“What’s your best toy?”
August 4, 2018 3:29 PM   Subscribe

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.

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, 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.
***
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. ... 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.
***
... 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.

-- Part of Buzzfeed's sex collection.
posted by ErisLordFreedom (38 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite


 
Have to quote this in full:
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.
Goddamn.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:06 PM on August 4 [99 favorites]


My favorite job was working at a super rad local sex positive sex shop. The author of this piece ain’t wrong. The thing I found hardest was finding patience for squeamish uncomfortable insecure middle aged men who thought sec toys were hilarious as a defense mechanism. GROW THE FUCK UP.
posted by Grandysaur at 4:17 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]


I loved it when they’d jokingly ask about anal toys and I’d go into a whole straight faces shpeal, absolutely refusing to engage with their joking tone of voice.
posted by Grandysaur at 4:18 PM on August 4 [36 favorites]


Although the passage you quoted would be about six kinds of not my scene, schadenfrau, it sure as hell illuminates a difference I had never thought about. As it is, giving oral sex to women is now coded as an assertion of a man's sexual power over a woman -- or lack of it, depending on the subculture he lives in. In either case, a man's sexual power is supposed to be innate, certainly not something he would need any kind of help with. When I was a teenager, I heard young men discussing their skill at oral sex, and it haunted me. It sure as hell was not something you would put in a cute room with glitter and champagne, or even a decent craft beer. Fancy Feast clearly grasps the darkness inherent in trying to implement sex positivity in a patriarchal context.

I've only been to a sex toy shop once. A man sitting on the curb spat towards my feet as I walked towards it -- I had sandals on, I felt it on my skin. I am still not sure if he was just gross or if he did it because he saw where I was heading. When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised by how mild and professional the staffer was, just as if it had been a wireless-service store. More so, in fact -- she wasn't trying to upsell me on anything. I walked away feeling absolutely none of the terror I had when I approached it. I was very grateful for that.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:31 PM on August 4 [16 favorites]


I like how the article highlights both positive and negative experiences she's had. I definitely feel the discomfort in a number of her examples, but this kind of store can be a wonderful resource for people who want to explore sexually but feel scared or don't know where to start. I got my first vibrator not all that long ago at the Tool Shed and the staff was AMAZING at reassuring my nervous self (seriously, I was nearly shaking and it took me hours to work up the courage to go there in person) that what I was looking for was normal and fun and nothing to be ashamed of.

I'm currently working at an online shop specializing mostly in bondage gear and sex toys, and it's really cool to see customer feedback from people saying their experience buying from our site helped them figure out aspects of their sexuality they'd been curious about for a long time, or helped them feel affirmed in their gender or desires.

I think she's right on in how it comes down to what I'd characterize as autonomy - something that's a wonderful resource for a person figuring themself out can also be harmful or oppressive when pushed on them by someone else or societal expectations. I just hope that the majority of orders I pack up are in the former category.
posted by augustimagination at 4:42 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


Online shopping has been such a major boon for sex toy retail that I shudder to remember a world for it without it. If you have a sex-positive shop in your town, by all means frequent it and keep it alive, because that's the only way you CONTINUE to have a sex-positive shop in your town... but think about the phrase "sex shop" in your head right now. I know what my first mental image is, and I'd like to rinse it out of there now, please, because it's a dirty roadside hole-in-the-wall straight out of 1973 with dirty shelves and dirty staff and dirty products because anything other than vanilla sex is dirty sleaze for dirty people. Also, a mop boy.

We had a shop open up in my hometown with a great deal of promise. It was attractively decorated with a subtle storefront, was female-positive, offered classes and educational seminar nights, and had staff who were capable of treating customers respectfully... and the local Catholic church blew a complete gasket when the store got a permit to operate, because their church was two blocks away and HOW DARE a sex shop open up where Good Catholic Schoolchildren might accidentally stumble upon it and see a dildo in a window display and turn immediately to a sinful life of sex and drugs. It was a nice bundle of letters-to-the-editor in the local paper for a while.

