Dirty bookstores 101

That gigantic dildo is not a toy, and other tips for the timid adventurer.


Susie Bright
September 4, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

My neighbor Linda just returned from a daunting first trip to an adult novelty store with her boyfriend. She was shaken and slightly chilled but, luckily, with her sense of humor intact. She is not the sort of person to let her sex drive be destroyed by a retail nightmare, even if it was triple X-rated.

"What is with these places?" she laughed, stretching her hands apart a yard wide. "The first thing we saw when we came in was this gruesome prick that was THIS big! Who the hell uses that? And all the videos! Every cover looks the same. They're hideous, and all the titles are like, 'Double-D Anal Ball Busters.' I told my boyfriend, 'I DON'T THINK SO!' When we finally went back to the car, this guy came up to me in the parking lot and asked us if we wanted to go home with him and do some wife-swapping! I mean, he was very polite, but I felt the whole time like I was a moving target!"

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"I can't believe you didn't ask me to give you a tour," I said, shaking my head. "Going to these places is like visiting a museum -- you need a history lesson, a decoder ring and an experienced docent if you want to have a clue what's really going on.

"There are things in that shop that you would probably like, but stores like the one you visited date from the classic age of men's smoke shops -- the ones with a room in the back that sold condoms and naughty nudist magazines. They aren't 'sex positive.' They're more like carny shows where you get a 20-Inch Dong to stare at instead of a bearded lady. That's what every sex shop in America was like until feminists started selling vibrators in the '70s. It's only been in the last decade that all these old farts realized that there was a new market to exploit if they could just get over their raincoater attitude. "

Linda lives in a suburb zoned to keep its one "adult bookstore" on the edge of town, away from the respectable shops and malls. It's called Frenchy's -- and needless to say, there is nothing "French" about it. (Frenchy's seems to be the quintessential adult bookstore name, a leftover from World War I and the notion of naughty postcards from Paris.) Years ago, there used to be a local blue law that said that every retailer had to stock a certain percentage of nonsexual items. When you entered Frenchy's in those days, the racks in front were filled with dusty fishing and hunting guides of uncertain age, followed by less-well-lit shelves stocked with the real business: dirty books and magazines.

Nowadays, however, Frenchy's advertises its wares openly in the town's weekly newspaper, invites couples to come in and shelves its sexual merchandise up front. On those counts, at least, it has entered the modern era of sex novelty merchandising. Most of the store, however, remains "old school" -- old boys' school to be exact -- and it's no wonder that women (and uninitiated men) feel mystified when they step inside.

Let me offer some tips for those of you venturing into a dyed-in-the-smut "adult" sex shop for the first time. First of all, you might want to consider the alternative! Today, there are lots of sex toy stores that are female-friendly and enthusiastic about guilt-free sex. Eve's Garden, Good Vibrations, Toys in Babeland and Xandria are some of the bigger names in the no-apologies world of Sex Toy Pride, but there are plenty of smaller boutiques that pitch the same angle. This renaissance of erotica merchants is led by females with a sunny disposition about dildos, a critical approach to videos and Westinghouse standards for their vibrating appliances.

But some of you, stuck in a more conservative area, have no choice when it comes to erotic shopping -- there's only that one puke-brown, low-ceilinged, stucco building next to the railroad tracks, with the broken neon light blinking "A*D*U*L*T*S Only." There may also be a few of you who have simply decided you want to see how the other half lives. Entrez, you little Frenchy's-seekers!

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First, let's dispense with the mammoth rubber phalluses greeting you as you walk through the door. Understand them to be like the stone lions guarding the gateway to the temple, or to the New York Public Library. Rubber cocks are the unmistakable mascots of the masculine world you have entered. When you see gigantic stone penises in an exhibit of ancient artifacts, you don't exclaim, "But what did they use them for?" Nor should you here. NOBODY is buying these elephantine hoses for any practical purpose. They are there to set the scene, to buy as a practical joke for a bachelor's party, to intimidate the weak and the delicate.

Now, some people will whisper to you that gay men buy these for anal sex, but you are off your rocker if you think these items are accouterments of the average homosexual date. The number of people (of any sexual orientation) who have bought these devices for anything more than a laugh would fit on the end of a pin.

