I worked at a sex shop for seven years — one of those friendly, brightly lit storefronts that hired young feminists and queers with college degrees and great haircuts. Before hitting the sales floor, we were trained on the store’s core value: sex positivity. This philosophy encourages and celebrates the vastness of human sexual expression, without favoring any single activity, orientation, or kind of body as the best, the most valid, or the most sexy. Sex positivity posits that as long as the choices that are being made are consensual for all people involved, then it’s great, and that people should be respected and celebrated for making the choices that are best for them. I was hired as a 22-year-old, a recent college grad with a still-uncool haircut, and getting to work for a company that held this as a core belief felt really exciting.
My job was to make sales, to make the store as much money as possible. That never bothered me. I knew that in order to keep offering the kind of programming we did, or to donate to the causes we did, we had to keep cash flowing in. It was also fun, at least some of the time. The excitement people felt buying their first-ever vibrator, a new lube, or a strap-on harness and dildo to use with a partner — that was contagious. But many of my customers were conditioned to believe that if they bought the right thing, they would suddenly have a hot sex life, or that they, alone, could do the heavy lifting for themselves and their partner.
That was a common thread running through my next job at the same company, as a sex educator running workshops on specialized topics, that took me to universities, to medical schools, to bachelorette parties. Participants expressed the hope that if they could just learn to give a perfect blow job, or figure out the magic words to say to their partner, they would be transformed into liberated, all-powerful, multiorgasmic beings with perfect relationships. But it’s never been that simple. Navigating sex will always also be a question of navigating the biases and traumas and fears and power imbalances that we and our culture are riddled with. And in some cases, for some people, there is a dark side to unrelenting (sex) positivity. The pressure around sex to feel that you’re doing it right, despite all those complications — and having a great time doing it — can inflict its own kind of damage.
“What’s your best toy?” people would ask when I worked in the store, as if there were a single thing that would work for all people, all bodies, all proclivities. It was up to us to transform that conversation. (“There’s not really one best thing, but let’s find something that is going to be the best for you.”) Still, people wanted toys that would do the fucking for them, stimulate enough that they wouldn’t have to learn more about their partners’ bodies. People constantly asked for hands-free toys that they could “set and forget,” that they wouldn’t ever need to grip onto. And they asked for toys that were not “intimidating,” for them or for their partners. “Something great, please, but nothing that could replace me,” they would say, over and over again.
During my tenure doing sex toy retail, I saw thousands of people attempt to wallpaper over their discomfort by buying the “right” toy to solve their problems. People dropped hundreds of dollars trying to make their partners listen to them, or find them desirable, or care about their pleasure. That’s how afraid they were to communicate. But then, who could blame them? It was clear in some cases that the partner didn’t care, or didn’t want to listen, or that the customer would be punished for speaking up for themselves. My colleagues and I gently advised many people around relationships where they were disempowered, ignored, devalued, and dehumanized without language for it.
We did not work on commission at the store, and that was deliberate; it was important to the sales staff that no one feel pressured to buy anything or spend more money than they wanted to. I decided not to make a sale at all a couple of times, when my manager was not present. I remember refusing to sell a man restraints because he wanted to “tie up [his] wife so that she can’t get away, even if she says she wants to be free.” Instead, we had a conversation about the importance of consent and the differences between nonconsent fantasies and actual assault. The conversation annoyed him; he walked out of the store in a huff. Once, a couple came into the store in the middle of an active fight, with the male partner telling the female partner what to buy, and the female partner refusing over and over again, in escalating voices, until he threw his credit card on the counter and she went silent. I rang them up, my skin crawling. Once, I quietly told a humiliated customer who had been brought into the store as a surprise that she could return the toy she had been bullied by a partner into buying, against our stated return policy.
