A question I’m often asked when I say I’ve worked at a sex shop before is “What is it like?”—and it’s often a loaded question. It was an experience full of positives, some negatives and yes, there are definitely stories to tell. Ultimately, my experience is one that emphasizes the importance of communication.
One of the most fulfilling lessons of working at a sex shop—in addition to getting comfortable talking about sex—is understanding what sex positivity truly means in practice.
Oftentimes, I catch myself in public settings because it’s so easy to be desensitized to talking about sex, and I have to remember my colleagues aren’t always as forthcoming. Questions about what you’re into may be discussed more often online than in-person but, while working at a sex shop, it’s a necessary question that you need to ask every customer that walks through those doors. At the end of the day, you are an employee whose job is to sell people products they’ll enjoy.
This question can cause friction when a customer is looking to purchase a gift for someone else. Usually when a customer isn’t shopping for themselves, they can be divided into two classes of people: those who shop for what they want their partner to do, and those who think that we employees are sexual psychics who can magically identify what their partner is into for them.
A memorable experience was an individual approaching the counter to ask in a jovial tone, “So, uh, what do girls like? What can I get my girl, something she’d be into?”
My initial question is one I had come to repeat quite often during my tenure, “I don’t know, have you asked?” The look on his face was something of utter confusion and disappointment.
“But…but you guys work here right? Don’t you know what people like?”
The short answer is yes, we do. People like everything we sell in the store. That’s the point of a sex shop. The misconception is that there is a specific demographic for any particular interest. There is no single correlation nor statistic that can be brought up that links any particular product to any group of people or population.
This is where the world of kinks collides with the world of expectation. There’s a relevant phenomenon in psychology known as “functional fixedness,” a type of cognitive bias where people can see objects only working in one specific way.
When you work at a sex shop, you must throw this bias out the window.
Take lingerie, for example. It may seem to be common knowledge that only women wear lacy lingerie—but this is just not true. Men of all shapes, sizes and ages may be attracted to wearing lingerie, or their partner may have an attraction to men wearing lingerie. Another misguided notion—often coming from typical heteronormative ilk—is that enjoying anal play, such as pegging or using butt plugs, somehow makes a male individual gay, or not straight. Many straight men can enjoy prostate stimulation; it has nothing to do with whom they are attracted to.
Language that differentiates between vulva and phallus becomes more important than dividing between products for women and men. In a sex shop, everyone is free to be themselves and get the help they need to find what suits them.
While Fox News anchors might fiercely disagree, there is a distinct difference between gender identity and anatomy. For sex shop workers, it’s not a political talking point, but a necessary fact that human diversity is real and that the needs of sexual satisfaction applies to one’s working anatomical parts, not their identity.
Trans and intersex folk aren’t a debate between party lines; they are real people who enjoy much the same things cisgender folk do. Sex shops are oftentimes the only places that can sell tools that help support one’s transition, including external silicone breasts and packers which emulates a concealed penis. External breasts are also much more affordable than surgical implants, which is useful for those who have had mastectomies.
As a sex shop employee, there are many times where you feel as if you’re taking an active part in supporting people and getting to share historic moments for them. That is why all employees must come from a place of empathy and acceptance—because, for some, this is their only safe haven.
That is not to say that sex shop life doesn’t have its fair share of wild moments and giddy experiences, even amongst ourselves.
You learn—and learn quickly—that for some, entering a shop where sexual freedom reigns is an experience in and of itself. Once, there was a couple with a submissive partner—adorned in a full gimp suit and leashed to their master—where I, as an employee, could not spur conversation with said sub because they required permission to speak from their master.
For them, it was part of the fun to be themselves without being judged. However, to us it became more of an inconvenience when we needed to ask the individual directly what they needed—and going through a proxy was more challenging than it was amusing.
Exhibitionism and voyeurism were also quite common kinks with rather unique ways to approach a situation. One distinct memory is of an exhibitionist and his girlfriend who—arriving so soon before closing time—were looking to have the man try on some of our risqué male underwear. It was a humbling experience, having only worked one week prior.
He was an undeniably attractive fellow, and during his stay, he made an effort to step outside the dressing room for advice on how the underwear looked from me and my colleague—both openly gay men. I stumbled on my words several times and my face became beet red, according to my colleague.
“Hey!” the man said, in a chillingly aggressive display of masculinity, “My eyes are up here!” My face froze, heart beating faster than a racehorse.
“Is this it?” I thought to myself. “Oh god, have I crossed a boundary? Am I going to get fired?”
“I’m just messin’ with ya!” he proclaimed. “It’s cute though right?”
That’s when it hit me: this scheme was intentional. Not only did he like to show off, but his female counterpart genuinely enjoyed us fawning over her partner, and struggling to conduct ourselves like impartial salesmen.
“Isn’t he hot?” she said. “We’re heading to this club later and I am so excited to see everyone’s faces when he wears this.”
Half of the fun for them was being able to show off and watch as the world around them crumbles like a scene out of Impractical Jokers.
Voyeurs, on the other hand, were a different experience. Our shop had a bookshelf that emphasized education, providing a wide array of reading material from shibari tutorials to transition self-help guides. However, this did not stop the occasional onlooker from interpreting some materials as softcore porn that could be…enjoyed out in the open.
