Of the five sex toy stores I’ve personally visited over the past 15 years, only one had a flat entrance.
Of those five, only three had employees who didn’t respond to me as a visibly disabled person with obvious anxiety, and, in one case, hostility.
Sex toys – It’s one of the first things people think about when they think sex and disability – if, of course, they’ve managed to get past the “OMG disabled people? Sex? I think I have the vapours!”
For people who follow online media, anyway, the idea of people with disabbilities being sexual creatures is getting more familiar, and sex toys tend to feature in those narratives.
There’s a great reason for this. Toys can make sex play more physically pleasurable for people who have spinal cord injuries or other reasons for genital nerve damage. Or, they can help a person who has chronic pain, or limited mobility (or both) reach their butt. Or, they can help partners do the sexual thinggs they desire but that their bodies won’t allow. Or…the list has no end.
How do folks with disabilities get their hands on sex toys in the first place? Generally, the way anyone else does: stores, online, or cobbling something together from the kitchen drawer or bathroom cabinet. ON the surface, it’s easy-peasy. Another But, a lot of stores still aren’t physically accessible to folks with mobility impairments, with steps at the entrance or inside, no automatic doors, narrow aisles, and more. Some stores don’t keep sample versions of each product on the shelf for people to handle. At the stores where they do have all sample products out for customers, you can literally glance at, or hold, or sniff dozens of dildos (or anything else you’re looking at) to get an up-close-and-personal sense for which one is most likely to work for you.
As with anything, you’ll really need to try the thing before you know for sure if you’ll like it, and you’re not allowed to do that until you pay up!
Having this large display of products right there can improve everyone’s shopping experience, but it’s virtually vital for folks who can’t see to get a sense of the depth and breadth (no puns intended here) of what’s out there. It’s also pretty crucial for folks who need to be able to tell if their hands, let alone any other body parts, can use the toys.
Shopping at sex toy stores is unlike most other shopping experiences.
It’s fun. It’s sexy. It can be scary as hell or as normal as going to the drugstore to buy toothpaste. A trip to a sex toy store, for some, is the ultimate “OMG that changed my life” experience,; for others it can be a “Bletch! never again!” story their best friends tease them about forever.
But shopping for anything can be a big deal for people with disabilities – whether it’s being able to get to the store (or use the store’s Web site without cursing technology and punching the computer), or physically accessing all aisles and shelves, or receiving customer service that’s respectful and helpful, receiving customer service at all (I.E. not being passed over in favour of the person in line behind you), or even being able, with a significantly lower likelihood of being employed and having disposable income, to afford what’s being offered.
The rest of this post will look at how beliefs about and attitudes towards disability can make or break a shopping experience, and why that’s even more of a big deal when we’re talking sex toy shopping.
My own first sex toy shopping experience went something like this:
Me: “I’m looking for a G-spot vibrator.”
Shop Owner: Opens clear plastic box and places toy in my hands. “here’s one. It’s only $34.99. Here’s the button to turn it on. How are you going to be able to put the batteries in?”
Me: Touching the slender hard-plastic cyllinder with a curved end that looked better for fishing (minus the sharp edges) than for rubbing delicate tissue: “Does this actually feel good?” (What I wanted to say: It feels too hard.)
Store-Owner: “Here, let me show you how to put the batteries in. You unscrew this part–”
Me: “I’m not sure it’ll feel…?” (Silently: “Yes, I think I can figure out how to put the batteries in. Not really worried about that right now.”)
Store-owner: “Oh. You just have to experiment and find what feels good for your body.”
Me:”Umm, sure. I’ll guess I’ll try it… That’s all you have for G-spotting?”
store-Owner: “This one will be the easiest for you to put the batteries in.”
Me: “Okay, I guess I’ll try it.”
A minute later I’d payed my money and left, plastic bag full of toy in hand.
Was this just one of those store-owners who wasn’t interested in spending time with customers?
No. When we weren’t talking about batteries, she mentioned that she’d just spent an hour helping a guy pick out a toy for his wife. I’m guessing the guy didn’t have a physical disability. He sure didn’t use a wheelchair; that was one of the stores with steps.
My experience hardly counts as discrimination, but there’s a reason it’s stuck with me.
I walked into that store expecting to be treated like a customer, shown options, given space and time and information to make my decision. I wouldn’t particularly have minded being shown how the battery compartment worked, but in a more “oh, by the way” manner as part of giving me information about the toy. The store-owner expected that I was a blind person. Whatever a blind person meant to her, it wasn’t someone who comes to buy toys.
