A Guide To Navigating A Sex Shop

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In New York, many things go willingly unnoticed. In broad daylight I’ve seen girls protest topless; heard strangers burst out (badly) into song; and witnessed many an episode of public urination. Meanwhile, people pass by and don’t bat an eye. It’s a liberating feeling. It’s what I assume E.B. White meant when he wrote that New York bestows the gift of privacy.

Yet, every time I pass the sex shop near my house, I keep my eyes averted. Despite knowing that of the list of oddities that occur daily—and that this wouldn’t even make the cut—there’s something about peeking in that feels like it might attract attention. Perhaps because of all external actions, this one is more inwardly revealing: when you look into a sex shop, you can’t help thinking about sex. And those strangers who just passed by…now they know you’re thinking about sex, too!

The feeling is anxiety-inducing to say the least. And each of the three times I’ve been in such a shop, I've been rendered incapable of doing anything but keeping my head down, buying the item closest to the register, pay, then bolting. I reason: I’m smart! Whatever it is I just bought (something resembling an extraterrestrial) I can figure out in the seclusion of my apartment.

Only that’s the stupidest thing I could do, considering the pleasure product industry isn’t regulated (more on that below). So, I took a trip to Babeland—it’s a real place, not some Ron Burgundy/Veronica Corningstone candy-colored daydream—where Leah, Babeland’s sex educator, explained how to shop the safe and smart way.

Trust Thy Retailer, And Their Staff

Babeland in Park Slope is weirdly approachable. There’s a maternity store on its left. A raw, vegan, gluten-free kitchen on its right. It’s a comforting portend: reminding me that sex is as natural and ubiquitous as healthy eating and if I’m not careful, I will wind up pregnant. Leah, too, is approachable and kind. “I’ve heard it all,” she reassuringly tells me. “We’re a fun place to explore and a totally safe space with an educational focus.” She encourages asking questions about products and sharing what you’re looking for. “With toys, we try not to make assumptions about who people are, how they like to have sex, who they like to have sex with, or how they’re going to use the toy. We think anyone can use anything.”

Figure Out What Will Work For You

No idea what you’re looking for? Leah provides these questions to start:

- Do you want a simple first-time toy?

- Something for internal, external, or simultaneous stimulation?

- A toy to use together as a couple?

While shopping online may provide privacy, being in the store allows you to touch the products and determine if you like the softness of silicone or prefer the sturdiness of hard plastic. Plus, you can give yourself a mini shoulder massage! Just kidding. (But that may be a good way to gauge if you like the strength and speed of the vibrations.) You don’t even have to limit yourself to toys while in a sex shop. There’s sex furniture (which includes an inclined back pillow, if you were wondering), bachelorette party paraphernalia, adult videos, and educational books. Babeland even has flavored vegan lube and candy—in case you’re like me and missed lunch.

Look For Body-Safe Materials

The sex toy industry isn’t regulated, meaning many products are made of phthalate: a toxic chemical used to soften materials like plastic. So make sure the toy is made of phthalate-free materials like elastomer, silicone, or hard plastic. They're easy to clean--either wash with soap and water or boil according to the manufacturer's instructions. Just be sure to always read the instructions that come with your new toy. Elastomer, for example, is slightly porous. So if it’s to be shared with multiple partners, use a condom. (And FYI, all Babeland products are phthalate-free.)

Determine Your Budget

Sex toys can range anywhere from $20 to more than $150. For first time users, Leah suggests lower budget items. They’ll introduce you to working with a toy and help you determine what you like. Higher-end products are more customizable, with seven to 10 variable speeds and pulsations. Plus, they’re typically rechargeable, keeping environmental waste to a minimum.

A full hour later, I leave Babeland, knowing enough about sex toys to make anyone stuck in a conversation with me feel uncomfortable and head for another borough. Walking home, I pass by my neighborhood sex shop. Instead of keeping my head down, I stop and stare at its current display.

After all, I’m only window-shopping.

—Alexis Cheung

Illustrations by Colin Verdi.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • http://cosmoslyn.blogspot.com.au/ Ailyn Koay

    well.. once i went into a lingerie shop that sells sex toys and they have *HAVE* this perky shop assistant who had tried them all...

  • Haiku Jew

    When people visit
    please, safely stash your sex toys
    or guests will gossip.

  • Yasmeen Mjalli

    It's funny that even to this day I'm embarrassed about sex. I shied away from it so much as a kid that any talk about it today still makes me blush, even though I know I should be embracing it. You're absolutely right when you muse that it's just as natural as eating and it should be treated that way. I love this because it's exploring the sex-toy industry in a way that a lot don't even realize exists.

  • Graphy

    loved this piece, and Babeland sounds like a really cool place to pop by - not somewhere where i'd be ashamed to go in at all!

  • http://www.clevergirlreviews.com/ Clever Girl Reviews

    The best sex shop I have ever been in was in Germany. Minus the video section. Don't go in there. I thought I was pretty open... I learned otherwise. Just.Don't.Go.

  • Hannah

    So well written Alexis! I really enjoyed this. I walked into this same sex shop last summer with my head down and eyes low as I stumbled my way towards an unsatisfying buy since I was too embarrassed to ask enough questions, or stop and think! I wanted to get out of there so fast. But it was a very welcoming place- I'll go back when I grow a pair.

  • http://ellabooxo.blogspot.co.uk Ella

    Your name is so similar to Alexa Chung... How many times a day do people mishear you?

    • Alexis Cheung

      ha! less frequently now but I also mumble which doesn't help!

  • AB

    Babeland also gets my vote - extremely courteous, professional, and knowledgeable staff.

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