Fists Up for Babeland: Workers Unite at the Only Unionized Sex Shop in the U.S.

Last week, Babeland workers voted 21-4 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, making Babeland the only unionized sex shop in the U.S. We spoke with two of the employees who helped organize wage workers across Babeland’s three New York City locations.

Former Autostraddle writer, Phoenix Casino and Lena Solow work at Babeland because they believe in the company’s mission, love the customers and feel proud of the work they do every day to destigmatize sex and promote pleasure. However, working an hourly wage retail position at a store that sells sex toys and provides free sex education can be emotionally intense and sometimes dangerous labor.

L to R: Babeland employees Lena Solow, Phoenix Casino, Katherine Wolf

L to R: Babeland employees Lena Solow, Phoenix Casino, Katherine Wolf

For example, Solow recalls a time when she saw a man closely following two women around the shop. When she tried to politely intervene and asked the man to give the other customers some space, he became aggressive. He called her a “bitch,” yelled at the customers and became threatening. When he finally left the shop, Solow was shaken. Only she and one other co-worker were on the floor. She decided to close up a little early because she felt unsafe.

Babeland had no protocols or training around dealing with physically aggressive or threatening customers. When Solow asked her managers what she should have done, the response from management was that they didn’t know. Luckily, Solow wasn’t disciplined or fired for closing early, but she felt she didn’t get a supportive response from her managers, that they weren’t interested in addressing the need for employee safety and security proactively. Babeland workers often deal with inappropriate phone calls and customer behavior and have to rely on their own instincts and each other to stay safe when those situations escalate.

Because of the nature of the items sold at Babeland and the topics staff talk about with customers, there are often issues of customers asking personal questions or making personal assumptions about the staff. Sales associates are also sex educators and have to navigate boundaries with the customers carefully, as well as provide information about sexuality, sex and gender. Staff often deal with inappropriate personal questions and even sexual harassment on-the-job.

Trans and gender nonconforming workers who are misgendered by customers were instructed by management that they “should expect to be misgendered on the floor and shouldn’t feel upset or correct people,” according to Solow. Casino added that workers were told that “if they couldn’t handle misgendering and harassment, maybe they shouldn’t work at Babeland.”

Casino says that workers just want safety and respect. “I think it’s really important to give dignity to the work we do. A lot of the work we do is so stigmatized. Like, ‘Oh you work in a sex toy store, a sex shop. What do you expect? Get over it.’ There’s an expectation of mistreatment. We’re here to say that we deserve dignity. We deserve safety. We deserve respect.”

Being unsupportive of trans and gender nonconforming workers is a problem in and of itself. It is even more surprising and concerning for a store that is intentionally built on a feminist model of sexuality to not take the concerns of trans workers seriously.

Additionally, gender affirmation products for transfeminine people and trans women were only recently added to the store, though products for transmasculine people have been on the shelves for some time. Trans women weren’t consulted in the purchase of the new products. Some trans staff have had trouble getting the company to respect their name and gender by updating it in the company computer system.

These are just a few of the reasons that Babeland workers voted to form a union. They also want more transparency around hiring practices, consistency around discipline decisions, a say in fair wages, safe working conditions, and support for airing concerns.

“Part of why we’re in this place of feeling like we need a collective voice on the job is because we’ve brought up some of these concerns in the past and not felt like they were being listened to or addressed by management,” Solow said. “Now we get to sit down with management and work out a contract. We all want it to be safer and more sustainable to work at Babeland.”

Solow and Casino both feel strongly that the reason for having a union at Babeland is that they care so much about the company and what the company represents. That’s why they organized. “Babeland has this really incredible mission about being sex positive, body positive, affirming of people of all genders and sexual orientations,” Solow said. “We really believe in that mission and in the workers at Babeland being supported in living up to that mission.”

Casino added that the workers at Babeland are mostly marginalized workers: “Working class women, trans people, people of color, queer people…for us, that’s our entire workforce. There is a lot to what feminism and sex positivity means and we’re trying to bring that into a more updated context. Feminism is for poor people. People of color. Trans people. Gender nonconforming people. [Feminism] is for intersections of all those identities. Feminism also means that people with marginalized identities who are doing work should be treated with dignity and respect.”

