So you want to head into your local sex shop and find yourself something new or different. Maybe you want to get a partner or a friend a new friend of their very own! Shopping for sex toys/ sex stuff can be tricky; you don’t necessarily walk in just knowing what size or style you’re looking for. You can’t try it on in the store, and you can’t return it if you end up not liking it. That can be daunting and scary and overwhelming. The thing is, the people working at said sex shops know this too. They want to help and make the space as comfortable for you as possible; they’re not at all there to judge you and they want you to enjoy what you walk out with!
In any retail position it is expected that the employee be knowledgeable on the product they are selling, but when it comes to sex toys people often expect a whole lot more of the employee. Not only are they being asked to provide the basic product knowledge, they’re also being given intimate details about a strangers sex life and being asked to help pick the perfect toy to fit their needs despite not actually knowing their body and what it likes. They want to make this the least frustrating and most comfortable experience for you. But we all have to work together on this! Let’s make this a lovely experience for everyone involved, shall we?
For starters, I cannot overstate enough that the employee is not at all judging you. In my experience, people often fear that I, a sex-toy-slinging professional, am judging the products they’re looking for, the sex they’re having, the questions they’re asking, etc. And I get why that might be the case – there’s still so much stigma around talking about sex or seeking pleasure, and sharing this with a stranger can feel really vulnerable. But let me say again: they are not judging you! With that said, let’s dive right in.
The answers to commonly-asked questions
I want to give you, right off the bat, the answers to some questions I have heard time and time again, and the information that can make your trip all the more easy.
No, those ben wa balls/ kegel balls/vibrator will not get lost in a vagina
The vaginal canal is not a cavernous void that just keeps on going forever; things do not just disappear. Although things CAN end up pretty far back, depending on the length of ones vaginal canal and where their cervix sits, that does not mean a trip to the hospital! It is just a matter of bearing down and feeling comfortable having yourself or a partner/friend/helper locate and retrieve the goods!
No, you cannot put that thing that doesn’t have a solid base in your butt
Butts are the opposite of vaginas; they like to pull things in and take them as deep as they can. Putting something without a base in your butt is a MAJOR RISK and could result in a trip to the hospital. And before you ask, no, it is not going to just “show back up” eventually. At least not in the way you are hoping it will
Yes, there are limitations to some lube and pros/cons to each kind
- Silicone lube: Great if you’re looking for a long-lasting lubricant. Also great if you tend to be sensitive to lube, since it’s a synthetic and tends to sit on top of the tissue as opposed to absorbing. Only the very rare folks with a silicone allergy need to steer clear. Downside is you cannot use it with silicone toys, which most body-safe toys are made of.
- Water based lube: Good with everything! There are so many variations to water-based lube: thick, thin, flavored, long-lasting, moisturizing, etc! Some water-based lubes use ingredients like glycerin (which acts as a sugar in the body and can easily cause yeast infections) and parabens (inconclusively linked to breast cancer) which is not ideal, but depending on the shop you go to, they may not carry lubricant with those ingredients. Also, water-based lube does tend to dry up over time, as the water evaporates and all that’s left is the sticky leftover ingredients. Hot tip though: just add water to that sticky leftover stuff and it’ll reactivate those ingredients!
- Oil based lube: A great choice if you are looking for something long lasting AND moisturizing. It can be used with most toys, but not latex condoms or gloves, or with any porous toys. Also, it can stain the sheets pretty easily if you aren’t careful.
No, you should not use that jelly toy vaginally or anally
Or ideally at all! But specifically, if you want to use something internally, you do NOT want it to be porous. Porous materials hold onto bacteria, they have tiny pores on them that make it impossible to fully clean. Materials like silicone, plastic, metal, glass, and certain wood products are all nice non-porous options for internal toys. You CAN use products made out of materials like elastomer, polyisoprene, polyurethane, etc if they are something like masturbation sleeves and cock rings, but again, you want to avoid jelly toys! At all costs! So toxic! You can tell if a toy is made with a jelly material by the vague way it identifies itself — like TPR, PVC, jelly, etc — and by the way it smells. You know when someone has just spun out or come to a quick stop on the road and it smells like heat and tar and burnt rubber? That is what it smells like. If you need more reason, here is a test Dangerous Lilly did with jelly toys to show what happens over time. They fucking MELTED TOGETHER!!!! THEY ARE OOZING MYSTERIOUS LIQUID!! GROSS!!!
