For those of you who don’t know: for the past seven months, I’ve worked in a sex shop.
It’s a super nice sex shop, too. It’s well-lit and smells like essential oils and the staff is super knowledgeable (if I do say so myself). It’s clean and organized and stocks only body-safe sex products, meaning that nothing you buy there is going to put nasty chemicals in your body (nasty chemicals might include, but are not limited to, glycerin, parabens, and phthalates). People passing through have often told me that the store doesn’t “feel” like a sex shop – that in other places they’re scared to ask questions, or feel ashamed for entering the store. This store, on the other hand, provides a judgment-free, safe space for people to get their sex shopping done, whether they’re looking for safer sex supplies, sex toys, bondage equipment, or just browsing the huge array of items that this store carries.
I don’t think I’d be able to say that I really enjoyed working retail at very many stores, but I did really enjoy working at this one. I mean, who gets to talk openly about sex every single day for their job? How many retail positions allow you to create a safe and sex-positive space for all of your customers and to let them know that their bodies and sexual preferences and genders should not be a source of shame? Almost every single day, I felt like I did or said something that made someone feel more comfortable with their sexuality. It was a pretty great gig.
When you work in a sex toy store for seven months, you also realize: a lot of people have no idea how to buy sex toys. I don’t mean that they don’t know what sex toys are or what they do (although some people don’t, and that’s fine), but they just don’t know how to walk into a sex toy store and buy something and also act like a normal human being. I don’t mean this in a bad way – I mean, who can blame them? If we’re raised in a culture that teaches us that sex is taboo and weird and that no one should ever go into a sex shop (apparently condoms, dental dams, and lube magically drop from the sky which is why people don’t regularly talk about them?), people aren’t going to know how to behave in a store that exclusively sells these items we were taught we weren’t supposed to talk about.
This is a post for people who have been thinking about going into a sex shop, but feel awkward. Or for those people who have visited a sex shop, but don’t know what to say and leave super quickly. And hopefully there’s something in here for people who think that sex shops are the best things ever! Because we’re all still learning how to talk about sex – especially how to talk to someone who works in retail about buying something for your sex life.
Remember: Not all sex shops are created equal
Full disclaimer: I worked in a female-owned, female-and-queer friendly sex store. Therefore, I have become familiar with the standards of conduct and work norms that apply to this type of establishment. I can’t tell you if these guidelines will apply in that weird store that you spotted off that highway in the middle of nowhere. No guarantees that anyone there will be remotely polite or remotely knowledgeable about the products that they sell. But there are quite a few awesome, open sex shops scattered around the U.S. dedicated to providing really great shopping experiences to their clients. Here are a few that I know of:
Babeland. Located in Seattle, WA and New York (both Manhattan and Brooklyn). I’m going to be honest: I’ve never been inside a Babeland. But they they support The Heart, one of my favorite podcasts, so I just assume that they’re all-around great. They’re female-owned, all-gender friendly and sell body safe toys.
Early to Bed. Early to Bed opened in Chicago in 2001 with the goal of being the windy city’s first place where “women (and people of all genders) could shop for quality sex toys in a safe, welcoming space.” They also offer online how-to videos, which is pretty sweet.
Good Vibrations. Good Vibes is one of the oldest sex-positive sex stores that I know of – it’s been around for almost 40 years! Although viewed as a company that’s “gone corporate” by some, it’s still a sex store focused on sex positivity and body safe toys. They have six stores in the Bay Area, and one in Brookline, MA (Boston area). They also have their own line of sex toys called PleasureWorks, which is good for people who are on a beginner’s budget.
She Bop. Voted the best sex shop in Portland, OR, She Bop specializes in body safe toys for every body. Their staff is friendly and highly knowledgeable and they host monthly classes related to sex, sexual health and healthy relationships.
Smitten Kitten. Located in Minneapolis, The Smitten Kitten is one of the leaders of the safe sex toy movement – they started the website badvibes.org in 2003 in an attempt to call out manufacturers of body-harming, environment-killing products. I recently attended a webinar with them about lube (what makes a lube good for you, what makes a lube suck, and why bad lube is still probably better than no lube); the facilitator was amazingly knowledgeable and super open to answering all types of questions.
