After years of working at feminist sex toy stores, you come to see certain patterns of behavior. Heterosexual men who came to the store tended toward a sort of backwards Thunderdome mentality – one dick enters, one dick leaves!
You’d see them sizing up the dildos, gripping one to see how it measured up to the “real thing.” They would gaze forlornly at the rows of vibrators, fearful that the “real thing” was in a losing battle against two double-A batteries and some glittery plastic.
But the real tragedy is that the dildos and vibrators don’t even know there’s a war on. They are mindless, relentless machines, designed for one sinister purpose – to make sex better for everyone.
Any woman who’s grown up near penises has probably witnessed this kind of male insecurity. The endless campaign of dick one-upmanship can take many forms, each more irritating than the last. Meanwhile, as women on planet Earth, our genitals fight a losing battle for love and acceptance every damn day, even when they’re supposed to be having fun! Less than 30% of us can orgasm through vaginal penetration alone. Most women don’t know that, and it’s a pretty key piece of info. So when you see a man wrestling with his self-worth over a piece of plastic with a hobby motor, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.
But is this really a battle we want to fight? Do we really want to win the title of the gender with the most miserable sex life? Frankly, all of us are stuck in a prison of our own sexual hang-ups, no matter what our identities or preferences may be. They may look different on the surface, but it’s the same vulnerability underneath.
I applied to my first sex toy job at Babeland in New York with a cover letter that talked about my first time masturbating. At age 20.
The interview at the sex toy juggernaut was conducted in the basement of the Lower East Side store, which was only accessible via trap door. The manager asked me if there were any parts of the store I had questions about. “Well,” I said, “I guess I don’t know that much about butt stuff.”
She wrote, Anal Island…?
As it turned out, I was not being sent on some tropical butt retreat. This was the name of the table where they displayed all the butt toys. Anal Island.
During my first few days and weeks, my Midwest sensibilities were definitely rattled. I practiced slowing down my reaction times, a helpful trick from middle school when you’re trying to figure out what’s cool and not cool by waiting for other people to respond first. But as time went on, I actually became less and less shocked. Although every person had a different starting point of sexual comfort, even the most experienced Anal Islander had to cope with feelings of shame. Even those employees who had worked there for years felt it, that pressure to deliver the best sex of all time to our partners and the shame at inevitably falling short.
But sex isn’t a pizza – you don’t deliver it. How had we, whose job it was to explain this to people, forgotten that? It was humbling.
When people find out that I used to work in a sex toy store, they always want salacious details. They want stories. What’s the weirdest thing that happened? What was the weirdest thing someone wanted to do?
The thing is, I can never think of anything.
Except the old man who came in looking for a butt plug.
The old man reminded me of my dad. I hoped if my dad ever had prostate problems, he would find the courage to go into a sex toy store, to talk about butt plugs with a woman his daughter’s age.
I tend to tear up every time I tell this story.
Not exactly a crowd pleaser.
It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized the reason I can’t think of any weird, crowd-pleasing stories was that after awhile, nothing felt weird to me. You talk about sex to enough people and you realize that weirdness is a feature of human sexuality, not a bug. Unless someone was rude or obnoxious, I hardly remembered them individually.
I also realized that what people were really asking was: “Am I okay?” When men held up dildos to their crotches: “Am I okay?” When women thought they were broken because they needed a vibrator to orgasm during sex: “Am I okay?”
Whatever our gender or sexuality, we tend to think of sex as performance, because otherwise it’s just too damn scary. It’s easier to put on an act, to follow a script, to fake a climax, than admit that it makes us feel vulnerable. We want to hide our fears under the trapdoors of our psyche, pretend they don’t exist. Ideally, believe they don’t exist.
But there is truth to be unearthed in these fears: they can tell us things about ourselves that we can’t learn any other way. They can help us become more forgiving, more open. And not to get all woo-woo New Agey, but I believe that our deepest fears are tied to our desires, and that these desires are the purest example of human creativity, ancient and permanent as cave paintings.
So, let me save you the trouble of asking. No, plastic is not a replacement for real human contact. No, I don’t have any good stories, unless you want to hear about an old man’s search for a butt plug.
Yes, you are fucked up.
Yes, you are okay.
In the grand tradition of underemployed artists, Eden Robins has been: a singing waitress, a dildo salesman, a dental assistant, an abortion clinic receptionist, and a Swahili teacher. She usually writes fiction, some of which you can find online, and she is the co-host of the Chicago live lit series Tuesday Funk, as well as half of the weekly podcast Should I Worry About This?. She blogs rarely at monkeythumbs.com and tweets with some frequency @edenrobins.