I tend to just throw myself into the situation at hand and rapidly adapt based on what’s needed, even if I’m operating below my optimal level. I think I force myself to perform often, but I don’t think that’s very healthy. Getting away from my phone helps, as does having a partner I can talk through any concerns before going into a situation. I consult with a lot of people to get advice, and even if I don’t take their advice, it keeps me on track and my mind open. Besides that, I just make sure that the space I’m in (if I have control over that) is a comfortable place where I have everything I need, like water, a snack, and anything else I might need.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zoe Ligon.
Zoë Ligon is a Detroit-based sex educator, journalist and artist who is also the proprietor of progressive online sex toy emporium, Spectrum Boutique, where she has made it her life’s work to blast away the stigmas and misinformation that prevent us from having the amazing sex we all deserve. She also is the co-host of Hot Brain, a sex podcast she records with her partner. Zoë has a background in social psychology and inclusive pleasure-focused sex education. Her book Carnal Knowledge comes out September 22nd and is available for preorder.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Igrew up as an only child, yet privacy was hard to find, so I never masturbated or explored my body. I was taught about my period and knew I could ask my mom questions, but I never felt comfortable doing so. I avoided sexuality because my dad made me feel very uncomfortable — something I now know is called “covert incest”. I dove into sexual relationships at the age of 14, and very pressured into sex acts that I didn’t know how to negotiate or consent to. Sex and I got off to a bad start, but once I began living alone at age 18, I began exploring my body, and became orgasmic at age 19 with the help of… sex toys!! This is one of the many reasons sex toys are so important to me — they helped me actually experience pleasure all on my own, and still do to this day.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but not because I like business leadership. I just knew that I never wanted anyone to have control over me and my finances. I had no idea how stressful it would be to run a company. I doubted my power to succeed. I worked for a different sex toy retailer before starting Spectrum and felt that if I were able to sell sex toys on my terms, that I would change a lot about how I go about it. The joy of helping people find toys that make them feel good is something that just never gets old for me, and it was an easy decision to commit to running my own sex toy business instead of someone else’s.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I think it’s important to be transparent about financials, especially in an industry where loans are hard to come by without a lot of strings attached. My father died unexpectedly in 2014, and I inherited his savings. I was 22 at the time and making a pretty low hourly wage, and I knew that I wanted to invest this money into something that would help support me long term. It is very weird to receive money that gives you freedom from someone who also hurt you so much and restricted your freedom. Even if my relationship with him was incredibly difficult and painful, he did encourage me to be a strong and independent adult, while my mom’s influence balanced out that intensity to make me a kinder, more compassionate person. Outside of my immediate family, it was the countless sex educators and adult performers I met through my other work in sex toy retail that taught me how to feel comfortable and confident in my skin. I only wish I had known them earlier when I was struggling with my access to pleasure.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I had no idea that nearly every product already had product shots available from the brands — I tried to reinvent the wheel by shooting EVERY toy in every color in-house, and that cost me a lot of money I didn’t need to spend in the early days. Now I know that having unique photography is absolutely a bonus, but certainly not necessary. Sometimes there is a very simple solution to tasks that seem overwhelming, but no one will tell you unless you consult with someone and ask.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
No amount of money, popularity, or success will make you happy, you have to make you happy. I am still working on finding happiness for myself. I thought that people would like me if I was successful, and if people liked me more, I’d be happier. You must be content with yourself and your ability as it stands right now — instead of expecting happiness to come with the next promotion, pay raise, or some type of social validation. If you work tirelessly, you may find money and success, but you will slowly isolate yourself from everyone you love, including that person/soul living within you. Don’t get me wrong — under capitalism, money is survival, but it won’t fix whatever troubles you deep down inside.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Female Ejaculation & the G-Spot was a book I read early on in my exploration of my body. What I loved about the book was that it laid out step by step instructions on locating the g-spot and stimulating yourself to ejaculate in a very clear and easy to read manner. It unlocked a LOT of knowledge about my anatomy in succinct terms I hadn’t heard elsewhere — like the idea of the g-spot’s “gutters” on either side which help you find the boundaries of the area where the g-spot lies. While it’s an older book now, I still recommend that book to anyone who wants a companion guide to squirting!