But I do have a more serious comment about dildo size: Just because something is of a certain length doesn't mean you have to use every inch of it. When you're using a dildo with your hands, in fact, it's a good idea to have some of the length available to hold onto. Smart dildo buyers purchase a model that has the width they seek, and a comfortable grip. You can take it home and make merry with one millimeter of it, and no one's the wiser.

Next, there are the mysteries of the video display. I agree, it's infuriating that the box covers are so generic -- mirror-shiny covers with photos of big titties, gaping holes and titles that draw their inspiration from the World Wrestling Federation. The No. 1 thing you must remember is that the covers mean NOTHING. The models you see on the box may not even appear in the movie. The aesthetics of the box cover have zero to do with the content. Adult distributors simply notice a trend in the sales of a certain style of box, and they copy it madly to use for all their titles. They also frequently spend more on the box design than they did on the entire movie. Sad to say, choosing good adult videos is largely a matter of trial and error because without a personal recommendation (or the promise of a certain director or actor), consumers have no guides.

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Knowing your directors may be more important with porn than any other genre of cinema. Porn is a field where the auteur tradition of branding a movie with a personal vision is very much alive. If you even see a director's name on a box cover, it means that this person has a following, a fan base. You certainly don't want to confuse a Max Hardcore wall-banger with an Andrew Blake lingerie fantasia. It's like the difference between chocolate Ho-Hos and Beluga caviar -- the same person is unlikely to love them both.

You may want to preview some videos in one of the "private viewing booths" at the back of the store -- that's the little stand-up closet with a screen where you feed in quarters to look at a few minutes at a time. This is fun to try, but you need to understand that the viewing booths are not all that they appear.

The main reason the booths exist is not to provide close viewings of upcoming features. No, these American architectural phenomena of space and darkness are for masturbating in a "sekrit place" with other men close by. The hottest action isn't on the screen, it's the guys cruising other guys, each with a resolutely straight fagade. These men wouldn't be caught dead in a gay bar -- in fact, they don't think of themselves as "gay" at all, not with the lifestyle connotations that word implies. They are attracted to the Twilight Zone of sexual identity offered by the porn booths, the chance for an illicit encounter with an anonymous and appropriately butch fellow traveler. They're not supposed to be having sex back in the booths of course -- there's always the imminent threat of being busted -- but that time-honored risk is part of the thrill.

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If you are a woman entering the booths, some of the boys will be pissed that you are ruining the all-male atmosphere, and will try to scare you away. Others will think you're a real curiosity item that might be up for some hanky-panky.

Either way, don't take it personally. They'll leave you alone if you're perfectly frank about what you're up to, and speak up at a normal volume. Laugh! Point! Go on at length! Any ordinary conversation is like a wet blanket in these joints where all communication is kept at the grunting level and eye contact is all.

Booth trolls are here to have sex now. The vast majority aren't junkies, serial killers or whatever other stereotypes leap to mind about people who buy buttplugs in public. They want to get off, period, and they're here either because they don't feel like there's any other place where that's allowed, or because they find the closet-case environment terribly sexy. The latter men don't ever want Frenchy's to change. They don't want to talk to a cheery dyke in a warm room with flowers on the desk and strap-ons in every color. They want sex "bad," because they're afraid that the alternative is even worse than bad, it's banal.

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Chacun ` son go{t -- as they might say at Frenchy's if they could stop mumbling for a minute. For my own satisfaction, I like a dark secret place as much as anyone, but I am not paying extra for sexual guilt. I want my vibrator to run, my movies to speak to me and my dildo sized to perfection. I will take my erotic business elsewhere, and I'm sure my neighbor and her boyfriend will follow me.

I have a new book and audio tape out this month -- "Full Exposure: Opening Up to Your Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression" -- and I'll be touring all over the U.S. through November. I hope I get to meet some of you in person, and connect with old friends. "Full Exposure," includes my stories about what I think it takes to make, admit and live out your own sexual philosophy. Interested? You can read the first chapter here. And when you do read my new book, write and tell me what you think of it.


Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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