It’s been just over 5 years since I first declared that good sex shops matter and hit the road to tour North America’s best adult retail establishments. Over the years I have seen a lot of sex shops. Seriously, To date I have visited over 50 shops in 13 states/provinces and 2 countries and my touring days are far from over -I still have a lot to see! Right now my Superhero Sex Shop List only accounts for North America. There’s a whole sexy world out there! I know I’m missing shops in Europe, the UK, Australia, there are even shops in the US and Canada I haven’t made it to yet!
When I toured sex shops. It was super fun!
I have seen a lot of damn good sex shops. Shops that care about their customers, that think long and hard about their stock, and are aware of the impact they can have on the lives of those who cross their thresholds. These shops and the people who work in them have taught me A LOT.
They taught me the importance of stocking products at a variety of price points because quality products are for everyone! They taught me the value of cherry picking items from a variety of companies because even “bad” companies have good, accessible items! They taught me how much LANGUAGE MATTERS! Those shops are where I learned not to separate toys by gender (no sex toys are “male”!) and to instead think “What does it do?” or “How do you use it?”. Good sex shops made me a better educator, a better writer, and a better person.
I’ve also, in my adult retail adventures, seen some things that made me very certain of how I’m not comfortable doing things. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what happens when we cling so tightly to how it “should” be that our “welcoming” spaces scream “You’re doing it wrong!” right in the faces of vulnerable people. Often born out of good intentions and the product of enthusiasm run amok, that kind of thing still has the potential to hurt. What do I mean? Let’s look at some stories.
BEST. TOYS. EVER.
There’s a shop that checks most of the “good sex shop” check boxes but left a bad taste in my mouth after the owner demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of toys beyond her own preferences. I stood there for 20 minutes while she handed me small toys and internal vibrators aplenty raving about how they were the best because they were SO STRONG. I was unmoved simply because I know my body and what works for me, it’s broad, external stimulation. Eventually I had to cut her off (because she wasn’t stopping the parade of Womanizers, and G-spot grazers any time soon) and say “those are all too small for me, I need broad”. Nothing. It did not compute. If anything she looked kind of annoyed at my interruption of her reverie. Eventually I found some wands shoved in a corner of the store. Clearly, they are not her jam so they are not really a thing in that shop. This person has since described multiple (small) toys to me as “Stronger than the Magic Wand! I swear!!!”
First off, calling a small toy “stronger than” a wand is gibberish because the way they are used is so different – like comparing the strength of a jet engine and a trash compactor. I guess you can but how is it relevant? Secondly, it now seems like this woman is on a mission to spread the word of her preferences. This is not helpful. She managed to make me, someone who does this for a living, feel othered and like my needs didn’t matter/are just wrong. Imagine I was a customer who showed up in her shop for my first sex shopping experience, and ended up shelling out my hard-earned money on toy after toy that didn’t work for me no matter how much she insisted they were THE BEST. How crappy would that feel? This is why it’s preferable for shops to have multiple employees who can all share perspectives. I know though that small businesses have limitations. That said, if you are going to sell toys you need to know that bodily preferences matter, your personal experience shouldn’t really come into play (your customers don’t need to know what you use), nothing is universally good, there will be people who HATE your most popular toy and someone who has the best orgasm of their life with the toy you can’t get anyone to buy. It’s not about you and what you like, it’s about giving people the space and guidance to find what THEY like.
SOO Inclusive, (Except For that thing)
A client once, after telling me how excited they were for their shop to be “sex positive” “inclusive” and “nonjudgmental”, proudly detailed how they liked to put a post-it up next to a certain popular book involving a number and a color (fine, it was 50 Shades) informing shoppers that the book was born from Twilight fan-fic (which is true) and that they should ask about that. Well okay, but what about all the 50 Shades fans who would not have entered your “nonjudgmental” store if that book hadn’t turned them on to the idea of sex toys? Then they came in, feeling like they too were now sexy and part of the fun, then they saw your snarky note and found out that they were not cool. They like the stupid thing. Now they feel like they are being sneered at like they just asked the cool record store guy for the new Bryan Adams single. Yep, that’s what that does.
I’m all for teaching. I’m all for helping people see that 50 Shades isn’t good but, man, wouldn’t it be great if they could not feel like crap during that process? Couldn’t they be welcomed into the store, become comfortable, maybe come to some classes, do some exploring, learn some stuff, and then, maybe one day come in on their own and announce “Last night I realized why what is depicted in 50 Shades isn’t healthy BDSM”? Look what you facilitated! You gave them the space and the tools and let it be okay to be who they were and they learned stuff! How awesome would that feel?!
Or you could be snarky and they could get embarrassed and never come back. Because, you see, people need to be led, not shoved. Snarking facts at people is more likely to get you a “yeah, well, fuck you!” than a “fanfic you say? tell me more!” Whereas creating a space where they can be who they are- which is what I’ve seen so many of the AWE-SOME shops I’ve visited do- allows them to follow the educational leads.
The HOW not the WHAT
One last quick story: There is a shop somewhere on the East Coast that is not on my list. It looks like it should be: gorgeous toy collection, fancy pants list of classes- it looks like it would be my jam. But it’s not on my list. Why? It’s a really unpleasant place to spend time. When I visited in early 2014 the owners spent a good deal of time bad-mouthing other shops, educators etc. They went on and on about the PhD-level educators they had teaching for them and how few people were up to their standards. Everything was said condescendingly, everything came with an eye roll or a sneer and I left feeling bad for people who dealt with them, bad about myself, and just generally anxious. That visit made me very clear on what makes a shop good and it’s more than stuff.
Here’s the thing folks, it’s not enough to have the nice products and the cool sounding classes- that’s just the “what”- you have to give people the experience – that’s the “how” and that’s what changes lives.
Good sex shops matter and what makes them good lies in the “how” as much as the “what”.
This post contains links sponsored by finderr. The opinions in it are, as always, my own.