by Mary Wyninger

It wasn't like I was a stranger to talking about sex. I mean, I did disclose all the gory details about my first sexual encounter with public radio listeners all over the country. And most of my best friends are guys, so I was pretty used to talking about sex around people who I knew I would never see naked. So when a friend and I were looking through the classifieds one night and he suggested that I respond to the "help wanted" ad for Toys in Babeland, I wasn't too freaked about the sex part of the job. In fact, I was kinda psyched that I might be able to consider myself part of the sex industry. I was more worried about what I'd wear to the interview.

Apparently, I chose the right outfit (a long black skirt, a blue thrift-store cardigan, clunky boots, and dorky black glasses, if you're interested). Or, maybe it was the letter of recommendation from a friend who edits an erotica magazine. Whatever the case may be, I landed the job. Me, Mary. Indie Rawk Goddess of Brooklyn Avenue. She who didn't lose her virginity until she was 19. Selling sex toys. Hmmm.

Granted, I've had a lot of strange jobs. The summer after I graduated from high school, I was an intern at a coffee industry trade magazine (which I referred to as "the Billboard of coffee magazines") where my boss was a well-known area drag queen. In high school I did shitty office work for a hardwood flooring company. (I said "hard." I said "wood." Heh-heh. Heh-heh. Heh-heh. Hardwood.) And, at the time I applied for the job in question, I was interning at a record label known for fucking over its artists and its employees. So I guess it wasn't all that big of a stretch for me to work at a woman-owned and run sex toy store.

Still, I was immediately floored when I found out I got the job. But as a somewhat-radical feminist and a women's studies major, I knew I'd fit in well with the sex-positive, pro-women mindset of the store.

I hadn't anticipated how much I'd have to know to work there, though. The night before my first training session, I reread my dog-eared copy of The New Good Vibrations Guide to Sex and tried to commit the various types of vibrators to memory. (Insertable, non-insertable. Internal. External. Battery-powered. Plug-in. Dual-action.) I studied that book until I couldn't keep my eyes open. Because, frankly, was worried. Granted, I'm notoriously neurotic and worrisome, but this was different. I was worried that I'd be the only (mostly) straight girl working there. I was worried that people wouldn't think I was an effective salesperson because I'm not traditionally attractive (read: fat).

Once I started working there, though, one of the greatest things about my job was the knowledge that I was helping women achieve satisfying sex lives. While many of our customers were very much in-the-know, I helped people all the time who had never seen a vibrator before, much less used one or owned one. There were times when I felt like I was doing more than merely working retail; I was making a real difference, no matter how small or inconsequential, in peoples' lives.

Another thrill was helping young people gain access to information about sex. One cute punk-rock couple, no older than 18, came in and picked out one of each kind of condom we soldšmaybe a dozen total. When they came to the register, I looked at their selections, looked at them, and smiled knowingly. "We just started having sex!" she said proudly. It made my heart soar to know that not only were these gorgeous kids exploring their sexualities, but they were doing so in a safe wayšand, hey, they were obviously having fun doing it.

We would also get quite a few young lesbian couples, no doubt in their first same-sex relationship, some of whom probably weren't even out of the closet yet. I would explain to them the differences between the different styles of dildos, listen to them giggle and laugh as they tried on harnesses in the dressing room, and would wish them good luck as they walked out of the store, their new purchases in hand. I'd like to think I made their livesšnot just their sex lives, but the part of them that deals with identity and prideša little happier, if not more pleasurable. Not to mention the fact that saying "I sell sex toys" is a great icebreaker at parties.

Of course, there were some creepy moments, too. The "dirty old men" factor was fairly high; we had a lot of accountant- or grandfather-types who would come in to rent BDSM movies whose leers and forced small-talk suggested that something just wasn't right. Once an older man came in and asked if we had peep shows in the back. I resisted the urge to give him the finger and say, "Yeah, I got your peep show right here, buddy!"
My co-workers were really cool, albeit intimidating, people. One was a former stripper for one of the Internet's most infamous live peep shows; another held a second job as a professional dominatrix. And one of my bosses, in true small-town Seattle fashion, was involved in the music industry, and we soon learned that we had several mutual friends.
However, despite all the positive happenings at this store, after about four months of working there, I was fired. I was told that my customer service skills weren't where they needed to be, and while they regretted the decision I was let go. It took me some time to figure it out, but I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not capable of talking to strangers about sex. Not that I'm a great conversationalist to begin with. But with this type of job, more often than not the customers themselves are nervous and in need of reassurance, and a nervous saleswoman isn't going to make anything any easier for them.

At first I thought my nervousness could be linked to my aforementioned lack of confidence in social matters, but I've since gone on to work at another retail job, this time selling books and magazines, and there's no trace of that nervousness now. So maybe it's the subject matter of my former job. Now, I'm telling customers, "You can find Harper's on the shelf by the greeting cards" instead of things like, "You'll want to put a condom on this egg-shaped vibrator if it's going to be used internally so that the cord doesn't come loose or break." Maybe I'm not as sexually liberated as I thought I was; maybe I'm not as comfortable sharing my sexuality as I thought I was. Whatever the case may be, it was fun while it lasted.

And I've got one hell of a sex toy collection.

Parts of this article appeared in the magazine Zaftig

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