So the idea that people can go online if they don't have a good shop in their town and shop anonymously, read lots of customer reviews with pros and cons, find a ridiculously large array of devices for sale (seriously, if you haven't looked lately, do it sometime! Technological advances are wonderful things), find tutorials and demonstrations in some cases, and actually have some confidence in what it is that they're buying in why... that's a very good thing. And if you can get someone in a brick-and-mortar shop who knows what they're doing and can sit and discuss with you both the hows and the whys... well, it's a shame that that's a rare gem to find.
posted by delfin at 5:20 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]


Contrast this with Germany, where there’s Beate Uhse sex shop with a window display on every High Street.
posted by monotreme at 5:42 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to imagine how cunnilingus lessons would go. BJ classes are mostly about suppressing the gag reflex, right?
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:10 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


This article was really fantastic and very well timed, as I had the pleasure of attending a workshop, “Sex is a social skill,” offered by the amazing Dawn Serra at the ASDAH conference earlier today. We talked about shame and myths surrounding sex and where the shame and beliefs come from, and of course we talked about communication and how there is no such thing as the perfect blow job that applies to every person and yet Cosmo runs the top ten tips for one every issue. It got me thinking about living across the street from Babeland in Seattle for awhile and how I never felt like the store was for me, as a queer woman, even though they staffed it pretty exclusively with queer women (one of whom I went on a date with a few years ago and who was a total asshole, but I disgress).

Maybe it was the way that just one slightly sketchy person walking in would make me freeze and panic about what they were going to do — was this guy taking up space going to cause problems or is he giving off that toxic energy because going into a sex shop somehow challenged his masculinity? Maybe it was the way they embraced Fifty Shades of Grey (which goes against any idea of consent or ethical BDSM). Maybe it was that they never carried any harnesses in my or my partner’s sizes. It was certainly that all these things led to my observation that in order to stay in business, they needed to appeal to sex-phobic people in an approachable way that made someone like me feel unwelcome. But I still shopped there as often as I could afford because it seemed important. This article really brought that home. Thanks for posting this! (And for introducing me to Fancy Feast. Went to follow them on Instagram and was informed 15 other Instagram contacts already do!)
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 6:54 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


BJ classes are mostly about suppressing the gag reflex, right?

Nope. Not at all. But this was a great (if unintentional) impression of the kind of guy that goes into sex toy shops and makes a lot of jokes about it...
posted by palomar at 7:13 PM on August 4 [42 favorites]


.. and the local Catholic church blew a complete gasket when the store got a permit to operate, because their church was two blocks away and HOW DARE a sex shop open up where Good Catholic Schoolchildren might accidentally stumble upon it and see a dildo in a window display and turn immediately to a sinful life of sex and drugs.

My first impression of West Virginia was, "Wow, there sure are a lot of churches. And... sex shops? Like, right down the road from each other in seemingly peaceful coexistence?" But I didn't notice a lot of Catholic churches among the various denominations. Snake handling? Check. RC, no.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:01 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Of the Bachelor parties I've been to, well, one was a hot-ass Summer weekend in New Orleans involving a lot of strip clubs which was a bad scene for me for a few reasons I won't go into here. Another involved a stripper showing up over the repeated, repeated objections of the groom and basically everyone else but the douchebag who hired her (nothing against strippers here - no shame and make your money - it's just not my thing) but the most common bachelor party event I've encountered is paintball - also not my jam (I'm not good at shooting and even worse at not getting shot) but mainly hanging out at a rented house drinking a shitload, grilling, and playing video games and joking.

Honestly, the elemental-plane-of-dicks thing with the classic Bachelorette party bemuses me. Like, it's 2018. Straight ladies, I'm guessing most of you are familiar with penises by the point when you're getting married. I don't doubt that the focus on sex is a bit of a proxy to make humorous any fears about getting married generally. And I also know that that kind of shindig is far from universal. But I still don't really get it.

As for the cunnilingus workshop - I wouldn't be opposed to going to such a thing. Seems helpful and including champagne would be a big selling point (free drinks definitely improved the "NY apartment buying" workshop I attended a year ago.) But for a bachelor party? I'd much rather attend this sort of thing with strangers than to lay bare (or see my friends lay bear) whatever secrets, fears and weaknesses they have in that regard. Some mental images have a way of sticking around.

