What I Learned Working in the Family Sex Shop

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I returned home after university, my mom asked me to help out in the family sex shop. I was aghast. Talking about sex with strangers while mom looks on is probably difficult for anyone who’s even slightly erotically squeamish; I, however, was a card-carrying prude.

I was not a virgin—in fact, was newly engaged—but thought sex, with all it’s slime and hair and disorientation, was basically a sick animal function when examined too closely. I thought it best not to explain it; the more mysterious, the sexier. But now, family called. And since I was unwilling to deliver my mom a philosophical treatise on why I should stay home eating French fries all day while she worked double shifts to earn those French fries, I accepted.

To ease myself into the world of full carnal disclosure, I sat in on a Monday night g-spot seminar that my mom hosted in her in-store lounge. When I arrived, one woman was already there: a thin grandma type in jeans and a windbreaker perched stiffly in a red, crushed velvet settee. She seemed determined not to notice the five-foot blow-up diagram of the vagina hanging from a tripod in front of her. Another prude! I thought. A partner in priggishness, an ally in asexuality, a friend in frigidity! I sat down beside her, picked at a dust bunny on my skirt and gave her a tight-lipped, “Hi.” She nodded, and we sat silently together while the room filled up with large, married women who made instant friends. They shared a unanimous determination to hijack my mom’s lecture and turn it into what I could only describe as the world’s most gruesome Tupperware party.

My mom, for her part, was only too happy to abandon her role as instructor. She surrendered the giant vagina to these plain wives and they used it to demonstrate the function of certain tools with all the nonchalance of a weekly routine. Where was the subtlety?! Where the intrigue and sinful passion?! I widened my eyes at my neighbour—a gesture of solidarity—and she duly declined to respond.

In these women’s mouths, their husbands’ names sounded more like trusted spices than objects of passion; the dildo no less practical than the hand blender; the lube their modern version of cooking grease and in my eyes, just as sexy. Imagine, I thought, looking at my stoic neighbour. When she was born, the same matter-of-factness that was then applied to “meatloaf Mondays” was now being employed to describe “oral play night.” I tried to imagine these wives clawing at their husbands’ backs and conjured only flour-caked hands punching fat loaves of dough with practical gusto. I thought of my own husband. I worried about the sexiness of my future. Later, as we turned off the lights and locked up the store, I told my mom this. I asked her if talking so matter-of-factly about the mechanics of sex didn’t make it somewhat…well, gross.

“Oh honey,” she said. “Sex is the most natural thing in the world.”

Maybe, I thought, but can’t it be a somewhat more private most natural thing in the world? After all, the idea that sex is sexier, more exotic when it’s secret came from my parents in the first place. In grade two I discovered their hidden cache of sex toys in the bedside table and rifled through it, sometimes with my sisters, sometimes alone. On the floor, we piled up the mysterious bottles and plastic shapes with unknown functions, bowls of batteries and stacks of unlabelled VHS tapes. These were the charms by which certain spells were cast at night while my sisters and I lay wide awake in our beds, listening, doors closed. On other nights, our babysitter watched television in the living room while we huddled in the kitchen, mixing inedible cakes and cookies from the creams and gels. We buried the evidence in the mud of the developing houses next door. If any of these things had names, we never uttered them. Sex was a mystery to be solved by ourselves, and we liked it that way. It was forbidden, dangerous and therefore, absolutely thrilling.

Sometime between elementary school and high school though, a few things happened to change my mom’s views on sex and incidentally, drive me to new heights of prudishness. Her stern and modest father died, she belatedly discovered women’s lib and my two older sisters and I hit puberty. Whatever the trigger, one day she started, and still hasn’t stopped, talking about sex. She mastered the impromptu sex lecture and her favorite venue was the family car. She locked the doors, drove the QEW and gave unsolicited descriptions of how babies are made. Our high school car pools suddenly became popular amongst our friends. She crammed our minivan with 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, confirmed that we were all buckled in, then yelled back, “Who’s having sex?” Or “You’re all using protection, aren’t you?” Collectively, we reddened, but while my friends burst into hysterical giggles that somehow morphed into an endless string of questions and answers and learned about contraception, masturbation and STDs, I plugged my ears with my fingers, remained red and took none of it in. Their parents wouldn’t talk about sex and, by way of healthy rebellion, they learned. Of course, no one wants to learn what their parents have to teach them and for my rebellion, I clammed up.

A few days after the seminar, my neighbour on the red settee—my straight-laced sister—unexpectedly returned to the shop. “Hi,” I said, and again she nodded. I asked her if she needed any help and she shook her head no. Then my mom asked her if she needed any help and she burst forth in confession. I might have thought her a traitor, but her story was chastening. She recounted a ten-year history of the decline of sex in her marriage, beginning slightly after menopause. She and her husband had ignored the problem—that sex had suddenly become intensely painful for her—but she had visited her family doctor, he had prescribed Viagra, it hadn’t worked, more years had passed and she and her husband no longer talked about sex. My mom beamed. “I get this all the time,” she said. “You’re just not lubricated enough!” She filled the woman’s arms with bottles of KY Jelly, handfuls of sample lubes, a silk teddy and a novelty apron before they returned to the counter and rang in her sale. The woman looked up at a wall of panty boxes featuring leggy, teeth-y longhaired models. “When sex is easy,” she mused, “you can afford to keep it secret.” To me, she said, “You can learn a lot from your mother.”

“You’ll have to excuse Ashleigh,” said my mom. “She’s never had sex.” And at that moment, even I believed it.

I’d like to say that moment transformed me into a sexual amazon; that my mom and I tumbled into the store every morning, exchanging high fives and erotic play-by-plays from the night before. But the truth is, lifelong convictions are hard to undo. I still have trouble with the word “clitoris.” But I didn’t quit. I looked for other ways to support my mom. I painted signs, rearranged the panty walls and compiled mailing lists so my mom could send out weekly updates to her customers. I stayed, but when people asked me questions, I pointed to the expert.

Watching her in action, I realized talking about sex is not always easy for her, either. Some customers asked blunt questions about her own sex life with my dad, which she slyly deferred. Others were so nervous they confessed to drinking a few beers at the bar next door before entering the shop. One woman started a campaign to drive my mom out of town, apparently concerned she was corrupting the local high school kids. My mom bravely trucks on, convinced there are other women silently suffering, like my neighbour on the red settee.

When grad school started in the fall, I moved out with my husband, quit and will probably never work there again. I am not a natural sex therapist, but I am less of a prude. And when menopause hits and sex inevitably becomes more difficult, neither I, nor my husband will wait ten years before piping up. I will march into a sex shop and bravely ask for help, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

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