For the love of god NO, putting a vibrator on your nose does not give you an idea of what it will feel like on your genitals
I feel very strongly about this one — I know where this all started, and I see it get circulated on the internet every six months or so, and like if you want to put a vibrator on your nose I guess go wild? But honestly the nerve endings in your nose are not at all akin to your genitals and it is probably just going to make you feel like you need to sneeze. Just test it on your hands, fingertips or forearm. You really do not get more of an idea with it on your nose.
These are the easy questions, the ones that universally remain true and will always be true (well maybe not the nose one — I just feel strongly on it). Other questions, however, are not as easy to navigate. It sucks to have an interaction with a customer where everyone ends up feeling frustrated that they didn’t get the answers they wanted or needed, so let’s make all our lives easier by looking at which questions probably aren’t going to be helpful to ask.
Unproductive questions to ask a sex shop employee (don’t ask these!)
What’s most popular toy?
I get why you might ask, but there is not a most popular toy! Everyone is so different, there is not one BE ALL END ALL toy for everyone! What if you came in looking for a vibrator but when you ask about the most popular toy, I point out a glass butt plug or a flogger or a harness? Does that mean you’re going to abandon your vibrator desires all together because that butt plug is actually the MOST POPULAR? Same with “what’s the best lube/condom/butt plug/dildo/vibrator/etc?” There is no BEST. There is no BETTER. I promise we are not keeping a secret from you, we don’t have some master list of all the BEST THINGS we’re hiding!
I’ve never had a vibrator, what do I get?
See above — there’s not one vibrator that’s THE beginner’s vibrator. There’s so much to consider before the employee can just point at one and say “there it is! The perfect beginner vibrator for you!”
I need a vibrator for my partner/friend, do you have any recommendations?
Not with that information given, no I really don’t. We are going to need a little more than that before we can really get anywhere. Surprising a partner or friend with a vibrator is very nice and I am all for it, but I’m not at all familiar with your partner or friend’s preferences so maybe we could get a little more to go on?
What’s YOUR favorite toy?
Boundaries, friends! This is such an invasive question! I understand the thought —because this person works in a sex shop, it might be assumed that they have used practically every product in the shop and have a catered list of their favorites. And maybe they do. But unless they chose on their own to share that information with you, it isn’t your business, and whatever their favorite toy is will not at all inform what you might like at all! What if you’re looking for a rumbly internal vibe with low settings and their favorite toy is the Magic Wand Rechargeable? It gets us nowhere!
I don’t know what I want, can you just show me stuff?
I mean, I guess? But what you’re asking is for this employee to give you an entire tour of the shop without knowing anything about what you’re actually looking for. We get that you might be nervous and looking around might help you feel more comfortable telling us what you want. But we COULD just be focusing on the section you’re actually interested in. Even just vague information on what you are looking for is more helpful than asking for an entire tour.
My friend said they like this toy, is it good?
Well if your friend said! No, in all seriousness, unless you know that you and your friend are into all the same exact things sexually, I cannot say whether that toy is “good” or not, and even then still might not be good for you! Getting suggestions from friends can feel safe and comfortable and it can totally work out! But I personally am extremely careful about not just agreeing that a product is good because a friend said so. I’ve heard this happen in my own life, too — one friend SWEARS by a certain vibrator and is like “you have to get this one just trust me!” but isn’t considering that maybe their friend’s body is not their body, etc. Maybe it’s good, but it doesn’t mean it is good for you!
Do you know anything about this?
Yes? What if I walked into your place of work and was like “Hey do you know anything about this thing that is clearly your entire job but I still want to question your knowledge???” Be nice!
My partner doesn’t like this thing but I want to get them to try it anyway; do you have any suggestions?