Seems to me (with no knowledge and having never worked in a sex shop so many grains of salt here) that a couples' workshop covering both cunnilingus and fellatio might be the right way to go (though obviously exclusively interesting to straight folks for half the time.) I imagine women would generally be more open to the concept and able to sell their male partners on it more effectively at home than a stranger in a sex shop would (going, again, on the description of men's behavior in sex shops) but also because there aren't really universals about oral sex - people have different wants needs and hang-ups. Like TFA says, it's about communication, which is a lot easier when both partners (or all) are there to, you know, communicate.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:10 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


My only bachelorette party consisted of Chinese takeout (General Tso's shrimp with shrimps the size of yo-yos), DIY manicures, and only a little Gilbert and Sullivan.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:27 PM on August 4 [11 favorites]


How little Gilbert & Sullivan? Did it include the madrigal from Ruddigore? Hail Poetry?
posted by Navelgazer at 8:31 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]


How little Gilbert & Sullivan? Did it include the madrigal from Ruddigore? Hail Poetry?

I was the only one who knew "When the Buds are Blossoming," but "Hail, Poetry" was definitely on the program. No "Braid the Raven Hair," either, darnit.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:18 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]


Thank you for this lovely article. I think that consent lesson that uses going out to dinner as a metaphor is rather brilliant.
posted by shalom at 9:23 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I think as a straight guy I'm with Navelgazer on wanting to keep sex ed and strippers out of bachelor parties. People feel obligated to go to bachelor parties and go with the flow once they're there, and obligation and sex are a bad mix.
posted by smelendez at 9:37 PM on August 4 [16 favorites]


How little Gilbert & Sullivan? Did it include the madrigal from Ruddigore? Hail Poetry?

I was the only one who knew "When the Buds are Blossoming," but "Hail, Poetry" was definitely on the program. No "Braid the Raven Hair," either, darnit.


For my law school roommate's wedding I was put in charge of arranging all of the law-school-musical-theater folks (who made up about half the guest list) into a G&S song for the ceremony. I chose "When the Buds are Blossoming" which worked out really beautifully.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:41 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


For my law school roommate's wedding I was put in charge of arranging all of the law-school-musical-theater folks (who made up about half the guest list) into a G&S song for the ceremony. I chose "When the Buds are Blossoming" which worked out really beautifully.

Oh, wow, that sounds awesome! What a lovely gift to them!

Two of my friends, a soprano/tenor couple, sang two duet at a third riend's wedding. They did "None shall part us from each other" from Iolanthe, and "Ah, well-beloved" from The Gondoliers. It was lovely.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:00 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


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.

I will never fully understand the ability for people (often men) to be so uninterested in pleasing their partners (often women.) I mean, isn't it FUN to see them happy?? Isn't it a turn on to give them pleasure or at least participate in SOME WAY? It shouldn't ever feel like a chore where you get yours then throw a toy at them and walk away.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:11 PM on August 4 [11 favorites]


This thread has encouraged me to overcome my embarrassment and source some enjoyable Gilbert and Sullivan.
posted by Segundus at 10:50 PM on August 4 [27 favorites]


isn't it FUN to see them happy?? Isn't it a turn on to give them pleasure or at least participate in SOME WAY?

The fun, for some of them, is knowing they can do it. The actual work part of pleasing their partner - as in, figuring what she actually wants, as opposed to what he likes to see in porn movies - is a hassle. So he wants a magic device that will turn her into a porn star, which is to say, someone who is thrilled to be in his presence and has orgasms at his slightest whim.

And there are men who are deeply upset that sex toys will not do that, that pleasing their partner involves thinking of her as a person with actual desires and preferences.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:41 PM on August 4 [11 favorites]


I've never been in a sex toy shop, way too much shame for me to be that open about my needs, even though my needs are rather pedestrian. And online sales are where it's at now, an anonymous box from some vendor on eBay or even Amazon, though giving Jeff Bezos information about my preferred lube is rather annoying.

One of my best friends is a transvestite, and when he gets into Houston (a couple of times a month) he's got this one shop he really likes, and the reason he likes it is because there is no shame, the staff there are totally comfortable in helping him find what he needs. It's great.

