6 Surprising Things I Learned Working in a Sex Shop
Every time I walk by a sex shop, I always wonder how the people who work there ended up getting that job. Do you have to be a sex expert? A kink aficionado? A therapist? And what are the people who come in regularly like? Is it awkward to talk to strangers so frankly about their sex lives?
Because of these questions, I was thrilled when famed New York sex shop The Pleasure Chest offered me the chance to hang out and see what actually goes on. Well actually, I was doing a little more than just “hanging out.” For two days, I was an employee-in-training, which means I spent a day shadowing the supervisor of their Upper East Side location, Ryan, and another day shadowing the supervisor of their West Village location, Brandon, as they restocked shelves with every kind of sex toy imaginable, helped customers figure out what lube or vibrator best suited their needs, and planned free sex ed classes for members of the local community.
That part about sex ed is a sticking point for the Pleasure Chest: Before I was even allowed onto the floor, I had to take a two-hour long crash course training program (for actual employees, the program is 10 hours). While most people in the customer service field are only being trained on, well, customer service, the employees here are also all considered trained sex specialists.
I’m not going to lie to you: When I went in for my first day, I expected it to be a funny, lighthearted experience that I’d come out of with a few sex tips and some dildo of that stuff. But, when I finally made it onto the sales floor, I got an experience that was a lot more eye-opening—even emotional—than I thought it would be.
Sometimes being “sex positive” means having a killer poker face.
My coworker Ryan—a transgender person with a trendy undercut haircut and a pin with the pronouns “them/they” written boldly on it—is one of those people who just can’t help but captivate an audience when they speak.
During my training, I was Ryan’s only audience member and I found myself hanging onto every single word. And one overarching theme of said training session was sex positivity. By hosting weekly free classes and training staff members as sex specialists, Ryan said the store sought to create an environment “where everyone is free to embody their sexuality in a way that rings true to them, without pressure to or coercion to do something else.”
I loved that concept and couldn’t wait to get on the floor and be the most sex positive person this store had ever seen. How hard could it be? The basic message is, essentially, “don’t be a jerk.”
But then I actually got on the floor. Very quickly, I found myself actively stopping my brow from furrowing in confusion as the middle-aged woman in a Lilly Pulitzer dress and a cross necklace came to ask where the spreader bars and paddles were located. And when the fratty-looking guy in the button down and a backward cap casually dropped over a thousand dollars on Fleshlights, it took all the might in me to suppress the urge to burst into nervous giggles.
To be clear, there is not a single part of me that believes a lady shouldn’t buy all the BDSM gear her heart desires, just as I’m all for that dude dropping an entire paycheck on what was essentially a Costco pack of Fleshlights. I was genuinely so excited to be part of an environment where they felt comfortable exploring this private part of themselves! But getting my body language to mimic my mind’s excitement when I’m just not used to hearing these things being discussed so openly is much, much easier said than done.
This is the best condom for a one-night stand.
One of the days, I was roaming sort of aimlessly around the West Village location during a lull in customer traffic when I stopped to take a look at their extensive condom collection.
I turned to Brandon, who was stocking the shelves with dildos across the store. “Which one do you recommend the most?”
Brandon, a tall hot gay dude with tattoos covering both his arms, had worked for the popular children’s site Neopets before he started his part-time gig at the Pleasure Chest in LA—an unexpected career move, I thought. What started as a part-time in LA eventually turned into full-time in New York, where he’s now the supervisor of the West Village location. He is, above all else, one of those quintessentially “cool” guys who just looks like he’d be a VIP at a hip underground Brooklyn party you didn’t even know about.
Which is to say that if he recommends a condom, I’m going to buy it.
Brandon paused his re-stocking and made his way over to me at my spot by the condom shelf. “Well, different condoms are good for different reasons, but Skyn condoms are the best for a one-night stand.” This is because, he explained, that in addition to feeling nice, they also happen to be latex-free—great for anyone, even those not having one-night stands, because it does away with that gross latex smell (and taste).
But the reason this brand is particularly great for one-night stands is because latex is a pretty common allergy, so keeping them around would potentially spare you an emergency trip to the hospital with a dude whose last name you don’t actually know.
A lot of working at a sex toy shop is lending emotional support to your customers.
“We’re the cheapest therapists in the world,” Brandon joked when I asked him about whether working at a sex shop could be emotionally taxing.
He recalled an experience he’d had with a couple at the store’s Los Angeles location, when he had just started working there. He saw a couple aimlessly wandering the aisles, whispering and looking a bit timid. When he approached them to see if they needed any assistance, he was politely turned away.
“I could tell they wanted space,” he explained. “I let them go to where they wanted in the store and they walked to the lubrication wall and just stood there.”
The Pleasure Chest has plenty of lubrication options. To paint you a picture, each location has an entire section with multiple shelves showcasing what’s got to be at least 20 different kinds of lube. So Brandon came over a second time and offered his help yet again, this time making sure to note his sex specialist training and general lube knowledge.
