By MATT PARSONS/Montana State News
To some, Billy McWilliams’s life might look like a delicate balancing act. As the Chairman of the Gallatin County Democratic Central Committee he is responsible for organizing his party’s election efforts and trying to push through a liberal agenda not necessarily compatible with a majority of Montanans. But he’s also a business owner. And he understands a thing or two about how taxes and regulation affect the private sector.
Back in 1981, his business, formerly Miss Kitty’s, was grandfathered into zoning that prohibits his type of retail operation from peddling his wares within the city of Bozeman. It’s the same fine line McWilliams must walk every day of his life, acknowledging peoples’ preconceived notions, while trying to get them to open up and talk about their most intimate desires.
McWilliams’s passion is “talking to people,” he says as he kicks back behind the front counter of his downtown Bozeman shop. He is surrounded by inventory that’s as unique to Bozeman as he is. McWilliams somehow seems to melt into the background in his fading brown leather vest, button down shirt and blue jeans. Shocks of grey encroach on a mop of youthful brown hair on top of his head. Sporty glasses make him look like he is ready for a road biking race. A thick, gold wedding band graces his finger, announcing his devotion to one woman, Jane, for the past 22 years.
When asked what Jane thinks of his chosen profession he says, “she has mixed feelings about what I do. She’s happy that I’ve found something I love, but she’s not always thrilled about the perception that ours is the test bedroom for all the new sex toys.” McWilliams laughs a sort of soft, raspy laugh. It’s one completely absent of shame. After all, he’s the owner of Erotique, Bozeman’s only porn shop.
McWilliams doesn’t seem like the confrontational type, yet he has chosen what some would consider a volatile mixture of public advocacy and porn as his life’s work. “Sex is a lot like politics,” he says, “it’s just a different kind of f—ing.” His next chuckle has a hint of irony in it.
Two attractive women walk in the store and McWilliams offers them a “hello.” His manner is engaging. He applies just the right amount of charm to get them to drop their guard and in less than thirty seconds he has one of them holding a vibrator cleverly disguised as lipstick.
“See, now press the button on the bottom.” The vibrator comes to life. “Now press it again,” McWilliams urges her. It begins to buzz louder.
“Oh my. That’s, um, powerful.”
“Exceeding expectations” is how McWilliams continues to grow his clientele. “People don’t expect to get me when they walk into a sex shop. In 25 years I’ve sold over 35,000 vibrators. I’m responsible for more orgasms than any other man in Bozeman history.” But what brings many of McWilliams’s customers in isn’t the large selection of adult DVD’s or the sexy lingerie. It’s McWilliams and his eclectic staff that are probably the biggest draw at Erotique.
“What I’ve learned from Billy is that the more you give, the more you get back,” says Rio Gonzalez, an Erotique employee of five years. “He’s very involved in the community, like the Sweet Pea Festival. He’s always winning prizes for his sweet peas. He’s some kind of green thumb with them and he’s even been a judge for the flower show.”
“But,” Gonzalez adds, “he also understands that taking care of yourself as an individual is the best way to take care of a business. Kind of like the way a good farmer takes care of the land and the land is productive, Billy takes care of his customers and that keeps people coming back in.”
McWilliams seems to have a gift for listening to his customers. Perhaps it’s the time he spent at the Help Center as a crisis line volunteer for nearly three decades that has cultivated this gift. Hearing hundreds of crisis stories has given McWilliams sensitivity to the needs of people – women in particular. “I’ve found you can talk to anyone about anything if you just take the judgment out of it,” he says.
This philosophy has translated well into his day job. His approach is direct and matter of fact. “I’m here to help my customers with their imagination. I remind people that fantasy and reality are two very different things, but that doesn’t mean that fantasies are bad.”
McWilliams believes that your private fantasies are your own, but being able to communicate your desires is an essential part of a healthy sexual relationship. “Being honest means directly communicating your innermost feelings,” McWilliams says. “Everyone feels guilty about some aspect of their sexuality. That guilt turns into shame when you can’t express your sexuality. Being repressed isn’t healthy. It’s what ruins relationships.”
On the other side of town, Robert McWilliams, Billy’s identical twin brother, is literally feeding Bozeman residents their second deadly sin – gluttony. As the owner of Granny’s Donuts, the younger (by a minute or so) McWilliams serves a hearty dose of dry wit with his made-from-scratch morning treats. And while he says that he and his brother are in the same business – making people happy – he also says that working at Erotique means “approaching a customer with discretion. It takes a different demeanor. You definitely have to be careful not to come off as creepy. In a way what we’re selling at Erotique is discretion.”
Robert McWilliams “pitches in,” occasionally, selling Hustler and handcuffs when his brother needs him. “It was mostly just me and the staff while Billy was out campaigning for the November elections. He was barely here. I think it took a toll on him.”
“We moved around a lot when we were kids,” Robert McWilliams says. Their father was in the Air Force. “I think Billy really picked up a lot of the European sensibilities. He definitely has a more cosmopolitan view of things.” All that moving around gave the McWilliams brothers a unique view of culture. “We’re both Eagle Scouts,” Robert McWilliams says, recognizing his brother’s (and at the same time his own) achievement of the highest honor a Boy Scout can receive, “but I have more merit badges.”
Whereas Robert McWilliams seems understated, Billy McWilliams is almost flamboyantly outgoing, a personality trait he seems to carry with him everywhere he goes. McWilliams doesn’t see a huge difference between politics and what he calls the latest sexual revolution taking place in the bedrooms in Gallatin County. In fact, they are inextricable, particularly when it comes to women’s rights. “The best thing we could do for our society is to treat our women better. I’m talking about women’s sexual and political freedom. When women are in control of their own bodies there is less violence and unwanted pregnancy.”
McWilliams is proud of what he has accomplished in three years as the party’s chairman. He says there has been a dramatic shift in support to more liberal policies and candidates in Bozeman and Gallatin County. While Montana as a whole is far from becoming a blue state, McWilliams says that under his watch the number of votes for democratic candidates in his county has increased dramatically.
It may seem as if McWilliams has a tendency to focus on women both in politics and business. But he has as much, if not more, empathy for men as for women. “Men are generally more repressed. They don’t have healthy role models and very little honest communication takes place between them. Two heterosexual guys can’t talk openly about their sexuality like most women can. There is this fear that they might be labeled ‘gay.’”
Still, McWilliams is quick to point out the obvious difference between the sexes. “Men are one-stage creatures. The blood flows down and they’re ready. But women are three or four stages at least. It’s different for them. They are potentially going to let another person inside their body, so they need to be prepared for that. Basically, what we try to do is slow down the men and speed up the women.”
“Sex is healthy and orgasm is important,” McWilliams says. Orgasm produces oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” which scientists have shown generates trust and empathy in people. “It creates an environment in which partners can develop an intimacy which is more natural, strengthening the bonds in their relationship. It also improves your mood and reduces stress and anxiety naturally.”
The next step for McWilliams and Erotique is to open an online version of the Bozeman store. McWilliams believes that the internet, even with its anonymity, huge variety and low prices, hasn’t hurt his brick-and-mortar business. “People have found information online and discovered they are more normal than they thought. Sex is a lot more mainstream now thanks in part to the web. It has opened up a new sexual revolution. I’ve got better educated customers now.”
McWilliams sees sex as an essential component of anyone’s life. Even if you’re not having it, it affects you. “Sexuality is the great leveler. Everyone wants to be desired,” he says. In that way, sex and politics aren’t that different.
– Edited by Alex Komsthoeft