Working at sex shops in Singapore: Dealing with erotic needs and strange questions

Inside an adult toy shop in Singapore. (Photo: Wan Ting Koh/ Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

While sex toys might still be a topic many in Singapore tend to keep mum about, it’s a natural discussion for those who work at adult toy shops where handling dildos and vibrators on a daily basis is simply part of their nine-to-five jobs.

For the few employees Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore spoke to at least, a majority maintain that it’s really just a normal sales job – with the exception of secrets they get to hear that not even the customer’s closest friends are privy to, said one manager.

Then there is also the need to strive for a careful balance between being a confidante and a stranger, said an adult shop assistant.

“You have to dive into the mindset of customers, their drives and fetishes, what they have in mind. They have a wide range of fetishes, some like to be flogged, some guys like to swap roles with partners,” said Francis, the 36-year-old founder of Alice Maple, a higher-end adult shop in Midpoint Orchard located in the heart of Orchard Road.

His cosy premises on the ground floor of the mall span a mere 90 square feet and you can take in the entire store at a glance. It’s so intimate that this reporter felt obliged to step out to give visiting customers their privacy.

In contrast, U4Ria – another adult shop located just one floor above – has nearly twice the walking space, and is cluttered with objects U- and phallic-shaped arranged in a winding layout. To get to the counter, one has to walk past a wall lined with products shaped after the intimate parts of popular Japanese porn stars.

The manager of the shop, Lincoln, is an industry veteran with 17 years of experience under his belt. He has been in the job so long that he has seen couples through their initial courtship to marriage and even after they’ve had children.

Lincoln, 50, likens his job to a doctor’s: Customers tell him their bedroom problems and he tries to “prescribe” them a solution. “It’s a bit like when you go to see the doctor and you tell the doctor your signs and symptoms of your influenza and the doctor says, ‘hey this is what you need’”, he said.

He does this with customers who are “zai nan” – men who are socially awkward with the opposite gender – who form a large part of U4Ria’s client base.

“We always try to educate some of these [men], you have to go out and socialise, these (sex toys) are just there to help you get used to the butterflies in your tummies before you serenade a girl. We try to tell them maybe this can give you training but ultimately you have to go out and socialise,” the soft-spoken man said.

And then there are couples who approach the shops when trying for a baby. “Some couples come to us and really need help,” said Francis. One of his particularly memorable experiences was of a middle-aged couple who strove very hard for children.

“They had been trying to the point that they were both giving up… their body clock was running out. They were trying very hard and spent a bomb on artificial inseminations,” said Francis.

He didn’t see the couple for a year, and when they next returned to Alice Maple, it was to thank Francis as they finally managed to conceive. “They were just having fun and nature had its way,” said Francis.

The storefront of adult shop U4Ria. (Photo: Wan Ting Koh/ Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

Taboo within a taboo industry

A major part of an adult shop assistant’s job is to keep secrets. As Lincoln put it, “When people trust us, we have to keep it really zipped.” He gave the example of celebrity clients who sought to keep a low profile while doing their shopping in the adult shop.

“We are always quiet about it; we tell our staff not to share. Even if we know them, we don’t identify them, some of them request to come in before we officially open the store… And if they make appointments, we don’t even tell our colleagues because word gets around,” he said.

Customers entrust him with problems that go even beyond sex. “Here, people tell you the intimate things in life… A guy wants to find out if he did anything wrong because he discovered that his wife had a female partner. He comes here as he wants to see how to turn his wife back to him,” explains Lincoln. “They have no one to turn to, not even their closest friend.”

The irony is that once they step outside of the shop, these shop assistants transform from confidantes into “strangers” who pretend not to recognise clients they happen to meet on the streets.

“Sometimes I bump into [my clients], and we walk past one another,” said Lincoln. He doesn’t greet his clients or even acknowledge them as it might lead to awkward questions if he or she is with another person.

For Francis, he said he “learned the hard way” not to greet repeat customers with “Nice to see you again” because they “might be bringing their other partner”.

“There was a couple in an open relationship who entered the shop and I realised how it could have gone wrong,” he said. If he met customers on the streets, he would smile but not greet them, said Francis.

Even when detailing a customer’s order, he would only ask for the time and place for delivery, and not the receiver’s name. He doesn’t keep records, keeps his phone locked, and frequently wipes his database clean. “The most important thing is that I tell no tales,” he said.

The storefront of an adult toy shop located at Lucky Plaza. (Photo: Wan Ting Koh/ Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

“How do I masturbate?”

Sometimes, customers ask stupid questions in jest, such as how to use a condom or how to masturbate, said Timothy, 34, the general manager of House of Condom, the adult toy shop that has operated in Lucky Plaza for close to twenty years.

Grace Lee, a 28-year-old who works at Asia Exotic Novelties, a subsidiary of House of Condoms located along Orchard Road, shares the same peeve but said she would just tell customers to use their hands.

Other times, customers think the staff are fair game just because of the nature of the industry. Grace gets solicitations from “weird customers” who ask for her number and ask her out. “Now I’m used to it,” she said, adding that she rejects these requests.

Francis said that he hates it when customers casually pop into the store and ask for date rape drugs or sex enhancers.

“We don’t do that kind of stuff. But being in the industry, it is common for people to ask for these products. It kind of irks us as we are on the other end of the spectrum and we are trying not to be dodgy,” said Francis.

Another customer had returned to the store to ask him why there was a hole in the crotchless underwear he had purchased. Lincoln said that he gets unusual requests from customers to organise themed parties, such as dungeon getups. But the store doesn’t do these things, he said.

The workers also get their fair share of pranks. Francis had a prank call where the caller requested a 50-inch toy, while Lincoln recalled when someone threw a used condom into their Geylang branch – on two separate occasions.

“He just came into the shop, threw the condom, then he ran out again,” he said.

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