“The wife actually shooed the husband away,” he said. She confessed to Brandon that she had been experiencing vaginal dryness which, in his words, is “something bodies naturally do.” But “she said it [had resulted in] so much shame about her body and she felt so embarrassed by it.”
Brandon went into “helper mode” and started explaining what all of the different kinds of lubricants were, recommending ones that would probably work best for her specific situation, until she finally picked one. When the couple walked up to the register, Brandon noticed they both were smiling, tears in their eyes. “I could tell that, in that moment, all that shame that I felt from them when they first came in was gone.”
The job can be a therapeutic experience for employees, too.“My first introduction to sex was rape,” one of my coworkers revealed to me while we waited for a customer contemplating a butt plug purchase to make his way back inside. This coworkers said that, because his mom was raped, when he was growing up that tragic experience was the first definition of sex he had.
As an adult, he found himself in an emotionally abusive relationship. He had the urge to apply to work for a sex shop part-time but his controlling partner forbid him. When they broke up, his first order of business was to —you guessed it— apply to work at the Pleasure Chest. It ended up being the ultimate cure for his wounded relationship with sex, since he was able to talk about it with strangers in an open and non-judgemental way, in a neutral environment. It finally gave him a sense of control over his own sexuality. Plus, training to become a sex specialist and watching people leave the store genuinely excited about their own sex lives showed him, for the first time, that sex could be a good thing.
“It was the start of my actual sex life,” he told me. “It was the first time I was able to view sex as pleasurable.”
Sex and the City still does wonders for the sex toy industry.
I was walking around the Upper East Side location trying to get an idea of their almost overwhelmingly large inventory when I asked my fellow worker, Kaitlin, what the most popular toy in the store is.
Without missing a beat, Kaitlin—a beautiful, tall, trendy young woman—responded that the most popular toy by far is the Magic Wand. If you check out the product and see that it looks familiar, it might be because you’ve seen it before, in an episode of Sex and the City. Yep, it’s the “neck massager” Samantha returns to Sharper Image in Season Five.
And what’s the second most popular sex toy at the Pleasure Chest, you ask?
Brandon, my supervisor at the West Village location, said it had to be the Jimmyjane Rabbit vibrator Charlotte used in the first season.
Considering the Rabbit episode first aired in 1998 that may seem like quite the legacy, but it’s not really that surprising. After all, what mainstream show has covered sex toys in as frank and honest a way since?
And since the famous episode where Charlotte purchased that infamous vibrator was actually filmed at the West Village location of the Pleasure Chest, there’s a daily Sex and the City Tour around New York that begins here. At around 11:30, the shop was filled with tourists.
By the flavored lubes, I saw a girl in a flowy sundress taking a Snapchat with the caption, “Nah, I’m good lol” (Yes, I peeked at her phone screen for the sake of journalism). By the dildos, there was a young, blond, earthy-looking European couple very seriously contemplating the purchase of a giant rubber strap-on. But all the real action was at the center of the store, where a group of women of all ages indulged their inner Samantha by swarming the display shelf that held the majority of the store’s vibrators.
Tour guide Elyse Brandau told me that they chose the Pleasure Chest as the first stop because “it loosens everyone up.” After some initial hesitation to enter the store, she said, many participants get back on the bus the proud owners of their very first vibrator or dildo.
“I sort of feel like I’m doing God’s work,” she joked.
Spending a day at a sex toy shop can restore your faith in love.
You know in the beginning of Love Actually where Hugh Grant tells you to just go to the airport and look at the people greeting their loved ones as a reminder that love, actually, is all around? The sex shop is kind of like that, too.
There was the older man who came into the Upper East Side location asking Ryan to help him pick out some porn, in hope that he would feel somethingsexual after his wife passed away a few months ago. Or the middle-aged lesbian couple I caught making out between whispered “I love you’s” in the bondage section. Or the young, 20-something couple casually discussing where they were going to go for dinner later as they perused the butt plug section hand-in-hand. Or the older married European couple who bought three new vibrators amidst flirtatious giggles because…well, why not?
I expected the people coming into the sex shop to be indulging their sexual sides. But, as simple and obvious as it is in retrospect, I never took into account how much that sexual side links to the emotional side.
Yes, the person buying a butt plug is coming in to buy a butt plug and, because of the unfortunate way our society sometimes views sex, that purchase could be considered taboo and exciting.
But after my time at the Pleasure Chest, I realized that what’s beautiful about that situation isn’t just that someone is buying a butt plug (or a dildo, or a vibrator, or whatever it is) but that they’re buying it in public, openly and without shame.
Sometimes—like in the case of the women on the Sex and the City tour purchasing their first vibrators—working at the Pleasure Chest inspired me to take charge of my own sexuality. Other times—like in the case of my coworker with the traumatic past—it gave me a bittersweet sense of hope. And occasionally—like in the cases I mentioned—it even restored my faith in love.
This article is part of Summer of Sex, our 12-week long exploration of how women are having sex in 2017.