The average shop carries hundreds of products, not all of them toys—there’s also lingerie and costumes, porn magazines and movies, bachelorette party favors and gag gifts. There are other customers in the shop, peering over at the contents of your basket, and your face is getting redder by the minute. You just want to get this over with.
So you go online, away from prying eyes, hoping to narrow it down to a good, functional toy. But this time, you’re confronted with thousands of options, in dozens of categories, all in a riot of candy colors. You can’t touch or hear the toy, you just have to pick something, click ‘purchase’ and hope that it works.
Raise your hand if this sounds familiar.
Navigating sex shops for the first time can be daunting, whether in-person or online. We asked Audrey Em, our 'Late Bloomer' author, to share her first (and second) in-shop experience.
I first set foot in a sex shop on a dare.
As the designated “prude” of my friend group in college, I had been dared to go inside, pick out some phallic candy, and walk back out. To the great entertainment of my peers, I tunnel-visioned my way through the experience, emerging from the store triumphant but shell-shocked.
Fast-forward to my mid-twenties. I was in therapy every week, making slow and steady progress on healing my very complicated relationship with my body. When I finally spoke of the shame I felt surrounding my “failure” to take charge of my own pleasure, my therapist suggested I explore ways to make the journey more exciting for myself; I was encouraged to conduct some research on sex toys.
The next day, I Googled the sex shop nearest to me. After roping in my roommate for moral support, I walked into a self-proclaimed ‘palace of erotica’ with the best poker face I could muster. Under the harsh glow of buzzing fluorescent lights, the store was completely empty. We were greeted by the cashier, who looked up from his massive laptop to give us both a thorough lookover. He wore a company t-shirt over cargo shorts. He offered his assistance, which I brushed off with a meek smile and a quiet “no thank you!”
Before I could fully register what I was seeing, I turned to find my roommate comically admiring a crotchless latex cat-suit. As my eyes adjusted to the lighting, I realized that I was surrounded by exaggerated reproductions of genitalia and body parts. I was surrounded by men with shiny, well-oiled torsos and photoshopped abs, alongside expressionless women in fishnets and heels. My nostrils filled with the asphyxiating smell of vinyl plastic and disinfectant spray. I began to quietly panic when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the salesperson hovering nearby, just beyond the butt-plugs.
“Can I help you?” He cornered me at the end of the aisle.
I locked eyes with a depiction of a gagged woman in a straight jacket. I had reached a peak in my discomfort.
“What would you recommend for a first toy?” I blurted out.
Unphased, he began to rattle off a list of invasive questions.
“Do you prefer clitoral, vaginal or g-spot stimulation? Penetration or no penetration? Vibrations or sucking sensations? Are you into dicks or cunts?” (I remember that last one verbatim).
I was stunned. It was as though I had been verbally undressed and placed under a magnifying glass by a perfect stranger. Noticing my distress, he deadpanned:
“Definitely the Womanizer or the Satisfyer.”
He led me back to a pastel pink and lilac display of what looked like skin exfoliators. Though I cringed at the name, I was relieved to see a whole bunch of awards slapped right on the box. Both toys had been heavily reviewed by women’s magazines and came highly recommended for those with “difficulty achieving O’s.” The price tag wasn’t too aggressive either.
With my roommate’s encouragement, I forked up the money and bought myself the Womanizer, a pulsing clitoral stimulator with a design that reminded me of Birdo from Super Mario. After a quick demonstration from Cargo Shorts, I was handed my prize in a comically conspicuous black plastic bag.
I thought back to seventeen-year-old me–desperate to fit in, reaching for the dick-shaped lollipops–and felt a satisfying sense of validation. I recognized that although they are not inherently scary places, traditional sex shops are simply not for everyone. The intention behind sex shops is not to make pleasure comfortable, but to sell sex as a thrill. It all didn’t mean that I was a prude or that I was missing out; it just meant that I was someone who needed more safety and privacy in the spaces where I explored my sexuality. I was way more comfortable with the idea of purchasing my toys from behind the comfort of my computer screen, though it meant that I had to rely heavily on reviews, and had to do thorough research on the companies that produced the toys in question. Not wanting to select sex toys in front of strangers is perfectly normal too.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering if it was all worth it; I did achieve my first orgasm not too long after this outing–all thanks to Birdo.
Late Bloomer is a series of candid stories by author Audrey Em about becoming a sexual being a little later than expected but in the best way possible.