As far as oral sex, anyone who wants to learn about giving a woman good oral sex would benefit from what I think is pretty much the gold standard video on the topic, legendary porn star and sex-positive activist and educator Nina Hartley demonstrating the nuts and bolts of giving good head. A search on "Nina Hartley and Sunny Lane" will get you a very NSFW 20 minute instructional on the topic.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:16 AM on August 5 [12 favorites]


I will never fully understand the ability for people (often men) to be so uninterested in pleasing their partners (often women.) I mean, isn't it FUN to see them happy?? Isn't it a turn on to give them pleasure or at least participate in SOME WAY? It shouldn't ever feel like a chore where you get yours then throw a toy at them and walk away.

Pleasing my partner has always been the best bit of sex, for me. It's absolutely a rush. But from the other men I know, that's a moderately uncommon attitude (speaking purely about cishet at this point)

Mostly, it seems to be a combination of entitlement, selfishness and obliviousness. Sex is generally PiV, which works for them. If the woman isn't actively complaining, then it must be fine for them too. If she is complaining, then she's a 'frigid bitch'. Blowjobs are even better, if the partner can be cajoled into one.

It's a much deeper rooted problem that just sex, it's about attitudes to women generally. Is she an equal partner, a fully real person with needs and feelings and desires? Not often enough.

But then, and maybe I'm getting more cynical as I get older, it seems many men I've met have sort of floated through life, never really having to consider other people's feelings or wants at more than a surface level, other men included. If anything, we're trained not to as children. Other men are easy to get along with, because they don't make emotional demands other than a beer and someone to share a bitch session with. There's always been someone else to do the emotional labour, so much so they never even really realise it exists.

I'm not great at that myself, being honest, though I'm trying to get better. Growing up, a 'stiff upper lip' and all that, emotions were for girls and crybabies.
posted by MysteryMeat at 1:22 AM on August 5 [11 favorites]


this is as good a place as any to mention that I always wanted "Brightly dawns the wedding day" to be my wedding processional, since I'm probably not going to have an actual wedding
posted by Countess Elena at 8:06 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


> And there are men who are deeply upset that sex toys will not do that, that pleasing their partner involves thinking of her as a person with actual desires and preferences.

This isn’t unique to men. The perception of sexual prowess is deeply personal to pretty much everyone, and no one wants to be told that their intuitions about what their partner wants are wrong.
posted by cirgue at 8:44 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


I’m a woman who sleeps with women, and every single one of them has wanted to know if their intuitions about what I wanted was wrong. More so than that, they didn’t make assumptions because “intuition” isn’t something that applies to other people’s bodies. Yes, I have been lucky to sleep with people who know how to ask, but also, women are not raised to believe they have sexual prowess — all the media aimed towards women about how to please their male partners backs me up. It’s unrelenting, and it continues with mainstream porn.

I have never met a woman, of any sexuality, who thinks they possess sexual prowess. I have met plenty of men who do, including men who think their prowess is so great that raping me would turn my sexuality.

We can acknowledge that the patriarchy hurts us all without this becoming a “not all men” or “yes women too” thing. Women are socialized to believe that men’s pleasure is the default and important and that women’s pleasure is mysterious and fickle. Men are raised to believe that penis in vagina sex is the default and it’s taking far too long for the narrative to shift, and again, that’s reflected in the vast majority of porn. The result is this male fragility around sex toys. Again, it harms us all.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:32 AM on August 5 [25 favorites]


This thread has encouraged me to overcome my embarrassment and source some enjoyable Gilbert and Sullivan.

Wooo! Another great one was a different couple of friends who met through the same Law School Theater Group, specifically on the show "The Sorcerer." He was from a family of Lutheran ministers, she a proud Quaker background. So here's how they wrapped all that in a perfect bow:

The groom's sister, a Lutheran Minister, did a reading, following it up with a reading from the Pennsylvania court decision guaranteeing Quakers the right to perform wedding ceremonies according to their own beliefs, in this case having it "witnessed" by all in attendance. They they brought out the marriage certificate with about a hundred lines for signatures on it and we all lined up and signed one by one...

