TEMPE, Ariz. — I am taking lessons on sexual lubricants from Trista Windels, and it’s disconcerting.
Windels is a pretty, waifish 19-year-old blonde with startling green eyes who was raised in the tiny town of Detroit Lakes, Minn. I am older than her own father. Yet despite her growing up on a dairy farm and never having seen sex lube before last year, she has already told me at least three things (mostly having to do with the sensual opportunities presented by silicone) I didn’t know before beginning my training as a salesperson in the Fascinations “romance superstore” here.
I'm temping at the store to experience what it's like to peddle erotic goods for a living and find out who's shopping for them. At the moment, though, I am in the back stock room with my five fellow trainees, all under 25, all of whom have decided working in an adult store selling toys, lotions, lingerie, porn and bondage gear would be a great way to make some money. None of them are fazed by the idea. Not one bit.
In fact, if it weren’t for the shelves and boxes full of penis-shaped vibrators, a row of floggers and stacks of DVDs with titles like “The DaVinci Load,” Windels’ lecture could easily be taking place in the back room of a Nordstrom or a Lowe’s or a village antique store, for that matter. "This whole store is about customer service,” she drills between sips of Red Bull.
Wear your uniform (maroon polo shirt, black or khaki pants and black shoes) whenever you are on the floor. Name tags always. No freaky piercings that show. Be professional. We are, Windels tells us, “romance consultants.”
The message is clear: This is not your father's sex shop. It certainly doesn’t look like those old, scary joints. There’s a big, well-lit parking lot out front. The corporate headquarters of T.W. Lewis, a luxury home builder, sits next door. The rest of the street has mini-malls, a Wal-Mart, a Quiznos.
Inside, the 11,000-square-foot store, run by manager Rachel Miller, is white-glove clean and brightly lit. Except for the merchandise it appears to be like any other business in any other heavily stuccoed mecca of suburban consumer culture.
Which is precisely the idea. Adult stores — including chains with names such as Priscilla's in the heartland states, Hustler Hollywood in urban centers, and soon-to-open franchise outposts of the Adam & Eve mail-order empire — are trying to go mainstream because they have realized America loves the products but hates the dark, dank stores staffed by questionable characters.
And though it is little acknowledged, that strategy is succeeding. While nobody seems to keep a reliable count, industry insiders say the trend is up, evidenced, for example, by the fact that Fascinations already has 14 stores, with more on the way. Adam & Eve is hoping to open 27.
Shoppers aren't just the stereotypical dirty old men. “Sixty-four percent of our customers are female,” Windels tells us. “Fifty-eight percent are in a committed relationship. Twenty-one percent are dating, and 40 percent are college-educated.”
Still, when Windels takes us out onto the floor to begin our merchandise training, I can’t help thinking that if this is mainstream, we’ve taken a few twisty bends.
“BDSM [bondage and sadomasochism] DVDs do not generally have sex in them,” Windels, who has a rather restrictive definition of “sex,” explains as we wander the video aisles. “I did not know that, and then I rented one and was scared out of my mind.” She points out a few customer favorites. “Belladonna’s ‘My A** is Haunted.’ That’s a good one.”
The thrill of a new toy
When we turn to the toy section she explains how each one works, what it’s used for and who buys it. Pros and cons of each model are discussed. Usually we get the idea right away — most sex toys aren’t complicated. But certain models do confuse us and when Windels explains them her clarification is often some variation of “OK, now this goes in your butt.”
We have other questions: How, exactly, do adjustable nipple clamps work? Do people really use the Violet Wand, a static electricity generator and the store’s most expensive item at $449? (Yes, usually practitioners of BDSM.) What should we tell customers about the scented love oils? Are they edible?
An entire wall is filled with at least a hundred different vibrators. Glass cases contain stainless steel and glass dildos. Another wall has every conceivable kind of lubricant with flavors from several food groups.
