I met Jake in one of my creative communication classes. Trying to strike up some incredibly awkward and ridiculously uncomfortable first lesson banter, I turned to him and asked the usual questions.
“So, what course are you doing?” “Enjoying it so far?” “OH (said as if I was genuinely surprised) you’re a third year too!?”
And then, the employment question. “What do I do? I edit UniLife Magazine and work at Big W,” I replied, hoping Job A would cancel out some of Job B’s social stigma. “What do you do?” I asked. “Oh, I work at a sex shop,” replied Jake, casually.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not very good with emotions. While I thought I was conveying an ‘Oh, that’s cool man, I’m a laid back dude; I find that kinda shit totally normal and I don’t feel uncomfortable at all’ kinda vibe, my face probably resembled that of a dying antelope.
The conversation ended at this point. I had malfunctioned in a big way, and throughout the rest of the class I said nothing. It wasn’t till the following week that I mustered up the courage to ask for an interview.
“I’m a bit nervous actually,” said Jake. He didn’t want people to think he was sleazy.
“You don’t seem sleazy at all, and it’s not like you actually bought anything from the shop!” I reassured.
I was met with a blank stare.
“OH but…uh…even if you had…um…well that wouldn’t be…bad…either.” I had somehow managed to mess it up again and was half expecting Jake to get up and leave.
But once I collected myself, Jake opened up. He said he got into the profession three years ago when he was 19. After quitting his engineering degree, he was at a loss for money and fell in with “a bad crowd” who apparently did drugs and bashed random people up for “fun”.
His best friend’s girlfriend worked in a sex shop and said they were looking to hire. When I questioned him about his decision to apply, he replied: “Compared to the shit my other friends were doing, working at a sex shop seemed pretty tame.” Resisting the urge to feign coolness/understanding by dropping a line such as, “Yeah man, I know it’s a fucking crazy world out there,” I moved swiftly along.
According to Jake, the worst part about working in the sex shop was its personal section. “It was soul-destroyingly depressing,” he said. “There was a pin board at the back of the shop and people would post their personal ads there.”
Jake said the ads ranged from “Man seeks woman for partnership”, to “Transexual bisexual hooker looking for same”.
He laughed, “Sometimes people would come up to the front counter and ask me to help write their personal ads. When I’d ask them ‘Well, what are you into?’ they’d reply ‘Bondage, leather, three ways’ and I’d have to explain ‘No, no I mean like…what bands are you into? What are your hobbies?’”
“At first, it was a very depressing job,” Jake said. “But after a while I got used to it, and it’s like…you know these places will exist whether you work at one or not, so you kind of just adapt.”
“You’d get people stealing the weirdest things though – vibrators, blow up dolls, all that kind of stuff,” he said.
“And it was like…is there even any point stopping you? You’ve sunk so low that you’re stealing a Miss Piggy themed vibrator, how can I reduce your dignity any further?”
As the interview drew to a close, Jake told me that he recently handed in his letter of resignation. While admittedly he was happy to “get the hell out”, he said that he’d never forget his workmates.
“I’ve worked with some weirdos, but I’ve also worked with some really interesting people,” he said. “They’re people who are often overlooked, and actually have some pretty interesting things to say. I guess at the end of the day, when you work at a sex shop you kind of experience a lot of prejudice, and in a way that forces you to bond with your workmates.”