Sex & Relationships

Sex Clerks' Dirty Secrets

Your friendly neighborhood adult novelty store is helping out regular folks like you -- in more meaningful ways than you might expect.
I once obtained a strange souvenir while writing and researching an article. I was working for a day at an adult novelty store in Orlando, Fla., and a sales associate gave me a sample of a flesh-like material called Cyberskin, molded into the shape of a vagina. It made me giggle so much, I kept it on my car dashboard.

It meant a lot to me because my experience there was so surprisingly rewarding. I expected entertainment (finding film titles like "Dawson's Crack"), but I hadn't anticipated seeing sales associates who really helped their customers in that meaningful way normally associated with teachers or doctors.

"That's why we work here. To make the world a better place," says Jo-El Schult, an assistant manager and SESA (sex educator sales associate) at the Good Vibrations retail store in Berkeley, Calif.

If Schult's assertion seems too ambitious, think again. Sex is significant, and its quality or crappiness can make people happy campers or miserable bastards. We've all thought about some poor jerk, "S/he needs to get laid," but what if the problem is actually that they're not quite sure what they're doing once they get there?

"I've had women come in and say, 'I used a vibrator, but I don't see what the big deal is.' And I say 'Well, what are you doing with it?'" Schult says. "The biggest influence on people's sexuality is society, and society tells women that they need to have something inside them to get off."

When she tells her customers that "only 10 percent of women achieve orgasms from penetration; the other 90 percent require some kind of external stimulation," many of them find it groundbreaking. Voila! Happier women, male egos salvaged, world a better place -- at least a little bit.

"You become a counselor of sorts. People come in with these problems and you gauge them," says my friend Kat, a former sales associate at one of the best adult stores in the Southeast.

She says that feeling of having helped someone is what she misses most about the job. "I had a lady come in who had just gotten divorced, and she was just so sad -- kind of lost. She said she hadn't been able to have an orgasm."

Kat's on-the-job training had taught her a trick to determine which vibrator might be right for you: Touch it to the tip of your nose. It's also right there on Sue Johanson's website, episode #036: Try the nose test -- if it makes you jerk your head back, these vibration are too strong for your genitals.

"If you get a "Whoooooo! Tickle-tickle-tickle!" Kat explains, her voice going momentarily Betty Boop, "then it's going to work for you." She sent the lost lady away from her store with a clitoral stimulant, a small pocket vibrator -- "Those are lovely," she says, "because your partner can hold them and you can hold them" -- as well as a new sense of direction.

The story that Angelique Stacy, another SESA at Good Vibrations' San Francisco store, recalls most vividly was about a military man who had come on "a pilgrimage" to give thanks for some life-altering information he had found in "The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex." "He said, 'I used to fear homosexuality. I used to be afraid to tell my girlfriend what I wanted,'" Stacy remembers.

The man had associated "any anal eroticism with being gay," and learned that not only was that just not true, but that "not every gay male likes that sort of stimulation. Everybody's so different." The book changed his life, Stacy says.

Clearly, this sort of life-changing sexual information is important -- at least for some. To me, sex stores have a democratizing feeling, both in their educational value and their wide variety of customers.

In these interviews alone, I heard about the soccer-mom type whose eyes lit up when she walked by the bondage gear, a geeky guy who wanted to know if ingesting female ejaculate was safe, young men who wanted to please their girlfriends with vibrators but were afraid the vibes might replace them, and an older couple who bought a strap-on so he could still please her despite his performance issues.

Yet if you were going by what you saw culturally, you'd think only the young, confident and cute are getting off. These sorts of shops remind you that the young and cute are the minority -- everyone cares about their sex lives. Everyone needs information.

Not everyone lives near a Good Vibrations, but if there's a retailer near you where you feel comfortable (if you're nervous, bring a friend or four), don't underestimate the staff. They've heard it all before, and their helpfulness could surprise you.
Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.