While those of us who knew the song (again about half the party) led the half who didn't in "All Is Prepared," a great song from The Sorcerer about signing a marriage certificate.

That was really beautiful.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:52 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


Thank you, dancestoblue, for the Nina Hartley-Sunny Lane suggestion. Some thoughts:

1) NSFW is not a strong enough label for that.
2) It's available in several places, all of them porn video sites. If you're concerned about your browsing history, use a private browser window.
3) I have no idea how a store would give a demo/class that would teach any of that. I don't think there's an equivalent to bananas that would work.
4) My local sex shops (there are several) offer classes/workshops on "oral sex," and make sure to mention that includes blowjobs; they don't mention whether that includes cunnilingus.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:01 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


I don't think there's an equivalent to bananas that would work.

Mangos work fairly well.
posted by Lexica at 11:14 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


The fun, for some of them, is knowing they can do it. The actual work part of pleasing their partner - as in, figuring what she actually wants, as opposed to what he likes to see in porn movies - is a hassle. So he wants a magic device that will turn her into a porn star, which is to say, someone who is thrilled to be in his presence and has orgasms at his slightest whim.

There is a reasonably sizable subgenre, as well, of 'forced orgasms'. Restrain the person of your choice, add in a suitably fearsome implement and a wall outlet to plug the other end into, turn on the cameras, and watch as the person tests his/her acting ability for however many shaking expressions of ecstasy the director requires.

On the one end of the spectrum are men who could not care less if their women reach orgasm. On the other end are those who demand to turn the female orgasm into a test/proof of their prowess; filming how they can simply breathe on women on the bus and they collapse in pulsating bliss, and how they can build a cross between Durand Durand's Excessive Pleasure Machine and something from one of the Saw movies in their basement that no woman can resist.

I don't know, man, I didn't do it.
posted by delfin at 1:58 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


I don't think there's an equivalent to bananas that would work.

This is nothing, but since I'm currently jumping between this thread and the one about "untranslatable concepts," this at first threw me for a loop.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:34 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


Bless Nina Hartley then, now and always.
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:12 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


Let us now unite the two topics in this thread with a rousing chorus of "Tit-Willow."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:23 PM on August 5 [7 favorites]


Oh man, so much here.

I love the dinner analogy, and it's such a good way to communicate "hey maybe you should ask your partner questions about what they like". Also reminds me of Tea Consent which always deserves a mention.

The best bachelor party I've attended was a long weekend at a Russian River cabin with floating, grilling, casual drinking, and all the ideal non-sexualized dude stuff. Food enthusiasts and ex-chefs, some beer and wine snobs, and no need to drive anywhere. No strippers and no machismo-fueled bad sexual decisions either. However— I think if culturally we USAmericans had fewer hangups about men talking about sex as an exploration and learning process the inclusion of some cheeky and cheesy vulva themes would be welcome in the bachelor party oeuvre.

ErisLordFreedom, Nth on Nina Hartley being super positive and useful in my teenage sex nerd* development. I'd like to think a cunnilingus workshop could begin with everyone getting a fruit-filled bento on arrival. Maybe a lobster bib also. Discuss lips vs tongue vs teeth, tongue shapes, pressure and suction. Have the receiving partner hold the fruit in their crotch, and have the giving partner explore the fruits. Mangoes, papayas, free-stone peaches especially. Chocolate flowers could also work.

* "I need to get REALLY GOOD at this, let's RESEARCH!". Definitely helped make me into a service top.
posted by a halcyon day at 12:24 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]


an apt description of my marriage: "My colleagues and I gently advised many people around relationships where they were disempowered, ignored, devalued, and dehumanized without language for it."
posted by sp_w at 3:01 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


The one bachelor party I've been to was organized by the "best woman" and it came out much more as a genderflip of a bridal shower than a bacherlorette party. We had a boob cake, gifts of novelty bananna hammocks, silly themed party games and so forth. I suspect that a lot of guys would secretly have preferred a party like that over the extreme sleaze version popularized by 80's movies.
posted by Karmakaze at 6:31 AM on August 8


I took care of the need for stripper when I was 'best woman' for a male friend's wedding. I got a can of paint stripper.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:08 PM on August 10 [2 favorites]


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