Last summer, I had a sexual reawakening, and I found myself very much wanting a sex toy. I don’t particularly love penetrating myself with my fingers, and I didn’t want to insert any household objects into my vagina because it seemed very unsafe. Once I moved for college, away from any prying eyes, I asked a close friend of mine if she would take me to a sex shop. We have always been very open with each other about sexuality, and she agreed. She had been to this particular store before, which I found reassuring.
We went together late one evening. It was a warehouse, with bright fluorescent lights and linoleum floors. The salesperson checked our IDs at the door. We looked around for a while. The place was huge. Everything was in plastic containers. There was lots of kink gear and lingerie that looked kitschy, flimsy, and cheap. Both of the salespeople who were working appeared to be women. There was a bit of education, as the salespeople ranked the available materials in terms of safety, with glass and silicone at the top and jelly rubber at the bottom. Even with that spiel, they sold an awful lot of jelly products.
Eventually, I managed to tell the salesperson that I was shopping for my first vibrator. I was blushing beet red, which she politely pretended not to notice. I remember thinking that was very professional of her. She asked me how much I wanted to spend, and helped me pick out a hot pink insertable vibrator. It was coated in silicone and ran on one AA battery. She took it out of its packaging at the front desk so I could hold it in my hand and feel the vibrations. I thought it felt much better than the watch battery bullet I also tested that night, so I decided to get it.
Then, the salesperson directed me to a shelf full of lube. She recommended one because it was thick and apparently designed specifically for toys, so I added it to my pile. I only found out months later, from Dangerous Lilly’s Epic Lube Guide, that the lube in question was full of gross ingredients that are really bad for your body. Next, the salesperson said I absolutely had to have toy cleaner. Later research showed that warm water and soap is usually just fine for silicone toys. She asked if I needed batteries, which I did, so she sold me a pack of fancy red batteries that were “better for toys”. Once I got home and tried to use them, I discovered that she had sold me the wrong size: AAAs instead of AAs. All my purchases were then tossed in a plain black plastic bag. With everything combined, I ended up spending twice as much as the budget I told the salesperson I wanted to stay under.
Fast forward several weeks, and I decide that I want to buy a butt plug. I was still very wary of ordering online, so I decided to go back to the sex shop. I did a google search for “sex store” in order to find the address, and up popped Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center. I was intrigued, so I clicked on their website. I found that they were staunchly feminist and queer-friendly, that they hosted adult sex education classes at their store, and that they work with local medical providers to support patients. They seemed like an altogether different beast from the warehouse store. Besides, they were relatively close and I still wanted a butt plug, so I headed straight over.
My first impression of Self Serve was that it was pretty tiny. I have seen master bedrooms that are larger than this store. So naturally, there was a much smaller selection of items than in the gigantic warehouse store. Next, I noticed that all the toys were out of their packaging. There was a wall of dildos! And a cabinet full of lube! If you wanted to, you could squish every single dildo, and turn on every single vibrator, and squirt every single lube onto your hands. (Full disclosure: I definitely did all of those things.) There were also couches, and a coffee table, and gentle, soft lighting, and a few bookcases full of sexual resources and how-to and memoirs. I kinda felt like I was in someone’s living room, that just happened to have a wall display of dildos and bondage gear casually hanging out on a table.
A salesperson approached me and asked me if I had ever been in the store before. When I said I hadn’t, she asked how I had heard about them (Google). Then, she gave a short speech about how the adult industry is completed unregulated and many sex toys are made of toxic or otherwise harmful materials. She told me that Self Serve does not buy any of that toxic crap (my words, not hers) and that they also test all of the toys themselves to make sure they’re up to snuff. So in short, their selection may be small, but it’s very highly curated.
Then, the salesperson asked me if I was looking for anything in particular, and I responded that I was looking for my very first butt plug, and that I was on a budget. She showed me some inexpensive small silicone plugs and told me to feel free to take my time choosing. I told her that even though I was there to buy a plug, I also wanted to look at absolutely everything in the store and pick it all up with my hands and squish it (I’m a very hands-on person) and she said I could go nuts if I wanted to. (Again, paraphrasing.)
After squeezing every dildo in the place, I picked two beginner sized silicone plugs and some gloves, and showed the plugs to the salesperson so that she could get me packaged ones from the back. She then put everything into a gift bag with green and white polka dots on it, like the kind you might use to give someone a birthday present. Also into the bag went a flyer with a list of all of their classes for that month. The topics ranged from putting ethical non-monogamy into practice to a workshop on how to give a blowjob. The bag was topped off with a care and cleaning guide for all the different materials they sell, and green tissue paper that hid all the products from public view and made it look even more like a classy birthday gift.
So, my first and second sex toy shopping trips turned out very differently. Suffice it to say that I never went back to the warehouse store, and that I make frequent trips to Self Serve and have even attended some of their classes.
This post is my love letter to Self Serve, and also to all the other sex-positive, feminist, queer-friendly brick and mortar stores out there that make people who are nervous or lost feel welcome and comfortable, and that don’t push them into buying toxic lube and unnecessary toy cleaners. If there is such a store in your area, I hope you support it. If you’re not sure how to find one, check out JoEllen Notte’s list of Superhero Sex Shops.