Sex talk
Speaking of Sex Shops

Simon Sheppard,

Adult World in South Africa is actively nurturing and supporting the gay community
A trip to a sex shop can change your life. At least your sex life.

In the old days, sex shops were disreputable, sleazy places frequented by dirty old men in raincoats. And though some cities are hounding these joints out of business in the name of "civic purity," they are, thank heaven, still with us. They often feature "video booths," a maze of plywood cubicles where the deposit of a token or two will allow a horny gentleman to watch part of a porn film or, depending on the permissiveness of the management, to participate in a real-life orgy of his own, all amidst the heady odors of Lysol and dried cum.

In the past decade or two, a new style of sex shop has sprung up around the country, replacing the somewhat furtive ambience of traditional "adult shops" with a sex-positive, friendly vibe. Supplying a wide range of customers with quality goods, they're the places least likely to stock bogus Spanish fly, crummy vibrators that don't last a month, and weird-looking blow-up dolls. They often cater to people of all genders and orientations, and tend to be wildly kink-friendly.

While there's certainly nothing wrong with going to your basic adult bookstore to stock up on lube and porn mags (or to enjoy a quick wank in the video booths), it's the more up-market shops, the "clean, well-lighted places for sex," that are more likely to stock a full range of quality sex books, silicone dildos, and up-to-the-minute postmodern sex toys, and the staffers there are more likely to be able to offer helpful, knowledgeable advice. Their goods may seem more expensive than the stuff you mail order from the back of stroke magazines, but - in bed as well as out of it - you get what you pay for. Cheesy stuff is more likely to fall apart, and not all penis pumps are created equal. So spend the extra money - your dick is worth it.

Then there are the specialty shops catering to the fans of kink, Wal-Marts for the hard-core pervert. Though they're usually awash with intoxicating smell of fresh leather, they also feature such otherwise hard-to-obtain doodads as latex fetishwear, iron bondage shackles, and electro-torture d evices, edgy stuff other sex shops don't stock. A visit to a good SM shop can broaden a novice's horizons or fill out a leather daddy's Hanukkah wish list.

Shopping at even the nicest sex shop is a bit different from going to Radio Shack. For one thing, the return policy is rather restrictive. "We'll exchange stuff if it's truly defective, but that's about it," says a guy who helps run a gay sex shop. "We don't give refunds for any kind of toy once it leaves the store, though that doesn't stop guys from trying. A few weeks ago somebody tried to return a buttplug that had hairs and dried lube all over it. I mean, really ..."

Queers not living in major urban centers have their shopping options reduced. There might be a Victoria's Secret at the mall, but how likely are they to stock stiletto-heeled, lace-up boots in a man's size 11? Fortunately, many sex-toy suppliers now have big, user-friendly Web sites that make ordering from anywhere easy. They do, however, lack the recreational possibilities of brick-and-mortar stores, where you can watch that cute straight couple shop for a strap-on dildo - will Mr. Boyfriend be taking it up the ass? - or sidle up to that attractive fellow leafing through gay bondage magazines and murmur sweet nothings in his submissive ear. It's the kind of experience that lends new meaning to the phrase, "Just looking, thanks."

Simon Sheppard is the co-editor of Rough Stuff: Tales of Gay Men, Sex, and Power (Alyson Books)

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