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The past was a sexless country... - Elf M. Sternberg
The past was a sexless country...
It's realy weird to think how far we've come. In a conversation about buying sex toys, I mentioned just how hard it was to buy my first sex toy years ago. A woman who said, "Wait, I'm 29. Why was it hard to buy a sex toy the year I was born?"

This is what I told her:

You really have to internalize the idea that "the past is another country." 1986 was the first year the US Government acknowledged that gay men had been dying of AIDS for six years already. Although HIV had already been discovered, nobody knew where it came from or its transmission vector. There was no Internet at all; everything you knew about the world came to you through newspapers and television stations owned by large corporations. The television stations were more strongly regulated by the government regarding what they could say, and so blatant lying was out (FOX news would never have survived) but telling only one side of a story was very do-able. On the one hand, Playboy, Penthouse and Forum magazine were slowly making their push into the mental territory of America; on the other hand, all the media you had available to you were full of stories about how one night of sex with the wrong person will kill you and watching hardcore porn is a sure step to ruin. In 1986, it was still illegal to act gay. Just buying bondage equipment was used in several cases to prosecute people for intent to commit assault.

This isn't some wacky preacher or billboard. This is everything. This is every news channel, every newspaper, every magazine-- and there was no internet to call bullshit on any of it. There was no way to buy toys on-line. There was no on-line.

The only place to buy sex toys were these hole-in-the wall places, often in strip malls in the most depressed neighborhoods and so run down they had no choice but to lease store space to the skeeviest businesses imaginable: pawn shops, convenience stores that specialized in alcohols for homeless people, and sex stores. You had to drive there, and then enter the store.

The store was typically painted in the ugliest yellow-beige. And while behind the broad counter the guy running the store might pointedly ignore you while reading something distinctly non-porny, the other patrons were usually men desperate to not be seen in a store like that. In a store where death and ruin waited, and only a twisted and evil interpretation of the First Amendment stopped the cops from shutting it down. Three of the four walls were dedicated to magazines, and the fringe guys reading bondage magazines or gay magazines really didn't want to be seen. Eye contact was absolutely forbidden. Often, these stores were part of a small public theater (or worse, individual booths) where really ancient porn movies were being shown, and desperately lonely men went to masturbate, so the air in the store smelled like a mixture of semen and hospital disinfectant.

Off the one wall racked with toys, you had to pull one off, and then have a face-to-face transaction with the guy across the counter to buy it. Meanwhile, all the other guys are watching what you just did, and judging you.

Then you had to go back out, and hope that a cop wasn't sitting in the parking lot photographing your license plate. If he was, you (or if you were married, your wife) might get a letter warning you for "visiting a known location for prostitution and pornography."

You had to be really, really fuckin' horny for that toy to buy it.

Tags: ,
Current Mood: nostalgic nostalgic
Current Music: NPR, Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me

3 comments or Leave a comment
sirfox From: sirfox Date: January 10th, 2016 05:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, that's a valuable perspective that's too easy to lose sight of.

I kinda split the age range, born in 77, i was about 9 by the year in question.

First porn I bought was from Mailbox Books, which I found out about from an ad in the back of a comic book. There was the race and anxiety of getting the brown paper box before anybody else did, and then ask what I'd gotten...

The internet was just limping into existence when I got to college and had free access and my first computer. Porn was out there, but required arcane knowledge (for somebody getting a bio degree, at least) about usenet groups and how to tediously piece together bits of encoded gibberish that would magically turn into porn.

(Your Journal Entries were a wonderful resource for somebody just exploring their sexuality at the time, as well. Can't thank you enough for that. )

By the time I was ready to buy something sex-toy-ish, you could at least go into Spencer's Gifts in the Mall and get a cheap quality My First Vibrator or fluffy lined handcuffs without feeling like a complete skeeve. I think Spencer's Gifts and Hot Topic act like unofficial membranes of social acceptability. By the time something Deviant or Edgy shows up there, it's become mainstream enough for general society to acknowledge and tolerate, if not embrace, the thing in question.
omahas From: omahas Date: January 10th, 2016 08:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sweetie, you have a couple of wrong perspectives there.

1."There was no Internet at all; everything you knew about the world came to you through newspapers and television stations owned by large corporations."

Incorrect. There was an Internet...it just wasn't available to the general public. You had to be either an employee of the government, a tech company that had access (like IBM) or a student at a college (such as a university). And by the time you and I had access in the late 80's, the Alt and Soc groups that had sexuality subgroups on Usenet were already well established. And people talked about and sold sex toys. And talked about HIV. As well as many other thing. And there were members of the medical community there as well. The best place to find info about it was here. It just wasn't available to the general public like it is now. And it rarely moved past here, either.

The toy stores weren't really out there much, true, and difficult to find. And cleanliness wasn't the first thought in anyone's mind.

But many people bought and sold through mail-order. Ads were posted (using appropriate terminology to hide what they were really doing) and customers responded to get the mail order catalog. Then they purchased via USPS (cash most of the time) and hoped it wasn't a scam.

Lastly, the main vector of information through the general public, for those who WANTED to know, was underground newspapers, radio, and meetings. And there were a lot...especially back then for the gay community. Because the Reagan Administration literally cared nothing about the HIV epidemic because it was among those sodomites in San Francisco and in the few closets across the country and so they all deserved it anyway. So focusing on it was like that last project you work on when you've got nothing else to do for them.

But the connection between these underground groups and the medical community didn't exist. So there was a LOT of radical theorizing about what caused it and how it spread that was just ridiculous. I mean, who knew if sex toys were a vector?!! All you could do was try to survive.

2. "Playboy, Penthouse and Forum magazine were slowly making their push into the mental territory of America..."

Playboy and Penthouse had been around for years already. Jeez, the Playboy clubs were so popular that senators and millionaires would spend the evening and be serviced by Playboy Bunnies in the late 50's and 60's. And they did talk about these things in their magazines. The problem is that the average middle class family didn't care about those things; they were "trash" and anything in them were trash. And the men who bought them weren't interested in reading the articles. And most of the medical community weren't interested in writing anything in them or for them.
lovingboth From: lovingboth Date: January 16th, 2016 09:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, I think 'everything' is an exaggeration, but absolutely the past is another country. This is a big reason why I ended up with so many old sexuality books.

What's changed in terms of sex toys is quality - partly the use of silicone, partly people who gave a shit about quality - and ease of access.

The changes in porn are even bigger.

(Born in 1962, United Kingdom.)
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