What I learned working in a porn store

I don't judge my customers for watching adult movies. I judge them for the shifty, strange ways they shop

Topics: Pornography, Life stories, Sex, The Office, Love and Sex,

What I learned working in a porn store

It starts with the way they open the door. Some press their faces against the outside glass of our large storefront window and pretend to look at the mundane Hollywood films while surreptitiously angling their eyes to the room marked “Adult XXX.” Some try to sneak in, shoulders down and head to the side. My station is right next to the entrance and, knowing they’ve been caught, they reel around and greet me with a laugh not unlike a hyena. Some burst in, yelling their demands before the door has even banged into the opposite wall. A constant trickle of men in their mid- to late 30s, heterosexual, varied ethnic and economic demographics bound by one thing — pornography. Whatever their way of announcing themselves in this Philadelphia sex shop, two things are certain:

1. They are too stupid, or too old-fashioned, to download their porn.

2. Their behavior is far more telling, and disturbing, than their purchases.

Well, maybe three things. Whoever they are, they want virgins. Untouched, unopened movies with their cellophane intact: They want to be first to break the seal.

You can’t judge someone for watching porn. I don’t, at least. Before I became a clerk at an adult video store I purchased porn myself. We’ve all got our weird kinks: I’ve sold foot fetish to the businessmen who come in on lunch break and soft-core, couples-oriented films to the thug in a blue bandanna. Tastes are private, and I would not want to be judged for my fantasy world. But it’s not what my customers watch that concerns me; it’s how they shop.

Maybe they’ll wait outside before the store opens and rush in, hoarding the fresh nubile boxes in both arms like some depraved farmer picking strawberries. I asked a customer once why he had over 20 boxes in his arms. He gave me a look as if I’d just asked him why the stars shine and answered, “So no one else gets them.”

If customers can’t afford every new title they will hide a few away in the dark recesses, away from the light and touch of another man until some of the most beautiful virgins can be found in the depths of the rarely shopped Gay Male section. After squirreling their quarry away in the Gay Male shelf they’ll return another day to find it untouched by their heterosexual competitors.



“What do you have that’s not on the floor?” they’ll ask me. The returned videos, yet to be reshelved, are clearly visible through the bulletproof glass. “That one, on top there. What’s that?” they’ll demand. As I pass them the movie through the slot they offer a giddy leer. They know for sure this movie hasn’t been handled by any other man today.

They make their way into my space uninvited, paw at my boxes of future inventory like they’re inspecting a show dog. I’m never asked, “Is this one erotic?” or “Do people like this?” or “Do you have videos with such-and-such a sex act?” The most common question is, “Who has had it before me?” Much like a woman under Sharia law, the movies lose value when touched by another man.

The thing about my customers is they are not perverts. My store doesn’t even offer the most hardcore titles available from our competitors. Porn retailers in Philadelphia are plentiful, after all, and we all serve a different clientele. While others skate the edge of legal pornography, we play it safe. When actress/director Belladonna’s movies made headlines in an obscenity trial we quietly removed the titles in question. Our fetish section is as vanilla as your evening sitcom. Sure, part of my daily routine involves explaining why bestiality is illegal in Pennsylvania and occasionally flaunting my porn-history chops by decoding what someone means by “The original ‘New Wave Hookers’” (the film Traci Lords starred in at the age of 17, rereleased with a Ginger Lynn scene replacing Lords’) and kicking them out for the subtle reference to child pornography. But the faces that ask those questions rarely turn up again. No, our regulars are more concerned with the promiscuous acquisition of porn, rather than the content therein.

“There’s no anal sex in this, right?” they ask a lot. A large number of my regulars are turned off by it. The average man in my store would rather enjoy a bone-dry film with premium production value and the stereotypical bleached-blond implant diva from the ’90s (see: Jenna Jameson). In short, they don’t seek out anything particularly nasty or deviant. However, the manner in which they hide and hanker after untouched boxes is a fetish all its own.

I didn’t understand this covetous behavior at first. I thought maybe they were just compulsive. Maybe they too were creeped out by the other customers. But after a while, I began to realize what a personal, strange connection these men had to the women in the movies, the women they didn’t want to rent or stream online but pay money to possess.

A friend of mine moved to Los Angeles for a brief time, making a go of becoming a male adult film actor. I had my doubts, but one day he sent me a picture of him and his girlfriend. The caption was, “Look familiar?”

Indeed, I’d just put her newest flick in inventory and she was posed artificially, buck naked, on a box cover right in front of me. I sent an image of the box right back to him and laughed off the coincidence. Later that day one of my regulars picked it up and plunked it down on my counter.

“Good-looking girl, right?” I’d asked.

“Uh-huh.” He seemed grumpy that I was holding up the transaction with conversation.

“My friend’s dating her. Check it out.” I held up my phone and shared the image of a girl without makeup or hair extensions with her arm around a young man in a button-up shirt.

He returned the film to the shelf, coming back to the checkout with a box displaying an exotic girl I couldn’t possibly know. He seemed to be angry that I’d put a personality on that girl. The men in the videos, as empty as the shells with which they fornicate, were merely tools for the scene. Now I’d shown her with another man, a man who wasn’t my customer. I’d tainted the girl. Spoiled her. I’d made her real.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>