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

Published February 4, 2011 7:05PM (EST)

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.

By Jason Parnell

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