Turns Out Customers at Babeland, NY's First Unionized Sex Toy Shop, Can Be Pretty Racist

For Janée White, a sales associate at Babeland, the famed New York City sex paraphernalia store, there are two types of racist customer. The fetishists hypersexualize black bodies (“I want the juicy black one,” a customer browsing the dildo selection once announced) while the supremacists openly demean them: When another patron asked for help picking out a sex toy, she told White — one of the few black workers at Babeland and one of only two at its Lower East Side location — to find her a light-flesh-tone dildo, saying, “I don’t do dark chocolate.”

Last month Babeland employees unionized, voting 21-4 to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. The new RWDSU unit immediately snared headlines: In addition to being arguably the first adult retailer ever to unionize, the workers cited unfair treatment or outright discrimination against transgender workers by both customers and management.

But White, 26, says customers’ rank racism — in addition to rampant workplace transphobia — cannot go overlooked.

“I came in knowing Babeland has no control over the customers that come into our stores, so there’s no way for them to prevent certain people from bringing whatever bigotry they happen to have into this space,” says White, who identifies as queer. “But I was expecting more support in place when these things happened.”

White was one of the early advocates for better training and support among staff in dealing with transphobic customers. Indeed, a human resources representative was put in place a few months ago, and managers have asked patrons to leave the store on occasion. But when it comes to racist shoppers, White does not know when she can and cannot ask them to leave the store.

In one case, a customer winked at White while referencing the phrase “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” and grew irate when she insisted he refrain from using stereotypes about black bodies. The man began yelling at her and alarming other customers until an assistant manager intervened and asked him to leave. But White was surprised to find out after the incident that there was no protocol for handling those who made hurtful racial comments.

“I distinctly remember one person in higher management responding with, ‘Yeah, that’s a really tough situation’ but not giving me any sort of feedback on how I should deal with it,” says White. “That doesn’t make me feel empowered or supported by Babeland, because if I make the decisions to prioritize my emotional safety and ask someone to leave, it might cost me my job.”

Babeland COO Jen May says employee safety is of utmost importance and the staff can now ask anyone behaving inappropriately to leave the store. Trainings are being developed to address concerns and help workers handle difficult situations with customers.

“We’re creating a tiered training system, including role-play-based trainings, that will support staff in helping to navigate challenging conversations,” says May. “We also set up a survey last month and asked staff to participate by letting us know what are the things they’re experiencing frequently with issues of racism on the sales floor, transphobia, misogyny, and other issues that are deeply important to us and our staff.”

Most of the employees interviewed by the New York Times, which first reported the story, echoed White’s concerns regarding job security. RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum says along with job security, contract negotiations would call for unambiguous disciplinary procedures and wage issues. But given the nature of working in adult retail, dealing with difficult customers presents the union with unique challenges requiring unique solutions.

“They’ve talked about having caller ID in the stores due to repeat harassing phone calls. One of the three stores doesn’t,” says Appelbaum. He says this technology will allow the stores to identify and block threatening callers.

For now, White and her colleagues are coping. Almost in spite of the hostile work environment, White and her colleagues see their jobs as a way to spread sex- and body-positivity, and they hope that when contract negotiations begin, management will advocate for and acknowledge the lack of boundaries within their unique workplace.

“Right now,” White says, “there is no line.”

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