(Content Warning: Transphobic Slurs)
I’ll never forget the first time I had the nerve to walk into a sex shop.
I was 17 years old, living in a bodunk little town, and had purposely driven 30 miles north to make absolutely sure I didn’t run into anybody I knew.
Despite my precautions, I was nonetheless convinced – convinced – that the workers were going to sniff me out as a minor, shame me, and toss me on my ass. I legitimately felt like I was breaking the law and worried this may be my first step toward a lifetime of crime.
But, quite frankly, the pull to potentially buy a vibrator and finally feel some sort of sexual satisfaction was too strong. So in I went.
To be fair, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen a sex shop. On the outside, anyway. Plenty were closer to my home. They were just…different. Their structures were single-floored and cement, their windows were nonexistent, and you essentially would declare the building vacant if it weren’t for the cartoonishly tropey “XXX” pasted in black and red all over the front.
With trash skittering across the pavement, broken bottles everywhere, and instructions to only enter in back (a pun that’ll never be lost on me), one thing was clear: These places would make me regret going in.
Why? Because they were for men only. And manly men, at that.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a sex shop that caters to men. They could even still be feminist by doing so! But the fact of the matter is that few such shops exist. Personally, I have yet to come across one.
The sex industry as a whole still seems to view sex as a (straight, white, cis) man’s thing. And with such a narrow focus, branches such as shops tend to ignore all other identities. It’s a frustratingly stunting business practice.
Their products, magazines, and DVDs often cater exclusively to cis-penis pleasure and the objectifying male gaze, including the problematic (ranging from insulting representations of trans women to perpetuations of rape culture – which, by the way, is different from consensual rape playacting).
In essence, such shops are the antithesis of feminism and equality.
And back when I was a young’in, I simply assumed this was the nature of all sex shops. They were designed to be shameful and dangerous, and it’d be best if I simply stayed away. End of discussion.
But while driving 30 miles out one day for reasons I can’t remember anymore, the nestled quaintness of a swirly purple sign caught my eye so bad I nearly ran into the car in front of me. A sex shop right in the open, amongst other regular businesses? with a front door? with windows? I couldn’t quite comprehend it.
I drove by it several times over the next few weeks before I finally decided to chance it. From the friendliness of the female (!) employees to the care they showed in ringing up my purchases, I felt like I was in the freaking Twilight Zone. And I loved it.
Now, over ten years later, I’ve visited many a sex shop. No, I don’t buy something every time I go in, but I like to think I’ve become something of a connoisseur. While other people make a habit of tasting wines or collecting little spoons from every state, I gather toy-shopping experiences.
And let me tell you, there are definitely some excellent sex shops, some awful sex shops, and some just plain in-between ones.
How do you tell if a sex shop is feminist? Here’s the criteria I’ve learned to ask myself.
1. Do They Have Female, Femme-Identifying, or LGBTQIA+ Employees?
I’m not saying that cis men can’t work at feminist sex shops. (They need and deserve healthy exploration, too!) I’m just saying you may want to turn around and walk back out the door if that’s all you see. Ever.
Look, women and LGBTQIA+ folk aren’t prudes. If none work at a sex shop, it likely means either 1) it’s not the sort of place these types of people feel safe working in or can advocate for, or 2) the business doesn’t want to hire them. And who wants to deal with that?
So go for places with a few marginalized identities behind the counter. Major bonus points if the business itself is owned or was started by female, femme-identifying, or LGBTQIA+ people. You pretty much can’t lose in that scenario.
2. Do They Carry Merchandise That’s Aimed at Transgender Customers?
Feminism has often been incorrectly defined as only having to do with (straight, white, cis) women.
And while even some 101 feminists have been unfortunately misguided in this belief, the true meaning behind feminism is the perusal of equality between all sexes and genders, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, dis-ability, or any other marginalzied identity.
Case in point: A feminist sex shop will have merchandise that’s aimed at transgender customers.
The usual items include packers; underwear-shaped harnesses; dildos with realistic skin tones, shapes, and feels (with a base designed to accommodate a harness); and magazines/DVDs that portray trans people in a realistic manner.
Seriously, none of this tr-nny, he/she, chicks-with-dicks bullshit. That’s not transgender merchandise. That’s just offensive, mock-trans propaganda specifically designed for cis male consumption.
