I’ve been trying to write this article for a long time. Nearly a year ago, I decided to write about my time as a sex educator in one of "those stores." You probably know the ones I’m talking about. They pepper the sides of major highways here in the U.S. with large signs that read ADULT BOOKSTORE or some variation of the phrase. It usually appears in lettering that really is stuck in the decade the store was built. Sometimes with an accompanying "Open 24 Hours!" declared at the bottom. They are called many names: "sticky floor shops," "mainstream stores," "adult novelty shops," "porn stores," and other colorful names. I call them "those stores" to include basically include any store that doesn’t fit an upscale boutique model.

This article ultimately pulls from working for two of "those stores," one that was off the side of the highway and one that stood in a wealthier metro area. When it came down to actually writing this piece, it was difficult to get my fingers to the keys. I faced some anxiety regarding clearly expressing the value I saw in my work or the problems that I faced. I feared upsetting folks who see feminist sex shops as alternatives to the more mainstream stores. Now, don't get me wrong; I think feminist sex shops are important. I would never suggest that they are not needed as valuable alternatives. But I assumed that few people in the sex-positive community were really speaking out about education in other spaces - the ones that tend to be perceived as "seedy" - because maybe we weren’t supposed to do that.

All Sex Shops Can Be Educational

Let me just say right now, I was wrong. When I was a speaker at CatalystCon, a large sex-positive event with speakers from all walks of life, I finally said aloud the things I’d been meaning to say. Despite my initial nervousness, I managed to make this statement: "I’m going to say something that I think might be controversial, but I’m going to say it anyway. People on the floor of sex shops are sex educators; all of them. Whether they are good at it or whether they provide accurate or reliable education is a different story, but people still turn to them as educators."

When I finally spoke it out loud, I realized immediately that talking about sex education on the floors of "those stores" wasn’t forbidden or even remotely controversial. It wasn’t talked about simply because not very many folks had really suggested it. What I had to say wasn’t regarded as an immediate opposition to the smaller boutique style shops’ inherent, crucial value. I just needed to say it.

With this suggestion, I launched a discussion that I’m very grateful that I was a part of and carved out some space to talk about the role of the sex store clerk. I’d like to share some of my core thoughts from that discussion.

Lessons as a Sex Store Worker

The idea for my presentation, and ultimately this article, started with a story. A woman came into my shop one weekday morning as soon as we opened. When someone who is not a regular porn customer comes in that early and doesn’t rush to grab a bottle of lube or condoms and quickly leave, I can guess that they are looking for help. When I went to check on her, she said something that made me think about my role as an educator and how we, as a culture, actually do see sex education embedded in sex toy shops.

She asked me, "How did he know you would be here?"

I was confused. How would who know what? She explained that she and her partner were planning to try anal sex and she had some questions. Although she actively wanted to explore anal sex, it made her nervous. Her partner told her to go to the store that I was working in and that there would be a woman there who would answer her questions and help her feel better. How did he know that I would be there? Suddenly, I felt like I was on the best episode of "Touched By an Angel" ever. I was an anal sex angel there to calm her fears and safely explore her desire.

Standing there with her, I was "the woman" in her partner’s story, despite the fact he had never been to our store. He lived on the other side of the country. In our shared cultural imagination, sex toys shops, regardless of size and corporate affiliation, are imagined as places people can go to ask questions and get answers. Whether or not this is a conversation that is happening loudly or that everyone acknowledges publicly is a discussion for a different day. I know this because I continue to experience moments like these and it makes me love the type of work that I do. (Get another perspective - and more stories - in Confessions of a Sex Shop Salesperson.)

The Twofold Role of the Sex Shop Worker

The role of the sex shop worker is really two­fold. Part of the work is education. That’s the part that we think we know the best. In reality, it is a particular type of care as well. At CatalystCon, I called this "affective labor." This is a term that sometimes serves as shorthand for emotional or caring labor. It means work in which care for a customer is given. I also use "affective" to be more like "effective." I use it to describe the effect that occurs when picking out sex toys­­­­­, the ability to move the body, and to inspire us erotically and carnally.

When I was writing my Master’s thesis on feminist pornography, I stated that when it comes to learning about sex from porn and learning about our desires, our wants, and what turns us on, a viewer has to do two things at once. The first is to pull their sensual and tactile sexual memories and to simultaneously imagine a future in which the encounters on screen might be possible. I’ve learned since then that this dual pull of pornograpy also applies to being a sex educator on the floor of shops.

When I hand someone a butt plug, I’m tactfully asking them to remember any experience that might relate. It doesn’t have to be the same experience (using that particular plug or a plug at all) to apply. It just needs to inspire an engagement with that part of the body. I must be very good at describing sensations in different ways. I pay attention to people’s energy, their body language, and their mindset to make sure I can respond to them without overwhelming them.

Not everyone wants or seeks out this kind of help or care. That’s perfectly fine by me. If everyone did, I would be exhausted about an hour into my work day. Working on the floor of a sex shop is really a form of what I call "flash education." You never know who is going to come through the door. If you work in a large, mainstream shop, you need to be able to respond quickly and efficiently to customers and their needs. I have to keep myself open and available to new customers at every turn. It’s exciting and yet sometimes boring.

Not All Sex Shops Give Accurate Sex Information

I can’t guarantee that every sex shop you enter will offer you the best and most accurate information or the most helpful forms of care (see The Redhead Bedhead’s Guide to Spotting a Good Sex Shop and Surviving a Bad One; it’s free!). Yet, I know that so many sex shops are trying and wanting to provide good information and good customer care. I got into this industry because I wanted to bring what professor and scholar Lynn Comella calls "sex positive synergy." You must read her essay in The Feminist Porn Book. What actually happened was that I learned a lot about how we imagine education, sensual learning, and exploration to be embedded in certain spaces even if it isn’t necessarily a part of public or open discussion.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve heard the horror stories. I know that some people turn to stores for information and care and instead find shame, problematic language, and inaccurate advice. However, in order to improve those things we must first acknowledge that people were going to that shop for education in the first place. When we broaden the discussion, when we open the realm of our understanding around education and retail as happening not just in boutiques but also in your average chain, we start to put the wheels of progress in motion. It’s important for me to acknowledge the fact that part of the reason people imagine these spaces as spots for quick education is that shops like Good Vibrations and Eve’s Garden harnessed that possibility early on. They saw the connection and made it explicit. Their work has trickled into mainstream consciousness. This is invaluable. With this change, it’s crucial for us (educators, consumers, and activists) to respond effectively. (Get another perspective from someone who worked in a sex shop in How Sex Toys and Sex Education Saved My Life.)

So, I will end this article on a call to action. Sex toy clerks are sex educators and are frequently treated as such by customers. It’s important that we value them and we stand in solidarity with them for things like labor issues and working wages for the care and education they provide. It’s important for companies to recognize this and know that educating staff and bringing in trainers, the job I currently do, only increases the value of their shops and the quality of their customer care.

In what ways do you think we can open up this discussion?