No! I hate to be rude but if your partner is telling you they don’t like something or are not interested in trying something, you absolutely should not be pushing it? I can’t believe this is one I have to say sometimes!
So what DO you ask?
I know I know I know — thus far this is just a big list of “Don’t do this!!!” which is probably not the most comforting. What SHOULD you ask? It isn’t really a matter of asking the right questions, but rather coming in with the information to get you to where you want to go. If you are looking to purchase a toy, for example, some questions you might want to ask yourself are:
- Do you want something to use vaginally, anally, clitorally? All of the above?
- Do you want vibrating? Non vibrating? Suction? Thrusting? Oscillating?
- Do you have a preference in material?
- What is your price point?
- If vibrating, do you want something rechargeable or battery operated?
- If vibrating, what kind of intensity are you looking for? Do you want vibration patterns?
- Do you want something buzzy (at a high frequency of vibration) or rumbly (low frequency vibration with deep stimulation)?
- Does size matter?
- Is this something you want to use while having sex with a partner? Just for solo sex? Do you want to share it with partners safely? All of the above?
The same process of narrowing down what you want can be applied to other products, like harnesses or lube. If you’ve never had a toy of your own before, you might wonder how you might even know the answers to these questions. You might not yet; part of the process might be coming into a shop is you can pick things up, turn them on, feel them out, and get an idea of the differences in certain things to get a better idea of what the answers to those questions might be. And you do not need to know those answers right this second! But coming into the shop having this stuff in mind is super helpful.
Outside of the do’s and don’ts of what to ask, there’s also some etiquette to keep in mind. Sex shop employees are exposed to a very different kind of customer experience than most any other job; sometimes people can get a little confused on the boundaries between customer and employee or because of the nature of the shop. Here are some notable etiquette tips to carry you through.
Do not play with the toys like they’re, you know, toys
Sex toys are expensive! And throwing around a vibrator like its a sword or swinging a double ended dildo above your head is rude, performative, and could potentially end with a broken toy. Respect the products! Be an adult!
Be aware of your boundaries with the employee.
They do not, under any circumstances, owe you a detailed telling of their sexual preferences. I have truly heard someone say “Isn’t it your JOB to test these toys and tell me if you like them???!” and I am here to say that no, that is not what the job is! (But yes, it is a perk that we sometimes get to test toys.) Doesn’t mean you get to know what that experience was like! They are there to give an objective overview of the product and that COULD be informed by their personal experience, but they are not required to divulge that and it is not your place to ask.
Remember that we’re retail employees, not sex therapists or doctors.
While they’re likely extremely knowledgeable about the products and the industry and may even identify as sex educators, they are not paid to do emotional labor for you, help you process your sex life or help you diagnose a specific issue. When they’re at the shop, they’re there to show and sell products; that’s it. They can not diagnose or prescribe, they can simply relay information.
Remember that other customers around you might be having a completely different experience from you.
Be respectful of the space and don’t make fun of products — for all you know, the person in the shop with you might be there for the exact product you are mocking. Imagine how that might feel. Sex can be funny, it isn’t that laughing is 100% not allowed, just be mindful of where it is coming from.
The shop is not a play space.
If they carry impact toys or kink gear, this is not your space to do a tasting of that product. Do not hit each other with impact toys; only hit yourself with it if you want to get an idea of how it feels. This isn’t kink shaming, just keep in mind that the employees and other customers did not consent to witnessing a scene play out and this could be extremely uncomfortable or triggering for them.
On the kink note, please remember that if the employee doesn’t know something, they will ask!
You do NOT have to explain to them what a certain type of kink means, how a certain type of toy can be used, what lubes are best for certain products, etc. It is rad that you have that information but I can assure you that the employee likely knows this already, and it can feel very condescending to have someone talk to you like you have never heard of these things that you talk about every day.