Mild items such as lingerie and lotions are placed at the front, we’re told, so that the further into the store you go, the more explicit the merchandise becomes. That way it’s possible to buy a sexy nightie and platform stripper shoes without ever catching sight of the rubber vaginas molded from porn stars.
The next day, when I’m ready to hit the sales floor, I find that while a particular customer may not personally approve of one item or another (the comic books featuring incest plots generate some objections), nobody is outraged. Most people seem perfectly comfortable.
Ken Baker, a 40-year-old electrical engineer, comes in once in awhile with his girlfriend. “I’d buy stock in it if it was a public company,” he tells me. “They have a good selection, the people are pretty good, helpful … This is not sleazy. That is why I like this store.”
Kimberly Pikna-Nyhof, 32, a corporate training consultant and frequent Fascinations customer, says she often talks to her friends about new purchases the way she might exult over a great bargain on Jimmy Choos.
“I am proud of my vibrators and the trips I make to Fascinations! I am excited about it! You know, when you get a new toy when you’re young? You’re excited to play with it? Same thing when you’re an adult,” she says.
Over the next several days and nights I wait on a 60-year-old woman looking to replace her Pyrex dildo (“They last a long time if you don’t drop them on the tile of the kitchen floor,” she tells me), a man and woman firefighter couple, a deputy sheriff, an elected school board official from a nearby town, several military veterans and a guy named “Artie” who has a disturbingly encyclopedic mind for porn-video trivia.
I help self-described Christians, Mormons, Catholics, the daughter of a preacher and one Episcopalian. All explain why they shop here with reasons like “It enhances my life,” “It deepens our intimacy” and “It’s fun.”
“I’m trying to expand my knowledge about sex,” explains Linda Wurzbacher, a 52-year-old, semi-retired pharmaceutical salesperson. She strolls the aisles in her black dress, a Dooney & Bourke bag over her shoulder, and says that as she has gotten older she doesn’t much care what anybody thinks about her life and that she has become more sexually experimental. “I see it as an extension of my physical fitness.”
Yet despite trying to project a squeaky clean image, and attracting a seemingly desirable clientele, Fascinations, like other such stores around the country, often faces a lot of community opposition.
This year, citizens in nearby Tolleson, Ariz., were furious when the city council approved a Fascinations. The store was protested. But according to news accounts, about 500 customers showed up the first day.
The store I’m in (where I am quickly becoming a top lube salesman) was vigorously opposed by the home builder T.W. Lewis and other community members. But now, says Pat Jagos, Fascinations’ corporate general manager, his company has proven the store makes a good neighbor. He and T.W. Lewis are even discussing a joint parking lot expansion.
A spokesperson for T.W. Lewis did not dispute that account, but declined to comment further, seeing no particular advantage in saying anything either positive or negative about an adult store.
Shhh, don't tell
Some customers feel the same way. While they defiantly say there is no stigma attached to being here, they won’t be quoted by name. What they really mean is that they don’t think there should be any stigma attached because walking into a sex shop — no matter its size or lighting or the moniker “romance superstore,” this is a sex shop — is their right. But they acknowledge that not everyone feels this way. Much of America is not ready to own up.
“Everybody does it,” a female software engineer tells me after buying a new sex toy. “They just don’t want to admit it.”
Just as I have the creative director of a Phoenix advertising agency and his wife convinced to buy a pricey silicone lube made in Germany ($42 a bottle), a young man and woman walk in. My customer recognizes her. She spots him. They pause awkwardly for a moment and laugh.
“Isn’t it something to see somebody you work with in this store?” she says.
“I just hired her as my administrative assistant,” he tells me.
“This is one of those secrets, OK?” she says, laughing.
“I don’t care,” he says.
“Well I do,” she replies, and then she and her companion lock arms and head for the DVDs.
Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and MSNBC.com's Sexploration columnist, is traveling around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, is chronicling his work in the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and in an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing. In the next installment, he crashes a ladies-only sex toy party.