I teach gender and sexuality studies for a living, and that means I talk about sex all the time. Well, sort of. Like the rest of culture, I talk about it, but I also don't talk about it. Sex is everywhere, in all the pop songs and movies, at the end of every prom (or so I hear—I never went to prom), in every confessional and every storytelling. As my students and I discussed last week, we are all supposed to have some breathless tale of the first time we had sex, but not, like, the first time we had Brussels sprouts. Sex is at the core of our sense of self, even when it's not; in that case, it takes some explaining to do.
But for all this sex talk, we also don't talk about it much, at least not in any detail. Porn shows us the close-up of body parts moving in/around/on/through other body parts, but the actors don't usually turn to the camera and tell us what it feels like, or if it even feels good. The grunts might suggest it does, but that's part of what we've learned about sex—feeling good "sounds" like that. Porn's a whole lot of acting, and lots of us learn our act there. Outside of porn the camera fades away, the song is all bravado, and school tells us that whatever it feels like, it's probably going to kill us.
Last week's visit to Sugar in Hampden was a welcome respite from this contradictory culture. I've visited a lot of sex shops in my day—it's research—and I've finally gotten really good at it. Even though I went to college in New York City in the 1990s, I never got up the courage to stop in one of the many adult shoppes in that time. I was there right as Times Square was getting stripped of its strip clubs and sex-for-sale corners and turning into Times Square Disney, but I wasn't really aware of it, except for reading about it in my queer theory classes. I was a ridiculously shy girl from Boise, Idaho, as likely to stumble into a porn theater on 42nd as volunteer for a mission to Mars.
More than that, though, I've always been a reader, in private, and going into a sex shop is a public declaration that yes, you think about sex and probably want to have it sometime, too. No way. I'd rather keep my head under the covers reading "The Whole Lesbian Sex Book" in private, thank you very much.
And then I moved to San Francisco and started my training as a Professional Talker About Sex, and I had to just get over it. My first trip was to the Good Vibrations store on Mission Street in San Francisco, a rite of passage for new lesbians to the city. I went there with my new friend Sarah, an open talker about all things sex who left her sense of shame back in Dayton, Ohio, years before. I acted like it was no big deal, just being a feminist who believes everyone has a right to talk openly about sexual pleasure. I had always believed that, but I had to take it up in the first person. I had a right to talk openly about it and spend the (very) spare change from my graduate-student stipend at a place like this.
That is when I figured out that sex shops are one of the few places where people talk about sex all the time, but for reals. The workers described what different toys did, how they'd fit here or there, stimulate this or that, no judgment at all. I think I was probably less worried about being judged for being in a sex shop as I was about being judged for my comparative lack of experience. By my second or third trip, though, I learned that judgment was only coming from myself.
At this point I've been to a whole lot of shops and done a whole lot of online shopping, less out of shame than the convenience of ordering just what you want just when you want it. That convenience costs, though. Like most field trips, this one is best done in the real world. This latest trip found the ladyfriend and I taking our first houseguests to Sugar. We were instantly greeted by the friendly smiles of workers who seem to dig their jobs. We didn't have any questions, so we were left to browse, a little privacy in public.
I touched all the cocks, felt all the lubes, turned on all the vibrators and turned them all off again—I'm a trained professional. Our friends had some questions, got some answers, and made their purchase, everything to go in a discreet brown bag. We headed out for tacos—the Holy Frijoles kind, calm down over there—and then stopped for ice cream before heading home.
It was all so normal that I forgot how not-normal a trip to ye olde sex shoppe used to feel. Part of it is getting older and more comfortable, sure, but a lot of it comes from being part of a giant queer community. Whether or not we're having sex with each other or at all, we are a sexual culture, and we talk about it. We've had to talk about it to find each other, to survive plagues, to make our way. Our community thrives because we have to articulate what we desire in a culture that for a very long time has tried to silence it. These are skills straight folks can learn from us, and do, when they shop at our stores. Because Sugar isn't just a sex store—it's a lesbian-owned, multi-gender-operated shop, and that's a good thing. From My People to yours in this Valentine season, you are welcome.