Sex at Patricia’s
Thai Cornwell is at the counter, casually toying around with a palm-sized vibrator. She notices that I’m eyeing the edible underwear.
“I’ve never understood the appeal,” she tells me. “Combining sugar, body heat and hair?”
She makes an exaggerated face of confusion. Suddenly, she becomes aware of the mini vibrator in her hands. It’s like she forgot she was holding it.
“Oops! I should probably put this down,” she says airily.
My roommate and I are at Patricia’s, an adult store at the intersection of Grand Boulevard and Gravois Avenue. Patricia’s is a chain that has locations around the Midwest, but this one is especially popular with St. Louis area college students. Even Washington University kids break out of the bubble for this place.
My roommate and I scan the front wall, which is covered in penis-related novelty items. We make a note to come back and grab some penis-shaped rainbow candy and a penis-shaped cake pan. We should have a party soon.
Thai is her nickname. She’s been at the company for six years and has been part of the industry for 15 years. She’s been a manager at this particular Patricia’s location for about four years. She is lanky, with light-brown shoulder length hair and glasses. Her demeanor is casual, relaxed. She has a knack for establishing a friendly rapport with anyone who enters the store. As a daughter of a college professor, she has no problem being social. When you walk in, you don’t even know Thai, but you immediately trust her. Any reservations about feeling strange or awkward in a sex shop dissipate simply from witnessing Thai’s own effortless comfort.
The store is organized, in her words, from “mild to wild.” The most “chaste” products—lingerie, novelty items, birthday cards—are near the front. The items further in the back are strategically placed away from the storefront windows.
Thai walks me through the store, pointing out the sections along the way. She explains a few interesting products, like blow job Pop Rocks (put them on skin, and they’ll fizzle when you run your tongue over them) and sour apple-flavored lube (not recommended for vaginas because it’s made with citric acid, which can be uncomfortable).
Then, Thai takes me to the most elaborately organized part of the store: the vibrators’ section. Here, we have your standard vibrators: bullets and eggs for clitoral stimulation, dildos for vaginal penetration, curved toys for G-spots, rabbits for both vaginal and clitoral action and so on. There are also more eccentric ones. There’s one that vibrates at the sound of your voice. Another is almost confusing to look at. Thai takes a pink vibrator with a cone-shaped head, ribbing with a wavelike pattern. She turns it on. The cone spins around rapidly as the motor makes an angry “rrrrrrRRRRRRRR” sound. My first instinct is to use it to drill nails into the wall.
Thai reads my expression. “I would think that, unless you doused this in enough lube to swim in, this would wind you up like spaghetti,” she laughs.
But, as she emphasizes throughout our conversation, everyone is different. And thankfully, there are toys available to fit pretty much anyone’s needs.
“The first thing I always ask people is, ‘When you’re stimulated, do you prefer that stimulation on the inside or the outside?’” Thai says. “Do you plan on using this with your partner, or is this something you plan on using when your partner isn’t available?”
According to Thai, the drill-spaghetti-contraption-thing would be a terrible product for a first-time vibrator owner. The key is to figure out what you like (or don’t like).
She interacts with a lot of beginners who come into the store. “Most of the time, [first-timers] are like, ‘What’s your best-selling vibrator?’ There is no best-selling vibrator. It depends on what type of person you are.”
If you’re not sure what you like, that’s totally fine—most people who haven’t had a vibrator before aren’t sure what they want. Luckily, you can learn through trial and error.
Thai picks up a bullet with a wire that connects to the battery-operated, speed-controlling remote. This is a toy that she frequently recommends to first-timers. It’s small, inexpensive and has multiple speeds—all ideal qualities for a beginner.
With a laugh, she emphasizes one point. “Make sure it’s waterproof. It is very hard to wash something that you cannot put in water.”
Figuring out what you like can seem intimidating, but that’s where the benefit of stopping by a brick-and-mortar sex shop comes in. Not only can you talk to a real person who can guide you through that process, but you also get to know the toy in real life—to “meet” it, if you will. It sounds weird personifying a vibrator. But hey, if you’re the type of person to want to get to know someone before letting them in your body, it makes sense to hold a toy to the same standard. Also, you’re paying money for this.