I remember talking to customers about how to break up with their partners, how to keep themselves safe. Within a couple of minutes of reassuring, sex-positive talk on the sales floor, customers disclosed abuse histories, or fantasies they were not brave enough to talk to anyone about, or doubts about being married. I felt care for my customers, people who had maybe never had a space to talk to another person about sex in a way that was affirming. It was special to me that they felt they could confide in me, that they could ask me intensely personal questions about their body, and that I would not judge them. But at the end of the day, we sold sex toys, not solutions.
That said, there were many times when helping customers explore their desires was thrilling, moving, profound. One man who was getting his prostate removed because of a cancer diagnosis told me he wasn’t afraid of the surgery, but he was terrified that it would greatly reduce the volume of his ejaculate. He laughed. “I know it’s silly, but it makes me feel like less than a man!” And then he cried. I told him I didn’t think it was silly; I asked if I could put my hand on his shoulder, and we stood there for a moment together.
Once, a mother came into the store with her teenage son. They had come to the city for a transgender teen support group and to buy him a packer, an item worn in the front of pants to create the appearance of a bulge. The trip was expensive, she told me, but her son had saved his own money to buy the packer himself. He had his eye on the Cadillac of packers but didn’t have enough cash to buy the snug undies it was best worn with, with a secure front pocket for it to sit inside. I asked them how they felt about this offer: After six years of working at the store, I had hundreds of dollars in store credit and more sex toys than I would ever need. Would he consider buying the fancy packer he liked the most and letting me buy the packing underwear? His mother asked the question I wish we all asked more often — “Are you a hugger?” — and I came around the counter and embraced them both. Out of his earshot, she said, “Thank you for showing him that there are going to be places in the world that understand and accept him, because that’s not always true where we live,” and then I cried and she cried and then he cried, three weepers silhouetted in a sex toy storefront. My colleagues and I sold sex positivity through luxury merchandise; we stuffed intersectional, trauma-aware education in the bag as the gift with purchase.
Matching the other person’s energy in a conversation is great for making sales in retail, and sometimes in counseling and therapeutic settings. So I matched. I matched the energy of the fiftysomething couple stocking up on toys to take overseas to an all-out sex club tour of Berlin. I matched the energy of the woman who was finally ready to masturbate again after a painful divorce. I matched the energy of a submissive buying a butt toy to use with his mistress, and an 80-year-old woman who had never had an orgasm before, and a fratty guy who didn’t want to buy lube because “he’ll get her wet enough.” When the store was packed, I would ping-pong between customers, adjusting my registers up and down, caring and convivial, helpful and empathic, and a real bargain at $12 an hour. Those interactions would end with the existential question of all retail, a question whose vastness lingered in the air as I rang up their purchases: Did you find what you were looking for?
“Consent is sexy!” is true, and it’s also a slogan that looks great on a tote bag. “The absence of consent is assault!” will not sell you as much merch. I wonder how many people think they know what consent really looks like, sounds like, feels like. (For the people who worry that talking about sex “kills the mystery”: The mystery is whether the other person is into what’s going on. I don’t solve mysteries with my genitals; I use my brain and my words for that.)
I talked about consent in all of the sex education workshops I ran, and I would sometimes explain it this way, really throttling the metaphor to death: Let’s say you want to invite your friend to get dinner at a restaurant. Do you say “Do you want to have dinner?” and leave it at that? Or do you ask more questions: “Anything you’re particularly in the mood for? Are you allergic to certain foods? Is there anything new you want to try?” What if you got to the restaurant, and your friend said, “Okay, I know I said I was in the mood for this, but I actually feel like I want something else instead.” And what if you were eating, and then your friend was full and wanted to stop?
I never added this, but I should have: What if your boss invited you out for dinner, not your friend? Would that change the way you answered? Would it be harder to tell them you weren’t interested in the restaurants they suggested? Does that power differential make it harder to say no, knowing that there could be consequences? Our culture has flattened this nuance when we talk about consent. Saying “no” is one thing (a very important thing), but what does it mean to face the potential of violence for your “no”? How will that change the quality of your “yes”? We are expected to ignore all of the ways we could be punished, or else learn to eat whatever is being served without complaint.
