet between Manchester and Chestnut streets there may be some common ground for outreach.

To clarify the church’s position, Clinton has posted a public response to the controversy on the Zeal Movement Facebook page

You see, long before surviving cancer, Raymond, 36, survived years of sexual abuse, starting around age 5. It’s not something she’s talked a lot about until she started meeting other women with similar stories.

“The shop was first envisioned as a place women could come in and feel comfortable, more like a boutique than a sex shop. Most businesses that specialize in sexual merchandise are not women-friendly,” says Raymond, who got started selling personal pleasure products through home parties more than 14 years ago.

As her own journey of healing progressed, she found she wasn’t traveling alone. Many of the women who were buying products from her confided their own stories of sexual abuse or trauma.

I connected with so many women in this business that felt compelled and comfortable enough to share their most private and traumatic experiences with me. I realized that the store wasn’t just about helping people have healthy sexual relationships, or women especially being more comfortable with their sexuality, but that it provided a platform to help connect women to the help they need for their own healing,” says Raymond.

The overwhelming interest from the news media this week has taken her by surprise. She isn’t trying to do anything controversial.

Let’s be honest. Sex is part of life.

We live in a world where it’s quite possible your grandmother has read “50 Shades of Gray” because it was on her book club list. Sex toys are a $15 billion per year industry, and New Hampshire was ranked last year by those who rank such things as among the Top 6 states for sex toy sales. And, NH is totally porn friendly.

But porn is not the point, here.

Some oone pointed out that there’s already one adult “sex shop” downtown, Forbidden Fruit on Amherst Street, with a stated mission of “Empowering both men and woman to embrace their sexuality.

That is actually another reason why Raymond sees room for her shop in Manchester’s business district: Her mission isn’t just to reaffirm the joy of sex. She will be presenting a name change tonight for her proposed business, from Provocative Indulgence, to Embrace.

Embracing human sexuality is something that should bring pleasure, and for Raymond, selling products that encourage that mission also means empowering victims of sexual violence to reclaim their lives – mind, body and spirit.

“People have asked me why would sexual abuse victims come to a store like mine for help, and I see where they are coming from. But statistically, a very large portion of clients already coming to me –  and who support my idea – are victims of sexual misconduct,” says Raymond, as she cites national statistics that indicate 1-in-4 women have been victimized sexually.

“I am simply providing another place where they can get resources and support,” says Raymond.

The Zoning Board meets at 6 p.m. in the Aldermanic Chambers at City Hall. Below is a version of the store description submitted with the variance application.

About Carol Robidoux 5785 Articles
Journalist and editor of, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.