“Would you like to pick up some antibacterial soap for the enema?”
At 29, I found myself asking this question to complete strangers on a daily basis.
Desperate for work after an unexpected job loss, I landed a position in an adult novelty store. Five times a week, I would assist customers in picking out the perfect product to enhance their sex lives. If only my high school guidance counsellor could see me now!
Right now, the customer placed a boxed anal enema on my counter and asked, “What do you need soap for?”
“You need it to clean off bacteria,” I replied, shocked that I even had to explain the concept of disinfecting an anally-inserted device.
“I’ll pass,” he replied gruffly, “I usually just stick it in my dishwasher.”
An instant shiver of disgust ran through my body.
“I’m sorry, but did you just say that you’ll clean it in your dishwasher?”
“What my dinner guests don’t know won’t hurt them,” the man replied, extending $40 towards me to finalize the purchase.
During my year-and-a-half of employment in this store, I’ve encountered dozens of individuals like this, each with zero to minimal basic knowledge about sexual health. As a gay man, having to explain the differences in vaginal stimulation to a 45-year-old woman and her husband was not an item on my bucket list, but it’s now an experience I can cross off (although I have also tried to permanently burn this from my memory).
When I had to pull out a Fleshlight tester as a visual aid, I wondered what the couple knew about their own bodies. Maybe their sex education in school consisted of warnings that masturbation and intercourse were evil and that Jesus was always watching.
When younger customers anywhere between 23 to 35 years old came to the counter with condoms, I often asked, “Would you like to pick up some lube for these?” It was our store’s equivalent to “Would you like fries with that?”
A frequent answer to this was simply: “No, I don’t use it.” At this, I would pull out the smallest bottle of water-based lubricant we sold from underneath the counter, telling the customer, “it enhances penetration.”
In response, I’d receive, “I have some coconut oil at home.”
These encounters often led to me playing teacher, explaining how coconut oil can throw off PH balances and lead to possible infections, how oil-based products can make condoms ineffective and that water-based products are safest.
It was always interesting to watch their expressions change when I offered these tidbits of information. One woman hit her partner’s arm and said “that might explain why I’ve been having issues!”
As someone who talked about sex daily, a few thoughts crossed my mind when the Ford government took steps to roll back Ontario’s sex education to the outdated curriculum from 1998. Two of the biggest issues with repealing the 2015 sex education curriculum are the exclusion of consent and lessons on LGBT identities.
Will the next generation have to rely on Donald Trump getting a blowjob in the Oval Office to learn about oral sex like I did with Bill Clinton? Should some adults go back to school to receive a more advanced sex education of their own?
Based on my experiences, the answer is yes.
One Tuesday afternoon, a young man of no more than 30 years old entered the shop. He rudely rebuffed offers of assistance. His eyes were as big as saucers as he gazed at the diverse selection of butt plugs and he later asked for “a good one that’s cheap.”
I showed him several options, explaining the difference between silicone and TPR, and gave him a few price points.
“Have you used one before?”
“What? No!” He shot back. “I’m not a homo, dude.” The smell of toxic, fragile masculinity was oozing from his pores. “I’m getting one for my girl.”
“Has she used one before?” I inquired, trying to determine the best size for a beginner or semi-experienced user.
“No, she’s never used one,” he said. “She doesn’t even know I’m buying it.”
“Surprise birthday gift?” I joked, trying to add humour to the situation.
“No, no,” he replied, “I’m going to pop it in when she doesn’t expect it.”
I’d been trained not to make any personal judgements when helping others with sales, but this situation called for going rogue. I couldn’t stop myself from explaining why his plan was terrible and non-consensual. The customer explained how he thought a plug would help his girlfriend become more comfortable with the idea of anal — even though she refused when he’d asked.
Thankfully, he eventually reconsidered the motive for his purchase and left the store. This man was a perfect example of why thorough lessons on consent from an early age are key in a modern health education.
Lessons on gender identity and expression are also essential to early on. Although I was thrilled that the inclusive company I worked for sold products designed specifically for members of the LGBT community, these products occasionally led to head-scratching from some cisgender heterosexual people.
“Why is that so long?” a woman asked, pointing at a flexible vibrator atop a shelf.
“It vibrates at both ends and bends in the middle,” I began to explain. “It’s a great toy for lesbian couples.”
Once I said “lesbian,” her face scrunched up. She lost complete interest in the toy and what I had to say.
In another encounter, a gaggle of women poured into the store from the nearby bar and restaurant. With the smell of alcohol heavy on their breaths, the women began pointing to and laughing at our various products.
“This one isn’t even stiff,” one woman said with a laugh, waving a bagged packer in her hands.
By this point, I had grown rather annoyed with this group.
“Those are not meant for penetration,” I interjected. A hush fell upon the group.
“What’s it for then?” she asked. “Is it a gag gift? Maybe I should get it for my husband.”
The women began cackling once again.
“They’re designed for trans men and are also used in performances by drag kings,” I informed them.
It was as if I had sucked all the fun out of the room. The woman quickly threw the packer back into the pile and the group marched back towards the front door in a cloud of whispers, trying to snap pictures of dildos on their way out. Their loud laughter began again once they were back on the sidewalk.
Unlike walking through a sex shop after a few tequilas, access to knowledge isn’t a laughing matter. These experiences have revealed that thorough, inclusive lessons on sexual health, consent and gender identities cannot be pushed aside and forgotten about.
We live in times drastically different from the world 20 years ago, and the education offered to the next generation needs to progress with it.
I can only hope some of the parents ready to snitch on teachers for teaching updated sex ed realize that they should want better for their children than their parents did.
And who knows? Maybe their kids will be able to teach them a thing or two.