“On top of that, Babeland is an awesome place and an awesome job, but it’s also a retail job,” Casino said. “Retail is undervalued as a job, as a career path. Something for me that is very feminist is bringing more unions into retail. People who are working these jobs, many of whom are women, [should be] valued.”

Babeland's lower east side location (via the Babeland website)

Babeland’s lower east side location (via the Babeland website)

At the end of the day, Casino and Solow want Babeland to thrive as a business that respects worker rights and does empowering and affirming work as a unionized sex shop. Solow describes the experience of shopping at Babeland as “life-changing” and a safe place for queer people to have their identity and sexuality affirmed. “How much more incredible would it be,” she asked, “to know that the workers providing this incredible service to our communities are being treated fairly and appropriately?”

Casino added that unionization doesn’t have to be thought of as “this adversarial thing.” They said, “We’re doing this for love. We’re doing this because we love and respect our coworkers. We love creating this positive space. We love the people who come in and open up to us. We just want to be as true to that image and mission as we can be and that means taking this into a collective process.”

Solow and Casino urge union supporters to continue shopping at and buying from Babeland. “We want Autostraddle readers to feel good about spending money at Babeland,” said Solow. “We want people to feel good about standing with us and making sure the people doing the labor are respected and valued as well.”

Contract negotiations between the union and the shop owners will start soon. Solow and Casino hope other sex shop workers and workers in related retail fields will be inspired to unionize, too. “A really big benefit to being another store that’s unionized is that we add more union density,” explained Casino. “People say it’s retail. It’s just a shitty job. But part of the reason it’s bad is that stores aren’t unionized. The more people who see this who are inspired to start unions, that raises the standard of living for everyone and puts the pressure on companies that aren’t unionized to do better.”

Solow added, “Babeland is setting standards in many ways and this is one of the ways that Babeland is setting the standard. We hope other stores will follow suit.”


To show support for Babeland workers, you can tweet or post to social media using the hashtags: #fistsupforbabeland (pun intended), #dildosunited, and #1u.

Take a selfie of your “fist” using the #fistsupforbabeland hashtag and tag @Babeland_NYC to let the shop owners know you support the workers’ union.

Nothing is hotter than buying your sex toys from a sex positive, union-strong shop!


EDIT: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Babeland as the first unionized sex shop. Babeland is currently the only unionized sex shop in the United States. However, a group of workers organized at Grand Opening in Boston in 2005, joining UNITE HERE (Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International) and making them the first unionized sex shop. Grand Opening is currently closed, though two of their employees went on to open the Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


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KaeLyn is a 34-year-old (femme)nist activist and the reigning Queer Fat Korean Immigrant Ms. America Pageant winner. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, over-caffeinating herself, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, eating tofu, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. Talk sexy about intersectionality, cult movies, or theatre nerdiness to her at @kaelynrich.

KaeLyn has written 117 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 7

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    Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention!

    I’ve been a longtime Babeland shopper. And I’m deeply upset, and if I’m honest a bit horrified, that a company I’ve held in such high regards has put such little concern in the safety of their staff and are being trans exclusionary.

    Hopefully a union will help rectify these issues. I hope we’ll be able get updates on this story. I don’t know how comfortable I would be spending money at Babeland until these issues have been resolved.

    • Thumb up 8

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      I agree that I hope to find out how negotiations go and if conditions improve.

      Just FYI on not spending money there: Phoenix and Lena both emphasized to me that they don’t want people to boycott Babeland or stop shopping there. Quite the opposite. They want the store to stay open and they want to continue to work there. The workers, according to Phoenix and Lena, care about the mission and work they do there and they care about each other.

      They feel it’d be most impactful for customers who do shop at Babeland to publicly express their support for the union to Babeland’s management and show that this is something Babeland’s customers want.

      • Thumb up 1

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        Thanks KaeLyn, I appreciate knowing that and will deeply weigh it as I make my future purchasing choices. It’s not that I am advocating for a full on boycott of Babeland. It’s just that *I* am personally struggling with a store that I have cared so much about, largely because of what I perceived to be their inclusive feminist politics, turning out not to be what I thought it was (their trans practices in particular were VERY disheartening).