One of Thai’s pro tips? Ask the store to put batteries in a toy and turn it on. Then, you can decide whether you’re OK with what it sounds like. If being discreet is important to you, this is a good way to see if a given vibrator is quiet enough.
“The odds of a roommate outside the room door actually hearing it are slim—it’s much louder to you than it is to anyone else,” Thai says. “But if you think they’re going to [hear you], you’re not going to relax, and you might as well not have a vibrator in the first place.”
The smell of a vibrator can also be a telling detail. Thai includes a rule of thumb: “If it smells gross, you probably don’t want it.” There’s also variety in the type of material it’s made from, which influences the texture. Silicone is popular, but you can also find ones made of glass, jelly, latex and different kinds of softened plastics. Out of all materials, silicone is the safest, Thai says.
For first-timers who plan to use their vibrator with a partner, a cock ring with a small vibrator attached to it is also an option. Thai shows me a purple one with a disposable vibrator which runs for forty minutes—likely enough for a couple of sessions. It’s small, but it’s capable of stretching over someone’s head—still, it’s probably best utilized on a penis or a strap-on. Either way, it’s a good primer for beginners. It combines the new sensation of a vibrator with the regular intercourse that they’re already used to.
Regardless of how you choose to integrate toys with a partner, Thai reminds customers to always consult with their partners first. Consent is mandatory in all forms of sexuality; buying products for sex is no exception.
“Before you try anything, talk to your partner,” Thai says. “Even if it’s about a penis ring.”
The definition of consent includes making sure your partner is OK with using certain toys, but it also includes staying in tune with their needs. Thai has had people come in—both men and women—who have wanted things like “stay-hard” creams to prolong erections or supplements to increase sex drive. The first thing she asks before going any further is, “Did you talk to your partner about this?” Sometimes, customers are surprised to learn that they need to communicate with their partner about the issues they’re having.
“I can help you orgasm. I can help you have better sex. But, what I can’t help you do is talk to your partner,” Thai asserts adamantly. “And that’s the one thing that I wish I could, because that’s the most critical thing. “
No matter what you’re looking for, don’t forget lube. Thai stresses that using more lube is almost always more pleasurable, especially for women.
“We [women] are great at producing lubrication,” she says. “We are far less great at getting it where it needs to be. And that outer area where it doesn’t get lubricated can get sore.”
There’s a lot of lube to choose from. There’s water-based lube, and then, there’s silicone-based lube. Water-based lube is all-purpose; it’s safe for everything, especially for use with toys. It’s less sticky, so you can use it liberally without making a mess. Silicone-based lube, on the other hand, shouldn’t be used with toys, since it can react negatively with different plastics. For anal sex, or shower/bathtub/hot tub/other water-related sex, silicone-based lube is paramount. It’s slick and stays on for a long time, whereas water-based lube washes away easily (it is, after all, made of water).
When we think of lube, a lot of us jump to brands like K-Y Jelly. They’ve got sleek packaging, a nifty color scheme and sexy commercials featuring beautiful people lolling around in bed (that sometimes even air around prime time! Prime time!). Weirdly enough, Thai tells me, K-Y lube was actually introduced to the market for hospital use in 1904.
“Originally, K-Y was used by doctors [who] needed a lubricant to use for speculums and things like that that wouldn’t erode their gloves,” she says.
While doctors were using K-Y, regular people were using oil-based lube. Soon, they figured out that oil dissolves latex, making condoms useless (that is, unless you wanted a living, breathing accident running around). This realization brought the need for a new product to be introduced into the market; thus, K-Y expanded out of hospitals into the homes of the general public. It makes sense, then, that the brand has the money to spend on massive ad campaigns—since its inception, it’s been backed by the pharmaceutical industry.
Even then, it’s not the best lube. To the contrary, it actually might be one of the more abrasive lubes—it can dry your skin out, if you use it too frequently.
“K-Y has a lot of sodium hydroxide in it, which is another word for lye,” Thai explains. “It’s a very small amount, but it can get pretty uncomfortable over time.”
I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that K-Y, which I always subconsciously equated with “$$$hot sex$$$,” started off as a medical product. Thai drops another cool lube fact on me, this time about the brand Astroglide. It was developed at NASA in 1977.