Don’t live near any of these amazing sex shops? They all ship! Also, the Redhead Bedhead has compiled a much more extensive list of sex shop superheroes that you can peruse to see if there’s a cool shop in or near your city (she’s even organized her list by states so you can just look for the ones in your locale)!
How to Shop for Sex Toys Like a Superstar
So. You’ve found a super cool, feminist, all-gender friendly sex toy store that you know will not sell you an awful, chemical-filled toy. It’s time to buy a toy (or three or twelve, whatever). But what if you’re not quite sure how to act? What if you’re afraid that you’re just going to come off as super awkward (or worse, creepy?). What if you already have a ton of sex toys, and want to ask a sex shop employee about what you should buy next? It’s all cool – I, a (former) sex toy shop employee, have compiled a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to shopping for toys.
1. Please, ask questions!
Already know what you want and where to find it? Cool! Grab it! But a lot of people who walk into sex shops don’t know what they want, or maybe have a list of qualities they want in a toy, but don’t quite know exactly what toys fit that description. The logical solution would be to ask a shop employee a question (e.g. “Hi, I’m new to this, can you give me some advice? I have no idea what I want,” or “Hi, I’m looking for a toy that ______, could you suggest something that fits that description?”), but you’d be surprised how often people refuse to ask. They’ll wander around the shop, idly picking things up or looking at some products until I go over and ask them if they have questions. Not asking questions can also lead to unfortunate outcomes: I’ve had people buy products without knowing what they were and then call in a panic when 1) they realized that they had bought something they didn’t mean to buy or 2) they didn’t know what they’d bought, and wanted me to explain their purchase after the fact. Asking questions before you buy something can help you avoid both of these situations. (And to answer that unspoken question: no, most sex shops will not let you return a toy if you don’t like it. For obvious reasons, once something leaves the shop, it’s considered used).
When I detect that people have questions but aren’t asking them, I’ll approach them and ask if they have questions or tell them a little bit about what they’re looking at. And it’s amazing how many questions I get when I do this. I promise – if I work in a sex shop, I am willing and able to answer your questions! I love answering questions! And, I also promise, I won’t judge you for the questions you ask. Which brings me to my next point…
2. If you think it’s a stupid question, it probably isn’t
Don’t get me wrong: people have asked me stupid questions. But the questions that people are afraid to ask me because they think they’re stupid are rarely the questions that are actually stupid. For example: “How do I turn this off?”* Not a stupid question. All sex toy companies make their products with different dials and buttons and sometimes they just won’t turn off. It’s cool, though. I promise I know how to turn them all off. And I’m super happy to show people how to make a vibrator stop vibrating when it just won’t. Another example: “What is this?” I am always so excited to talk about products with customers! I’m much happier when I’m educating customers about certain products or toy materials than when I’m sitting behind a counter hoping that someone will ask me a question.
*For context: most good sex toy shops will have floor models of most, if not all, of their products that you can pick up, handle, and turn on. This is an excellent way to determine what toy you might want to buy! You can play around with the speeds, see if it has pulse settings that you find pleasing, judge its weight, see how squishy it is…all information that can ultimately help you find the sex toy that is right for you.
3. Remember, even though I work in a sex shop, I’m still a relative stranger
Yes, I love answering customer questions. But this doesn’t mean that I love hearing about customers’ sex lives. These are totally different things. Helping you find a sex toy and learning about the size of your partner’s/partners’ penis(es) are not the same. I don’t care about the size of anyone’s penis. I don’t care about how excited you are to go home and masturbate. I don’t want to hear the story of your messy divorce. And, frankly, it makes me uncomfortable to talk to total strangers about their sex lives. Because, in the end, I sell products – I am not a sex therapist.
