One of the great things about having gay boyfriends my entire life has been the continual enrichment of my life in very significant ways—usually in how I interact with mostly straight men, but sometimes in the most unexpected and seemingly innocuous of ways. It was around the mid-1990s when I was handed a Good Vibrations catalog with the instruction that I should consider getting myself a little present. That was it; a “here honey, go shopping” kind of hand off at a party.
Good Vibrations, at the time, was probably the store that most men and women of my age can identify with as a part of their sexual education. Before the catalog landed in my hands, I was aware of the dildo and that sex toys were out there, but references had often been skirted in giggles and assumptions that only deviants partook in such artifacts.
The catalog was artsy; with a pretty cover to introduce the San Francisco-based store that still promotes sex-positivity. Until that point, I had thought I was pretty well versed on sex—after all, I was the one in high school health class who was asked by a boy what a blow job was, and after overhearing the discussion, the teacher had me provide the answer for the benefit of the entire class. Of course, after it got back to some parents that she decided to clear up a misconception and normalize the conversation, we were instructed that oral sex was no longer to be discussed in class. But the catalog was bright, cheery, and normal. It created as many questions as it answered.
I didn’t buy myself anything. Despite the promise of discrete shipping, my credit cards were maxed out and I could barely afford alcohol and food during the week. I was also of the misconception that having a boyfriend meant I didn’t need the catalog.
In 1997, I was living in New York City and I spent a lot of my spare time hanging out in Greenwich Village. Despite my penchant for exploring a different neighborhood after work most evenings, nothing ever felt as comfortable at the time as the Village. Perhaps that was why, one evening, as I passed by a sex toy store, I wandered in. Remembering the catalog, I began perusing the displays at one point deciding that, yes, I would buy something. I was slightly intimidated by the woman sitting on the stool—she was fantastic with her nose pierced and her non-butterfly tattoos out in the open. Mustering up my brave, I asked if I could see some little purple thing in the case.
“This is your first time buying a toy, isn’t it?” she asked in a quiet, smiling voice.
I nodded, “Yes.”
She handed me the purple bullet. “This is all well and fine, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“It isn’t vagina friendly.”
Vagina friendly. The words kind of hung on the air as I let her show me an array of toys, laying out their pros and cons. An hour later, I left the store feeling strangely empowered and not at all concerned that I just spent the phone bill money.
Seven years later, I would stand in front of my first audience of women as they downed shots of some blue concoction and nibbled on crackers while I explained the pros and cons of various sex toys for them and their partners. I passed them around the room for each lady to get a sense of what she may later, in the privacy of the hostess’ bedroom, decide what she wanted to purchase. We’d discuss lubricants, oral sex, massage oils, and various other topics over the course of the night. There was always a lot of nervous laughter and jokes in the circle of women, but there was also always an honesty about sex.
Even though I only sold sex toys like Tupperware for about a year, I was proud to contribute to the normalization for women around their sexuality. It took me that long to be grateful to my health ed teacher for daring to allow questions about blow jobs to come to the front of the class and for the woman who spent an hour with me in New York to make sure I was an informed consumer.
In some ways, it’s simpler today. No longer does one need the catalog hand off to avoid a seedy sex shop—there are stores in malls, and often in heavy foot trafficked areas of cities near colleges and university; you can even buy sex toys, condoms, and lubricants from Amazon. But access doesn’t make it easier. Communication is missing. The lesson that the health ed class came away with wasn’t that oral sex is a healthy human activity, but that it is something that shouldn’t be discussed openly and honestly. It’s more detrimental than a classroom—friends, partners, and people I’ve spoken with about the issue have confided that they sometimes aren’t comfortable or confident in expressing what they need or desire.
Why do sex toys matter? Because they are a symbol. They can help build self-awareness and confidence. They are a safe way to explore sexuality. They are a conduit to an important conversation. And, they can be fun.