Sex Shop Owner to Run for Oakland City Council
Nenna Joiner is running for councilmember of Oakland’s District 4, a combination of hills and flatlands, wealth and wage workers. District 4 is home to an inarguably diverse voting range. It includes Montclair, Redwood Heights, Laurel, Glenview and the Dimond District, with California State Route 13 running up the middle.
I asked Nenna to describe who she represents.
“I feel I represent the people bullied into thinking they’re not good enough. People who have the ability to do so, so much, like kids. They get told they’re this or they’re that, and they internalize it. I feel I represent that spirit deep inside of us we’re afraid to let out. Homeless people, they may be afraid. Addicts may be afraid. Incarcerated people may be afraid. We’re afraid to speak up because no one will believe us. I represent the person who thinks they’re not qualified, yet they are.”
Nenna stands for anyone pushed to the margins of society, especially those prevented from representing themselves or their communities. She wants people to step out of that box they’re placed in as immigrants, as refugees, as homeless people, as trans people.
“And I think that leads to an attitude in the community where people say, ‘I can’t get this done,’ or ‘Why isn’t the city doing something?’ We’re all qualified for the solution. I think if we start to open that up and really talk about that, it can actually encourage more people to take part in the community and stop looking to people who only seem qualified.”
Nenna Joiner is running for office
Originally from Las Vegas, Nevada, Nenna would’ve done this a long time ago. There’s no shortage of boldness on her end. Nenna opened Feelmore, a successful sex shop with locations in Berkeley and North Oakland, in 2011. “But owning a sex shop—I know it sounds funny,” she said when we spoke over the phone last week, “but there’s also shame.”
She grew up knowing how divisive a political tool shame can be. Nevada is unique in being the only state that allows legal sex work. Even so, there are laws in place to limit its perceived flagrancy. “In Clark County we didn’t have sex work because the state ordinance was, if the population was over 400,000, you couldn’t have it. Other counties did, so for me as a kid, seeing women getting on the Greyhound going north, I knew it was about sex work.”
Nenna isn’t shy about her experiences in the adult film industry, nor should she be. You could wring your hands until they’re dust. Sex work would still be a real and valid business. “I can understand other sex workers who aren’t able to move on and do something else, or do sex work and something else, and how it might feel with the eyes of the community on them, and ‘what people say.’ I’m not going to hide what has clothed me, fed me, and taken care of me.”
A stereotype exists that you have to choose a certain path and stick to it. How often we forget that the choices we make in life spawn paths which inevitably intersect.
“It’s one thing to be retail and sell thirteen inches, but it’s another to say, ‘Look, I’m qualified to do civic work, and I don’t have to hide who I am.’”
The “why” of running
“I definitely want to make the city safer for women. And I think when we do that, we make it safer for everybody. I want to make sure people can walk at night.”
Oakland is famous for many reasons. A low crime rate isn’t one of them. In January 2022, the San Francisco Chronicle gathered and released Oakland’s recent crime statistics. “Capt. Roland Holmgren, who works in OPD’s violent crimes unit, said that the department had observed “a significant increase” in assaults and homicides starting around 2020, in keeping with national trends.”
Joiner is calling for an increase in public safety measures. “Attorney Scott Weiner came up with the 4AM-rule, and that’s awesome, but now we’ve got to make sure the lighting is there. We have to make sure public transportation is there for us. I love to ride the bus,” she said. “I love the bus routes I take, but what if I want to ride a bus at ten o’clock at night? Or ride my bike? Or take a walk? It’s not as safe.”
“Oakland has a customer service issue.”
“Oakland is a beautiful place,” she told me, “and we have an opportunity to be a lot more inclusive, to be more responsive to people’s needs. I think Oakland has a customer service issue. We have an opportunity to get it done, and the simple things? We see that they’re simple, but something is broken.”
I asked if the sex work culture in her home state of Nevada exemplified successful “radical” legislature.
“When the Health Departments came in to test and make sure conditions were good for employees, like, I grew up with that. I know we can’t really do that here, but we can get to the point of decriminalizing sex workers. We can work with that population and say, ‘Look, let’s not do it around people’s homes.’”
I thought of the vintage sex toys people brought into Nenna’s shop when it opened, antique vibrators, electro-static machines. They brought them in from basements, garages, musty hall closets, because now there was a safe place to have them.
“We have to have real conversations about that. What can we do?”
“One thing I learned from running a sex shop: people just want to be seen. To make you feel seen, heard, acknowledged, that’s really hard for businesses to do, for communities to do. But there are multiple ways you can do that beyond just saying hi to a person. I think the visibility I have from just doing the work around sex work and advocacy around small business is that one, you have to be a safe space for people to talk to even as a politician. How many of us have gone to our politicians and not been able to talk about anything?”
Finally, my last request for Nenna before we ended our talk was for her favorite thing about Oakland.
I heard her blushing through her laughter. “I’ve always wanted a chauffeur—and my partner laughs at me,” she says, “but it’s the bus. It was my only mode of transportation when I first got here in ‘94. That bus is protected. It can go in the hood, it can go through encampments, it can go through the hills, it can go through streets that aren’t even operating, and no one’s gonna really mess with the bus.”
“You get to relax,” she added. “You get to see parts of Oakland that some people never want to drive through. That bus should be protected in the City of Oakland.”
Oakland residents may vote to add Nenna Joiner to the City Council District 4 seat this November 8th.