Working at a High-End Sex Shop
On selling lube, miming sex acts, and mediating desire.
Photo by Jacqueline Miller via Stocksy
Two o'clock on a Tuesday is not peak dildo-shopping hour in Park Slope, but the woman standing before me is on a mission. She's in her 40s, maybe: brown hair tied up in a ponytail; dressed somewhere between jogger-mom and Brooklyn casual; a nervous, energetic look in her eyes. She strides up to the counter where I, having just opened for another hopeful day of business, am still counting the till:
"I'm having an affair," she announces breathlessly.
"Congratulations?" I say to her.
"It's the best thing I've done for my marriage," she says.
I work at a high-end sex shop in Park Slope called Please. We opened in March. We sell body products, books, scented oils and candles, and a lot of toys you can stick inside yourself or wrap around your cock. Plus some of the harder gear, enough to entertain the dilettantes: nipple clamps, floggers, restraints, and rope. The owner, Sid, is a medical professional committed to sex ed and transparency, and she gives me a cheerful, seven-minute pep talk every time she calls on the shop phone. The shop is well-lit and fancy enough that it often gets mistaken for a more traditional boutique, and my dress code is easy: something black and tight, topped with a bondage collar.
The job is simple. I think of it as helping people find their pleasure. People come in because they want something: a happier marriage, a harder dick, a better orgasm. But most of the time, they don't know how to find it.
That's where I come in.
The woman having an affair paces through the store, picking up toys, turning them on. I leave her alone, counting change in the register, but I can tell she's looking for something. She settles on a pair of handcuffs—a pretty standard entry-level purchase, and one I always recommend to people looking to try something new—but she wants something...more.
That's what everyone who comes into a sex shop wants, whether they say it outright or not: a new best thing, a completely undiscovered course of pleasure. The form this pleasure might take is as misty and amorphous as a dream, of course. Less realized than a fantasy, buffeted only by PornTube videos, a desire for sex so lush and wild that they don't have words to articulate it. They want their minds blown—they're not always sure how, but they want it. I've had people come in and ask, "What's the best?" like I'm supposed to know.
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"I want something really, really special," she tells me. "Something I haven't done with my husband. Something new."
"Tell me what you're interested in," I say to her.
I've squeezed more dildos than most people will in their entire lives.
At sex shops, people make all kinds of confessions. After all, I'm just the endearing shopgirl they might never see again—though we do have a fair amount of regulars. But when you talk about sex, you're usually talking about a lot of other things, too. People tell me about their first times, about their partners, about their hopes and their fears. They tell me about what scares them and what they wish they didn't like. And most often, they tell me what they want: what they've always dreamed of trying, what they've always thought about but never been able to achieve.
So I become their best friend, their girlfriend's best friend, even their girlfriend, really; I nod along thoughtfully while they talk, tugging at the ring on my bondage collar. I listen to their confessions and make them feel comfortable and safe. And then, ideally, I sell them something that will give them that pleasure. (Usually an entry-level Picobong vibrator.) It's a particularly American solution to a particularly American malaise—sex doesn't solve life's problems, but better sex makes life, well, better.
The woman and I run down the list of things she doesn't want to do with her new boo: no pegging, no DP, no cock rings, no waxplay. I'm disappointed but determined to help her out, so we take a walk through the store together. Wandering over to a table near our lube display, she picks up the floor model of the njoy Pure Wand, hefting it. It's two pounds of stainless steel, curved for g-spotting perfection. "What's this?" she asks me, startled by its weight.
"Oh, it's the Pure Wand, it's great," I gush. "Everyone squirts with it. Have you squirted before?"
Her eyes light up. "No," she says, outraged by her lack. (Everyone is like this, once they find out it's possible to achieve another kind of pleasure.) "I want to! How does it work? How do I use it?"
Sex doesn't solve life's problems, but better sex makes life, well, better.
Working here means I've gotten used to enthusiastically miming sex acts, and I demonstrate the Pure Wand with gusto. I hold it in one hand and cup the air with the other, rocking it rhythmically back and forth as though I'm fucking my ghost girlfriend.
"The weight means that it feels intense even with a gentle motion," I explain. She looks intrigued.
"And it's curved to hit your g-spot in just—"
She's immediately sold, so I wrap it up for her and run the charge on her card, which comes to a high three figures. Seeing as it's currently the key to her happiness, it doesn't faze her one bit. "Thank you so much," she says.
