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Sidewalk Smut, sex toy shops, and accidental sex education

This post was inspired in part by a session by Sarah Stevens that I attended at CatalystCon East, and in part by talking with Sarah afterward in the hotel lobby. I fucking love hotel lobby convos!

"We have a very nice selection of nonthreatening dildos over here, ma'am..."

"We have a very nice selection of nonthreatening dildos over here, ma'am..."

Sarah has been working in sex toy stores for several years now, and this past Sunday at CatalystCon we ended up having a marvelous conversation about the sales staff at such places and the expectations put on them, and the extraordinary work that they do, and how it is a lot of the same stuff that I do in Sidewalk Smut. "Accidental educators", is what I have called those of us doing this kind of work, and she agreed.

The Smut Stand is a strange place, but turns out there's a lot I have in common with sex-toy sales clerks and other accidental educators. My interaction with clients, from initial approach to interview to finished product, is complex and more than what it might seem. Clients bring their own unique sexual and relationship histories to my table. They have different reasons for stopping, which, if they won't tell me, I have to suss out. And afterward they frequently ask me things, like what other kinds of erotica could I recommend or where is a good source for vibrators, or where can they find some girls. Yes, these are all questions I have been asked after writing custom porn for someone.

I wonder why I get hit with some of these questions. I mean, suggesting further reading, sure, that's a valid connection to draw, but other stuff like vibrator recommendations or where to pick up girls or relationship advice (yes, even that I have been asked!)… none of these are related to my abilities as a smut peddler. But something about hanging up my shingle (taping it up, whatever) makes people assume that I must be an authority, or at least a valid outlet, on the subject at hand.

Sarah mentioned that this same phenomenon happens to sales clerks at the adult toy stores: people assume, rightly or wrongly, that the clerks, because they work at that kind of store, will automatically have more experience and more wisdom than the customers themselves, even at "truck-stop shops", where there probably isn't an infrastructure in which the sales clerks can learn about the merchandise they sell, and how to match it up with customers. And yet the clerks bring their own wisdom and emotional intelligence to bear on the task, which is good because the sex toy store, or the smut stand, may be the only places where people know they can talk about this stuff, so they they may bring EVERYTHING to the table.

There is a heavy component here of what Sarah noted in her presentation as "affective labor": work carried out that is intended to produce or modify emotional experiences in people. People working in these low-status positions in the sexuality industry have to meet customers or potential customers in the customer's own emotional space—around sex and sex toys—and make them feel good about the toy and/or the experiences. But it's not just selling. There is a BUNCH of emotional care-taking that goes on.

And yet, we can't assume that customers need the education or the care. Not everyone does. Sarah likened this to the person who stops in at the shop on Friday night and all they want is a bottle of lube. They're probably grabbing a familiar brand, whatever is closest to the register. That is not the moment to hit them up with a mini-lecture about hemp-based lubes or whatever.

I get the same thing with some customers at the Smut Stand. If they want to hang around chatting afterward, I will do that. But if they got their smut and they just want to take off, I don't try to make them stay. Perhaps the client isn't ready to engage with anyone around their being in a sex toy store, or looking at my Abrupt Erotica sign. Perhaps their being there and just looking, without having to interact with a zealous street pornographer, is an important step in their own sexual journey. That is totally okay, because..

Sex positivity = sex plurality. Because everyone has a unique sexuality, it is my job to be open to all of them. I don't have to promote them myself, I don't have to do the things that other people like to do. But what I do have to do, as a sidewalk pornographer, well, and a phone sex operator and generally an advocate for freedom of sexual exploration, is to recognize that I cannot hold space only for my own specific kinks or desires or experiences. My task, in both attitude and work, is to acknowledge the existence of a nearly infinite number of approaches and styles of seeking sexual and sensual pleasure.

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