My needs as a sex toy customer weren’t any different from any other customer’s needs. The store-owner needed me to not be different from any of the other people she expected to walk into her store and buy stuff so she could pay her bills.
My needs were to have a sex toy shop employee or owner stay calm and professional at a time when, no matter how enlightened I was about sex toys, I needed their help and was feeling nervous, anxious, and like I wasn’t quite supposed to be doing what I was doing or spending my money on “frivolous” things. The store-owner’s needs were – well – to deal with this anxiety-producing situation of being faced with a blind customer as quickly as possible.
I’ve learned from friends and acquaintances who’ve run or worked in sex toy stores that how to support customers is a big part of their work. They want customers to feel welcome, but not crowded, supported, but not intruded on, cared for, but not too much.
They know that people who come into their store could be having any number of sexual insecurities, relationship problems, body image issues, and more. They know that sometimes their potential customers come in looking for answers without even knowing what the questions are.
Your standard retail experience, where you usually expect that a salesperson will greet you, cheerily ask if you need help, and check in with you every 4 minutes, might feel downright terrifying to some folks trying to buy a sex toy, or porn, or a bondage kit, or a bottle of lube. Most of us have been taught to feel such shame around sex in general, and especially our own sexualities, that too much input or friendly chit-chat could feel really invasive or scary. (Note: This doesn’t apply to everyone. For some people, that kind of friendly connection puts them at ease, but they need to be the ones who initiate it.)
but, for a blind person, who may or will need help – depending on how much usable vision they have, E.G. Can they read lube bottles, see the pictures on DvD covers, or see where the rainbow-coloured dildos are kept? – how does a sex toy salesperson maintain as much physical or emotional distance as the customer wants while still giving practical help finding items and reading packaging? Or, what if a person in a wheelchair wants to look at a dildo they can’t reach? Asking a sales associate to reach it and hand it to them isn’t necessarily an invitation to talk.
I think what makes customers with disabilities’ experiences in sex toy shops unique is that many sex toy store customers, regardless of ability, bring their own nervousness, fear, anger, or whatever to their shopping experience. Let’s face it — sex and sexuality carry huge emotions attached to them. Most of us have internalized shame around sex and sexuality in one way or another.
Going into a toy shop, especially in a small town, especially if you look different or distinctive, can carry a whole lot of emotions and fearful thoughts with it.
So, the average toy shop customer could be walking through the store with any one of these emotions, or all of them and more all at once! They’re counting on people working their not to judge them.
Disabled customers, in addition to potentially coming in with this emotional bagage, will also often be carrying around the anxiety of “How will I get treated by these strangers, today?” and for some “Will I even be able to get into the store?” That’s a lot of inner chatter and anxiety to be carrying around all the time.
Based on what we know about general attitudes around and knowledge about disability, it’s pretty reasonable to say that When a visibly disabled customer enters a store, some people working their are going to have big, complicated emotions of their own come up. People have huge fears and uncertainties around disability. Folks will often explain their awkward behaviours around visibly disabled people as “not knowing what to do,” or “not wanting to do the wrong thing.” Disability is, I think, still this really unfamiliar thing, at least when it comes to disabled people being out and about, earning and spending money, making sexual choices, window shopping, and just generally not being off in some special space. I’m still working out ways to help nondisabled folks, or folks with limited experiences around a variety of disabilities, understand some of the basics of giving assistance, without turning it into a list of “do”s and “don’t”s that ends up looking a lot like this guide.
A lot of the negative and nervous responses to disability from nondisabled folks come from a place of “OMG, what if that (being disabled) was me” and also from a place of “This person isn’t anything like me; I can’t relate.” The fear most people have around disability is deep and it’s unlikely that that fear isn’t going to afect the interactions of people who feel it with visibly disabled folks.
So, you’ve got a person looking for sex toys or sexually explicit materials, or condoms, or maybe they don’t even know what they’re looking for, and you’ve got a person feeling undone by the physical reminder of disability in front of them. Remember what I said above about hostility? Yes, that happened. No, it wasn’t fun, but that’s a story for another time.
I think the reason that being greeted with hostility in a sex toy store surprised me so much was that, by and large, people who work in sexuality-related fields have been some of the warmest, most respectful, most creative and disability-aware people I’ve ever met. But these have alsso been the people who recognize that both disability and sexuality are mega-giant issues that can undo people’s sense of security. More happily, these are also the people who realize that sex and sexuality can be fun, creative, and playful, and is something everyone has, and can access, if they want.
Oh, and in case you wanted to know: My instincts were spot-on (pun intended, maybe?) about that toy. It didn’t work for my body.
And, the toy store with no steps? Come As You Are, though, sadly, they had to close their doors in 2016.