        I will make a point to vocally support the union. Do Phoenix and Lena (or anyone else) have any suggestions on the best way for me to do that?

  2. Thumb up 4

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    This is great news for Babeland workers, and I 100% support and applaud their efforts. However, it should be noted that Grand Opening in Boston unionised in 2005…the workers there have the distinction of being the first unionised sex shop in the country. This doesn’t in any way take away from the accomplishments of the Babeland workers. I just feel that we shouldn’t forget the work of those who came before.

    • Thumb up 3

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      Thanks for the info! I didn’t realize and will make an edit. Additionally, I looked it up to verify your comment and noted that, unfortunately, it looks like Grand Opening closed in 2005. Absolutely important to acknowledge other workers who organized. I think the Babeland workers hope many more employees in the retail field will be inspired to organize as a result of their efforts.

      • Thumb up 2

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        This is true. The owner closed shortly after the workers unionised. It was a hard-fought win and the workers were devastated when the owner made her decision. In the wake of what happened at Grand Opening, I’m not surprised it’s taken this long for another group of workers to take up the cause. I wish them the best of luck, and hope this ushers in a new era of rights and respect for sex educators and retail workers.

    • Thumb up 1

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      “Solow and Casino both feel strongly that the reason for having a union at Babeland is that they care so much about the company and what the company represents. That’s why they organized.”
      I really appreciate this sentiment! The truth is that many — if not most — people choose to organize because they care. I hope that owners Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning, as well as management staff, take that to heart and do not treat it as an adversarial relationship.

  3. Thumb up 1

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    You are mistaken about Babeland being the first unionized sex shop. Sarah, the previous commenter is correct, Grand Opening in Boston was unionized back in 2005 (Pretty sure it was UNITE HERE). Two of the folks who supported the efforts to unionize have gone on to open Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Self Serve has been voted best Sexy Store in ABQ nine years in a row and, with the Guild Cinema and the ACLU they fought the city all the way to the State Supreme Court and won the right to continue Pornotopia, a sex positive porn festival. Read about the win here: http://selfservetoys.com/pornotopia/about/

    I was one of their loyal customers at Grand Opening and I’ve been a loyal customer of Self Serve since they opened. They are phenomenal people and I hope the legacy of unionization that they’ve supported and worked for won’t be forgotten.

    • Thumb up 1

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      I know there have been problems with Babeland in the past not being as accommodating of trans women as they are of trans men. However, I’m not sure I know what you are referring to, specifically. Are you comfortable elaborating?

        • Thumb up 1

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          Ah, yes, they only recently added products like breast forms, though they’ve been carrying packers for years. They do carry more affirmation products for trans women and transfeminine people now, but I think it’s something the staff have brought up them in the past and it took them a while to address. Trans women on staff were also disappointed that they weren’t consulted on the products that were added to the store, which may seem like a weird request, but the owners/managers aren’t trans women and it’s a store where the sales staff are also trained sex educators.

          I thought maybe there was something else I missed, other than the things mentioned in the article that are obviously a problem. I hope many of the concerns are addressed now that the workers have bargaining power. It sounds like the staff really have a close-knit family and have each others backs, in general.

    • Thumb up 0

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      long term:

      the only actual help is anything that affects allocation of medical funds and legal protections. Because the only large scale thing that works is the virtuous circle of: better/more tech -> better infosec -> more power in society -> more money -> more covert control (because democratic control is unviable/counterproductive) of legislative and executive decisions -> better/more tech…

      and definitely no worse than nothing feelgood mockery, such as ‘alternative’ help outside the realm of law, biomechanics and biochemistry.

      short term:

      maybe dildos in silver and/or gunmetal, with a LEDs choice of Terminator red, Borg green and Replicant blue, with transparent sealed silicone coating – all in state of the art, not subpar cheap plastic. Throw in a femme version of same with floral engravings matching led colour. And a general physique adjusted lingerie line in circuitboard and gear patterns. In short something one can use to build a positive brand awareness on.

      Because cool>pleading, every single time.

  4. Thumb up 0

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    Honestly, some people are really hard to refer to. I’ve seen a very feminine presenting person get all upset over someone politely say, “here, miss, would you like to try this?” At Costco.

    I’m just saying some more information is needed here on context.

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