What I Learned Working Four Years At A Sex Toy Shop

Confessions of a porn clerk illustration by Jason Hoffman
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Working as a porn clerk for four years was a brilliant, outlandish adventure better than any Chuck Palahniuk novel. I watched sweet grannies try on sexy maid outfits in the dressing room; and newlywed couples traipse dreamily through the aisles in their wedding garb while selecting items for their honeymoon. I accepted countless soggy, butt-pocket dollars from truckers; made friends with porn stars, prostitutes, and the occasional police officer; and heard the sounds of a suburban dad getting serviced in the back room.

And I’ve resisted the urge to commit violence against too many 18-year-olds.

During my porn-clerking tenure, I learned a lot about customer service, human sexuality, and human psychology. Porn shops and adult boutiques are similar to banks and credit unions: all kinds of people, from all walks of life, step through the door on a daily basis. I've gained a lot of insights -- a deep knowledge of porn's customer base (just about every human being, at some time or another), empathy for the people working in adult shops, and a few rules of the road for the next time you stop in at a sex toy store, burlesque shop, or adult outfit anywhere, from coast to coast.

Keep your hands to yourself 

Unless the vibe or potion has a “Try me” tag on it, understand why it’s wrong to open boxes of unpurchased items. These are sex toys, not socks! I’m sure that most of the general population doesn’t want to be penetrated by something that has been fondled by dozens of lookie-loo shoppers. Stores will sometimes tape their items shut -- not only to prevent theft, but also to discourage unnecessary handling of items. If you are curious about something, ask a sales associate.

When in doubt, ask 

There is nothing wrong, in life or in porn shops, with asking someone who knows more than you for information. One common annoyance for porn clerks is to hear a customer pull inaccurate information out of their ass, in order to impress their friends.

No, baby oil is not a safe vaginal lubricant (unless you want a yeast infection). Ben Wa balls are NOT meant to go in your ass! They're for your vagina, because a cervix prevents them from getting lost internally. And anything with cinnamon on it should go NOWHERE NEAR your genitalia.

Google is your friend. And so are sex educators Tristan Taormino, Violet Blue, Dan Savage, and Dr. Ruth. I’m sure that the ER would see fewer patients if people actually researched mystery items before using them.

sex toys
Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock

The customer is always wrong

Regarding customer service, porn shops are under no obligation to accept returned items. In 2002, fictional Sex and the City’s Samantha hands over her spent Hitachi Wand, complaining, “This toy didn’t make me cum.” And to this day, people IRL are plopping down their crusty contraptions with the same complaint. Look y’all, everyone deserves an orgasm. But it’s up to YOU to get yourself off. Overwhelmingly, porn shops do not accept returns.

To avoid disappointment, many porn shop associates require a quick test of any battery-operated toy in order to make sure it is fully functioning before it leaves the shop. If that is not store policy, shop elsewhere. 

Admit when something is for you

If I had a nickel for every person who blurted, “This isn’t for me!” or “This is a gift!” when I rang them up, I would have paid off my student debt a long time ago. Letting the clerk know who you're actually shopping for can be helpful if you need some insights or suggestions. So don't lie!

I remember my anxiety over buying tampons, condoms, and hemorrhoid ointment when I was a younger lady, but gee whiz, the cashiers don’t give a crap. Just hand over the money, and have a nice day.

There is no need to be an opinion troll

People who talk the most shit on other people’s kinks are the most insecure. OK, so you’ve never seen BBW/interracial /transgender/queer/hairy lady/menstruation/fisting/pissing/Kardashian porn, I get it. But unless your comments are insightful and subversive, keep them to yourself. There are other people in the world (about 7 billion!), and they don’t each share your views. If you insist upon being a xenophobe, save it for Reddit.

Adult-shop janitors don't get paid enough

Any porn shop with preview booths, aka “arcades,” allows the option of viewing porn privately and masturbating -- or playing with strangers and friends. In a civilized society, this is a simple concept. However, I’ll be darned if a guest didn’t take a dump in the trash can at least once a week. WHY. WHY. WHY. 

Another nifty trick that some porn clerks have seen is when preview booth occupants leave their mark after exiting by decorating the booth walls with semen-sticky paper towels. This is why we can’t have nice things, ‘Merica.

bachelorette party

Bachelor(ette) party planners are the most annoying people in the entire world

You’re like, 35 years old, and yet still tickled by the penis straws, and penis hats, and penis confetti, and penis lollipops, and penis necklaces, and penis penis penis and and and please go to Spencer’s in the mall so you can giggle with the kids; where you’ll fit in just fine.

Customers will talk down to you

In the invisible pyramid of occupational hierarchy, porn clerks are often considered to be at the bottom along with fast-food workers, janitors, and those people who promote protein powder on Instagram. 

Except for the last on that list, these workers are necessary in order to provide the masses with a quick snack, a clean bathroom or jack-off booth, or the purchase of a properly functioning sex toy. As sex-positive feminist and internet sensation Lux ATL has said: “People like to jack off with one hand and point a finger with the other.”

No. Children. Allowed. 

Why? I dunno, man, it’s the law. We could argue the ethics of bringing babies into porn shops, teens into porn shops, pregnant teens into porn shops, but in the US the age of consent is 18 -- and I’m not here to debate you. If, after reading all of this, you still think a minor needs to accompany you on your dildo mission, write your congressperson or something.

Sex shop clerks deserve more credit

If you’re a porn clerk, I salute you. You’re a low-level soldier, waging war on the ignorance of the mainstream consumer. You’re a volunteer educator, explaining a hundred times each week why those boner pills might increase risk of a heart attack. You’re a therapist, having to listen to the woes of so many unconfident clients. You’re a security guard, making sure that people aren’t stealing those pocket masturbators out of the boxes, AGAIN. 

Here’s to the graveyard shifts and the early-morning DVD orders, porn clerks. I thank you for your service.

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Elle Stanger is a Thrillist contributor who probably needs a day job. Follow her on Twitter: @ellestanger