Because of this, the imperfect manifestation of sex positivity that many inadvertently practice can be a destructive tool. Oh, you’re not a kick-ass feminist sweetheart who GETS WHAT SHE WANTS in bed? Sorry, honey, I guess you’re hopeless! It is easier to distance ourselves from perceived failure than it is to be curious, to wonder: What makes it hard for someone to talk about sex, or be open about their boundaries, or assert their discomfort? Is it a history of trauma, or cultural conditioning, or something relational? Rather than attempting to understand, we may critique someone else’s terrible experience because we know we would be too cool to let it happen to us.
This once again places the burden and the blame squarely on the victim. The assumption is that if you got hurt, it’s still your fault because you didn’t try hard enough to be the right kind of woman — as if empowered women don’t get hurt. I declined to call my first assault by its name at first, because being assaulted didn’t fit in with the image of myself I identified with. And the alternative, to accept that my inextricable tether to gender-based subjugation could not be overridden with force of will, was overwhelming and painful. If I accepted it, I had to let in a new critical voice, a new stomach through which to digest the cud of years of bad-faith negotiations with men. It would be easier not to. It would be easier to believe a $100 vibrator could meet a need I could not give voice to.
During my time at the sex shop, dozens of men came in with their wives and girlfriends and asked for a product that would “turn her on” or “make her enjoy sex more.” We sold something called arousal balm, which I described as a tingly lip balm for your downstairs bits. But it couldn’t manufacture arousal itself, I would explain, as arousal was a function of the brain, and certainly did not start or end with the application of topical cream to the genitals. Maybe, I would gently suggest, this is a good time to have a conversation where she tells you what her fantasies are, what kinds of sex she enjoys, how she likes to be touched. Customers would frown, and I would ring them up for their $10 alternative to communicating.
We are still holding on to the antiquated, bizarre idea that straight women don’t like sex. I try to imagine serving someone a bowl full of flour, and when they don’t eat it, throwing up my hands and saying, “I’ve tried everything! They just don’t like food!” What does it mean that we have held onto the cultural meme of “Not tonight honey, I have a headache”? Women need excuses to get out of sex; not wanting to have sex is not enough of a reason. I think about my grandmother. When she was on a bad date, she would go to the bathroom, hit her nose until she got a nosebleed, and excuse herself, because it was easier to punch herself in the face than suffer the consequences of rejecting a man.
After two years of working retail, I was promoted to the head of educational programming for the company that ran the store. And what I experienced in that job gave me an even clearer view into the kinds of anxieties people dealt with around sex — and the inherent imbalances they couldn’t help but run up against.
The financial backbone of the educational program was the blow job workshop, by a nearly inconceivable margin. The workshop was designed to be fun, friendly, and hands-on (with bananas). It was our job as teachers to keep the conversation strictly nongendered, and to sneak consent-based content into the material in a way that did not feel preachy, didactic, or off-topic. We had fun! But we also talked about not shaming people for not getting “wet enough,” or how to negotiate boundaries in a casual hookup, or what to do when someone was pushing your head down toward their crotch. I felt so proud to present a blow job workshop that gave people permission to not suck dick if they didn’t want to.
But then, we couldn’t sell a cunnilingus workshop to save our lives. Time and time again, workshop participants would ask for it on their evaluation sheets, but inevitably the workshop would get dropped from the schedule due to low ticket sales. We tried lowering the price of the workshop; we changed its name; we offered gift bags and free champagne. It was a victory every time we could actually squeak by our minimum required attendance and run the event. Meanwhile, blow jobs continued to boom.
