Sex shop crimes: How vandals, creeps and violence threaten our neighborhood vibrator peddlers

Sex-positive stores struggle to stay upbeat about their risky business

By Rachel Kramer Bussel
Published February 4, 2015 12:00AM (EST)
        (<a href=''>Malysh A</a>, <a href=''>Molodec</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Malysh A, Molodec via Shutterstock/Salon)

It was past midnight at Self Serve, the Albuquerque, New Mexico, sex toy store where owner Matie Fricker had stayed behind to catch up on paperwork after teaching a class on cunnilingus, when a rock came hurtling through her window. “It was really fast and really hard. It shot glass all over the store,” Fricker told Salon. “It terrified me; I have PTSD and it triggered that.”

No one was hurt, but the shattered window did more than just startle Fricker — it threatened to shut down Self Serve, which has been open since 2007, late last month. Fricker didn’t have the cash on hand to cover the cost of repairs and additional security. Instead of shuttering her doors, she’s fighting back by launching a crowd-funding campaign via GoFundMe to purchase a new window and security cameras, which, as of press time, is very close to meeting its $7,000 goal (any additional donations beyond their goal will be used as a “rescue fund”).

Fricker doesn’t know who’s behind the vandalism — her sixth such incident since last August alone — and doesn’t expect the Albuquerque Police Department to be of much help. “All the police reports we’ve filed have had zero follow-up from our local police department,” Fricker said.

(This is not the case for all sex toy stores; Good Vibrations executive vice president Jackie Rednour-Bruckman told Salon, “One of our busiest stores is located across the street from a police station and we have a great relationship with the staff there.”)

The threat of violence notwithstanding, Fricker says it’s the financial hurdles Self Serve has faced that are the most challenging. Securing loans, insurance and retail space are among the business needs hampered by being perceived as high risk due to the racy nature of their wares.

“We had to spend five months looking for a landlord who’d rent to us. Our business plan won awards, but we couldn’t get any financial backing from any government agency. We’ve been dropped multiple times from our insurance,” Fricker recalled. “We are counted as a high risk group, so the insurance we have access to is limited; it’s usually not very good and it’s very expensive.”

That means a $1,000 deductible per claim, with the repairs running around $1,200 each time. Fricker has yet to file a claim, and would only do so in the event of something “catastrophic,” for fear of getting dropped by her carrier.

While this incident is specific to Self Serve, the larger issues it raises are relevant to anyone who likes having a comfortable, friendly environment in which to shop for vibrators, dildos and the like. As a sex shop customer (full disclosure: I have taught a class at Self Serve and they stock my books), I was vaguely aware of some of the issues these stores face, but not the extent of threats of violence, harassment and disturbing phone calls they incur simply for selling items designed for sexual arousal. This matters, not just to the employees, but also to consumers who want access to quality sex toys and information without fearing for their own safety.

Other stores have also been targets. Pure Pleasure in Santa Cruz, California, also caught a rock through a window in 2012, and the following year, a man punched his fist through the window during a Tantra class. Neither culprit has been caught, but the store installed security cameras, which have been useful for prosecuting shoplifters. Co-owner Janis Baldwin said she hasn’t feared for her safety, but “we’re just more on guard. We have a silent alarm we carry around.”

Carlyle Jansen, owner of Toronto’s Good for Her, said the most problematic incident the store has faced is a man trying to force his way in while the store was closing for the day (Jansen was not there at the time), insisting he just had to get one item. Staffers had to physically lean on the door to keep him out. He called the next day, still unclear on what he’d done wrong.

“My staff are really flexible, but when you start to feel unsafe you don’t compromise that," Jansen said. "I told him, 'You have to understand, it’s a sex shop, it’s women-focused, there are women working there, you’re a man, they don’t know your intentions.’”

Even when problems aren’t as extreme, they still create disturbing working conditions for the modern vibrator peddler. Out of the dozen stores I contacted, all reported that obscene phone calls are an occupational hazard. Gwen, the education coordinator at Washington, D.C.’s Secret Pleasures, said that while most such calls are innocuous, not all are shaken off easily. “The most threatening phone call I received was at a store I used to work at in Virginia,” recalled Gwen. “A man called and threatened to rape me after I got off of work since I ‘must be a slut to work at such a sick place.’”

As Jacq Jones, owner of Baltimore’s Sugar, put it: “They’re looking for something that’s not consensual, otherwise they’d be calling a phone sex line. I didn’t consent to be your phone sex operator.”

Good for Her gets these types of calls three to four times a week. “It starts off as a regular conversation, but then you hear heavy breathing or an inappropriate question, such as, could I pay you to do something, or if there are hands-on anal sex classes” Jansen said. “What makes you feel particularly creepy and dirty is that you’re really genuinely there to try to help someone.”

Sugar occasionally gets customers being obnoxiously loud or joking around, rather than simply inquiring about what they’re looking for. Owner Jones explained, “If somebody acts inappropriately I think 99 percent of the time they’re acting that way because they think that’s how they’re supposed to act in a sex toy store, because they’ve been told sex is dirty and gross and creepy.”

While clearly some people are intent on causing harm, others may genuinely be nervous or confused about how to behave in such an environment. If you’re not sure what’s appropriate when comparing anal beads, here are some pointers. In order not to be that creepy customer, Jansen advises you to “act in a way that you would in any other store.” Don’t ask a staff member whether they’ve personally tested a toy, putting them in an awkward position. Instead, try, “Has somebody who works here used it?” Jones explains. “There’s no question you can ask us that’s going to cause us to look at you cross-eyed, as long as it’s consensual and between adult humans.”

I had assumed that with the rise of sex information online, these kinds of incidents would have lessened, but Babeland’s retail director Mary Hoffer says they’ve actually increased in recent years, citing students throwing stink bombs and rocks into their Brooklyn store’s location, and two incidents of fireworks being thrown into another New York outlet during store hours. “A lot of customers thought someone was firing a gun and they ducked for cover,” Hoffer told Salon. “It tends to be a really scary experience for the customers, so we try to do our best to hold it together to make the customers feel comfortable, but it’s also pretty challenging for the staff.”

Many stores have implemented specific safety precautions out of necessity as a result. Jones calls herself “very security conscious,” using her previous work experiences in a bank and in reproductive health clinics to create safety protocols. “When you’ve worked somewhere where you have the ATF and the FBI on your Rolodex, that changes how you look at the world,” she said. They make sure to greet each customer, “so that if somebody were to walk in the store with not the best intentions, they know we know they’re there.” That doesn’t prevent customers from asking what’s in their “back room,” clearly unhappy with her answer of “files.”

But Jones isn’t entirely unsympathetic to those who might be seeking anonymous sex or “looking to purchase sex, which is against the law in our state. Oftentimes if somebody is looking for that, I’ll say, do you know about Tinder? Do you know that you can access this in a way that’s legal and maybe a little bit safer and you don’t have to go in the back of a room somewhere? You have options.”

Asked if the vandalism has ever made her want to find another career, Fricker offers a firm no. “This is my calling. This is what I love to do. My fear was that I wouldn’t be able to do this, and if I ever stop doing this, that’s the situation.” Because of the lack of police response, she hadn’t prioritized installing cameras, but now concedes, “they might help. At the very least, we’ll put it up on YouTube and see if we can make it go viral and use shame in a positive way.”

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 50 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms," "Serving Him" and "Irresistible: Erotic Romance for Couples." She writes widely about sex, dating and pop culture, and is a blogger at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake.

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