When I first took on my position as a sex columnist, I joked with my friends that now, officially, I had a legitimate excuse to be a girl gone wild. In the name of journalism, I vowed with mock solemnity, I would studiously research every topic I broached, making sure I had thoroughly probed the discourse, examined the details, and, of course, done lots of hands-on investigative fieldwork.
This brings me to my first “research assignment” — to visit a sex shop. You know what I’m talking about — those enticingly neon structures dotting major thoroughfares, tucked between the gas stations and strip malls, adorned mostly in purple and yellow, with big “XXX”s painted on the tinted windows. Promises of “toys, videos and adult novelties” may turn your head, but who actually goes inside one of these seedy joints? Armed with only my curiosity and my trusty research assistant (my beloved boyfriend, of course, who seemed very interested in journalistic integrity), we entered Southern Nights, a clean and respectable establishment in northern Pinellas County.
I stepped through the door — which promised that those under 18 wouldn’t be admitted — and took in the sights. It was relatively innocuous, with displays set up more for maximum efficiency than aesthetics, racks and racks of smutty VHS tapes and some toys and novelties on the wall furthest from the door. The bored woman at the counter was reading a copy of People magazine. I instantly relaxed, somewhat. I didn’t want to wander around looking clueless just yet, however, so I allowed The Boy to lead me.
The Video Arcade was located on one side of the store, at the end of a short, dark hall that was distinguished by only a trash can, a tissue dispenser, and a courtesy sign asking patrons to clean up after themselves. I suddenly wished I had packed some Lysol in my purse. There were about six partitioned stalls, each glowing faintly with bluish light. Since at least ten signs indicated “one person per booth,” my boyfriend and I parted (squashing my delightfully sordid and definitely unsanitary fantasies) and I entered the tiny enclosure by myself, feeding a dollar bill into a small television screen, which then gave detailed instructions on how to change the channels. I could hear my guy channel surfing, a shifting panoply of grunts and moans emanating from over the wall between us. Unfortunately, my clicker was stuck, and I was subjected to four minutes of watching a gorgeous Asian “person” with long, flowing hair, pretty almond-shaped eyes and great breasts skillfully manipulate his decidedly male member into the waiting body of a frail white lad with an impressive hard-on.
After that, I figured I was up for anything (no pun intended; maybe if I had been able to click beyond the tranny porn). Of my own accord, I eyed the shop’s impressive display of sex toys, bypassing the ben-wa balls and latex vaginas for the dildo and vibrator selections. I was awed by the range of shapes, sizes and colors, and consequently was a bit perturbed when my significant other sidled up to me (after gawking at a rather lifelike blow-up doll) and asked if I’d like to choose an early birthday gift. I mean, how do you choose between a cute baby-blue bunny rabbit whose packaging advertises five different speeds and a monstrous ten-inch pleasure pistol armed with two heads for double penetration? Apples to oranges — or your choice of neon pink or green.
When I finally made my selection, I edged up to the counter and confronted the clerk, who nonchalantly made my change and tested my new plaything, making sure it quivered energetically when given batteries. I suddenly had a whole new appreciation for retail. Presiding over a newsstand of glossy hardcore magazines, this woman was mistress of a whole (admittedly small) empire, a landscape of sleaze and consumer-ready sex. She was a dealer in pleasure, in every permutation and preference, for every race, orientation and fetish-group. In the middle of this one-stop shop for racy costumes and light bondage paraphernalia, I had a revelation. This was a merchant selling products to fulfill needs and desires to the public, the same as Publix or the bookstore … only with anal plugs. Content in this discovery, I left, plain brown paper bag in hand, titillated and definitely enlightened.