Why? Painting with a broad brush, the majority of the workshop attendees were women who have sex with cisgender men (a category I find myself in too, most of the time). At some point, we all received the steady drip of Shakespearean ear poison telling us that giving amazing blow jobs is one of the skills we need in order to catch and keep a man. As if that’s how any of it works, as if I could staple a list of my womanly skills onto the front of my dress (Sews buttons! Bakes! Graduated from BJ University!) and stand in a town square, waiting to be chosen.
Aren’t women taught to hover in anticipation over the question: What did I do wrong? What could I do to make it better? We ask that question about the head we give, but also the head we receive. Too much hair? Not enough? Labia too ugly? Too wet? Too dry? Do my genitals smell? Do they taste bad? Is that why he isn’t going down on me? Afraid of facing retribution for our assertiveness, we instead contort to fit the shapes of someone else’s desire. Why do so many women refuse oral sex? Why are so few straight-identified women having orgasms with their partners? What would it take to sell this fucking workshop?
I try to imagine a bachelor party coming into the store for a celebratory cunnilingus event, the groom-to-be adorned in a crown of stylized, glittery cunts. Each man gingerly entering the room, wrapping a hand around a complimentary craft beer for the comfort of a familiar object. Each of them nervous that there is some secret out there to pussy eating that the other men aren’t telling, each of them worried that their girlfriends and wives or Tinder dates will leave them for someone who sucks clit better. I imagine each participant — the groom’s brother, his fiancé’s best guy friend, his cousins — adorned with vulva necklaces, sucking on ripe peaches and juicy mangoes, sitting on foldout chairs in a room of men, howling with laughter and cheering each other on as they practice tongue techniques. Thinking about this makes my heart ache.
Can we imagine talking about sex in a way that is not about convincing the other party to advance our agenda, that is not about wearing someone else down, that is not about seeing how much we can get away with? Can we tolerate holding simultaneous truths — that we are adults with agency, and that the cards we are holding have only ever been stacked in one direction?
Sex positivity is a powerful concept, but in order to be an actionable philosophy, it has to account for oppression, inequality, and the forces of capitalism. There is value in it, particularly in its capacity to help people identify the value in themselves. But we are only able to live out the tenets of sex positivity through socially conditioned lenses. In order to make sex positivity proliferate in our culture, it has been commodified for ease and popularity. And so, a gulf widens between the message and its meaning, the intent and the execution, and sex becomes yet another way to fail as a woman.
The weariness I feel about the unrelenting cheerfulness of much of the movement reminds me of the full-body revulsion I feel when I am enthusiastically told, “We are all one race, the HUMAN race!” — a statement which fails to take into account the social construction of race and racism. We don’t get to decide that the playing field is level now, just because we would really, really like it to be. We can believe in the plurality of sexual expression, the validity of all orientations and identities, but that doesn’t mean we all have the same user experience.
I want to believe in sex positivity hard enough to make it real. In many ways, it is a balm to soothe the barbs we sustain in a culture that punishes women for their appetites, that villainizes sexuality and erases the value of sex workers. Finding a sex-positive community was a homecoming in my early twenties, and interacting with a community of outspoken feminists and radical queers poured the foundation for my politic, my heart, my values, my dating life, and for my life’s work.
The work I did at the sex toy store was heady and complicated, and required so much more of us than the colloquial “slingin’ dils to pay the bills.” We were retail employees, but we were also counselors and educators, therapists and friends, sex workers and tour guides, vessels and ciphers. We were silly and fun and friendly, but operating within a kind of triage environment, constantly pressing up against the limits of our capabilities. We experienced empathy fatigue, defending our physical and emotional boundaries, and balancing the conflicting forces of keeping a store profitable and trying to do right by people, all while attempting to survive on retail wages. We could not advise others on their liberation while we were making decisions between making rent and affording food. We could not counsel full-throatedly on the importance of safety while we ourselves were in danger. The employees unionized to attain better working conditions, and I put in my notice shortly thereafter. As I packed up to go, I asked myself that end-of-transaction question: Did I find what I was looking for? Not yet. ●