To be fair, this line of “TMI” (for those of you who weren’t in middle school in the early 2000s, this acronym stands for “Too Much Information”) is sometimes difficult to navigate. For example, if you’re going through menopause and are looking for a lube to combat vaginal dryness, you’re going to have to give me some information about your body. And I don’t mind that. When a customer says to me, “I’m going through menopause and am experiencing some vaginal dryness – could you recommend a lube for me?” I will enthusiastically help them out. I start to feel awkward when someone says, “I’m going through menopause and am experiencing some vaginal dryness. My partner is having a really hard time getting his penis into my vagina and it’s painful and then he gets mad because he thinks I’m not turned on but really it’s just that my body isn’t the same as it used to be…” That’s TMI. I’ll still help you find a lube, but you’ve crossed what I’ll call my “comfortable” boundary, meaning that I am no longer comfortable talking with you and will want the interaction to end as quickly as possible. Remember – I’m not your friend, I’m not your therapist. I’m not really interested in your sex life beyond helping you find something in the shop where I work that fits your specific need(s).
4. Don’t make other customers feel uncomfortable (be conscious of your actions/words)
Sex shops cater to a variety of different people with different sexualities, gender identities, and sexual preferences. When you make a value statement (especially a negative one) about products in the shop, you risk making other people feel uncomfortable, or even ashamed of what they like. For example, pointing at floggers and saying “Eeeew, I would never let someone beat me up in bed! That’s not sexy!” is not a comment that is going to make a member of the kink community feel good about themselves (or, at the very least, is going to cause them to label you as an ignorant, insensitive jerk). As The Smitten Kitten says, “Don’t yuck my yum.”
This rule is especially important when handling soft packs.* This usually happens because people don’t know what soft packs are. They’ll pick them up, giggle, fling them around and say, “Why would anyone want this?” To reiterate: if you don’t know what something is, ask. But don’t treat it with disrespect. Soft packs are a hugely important part of many peoples’ identities, and when you giggle and flop them around, you risk insulting someone else who uses or wants a soft pack.
This rule also applies for positive comments about sex toys! For example, seeing a toy and exclaiming, “Oh my god, this is my favorite toy, it makes me cum so hard!” might make other shop patrons (and staff) feel uncomfortable. I’m glad that you love your toy – more power to you! But recognize that sex shops are places where people should feel safe, and hearing about your personal sex life/preferences might make other people feel uncomfortable. On a related note…
*Quick definition: a soft pack is a replica of a penis that is not used for penetration (hence the word soft). People use them for different reasons, but one of the most common reasons is that a soft pack makes their body feel more aligned with their gender identity (for example, a trans man might wear a packer to feel more comfortable in his body). Packing doesn’t always have to do with gender identity/expression, but it is often related.
5. Don’t hit other people with the impact toys.* Especially without their consent.
There is perhaps nothing more startling than hearing an unexpected loud noise in your place of work. I hate being startled. And the noise of someone getting hit with a leather slapper is fucking loud. It makes everyone in the shop jump – especially the person that you hit if you didn’t ask them for permission.
Let me be clear: hitting someone without their permission is never okay. Don’t do it alone, don’t do it in public. If you do get their permission, please, hit away…but don’t do it in a sex store. It’s loud and startling and a lot of the time employees don’t know if you do have that person’s permission and then it’s awkward. It is, of course, important to make sure that you like an impact toy before you buy it. Feel free to pick it up, handle it, even hit yourself with it – just not other people. This takes away any potential consent problems, and self-hitting is usually not as loud as hitting another person. When you only hit yourself in the shop, everyone wins!
*Impact toys can include, but are not limited to, slappers, floggers, paddles, canes and whips.
6. Don’t assume gender
This is a good rule for life, but it’s an especially good rule in a queer-friendly sex shop: don’t assume that you know anyone’s gender. The staff, if they’re well-trained, won’t assume yours, so it’s worth it to repay the favor and not assume theirs, or anyone else’s in the shop. Why? Because people all have different genders and different ways of expressing their genders and how I express my gender isn’t how someone else expresses theirs. I identify as female and wear dresses sometimes…but that doesn’t mean that everyone that wears dresses identifies as female. And I shouldn’t assume that. Because it makes it very awkward when I go up to said person in a dress and call them “ma’am” or “miss” when they’d rather be called “sir” or “M” or another gender-neutral title. Being misgendered is never fun, and it’s especially not fun in a place that is supposed to be a safe space for all gender identities.
