People that work at Zara don’t have to deal with customers asking to fuck them for a discount on a weekly basis,” Octavia Wheeler explained, detailing the difference between her job at Babeland and one at the ubiquitous Spanish clothing outlet—or any other retail gig, for that matter.
Wheeler, 24, not only performs the duties of a sales associate, like restocking shelves, taking inventory, ringing up customers; she doubles as a sex educator at the adult toy store chain. It’s work Babeland employees say they often find rewarding, helping shoppers feel more comfortable about sex, their bodies, and themselves — but it comes with perils of its own.
When Wheeler and her coworkers at the chain’s three New York City locations voted 21-4 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) last month, it made headlines as the first time adult toy store workers have elected to unionize. But for Wheeler and her colleagues, joining a union is not just about receiving respect for the important work they do. It’s also about increased safety at a job where customers routinely make unwanted sexual advances—or worse.
“The emotional and physical labor involved in working at Babeland is something I have never encountered before, and I’ve been working retail jobs since I was 16,” said Wheeler. “Customers are overtly sexual with us in a way that is boundary-crossing. It’s not every customer, but once a day a situation will happen.”
In one instance, she recounted, a man entered the Babeland store on the Lower East Side and began following customers around the shop. When an employee confronted him, he became aggressive and spat in her face. “We weren’t trained on that,” said Wheeler. “We didn’t really know what to do. We just kind of tried peacefully diffusing the situation, and when that wasn’t working, we just waited until he got tired and left.”
Calling the cops wasn’t an option Wheeler considered. “A lot of us are poor, queer, people of color — people that don’t have the best relationship with the police,” she said, adding that as a transgender individual she is routinely harassed by law enforcement.
Claire Cavanah, who has co-owned Babeland since 1993, when the company opened its first shop in Seattle (the only Babeland store outside of New York), acknowledged the unique difficulties her employees face.
“Selling sex toys the way we do — with encouragement and attention to each customer and a positive message about sex — comes with its specific challenges and rewards,” Cavanah told The Indypendent via email. “Employees need more training than they would in most retail businesses, including training on sexual anatomy and sexual response, as well as how to talk to every kind of customer in a sex negative world.”
Babeland workers want the company to reward the special skills the job requires with higher pay — they currently earn $14 an hour, up recently from $12 — and by providing full-time hours. It’s not unusual for Babeland employees to hold additional jobs, and some are on food stamps, according to RWDSU organizer Stephanie Basile. The company declined to disclose its profits, citing “competitor sensitivity,” but the market research firm IBIS World notes that yearly revenue in the adult toy industry exceeds $1 billion with an annual growth rate of .7 percent.
Cavanah said Babeland “had been working with staff to attend to their needs” prior to the union vote and the company is currently “building out a more comprehensive training program,” but, she conceded, “I guess we were all too far apart or change was too slow.”
Now the RWDSU and its members are fighting for a contract that they hope will raise their incomes as well as provide protections against and clear guidelines for addressing demeaning, threatening or abusive situations at the stores. Babeland’s transgender employees also want greater respect and acknowledgement of their identities from management. Babeland worker Massima Desire told The New York Times, for instance, that she “cringes” every time she logs on to the company’s computer system, which displays her legal name.
“The broader context is important here,” said Stephanie Basile. “You have low-wage workers standing up and building a movement for higher wages and, at the same time, trans issues are in the news now. Trans people are one of the most oppressed sectors of the workforce.”
Basile pointed to December report from the NYC Commission on Human Rights on discrimination faced by trans communities. It cites a survey in which 74 percent of transgender respondents reported “experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job.” Twenty percent of respondents said they were fired, 20 percent said they were denied advancement and 37 percent said they were not hired because of their gender identity.
“It’s about time that the labor movement starts focusing on that,” said Basile. “A lot of times trans people are so desperate for a job they’ll put up with anything. Trans people, like everyone else, need a union, and they need a collective voice. It’s not an accident that these different things are converging.”
There are laws on the books, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in particular, that hold employers liable for sexual discrimination and harassment, even when such offenses are committed by customers. A union, however, helps employees raise their concerns and defends against retaliation.
Contract negotiations will begin in the coming weeks. Cavanah said she looks “forward to maintaining a positive, fruitful working relationship” with the union. Octavia Wheeler remains skeptical but optimistic.
“I really hope they begin these contract negotiations in good faith,” said Wheeler. She wants customers to know they can show solidarity by dropping by the shop, contacting the owners and letting them know they back a fair contract, and by taking part in the social media campaign Wheeler and her colleagues have launched using the hashtags #FistsUpForBabeland and #DildosUnited.