THE BUSINESS OF PLEASURE
The unseen emotional labour that goes into running a small sex shop in the desert.
BY ROBIN BABB
People feel comfortable sharing their sexual history, their fantasies, their kinks, and their darkest secrets with Matie Fricker. Complete strangers cry on her shoulder or admit things they’ve never told anybody else. She’s not a therapist, though on some days she feels like she is. She owns and operates a sex toy shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As the name suggests, though, Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center does so much more than just sell sex toys. Self Serve hosts and teaches classes on consent, processing sexual trauma, having better sex, and safely exploring BDSM. They have a medical referral program that allows Matie and her employees to refer customers to trusted sexual health providers and therapists in the city. Besides sex toys, they also sell books about sex, sexuality, and gender; gender affirmation accessories like packers and prosthetic breasts; and condoms, gloves, and dental dams for safer sex practices.
And because of the nature of their work, Matie and each of her employees also help customers with some of the darker stuff that goes along with sex. They regularly field inappropriate jokes and abuse from people who have misogynistic ideas about sex or think that what they do is somehow wrong or shameful. This is the fine print in the job description that many people don’t see when they think, working at a sex shop—that must be a fun job.
Thankfully, Matie already knew about all the emotional labour she was signing up for when she opened Self Serve in 2007—it wasn’t her first rodeo. When she was in college she worked at Grand Opening!, a sex shop in Brookline, Massachusetts that was later bought by Good Vibrations, the sex toy chain store based in San Francisco.
It was there that she learned all the things a good sex shop can be to people: a safe space for the queer community, a place to learn about and explore sexuality, and a resource for survivors of sexual assault. As a young queer woman herself, she encountered examples of queerness and queer sex that filled her with hope. But she also saw plenty of examples of unhealthy attitudes about sex and relationships. She discovered that since she was speaking to them from a place of relative authority (as the person behind the counter), customers would listen to her—and would often walk out of the store with new ideas about sex, or maybe a little less guilt or shame.
At that time, Matie was studying at University of Massachusetts, Boston, at the College of Public and Community Service. After many of her classmates came back from internships and summer jobs talking about how difficult it was to affect real change in the nonprofit sector, she realized that she was already making the kind of impact she wanted to make in the world at Grand Opening! It was a great feeling. But it wasn’t enough.
In 2005, Matie and her coworker Molly Adler organized a union at Grand Opening!, making it the first sex shop in the country to unionize. They were both promoted to management soon after in an underhanded attempt to break up the union, and they both knew something had to give. “Late one night over a bottle of wine, Molly and I started talking,” she says. What started out as an evening of airing work grievances turned into something else, and it wasn’t long before they were talking about how their own shop would be different. “Self Serve was created in a moment of resistance to oppressing our employees.”
After a year of market research, they both decided that Albuquerque would be the place to open their store—it was the largest midsize city in the country without an independently-owned sex shop. “And it’s sunny 300 days a year,” Matie says. This was also an important factor in where to open the shop, because they had to live there too.
They seem to have chosen a good place, because Self Serve is still going strong after 12 years. The store recently moved into a new, bigger space: a bright, sunshiney spot just off the main drag with a dedicated classroom/event space attached to the store. Molly Adler has since left Self Serve to pursue a career as a therapist, so Matie is the sole owner and the most consistent face seen in the store on any given day. It’s still the work that she feels she’s meant to do, but she’s quick to point out that it is still work.
“It’s easy to get ‘peopled out’ here, or to get compassion fatigue,” she says. She and the other workers at the store try to support each other with the emotional toll that the job takes, but there are always some inevitable moments of burnout. “The toll is always there, but I don't feel it unless I've worked too much and don't have enough space for my own stuff,” she says. “I don’t do 40+ hours [per week] on the floor here. Nobody does, for the same reason that therapists don’t do 40+ hours with clients. It starts to really impact your home life after that.”
Helping customers find what they need or learn something new is a satisfying, joy-giving part of the job. Matie never begrudges anyone for ignorance or awkwardness in a sex shop. What does wear on her is the people who act disrespectfully or take advantage of her or her employees. “The grossest thing we deal with is phone calls,” she says. Sometimes it’s prank calls from teenagers, sometimes it’s people masturbating while they ask inappropriate questions. “They're anonymous. If you provide something comforting and nurturing, there are people who will take advantage of it. People getting off on taking advantage of your kindness—a lot of women will know that feeling.”
Everyone has a different method of dealing with these phone calls. Some employees will just hang up, some have a script worked out. One employee has started telling harassing callers, ‘You know, we help survivors of sexual assault and rape here. You're wasting time I could be using to help somebody heal.’ That line has even gotten a few muttered apologies out of people.
Of course, there are plenty of negative in-person interactions at the store, too. “Sometimes people come in to laugh at us. Sometimes people treat us poorly simply because we’re retail,” Matie says. On a couple memorable occasions, men have come into the store thinking there’s some kind of sex work service offered there, and have touched employees inappropriately. Matie’s face turns stony when she recalls these instances. “Those people are 86’d for good,” she says.
For dealing with these and other bad interactions, Self Serve has a staff policy mnemonic—REBA: redirect, educate, boundaries, ask to leave. If somebody asks or says something inappropriate in the store, you start by redirecting it, and then proceed to the following steps only as needed.
Matie also has an “always on call” policy for the instances when an employee has a particularly bad experience with a customer. “Employees can always call me to talk about a shitty customer interaction. Any time, day or night. I'll come in and work for you if it's really bad. There's no ‘toughen up buttercup’ response; it's always, ‘I'm really sorry that happened, what do you need?’”
Despite the tough days, Matie still loves the work she does. And her employees love it too—there hasn’t been any turnover in years, and the rigorous hiring process ensures that only those who really understand the difficulties involved make it to the sales floor. They all know that their work helps people heal, have better sex, and feel more comfortable in their skin.
“People come in here and they’re often in a transition phase of some kind—whether that’s a new relationship, or getting out of a relationship, or coming out of the closet, or transitioning genders—and they just need a little help,” Matie says. “I get to support people moving towards growth.”
Robin Babb writes about the intersections of food, wellness, and environmental and social issues and works as the Food and Drink Editor at Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spends her free time hiking in the Sandia Mountains and scrutinizing expensive health trends.