7. Make sure that you have everything that you need
Buying a toy? Do you want lube, too? Lube is a great thing to have, especially if you’re getting an insertable toy (especially if you’re planning to put that toy in your butt). If you don’t want lube, that’s fine, but it’s something to consider getting if you don’t have any. While you’re buying lube, make sure it’s compatible with whatever you’re getting! Quick tips: silicone sticks to itself, so make sure to avoid buying silicone lube if you’re also getting (or own) silicone toys. Oil-based lube doesn’t play well with elastomer toys or with latex/polyurethane condoms (oil-based lube is fine with polyisoprene condoms, and the fc2, which is made of nitrile). Fleshlights are only compatible with water-based lube. To reiterate the first point, always feel free to ask if you forget what type of lube is compatible with your toy, or to figure out how the lubes are organized. It’s also a good idea to make sure that whatever lube you’re getting is glycerin and paraben free, since these are two of the ingredients most likely to cause vaginal irritation later on (pro tip: your life will be so much better if you avoid Astroglide or KY Jelly like the plague).
Buying rope or bondage tape? Get some safety scissors too! If you’re planning on tying anyone up, you need a way to get them out of those knots quickly and safely. Safety scissors have a blunted edge so that they won’t cut someone if you need to slash the ties that you’ve put around their wrists/ankles/bodies. If all goes well, you’ll never have to use them, but it’s good to be prepared. They’re also pretty affordable, coming in at about $8.
8. Don’t ask me about my sex life
Obvious, right? You would think. And to be fair, no one has ever asked me, “How is your sex life?” But I have been asked, way more than I would like, some variation of the question, “Do you own this toy?”
At the time, it might make sense. You want my endorsement so that you feel good about buying this toy. But 1) you’re asking me about my sex life and 2) what I like isn’t going to dictate what you like. So it’s easier for both of us if you don’t ask me this very personal, slightly invasive question.
The good news is that there are lots of actually useful questions that you can ask to determine whether or not you’ll like a sex toy or not. For example: “I only like strong vibrations. Does this toy have powerful vibration settings?”, “I’ve never bought a sex toy before – what would you recommend?” or “What are the pros/cons of this toy?” None of these questions asks me if I own/use a certain toy, but they do ask me for information that will help you find what you want. Everybody wins!
9. Buying something for your butt? Make sure that it’s anal safe.
I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things to do is look at X-rays of things that people have gotten stuck up their butts. The array of items that show up on these white-and-black images are amazing. Coke bottles, toothbrushes, egg beaters, Barbies…the list goes on. And although it’s amusing to look at the misfortune of other people in difficult situations, don’t let that person be you.
If you want to stick something up your butt: totally! Go for it! Anal play is awesome! But always, always, ALWAYS make sure that it has a flange. What is a flange? It is a base that is wider than the thing that you are sticking up your butt. This will ensure that said thing will not disappear up your butt forever. There are few things more awful than thinking that you’re going to have awesome, sexy fun with your butt and instead winding up in the emergency room. Just…don’t. Get anal safe things. Not sure if something is anal safe? Ask an employee! This will especially help if you’re super worried about something disappearing into your large intestine, because employees will be able to identify the items that are least likely to be sucked into your rectum (i.e. they’ll point you in the direction of the anal toys with the largest bases, or give you tips about how to make small bases larger).
(If this advice has freaked out out about a toy disappearing into your vagina, don’t worry. Vaginas end at the cervix, and very few things are going to find a way through that tiny opening. Rectums, unlike vaginas, don’t have a handy door where they end.)
10. For the love of God, don’t be an asshole
This should go without saying, but….No rape jokes. No sexist or body-shaming comments. No transphobic/homophobic comments. If you are this asshole in the sex shop, you will be asked to leave. You will not be welcome back. Don’t be that asshole.
And there you have it! A handy guide to sex toy shop etiquette (and a short list of places where you might want to buy a toy)! Know of an awesome sex shop in your corner of the world? Please, leave a comment (or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add it to my list). Any other tips for sex shop patrons? Comment/email me those too. Don’t know what a sex toy is? I’ll be writing a post on sex toys, what they are, the different types of toys that exist, and why you might want one in the coming months. In the meantime, stay tuned for my next gender interview!