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“You can please some of the people all the time, or all the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time.” I have struggled with my need to be liked by people, but in reality, people just aren’t always going to like you and there’s nothing you can do to change that, no matter who you are. You have to be comfortable being disliked, because it’s unavoidable, especially when you are a visible person on the internet. I think the need to be liked is very selfish and unrealistic, so I must remind myself that if I’m beating myself up over other people’s opinions, it’s a waste of time. It’s important to separate personal opinions from earnest critique and criticism that helps us grow. I have had to learn how to see criticism as a gift and not “hatred”, because if someone is telling you the truth in a constructive way, that’s a very helpful insight. They probably care a great deal about you if they’re sharing this with you.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I really enjoy recording Hot Brain, my podcast with my boyfriend Mark. We are recording several interviews with other people in the sex industry, and it’s been lovely to get to feature other voices on our podcast. Most of the interviews are with adult performers, as well as other people from the industry who aren’t performers. Porn heavily impacts sexuality in the 21st century more than ever. Porn is awesome, but people lack the context to understand how what they see on a screen doesn’t reflect what sex is actually like, and I hope that more interviews with people who create porn will help people appreciate porn as entertainment instead of assuming that’s what real sex is like.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
Most of my coping mechanisms have not been healthy throughout my life, but I’m getting to a place where my tools for stress management are healthier! First off, I’m a daily weed smoker. I’m not stoned all day, usually just at night, or I’d never get work done. I do need to “unplug” my brain at the end of the day, and cannabis helps me force-quit my work brain. Besides that, exercise — specifically hiking, mountain biking, or snowshoeing/cross country skiing in the winter. My boyfriend and I adopted a dog this past summer, and our pup Randy has changed my life for the better. It’s stressful to care for a creature, but I see it as good healthy stress of caring for a living creature — not business anxieties and rumination.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Great question, I tend to just throw myself into the situation at hand and rapidly adapt based on what’s needed, even if I’m operating below my optimal level. I think I force myself to perform often, but I don’t think that’s very healthy. Getting away from my phone helps, as does having a partner I can talk through any concerns before going into a situation. I consult with a lot of people to get advice, and even if I don’t take their advice, it keeps me on track and my mind open. Besides that, I just make sure that the space I’m in (if I have control over that) is a comfortable place where I have everything I need, like water, a snack, and anything else I might need.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I do a lot of stretching and foam-rolling before bed, but I’m usually too energized to do that in the middle of the day. It helps me go to sleep! Sometimes I fall asleep on the floor at the foot of my bed while stretching. And while COVID makes this an impossible activity, I used to sauna on an almost daily basis. If I can handle a hot ass room for an hour, I can more easily handle other high-pressure stuff life throws my way. It’s like an internal exercise in anxiety de-escalation.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I see work as a (stressful) game. I don’t think it’s necessarily the right mindset because it’s very wound up in capitalism and makes me treat rest like a reward when it’s a basic need. Getting emails to 0 is a game for instance, but you have to be okay with never getting to 0. I am great at motivating myself to work, not so much to rest. My mental health issues involve anxiety, obsessions, and rumination. It’s kind of like a silver lining to having a brain that never turns off, you get work done… but that doesn’t lead to happiness. Whenever I’m praised for my work ethic, I just remind people that it’s not necessarily coming from a healthy place, it’s a distraction from my other issues. I know that’s not advice, but it’s the truth.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
While it’s easier said than done, journaling is one habit that has only provided me with helpful insight into my brain. I used to just write down my dreams, then I began only writing when I was very upset about something. Ideally, this is something I’d do on a weekly or semi-daily basis, but even monthly check-ins with my journal help track my thoughts and mental health. This was, of course, recommended to me by my therapist, and it’s helped me identify many sources of mental anguish.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
This certainly is not advice that works for everyone, but I force myself to power through a lot of things. It’s a learned trauma survival mindset thing for me, unfortunately. I think a certain generation detests the “pick yourself up from your bootstraps” mentality because it was something their parents kept telling them, but I was never told that. I just tell myself that. For instance, I don’t like journaling, but I know it helps me. I just remind myself it’s going to make me feel better in the end, and then I make myself go sit down and do it. This doesn’t work when I am truly depressed, however. I don’t have the key to stopping bad habits, but because I like games (as I mentioned earlier) it is easier for me to stop a bad habit when I turn it into one. For instance, not drinking alcohol is easier if I have a set goal on how long I wish to avoid alcohol. Then it becomes a game of honoring the goal I set for myself and looking forward to the reward of a clearer mind (and bowels). And if I fail, that’s okay, it’s pretty low stakes for me. I don’t punish myself. Just trying is a step towards the goal.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
There are so many different types of flow states, I particularly enjoy the flow states of dancing, gaming, and mountain biking. The common thread is that it takes my brain off of the rumination and anxiety track, and when it’s a physical activity like dancing, it puts me into my body and out of my head. I think that we should strive to get a wide variety of flow states in our lives. If I were just gaming, I wouldn’t be connecting to my body’s flow, just my brain’s flow. And if it were just physical activity flow, I wouldn’t be exercising my puzzle-solving brain muscles. All of this requires some alone time, however. It’s hard to flow when you’re also trying to communicate with someone and taking the focus off of yourself. So, go venture out into the middle of nowhere if that’s what it takes for you to have space to flow!
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
That’s a big question, especially right now in 2020. I would rather be supporting existing movements than inspiring new ones. There are too many injustices in our world for me to begin to know where to start. Sexuality intersects with every other injustice, and since that’s my wheelhouse, I see racial justice, disability justice, LGBTQ+ justice, etc. through the lens of intimacy, communication, and (all kinds of) relationships. Right now, I have been thinking a lot about how we are still unable to have an honest conversation about abuse and how it manifests when there is power over someone else. In capitalism, this is unavoidable. Outside of our carceral system (which is modern slavery), how do we handle abuse? Restorative and transformative justice can help, but they are not a catch-all solution. We want to lock up predators and abusers but have no way to address the root issues of where the cycles of abuse begin in our communities… and we certainly don’t have the mental health resources and funding to get there right now. This matters to me as a childhood sexual abuse survivor, but that applies to all types of abuse: abuse from larger systems in our government and (in)justice system against marginalized identities, abuse towards the land as a species, as well as abuse on an individual level. I see it as the same abuse because it is all connected. I guess I just want us to talk about all the things we’ve been too afraid to or too discouraged to talk about, and sexuality is just one doorway into that conversation.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
One of my favorite writers is Jon Ronson, I love his style of journalism. He already knows I’m a fan! 🙂
How can our readers further follow your work online?
@thongria for my work, @shopspectrumboutique for the shop
You can also listen to my podcast Hot Brain with my boyfriend MarkHERE
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.