And I’m also not talking about packers in the “novelty” section (how insulting is that?!), often reappropriated as gag gifts for bachelorette parties. I’m talking about packers in the gender play and expression section intended for—you know—gender play and expression. Because that’s what they’re for.
A feminist sex shop will know these differences and steer clear of offensive or inappropriate representations of peoples and products.
3. Do Employees Encourage Questions or Suggestions?
They don’t need to be following you around or anything, but it’s a big deal in a sex shop when you’re warmly greeted as you step through the door.
It’s as simple as a genuine “Hi! Let me know if you have any questions!” from the counter.
And you know what? I do ask questions, sometimes purely because they offered.
Nine times out of the ten, they were more than happy to tell me about harness sizes and vibrator battery life. Many would even go so far as to suggest something that they themselves use and love, or put batteries into a floor model so I could have a basic idea of vibration strength and volume.
Hey, they recognized these things are important to know!
4. Do They Give Away Free Stuff?
Little sample packets of lube, a condom or two, a frequent buyers’ program… Free stuff is nice!
And a good, feminist sex shop will encourage you to purchase more things in the future by enticing you in a positive, exploratory way.
5. Are They Discreet Instead of Secretive?
My distinction between discreet and secretive is this: Discreet means “not for children’s eyes.” Secretive means “not for anyone’s eyes.”
If a sex shop is designed toward the latter, something’s very, very wrong with how they perceive their business.
The best example of a business’s sexual stance would be their window and door situations. Are the windows frosted or boarded up? Are they high up or nonexistent? Is the door right in front, or can you only go in through an alley or back way?
Essentially, you want a place that isn’t hiding what’s inside, but simply keeping too-young minors from getting easy peeks.
The entrance should be in view of the business’ logo, and windows should be existent and in use, whether they be high up, half-to-full frosted, or positioned in a way that won’t bruise tender, tender virtues.
(The sex shop I mentioned in my intro was the cleverest. While it’s entire front was of clear glass windows and doors, showing off its lingerie section like any Victoria’s Secret at a mall, it got—uh—more explicit the further back you went.)
I don’t know about you, but walking into a sex shop that takes advantage of natural sunlight feels quite normalizing to me. It’s nice.
6. Do They Respect Your Privacy?
This is the ultimate “paper or plastic” scenario.
No matter what you purchase, a good store will put your items into a paper bag (usually with handles – fancy!) relative to the size of your purchase.
It shows they care about your privacy and, while there’s nothing wrong with what you just bought, recognize you probably don’t feel like proclaiming it to every stranger you run into on your way home.
But if they shove your stuff into a thin plastic bag, a bag that is ridiculously too large, or a bag so small that your items are peeking over the top, the business is being discourteous. They’re pretty much telling you they don’t care about your comfort level.
Last time I checked, that wasn’t a very feminist attitude.
7. What’s Their Street Cred?
If you’ve been camped out in front of a shop for a week and still can’t figure out if it’s feminist or not, ask around!
Friends, lovers, and feminist circles may have the skinny on the shop.
And if not, you can check out Yelp! or another related review sites to see what people in general have to say.
8. How Do They Handle a Test Call?
I’ve had tons of fun with this one. It’s like crank calling, but a touch more mature.
If you’re still at a loss as to whether or not a sex shop is worth your time, call them up. Plan what you’re going to ask and feel free to make it blunt and unapologetic.
See if you can trip them up without letting them on to your game. Anybody can tell you what hours they’re open, but only the good employees won’t bat an eye when you ask them if any new nipple clamps have arrived.
Basically, what you ask isn’t as important as how they respond. What you’re investigating here is how they handle you.
If they answer readily, happily, or otherwise helpfully, then you’re golden. But if they’re sullen, hesitant, or clearly otherwise couldn’t give a flying rat’s backside about your concerns on the quality of their studded, leather paddles, then don’t bother giving them your monies.
Thus concludes your 101 guide to sex shop bliss.
Remember, sex shops are like any other business: They’re ultimately there to make money. But a good sex shop won’t do it by bullying or shaming you in the process.
They know a welcoming, encouraging experience will get customers to return again and again.
If you have the ability and desire to purchase toys, merchandise, or other related pleasures, be sure to buy through a sex shop with a feminist approach. They deserve your support, and you deserve theirs.
James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He isn’t particularly fond of his name, but he has to admit it makes him easier to remember. When he’s not busy scaring cis gender people with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play SEGA and eat candy.
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