As if straight out of a scene from an animated sitcom, I can’t count how many times I had to kick out voyeurs for trying to masturbate on whatever they could get their hands on. Think of Dora the Explorer, but instead of finding treasure, you’re finding serial masturbators and yelling in the distance, “Swiper, no jacking off!”
Most of these instances occurred because we were a sex shop which strictly did not have arcades—a nonce word between shop workers for little rooms that individuals and couples can rent by the hour to do whatever their heart desires. They often have pornography available to rent inside to watch as the night unfolds. Every body fluid has been spilt in such rooms. Yes, even the most gut-wrenching. Admittedly, this made my job experience much more positive to reflect on because those employees had to clean up the arcades after each use.
Sex work is real work—but the true breadth of what encompasses sex work is laid bare when working at a sex shop. This includes porn actors, porn directors, cam workers, masters and mistresses and, through unspoken but legitimate practice, escorts.
To be clear, it is a violation of federal law to solicit in-person sexual favors in exchange for monetary goods. Thus, at no point in time have I—nor any sex shop employee or institution—condoned nor permitted such acts.
That being said, the wide umbrella that sex work encompasses is a colorful one. Numerous pornstars and directors come in to purchase their equipment and you learn about all sorts of PornHub categories you would never have guessed existed—but would most likely clutch your pearls at.
Many cam workers also require specific tools of the trade to help them flourish at their job. If you’ve ever heard of toys that have wireless remote control or can connect over the internet—Lovense being the top brand—chances are it is a tool built for cam workers so that their onlookers can control the vibrations for a price.
Let’s not forget the importance of kink work as a master or mistress. Netflix’s own show Bonding is a melodramatic—but fairly accurate—portrayal of the life of sex workers as they navigate the trials and tribulations of the industry. Becoming a master or mistress sounds like an intriguing concept on paper. You, the master, command a willing and paying participant to be entirely under your control, performing whatever your client (or yourself) is into.
One customer at my shop had a client legitimately restrained in his dungeon as he ran out to shop for lube. Apparently, being unable to escape with no reassurance his master would arrive again was part of the thrill, albeit terrifying for the master who’s responsible for the person during their session. The reality, however, is that there are a million situations where something could go wrong or become dangerous.
There is no sex worker’s union. There are no worker’s rights in the BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism) community. Almost all business conducted is underground using cash or Bitcoin. There are no protections for either the professional or the client—so if a session was scheduled and no one shows up, that’s an hour’s worth of work that will never be made back. If there’s an injury that occurred within the space, the professional is completely liable for the injury that happened. If the professional themselves were injured, there’s little recourse for the perpetrator.
There’s no healthcare benefits that come with any sex work job, unless the professional pays for it out of pocket. Because of the nature of the industry, murder is a very serious and real threat that practitioners face. The foundations of secrecy make any form of prosecution or investigation into a crime in this field exponentially harder. It is here where the sex industry mantra of playing safe carries the most weight.
Playing safe is a phrase we in these industries often use because there are right ways to do things—and wrong ways. Flogging, by using a whip or paddle, can permanently harm someone if hit in the wrong spots. There are specific techniques to restrain and/or suspend someone in the air using only rope so that the individual is in a vulnerable position, but not in a stressed position. The difference lies in the perceived stress that is put on the body. If the body is put under severe physical stress, it can cause irreparable damage that isn’t enjoyable for even the most diehard BDSM fans.
Playing safe doesn’t always involve wild, imaginative sex, but can be as simple as using the right lube for intercourse. Without my job as a sex shop worker, I wouldn’t have known why the different lube types were so important. Water-based is the most flexible, and can be used with any toy while having the added benefit of being reactivated with water, including spit. Silicon-based and hybrid lubricants are the best quality for body-to-body contact, but will degrade and destroy silicone toys and condoms over time—glass toys, however, are fine. Oil-based is much harder to find, and is often not recommended for use because it can damage and irritate the body. This type is best used to put on latex clothing, but water-based lube is a sufficient alternative.
Finally, when discussing safe sex practices, it’s important to be aware of the risks of using products such as amyl nitrate. Poppers, the colloquial term, are inhalants that cause a rush of blood flow to the brain and can be used to open up an individual’s rear end for whatever needs to go inside. They are also illegal.
However, VHS cleaner, or head cleaner, is a product that sex shops are legally allowed to sell. So long as you, A) do not, under any circumstances, call it poppers and B) sell it with an intended use that is explicitly separate from its use as a drug, you’re fine. What one does with it is up to them, but you will quickly learn that in sex shops, words do matter. My advice: don’t touch it. Taking your time and working towards whatever you’re trying to do is much healthier for you than chemically inducing your body to take it in. There are also plenty of side effects which reiterates that it’s simply not worth it.
The pandemic—like it has been for many—is what caused my job to turn from a form of steady income to a distant memory. It’s one that I will never forget. My closest friends are old co-workers of mine, and the experiences that I learned from so many individuals, both employees and customers, allowed me to fully experience the diversity of human nature and pleasure.
I recommend everyone to work at a sex shop at least once in their life—and not because of how fun it is. In the end, it felt like any other retail job. What’s fulfilling is learning how to be comfortable talking about sex. It’s the best opportunity to explore what appeals to you and how your body works. It also shows you how different people can be. You come to understand that there is no such thing as normal—only different.
And you learn that difference is something to be embraced.