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Why The First Sex Shop Workers’ Union Is So Important

“A manager recently asked me why I was letting a coworker take a second 10-minute break. When I explained it was because a customer just threatened them, their first concern was checking the technical details to make sure I wasn’t breaking the rules — not my coworker’s safety.”

flickr/Yelp Inc.

When I was a small child approaching the throes of puberty, my illicit reading material of choice was my father’s copies of the now-defunct New York Press. This was before the ubiquity of high-speed wireless internet, so in place of anything especially sexy, I made do with the blurry ads sex workers placed in the back pages of NYC’s second-favorite free arts weekly. Nestled in between the censored nipples and fake names were frequent ads for something called “Toys in Babeland,” a business of some kind which I could neither fathom — nor wait to frequent.

Flash forward to 2016: My phone gives me pornographic push notifications on the daily, newspapers are gasping for air, and that mysterious sex shop chain — now known simply as Babeland — has become not only the premiere adult store on either coast, but has a distinction that will live forever in the annals (anals?) of history: the home of the first large-scale sex shop workers’ union. (Grand Opening, a small Boston sex shop, unionized in 2005 but is now closed.)

Peter Montalbano is an organizer for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) who, with his colleague Stephanie Basile, helped Babeland workers achieve this dream. A few months ago, Montalbano says, “I received a phone call from two Babeland employees who had concerns regarding their working conditions and wanted to know more about their legal rights to organize with the RWDSU.” The workers knew Montalbano through a friend, whose unrelated experience with the union unexpectedly kicked off one of the most high-profile collectivization campaigns of the past several decades.

The fact that the two Babeland workers found such enthusiastic support is remarkable. Sex shops and their employees have been the target of frequent political attacks throughout U.S. history. The Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Jacobellis v. Ohio found that sex shops were protected by the First Amendment, but also left their placement open to restriction through zoning laws — a loophole which Rudy Giuliani, in his tenure as mayor of NYC, exploited to eradicate the glut of adult stores in Times Square and other tourism-friendly areas. Many looked down upon these stores, judging them as inherently low-class; NYU professor Daniel Walkowitz described the Times Square shops as a “gauntlet you had to cross to reach the bright lights.” In other states, sex toys and the stores that sell them were banned outright for decades. In Alabama, both still are.

But despite the history of contempt for sex shops (and by extension, their employees), Montalbano says RWDSU welcomed Babeland with open arms. “We were aware of the fact that Babeland both markets itself and is widely viewed as the premier feminist & LGBTQ+ sex toy shop in NYC,” he says. “Our union is very excited to bring the issues of workers in the LGBTQ+ community to the front and center of the fight for workers’ rights and economic social justice more broadly.”

This isn’t just a fight for everyone in the umbrella, though. The fight for unionization has been most stridently supported by Babeland’s transgender workers, who feel left out in the cold by some of management’s policies and training. And although some publications like Glamour attempted to frame the campaign as a gift from the bosses, this was a grassroots effort intended to combat disturbing tendencies in the workplace which management has either failed to address or has been responsible for in the first place.

Workers at any sex shop have their horror stories about problem customers who come in to harass or threaten employees and customers alike — and Babeland, though generally a positive and friendly space for getting dildo recommendations and replacing a broken flogger, is no exception. Octavia Wheeler, who’s been working behind the counter at Babeland’s SoHo location since July, will readily confirm: “In the shop there have been issues of customers harassing us, sexually propositioning us, getting far too personal in their questions on our sex lives and our bodies.”

This would be one thing if management provided sufficient time for workers to recuperate from such personal attacks, but that’s not been the case. Stella Casanave, the Mercer store’s Lead Sex Educator/Sales Associate, says that policies are strict to the point of absurdity:

According to Casanave, this isn’t an isolated incident — in fact, dealing with management is the most time-consuming and draining aspect of their job. They hope that, through collective action, they can ensure the safety of their coworkers — and get financial justice, too.

“A disturbing trend since we have been without a store manager [as of the week before Valentine’s Day] has been to give more responsibilities to Sex Educators without increasing their wages. Heaven forbid they should make a mistake with those extra responsibilities, because then they get disciplinary action.”

Octavia agrees: “The union will help us create a collective voice that demands answers on getting the necessary training and support from management we need.”

On top of all this, trans and gender-nonconforming workers have to deal with additional harassment from customers because of their identities. Other employees told Autostraddle that when misgendering was reported to managers, trans workers were instructed not to correct customers on the floor. They also had their jobs threatened: If they couldn’t suck it up and deal with harassment, “maybe they shouldn’t work at Babeland.”

None of this should be acceptable in any workplace, least of all the leader in metropolitan sex-positivity. Casanave wants to be clear that “what we do is real work, hard work, and valuable work. We teach about consent, gender, and sex-positivity. It’s very important to real people’s lives.” Peddling Hitachi wands may not seem like a big deal to some, but when that means sex educators like Casanave guide women towards having the first orgasms of their lives, it’s hard to deny that Babeland workers are providing a vital public health service.

And it’s especially important that this fight is happening right now.

Thanks to the current national spotlight placed on trans issues, trans and gender-nonconforming people are ready to take the spot they deserve in contemporary feminism. Movements like labor feminism have been instrumental in securing advances for cisgender women since the 1920s — gaining ground in maternity leave and equal pay for comparable work — and now is the time for a similar movement to advocate for the needs of trans and gender nonconforming workers.

For Casanave, this is what it’s all about. “Feminism must also be about workers’ rights and fighting for trans folks and people of color in the workplace, or it’s not worth its salt. We all started working at Babeland because we were feminists and wanted to make sure that we could spread feminism,” they say. “Being part of the RWDSU is the next logical step.”

Especially after Orlando, where the Pulse shooter targeted a trans- and Latinx-oriented gathering, centering these discussions properly is of prime importance. Casanave is adamant that “the LGBT/queer/feminist community needs to be talking about trans folks, about people of color. Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living.” Speaking for himself, Montalbano says it’s “inspiring” to see queer and trans people of color standing up for their basic rights as workers in the wake of tragedies like Pulse.

When I asked if RWDSU has plans to organize other sex shops, Montalbano played coy, saying only that “the RW is committed to organizing any and all workers in the retail industry.” He’s quick to point out that this is only the first step, and that Babeland workers’ problems are far from over. “We feel it is important for the community to be aware of this,” he says, “and continue to monitor the situation to ensure that Babeland’s owners and management do the right thing and honor their legal obligation to bargain in good faith in a real, meaningful way.”

Hopefully, with their sexy, catchy #FistsUpforBabeland social media campaign, these workers will not only win their battles with management, but stem the tide of American sex-negativity in the process.