"Come back and tell me how it was," I say. I'm joking, really, but a few weeks later, she swings by the shop to let me know it was great. And for a moment, I'm genuinely flush with pride.
There's a curious intimacy one enters into with every new customer, an intimacy you can't really be trained for. Product training is easy, if a bit boggling: There are a lot of ways things can buzz and squish and thrust, and even more things that they can be made of. We're encouraged to handle the toys to know how they work, so when I first started the job, I turned on all the vibrators and went through all the pulse patterns until my fingertips felt a permanent buzz. I've squeezed more dildos than most people will in their entire lives. It's important, though. To know how things feel, so you're able to talk to someone and figure out if they want to feel it, too.
Sometimes the intimacy is physical. About three or four times a day—more if we're busy—I perform what I like to call the Great Lube Test, which is exactly what it sounds like. A lot of people come into the shop looking for lube, having finally caught on that Astroglide is full of weird chemicals and Vaseline is even worse. "What's the best?" they ask me again, like I can mediate their desire. "Let's test some out," I say.
The job is simple. I think of it as helping people find their pleasure.
I always ask them a few questions: thick or thin? Water-based or silicone? (The former's compatible with the silicone surfaces of most toys but tends to dry out quicker; the latter lasts longer but feels greasy.) Sometimes there are allergies and sensitivities to be aware of, too. Then—this is the weirdest, most intimate part, and it never gets any less weird or intimate—I squeeze a tiny dollop of lube into my palm, and a dollop of lube into theirs.
"Feel it," I say, running my fingertip in small circles on my palm. Some are slick, some are sticky, a few are greasy. "Rub it around. Yeah? Do you like that one? Okay, how about this?" I hand the customer a tissue to wipe their hand clean, and we move onto the next one.
At last count we stocked twelve different lubes, so the Great Lube Test can take a while.
More often, though, the intimacy is emotional. Sometimes I wonder if the people who come into the shop are just looking for someone to talk to. Some of the confessions I get: I've always wanted to be pegged. My boyfriend tied me up last night and I loved it. Do you have any books on...anal sex? are delivered hesitantly, breathlessly, as though they've been waiting their whole lives to tell someone and now they've arrived.
Okay, what do you need? Cool, yeah, we sell rope. Yes.
A few weeks ago, an older man came into the shop. He must have been in his seventies. When he walked in my heart lurched—we do get creeps, and the trick is to kick them out before they even get in—but then he told me what his deal was. He was divorced; had a new girlfriend, a smokin' hot babe who was 65. Twelve years younger! She was divorced, too. And he wanted to make her feel good; he wanted to be gentle with her, but he didn't know where to begin.
Working here means I've gotten used to enthusiastically miming sex acts.
We must have talked for at least an hour. I walked him around the store, and he asked questions about everything—the restraints, the strap-ons, the dozens of other toys we carry. He marveled with each new discovery: "I can't believe you can have sex so many ways," he said to me, audible wonderment in his voice. He came from a generation, remember, where porn was misogynistic or nonexistent; he served in the navy, too, where all the men were—and these are his words—absolutely vile when it came to women.
So I told him about all the ways tenderness could appear and he told me about how much he loves this woman. How she's so beautiful, absolutely lovely, such a doll, and he's terrified of losing her. And as we spoke—as I explained things to him; as I showed him the massage oils, the candles, the feather ticklers, and even the erotica collection we carry meant for people his age—I could feel his world expanding. "I didn't know it was possible," he said. "You know so much about this."
"It's my job," I said.
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I ended up selling him a vibrator—that's what he had been thinking as a gift to her, and we picked out a simple one, with a soft exterior, just one speed, battery-operated. I wrapped it up nicely and tied it with a bow. He was delighted, overwhelmed with the possibility of such gentleness. And as he left, he thanked me profusely, over and over. I almost shed a tear. Love's not dead, I wanted to announce, but I tweeted about it instead.
Like most things in the world, sex is usually a cover for something else. Marital problems, a lack of confidence, anxiety, money woes, whatever it is, it manifests in sex. And I feel it presciently at this job—that desire to be better, to fix things, to make it work. People come in with so many hopes, so many dreams; they're vulnerable with me, and I try to be vulnerable in return. I know that selling someone a dildo doesn't solve all their problems, but I swear, sometimes it helps.