“Astroglide was originally a coolant used for the space program, or it was supposed to be. It didn’t work very well, but it had more-or-less body-safe ingredients,” Thai says.
That was it. They called it “Astroglide” and turned it into lube.
And then, there’s spermicidal lube. Thai keeps a lonely tube of it on the bottom shelf. It’s hidden away for a reason—spermicidal lube is made out of a chemical called nonoxynol-9. Originally an ingredient in cosmetics, it kills sperm cells by poking holes in them. Unfortunately, nonoxynol-9 also pokes holes in the rest of our cells, which can have negative implications. Spermicidal condoms also use the same formula. According to Thai, the Center for Disease Control actually dissuades consumers from using spermicidal condoms, since they significantly raise the risk of contracting STDs, especially HIV. The thing is, spermicidal condoms are only .02 percent better at preventing pregnancy than regular condoms. Your best bet? Just use a regular condom properly.
And if you’re using condoms as your primary form of contraception, please Do. Not. Use. Oil. As. Lube. When Thai first mentioned the fact about K-Y coming onto the market because people needed water-based lube, I realized that I didn’t even know you weren’t supposed to use oil-based lube with condoms. Why didn’t they ever include that in high school sex education? Rock beats scissors, paper beats rock and oil dissolves latex. It could’ve been that easy.
That is, unless you’re not using latex condoms. Even though nonlatex condoms are commonly purchased by people who have latex allergies, they also can be useful for men who prefer a looser fit. Traditional latex stretches, but snaps on snugly like a rubber band. Nonlatex condoms stretch differently; they also provide a snug fit, but they’re less constricting at the base. The downside of nonlatex condoms is that they’re more expensive. They’re also usually made of either lambskin or polyurethane. Lambskin smells weird and does a poor job of protecting against STDs. Polyurethane is an ingredient that’s also in paint varnish, so take that as you will.
But maybe you don’t need (male) condoms. Thai motions to another area of the store, which is devoted to strap-ons, dildos and lesbian sex toys. Patricia’s has traditional strap-ons (i.e. a strap with a placeholder to add in the dildo of your choice), along with “strapless” strap-ons. You could describe it as an extended dildo; instead of a harness, you have a really long dildo that curves at a ninety-degree angle at one end. That way, one person can insert the curved end inside of them, and then penetrate/peg their partner with the other end.
The store caters to diverse sexualities; there are just as many LGBT-specific products as there are heterosexual. Additionally, there are also materials related to medical needs. Patricia’s carries breast massagers for cancer patients, as well as graduated dilators to help women who need to carefully maintain their vaginal openings, such as those who have vaginismus and trans women who have just gone through surgery.
Racial diversity, especially with dildos, is less developed. It’s tricky—most other Patricia’s stores are in predominantly white areas of the Midwest. This store is one of two in St. Louis, so it should be expected that there are more black and brown cocks. And there are—but it doesn’t always seem like enough.
“The industry’s still catching up,” she acknowledges. “It’s jarring to look down and see something that’s not the race that you are.”
Thai makes an effort to carry every single nonwhite dildo that she can, but still—there’s no match for every single skin tone, whether it’s light or dark. As a remedy, she emphasizes the “party” colored cocks—the bright pinks, the electric blues, the deep purples. There’s even a giant, rainbow-striped dildo.
“See?” she smiles, motioning to the rainbow cock. “Why wouldn’t you want something with that much pride?”
She motions toward a couple of fluorescent pink dildos. When those first arrived at the store, she took a couple and waved them in the air as if she were landing a plane.
“To do this job, you need a sense of humor,” she says. The job also requires that she control her sense of humor, especially when customers unknowingly ask her silly questions. She’s good-natured about it—she would never make someone feel bad. Still, she’s had to contain her giggles every once in a while.
“Once, a customer asked me, ‘Does a butt plug make you feel like you need to go to the bathroom?’” she says.
I have to ask. “Well, does it?”
“No.” Thai is good-natured about it. “Butt plugs probably wouldn’t be that popular if they did.”
It’s 9:59 p.m. We’ve been talking for an hour—right up until closing time. It’s too late for me to buy those penis candies now. But that’s not a problem. My roommate and I can come back soon. Just ask Thai—we’re all welcome at Patricia’s.