It is VERY RARE for a shop to take returns on a product
You should leave knowing that once you walk out of the door the product is yours. It is considered used the moment it is gone. Most, if not all, toys with motors come with warranties on them, but that generally covers if the motor breaks or the toy stops working. It isn’t a satisfaction guarantee, and if you end up not liking the product it is not the employee’s fault at all, they did their best with the information given! With regards to warranties, if the shop you purchased from offers troubleshooting for toys under warranty (meaning they’ll test the product to see if it’s broken and send it back to the company for you, as well as provide you with a replacement) please, I beg of you, wash your toy before you bring it in. I know this one seems like a given, but unfortunately this does need to be stated.
Don’t assume that you know anything about the employees body, their partners bodies, or their sex life.
Assuming an employee might use the same toys you are looking to use because they look a certain way can be damaging, hurtful and put everyone in an uncomfortable position. Trust that regardless of what they’re into, they know their stuff.
Whew! How are we all doing? Have I scared you out of going into a shop all together? I hope not! If you decide you ultimately aren’t ready to walk into a store yet, that is okay! You do you! I would be remiss to say, though, that a major upside to shopping in store vs. online is that you get to actually hold the products you’re looking at, feel the difference in their vibrations or sensations or material, compare the sizes to scale with your body, and ask questions right then and there! Online shopping can feel safe and secretive and comfortable, but you may end up with something completely different than what you were hoping for with no option for returning (outside of Amazon purchases, which I don’t recommend). That can easily be avoided with a visit in real life!
I’d encourage you to read sex toy review blogs/sex positive blogs like HeyEpiphora, AFemmeCock, GirlyJuice, BexTalksSex, MissRubyReviews or ErikaLynae — but again, NOT AMAZON REVIEWS — and get yourself comfortable with reading about sex toys. Often shops have websites of their own with their products listed for you to check out beforehand if you want to see the selection ahead of time. But quite frankly, I think you’ve got the tools to walk in like a pro, buddy! Ask questions, pick things up, take your time, breathe, and most of all, have fun!
💜 That was indeed comprehensive!
Seconding everything about jelly toys. I bought some jelly toys when I was younger, but I stopped using toys for a few years, and when I came back to toys I read about how jelly is actually porous and splurged on something fancy. Friends, when I finally opened the old toy box to throw out those jelly toys (for internal use!) they had CHANGED COLOUR! And they had SHRUNK! Like, a pink butt plug had shrivelled like an apple and turned a sickly marbled colour.
Great article! We own a sex shop and make bondage gear, and these are all good questions. We often do pop up booths at clubs and bars, and drunk people are just intensely insensitive sometimes. Especially pertaining to the impact toys – someone always starts throwing those around if they get the chance. But we keep going! It brings us so much joy when we get to help educate an appreciative audience that it’s worthwhile. Thanks for giving such good advice.
this was super comprehensive! thank you courtney! my personal tip about visiting a sex toy shop if you’re nervous is to go with some friends, ideally friends who are not nervous. going in a supportive group can be really helpful because you are doing a fun chill activity (hanging out with you friends) while entering a brand new environment that can otherwise feel overwhelming, and if you’re lucky enough to have friends who are familiar with sex toy shopping they can do some of the heavy lifting for you (showing you around their fave shop, pointing out toys they like/think you might like, etc).
also if any one reading this works in a sex toy shop i just want to say THANK YOU x 100000 for the work that you do, goddess bless sex toy shop workers amen. <3
Thank you for this. Another good tip is listening to epsiodes of the fist you podcast, featuring Archie of grease bats fame and their friend Ethel. Both of which are really inclusive and good with their reviews an all around fun podcast honestly.
thank you for reminding me that an asshole is a swirling vortex.
I am a proud adult queer, goddammit, but whenever I go into a shop I get real nervous and I feel like I act like a skeevy guy in a trenchcoat (even though I’m female-looking). Is there any non-creepy way to say to the lovely salesperson helping me “hey I’m sorry for not making eye contact and moving jerkily and stammering, it’s not you it’s me”?
I’ve never worked at a sex toy shop so take this with a grain of salt but I personally think you could just say that! Anyone who works in a store is going to understand that some customer’s get nervous in that environment, and as long as you’re actually not creepy or inappropriate, being upfront about it will probably help everyone in the interaction! Good luck with your future toy shopping endeavors, friend! You got this.