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Good Vibrations on Aisle 9

Having a child under the age of two means changing diapers, and I, my friend, am an expert at changing diapers. I approach it like working the pits in a NASCAR race. It’s not the limelight, but a quick, precision change can get your baby back in the race without getting down a lap, or missing the start of Sesame Street.

—–And as all parents know, the days of diapers mean trips to the store for more diapers. Recently, I went to the local grocery to stock up on some necessities, including more diapers. After retrieving a few other items, I wandered into the “baby stuff” aisle, as I call it.

—–At my local store, the baby stuff aisle is split into two divergent sections. Starting at the south end, the aisle is a gauntlet of diapers, creams, powders, ointments, sanitary wipes, infant formula, baby foods, teething rings, pacifiers, bibs, and all other necessities for those with infants and toddlers. The far north end of the aisle is alternately focused on making babies, or ways to avoid making babies. Here, the condoms, lubricants, spermicidal jellies, and other sexual accoutrement are found.

My mind went back through all the personal embarrassment of having to purchase condoms as a teenager from the downtown Hook’s drug store, under the glaring eye of an old man who looked like Colonel Sanders in a lab coat.

—–On this particular day, I noticed something new when passing this section of the aisle. Vibrators. And I couldn’t have missed them, placed perfectly at adult eye-level by some marketing genius in some faraway city. The one that caught my eye in particular was phallic in shape, as described by the photo on the side of the box. After a closer look, I discovered another, shaped like a strange tripod, a smaller version of those stick and ball “massagers” that were popular stocking stuffers around the turn of the century (yes, the last century, don’t be silly). Both models were purple.

—–Now, I am no prude, and was not very surprised by this discovery, as I am fully aware of the increasingly open attitudes toward such things in America. I gave an audible chuckle, put the vibrator back on the shelf and was on my way home to change more diapers.

—–Then, last week, I learned via cable news that a stir was being caused by sex toys being sold in Target stores. These toys are affiliated with the 50 Shades of Grey film and obviously meant to capitalize on the pop-culture rage surrounding it. And, like the toys sold at my local grocery, they were quite pedestrian in form.

—–The main complaint that some television viewers, bloggers, and tweeters seemed to have with the toys was not their inclusion amongst Target’s selection of products, but their placement, which was highlighted by a now viral internet photo of the sex-related items displayed next to children’s toothbrushes.

—–I really didn’t know what all of the fuss was about, as I assumed that the particular Target in the photo set up its baby stuff aisle similarly to my local grocery: split unevenly between “have a baby” and “making or practicing to make a baby.” It all seemed perfectly logical. But, I also noticed that in particularly American fashion, both the news program and the people they considered experts on such matters had little to suggest in terms of solving a problem that they had deemed appropriate to consider a problem in the first place. Most of the flat suggestions orbited around two main ideas: placing the products behind locked doors where customers would be required to request them from a clerk or pharmacist, or removing the products from the store altogether.

—–I pondered both of these options. In terms of asking for help in acquiring a sex toy from my local pharmacist, I cringed. My mind went back through all the personal embarrassment of having to purchase condoms as a teenager from the downtown Hook’s drug store, under the glaring eye of an old man who looked like Colonel Sanders in a lab coat. He was probably a swell guy, though. But, I’m not sure I or others would risk such embarrassment or inconvenience. And inconvenience is something retailers know all about. Here in Indiana, Kroger and other stores are lobbying against a bill that would require clerks to retrieve hard liquor purchases for customers, citing customer inconvenience as one of the major indicators of profit loss. I tend to agree. I’m not sure I wouldn’t go elsewhere, especially if I had both items to buy. I can see it now, “Excuse me, Sir. Could I get a fifth of Maker’s Mark and one of those purple tripod vibrators? Thanks.”

—–It sounds ridiculous because putting an adult through such public rigor is ridiculous. I can understand if a state had laws concerning age-minimums for purchasing sex-related products, but here in Indiana, no such laws pertain to condom purchase, so I’m not sure if we have a minimum legal vibrator age. Something to Google.

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—–In terms of removing all of the products from shelves, I can see few positives. We can’t just ban something in a store because a small portion of our society finds it offensive or uncomfortable. I’m sure plenty of teetotalers bristle at the pyramids of beer stacked prominently in grocery stores and gas stations across America. But, we keep building more pyramids. And in terms of the potential for children to be exposed to these items, I think it’s safe to say that if your child is age-appropriate you need to explain it to them like an adult. Otherwise, you probably need to rethink your parent playbook. And younger children are generally not going to notice or ask, since these items are generally discreet in packaging and not seducing children with some cartoon character on the front like so many cereal boxes. And, if they do ask, brush it off and move on. Lie if you have to. After all, haven’t we been calling vibrators “massagers” for years, laughing at our public joke on the inside?

—–I’m sure these public suggestions for hiding or removal were quickly dismissed by Target and any other retailers of the 50 Shades of Grey toys or other similar product lines. Their in-store sales would plummet if the products were hidden and would be nil if the products were removed. It’s Capitalism 101. And, if Target or my local grocery place these products on shelves, it’s clear that manufacturers and marketers have seen these items as sure bets for profit.

—–I’m also willing to bet that most people would be more comfortable risking embarrassment at Target or grocery stores, where they could discreetly buy something in a self-checkout line, than they would be going into an adult novelty store. I can assure you, the 50 Shades of Grey toys have nothing on the majority of sexual tackle being sold in the XXX store at your local interstate exit.

—–And perhaps retailers could budge a bit, too. The items could be moved to the pharmacy sections of stores with equal chance for sale and avoid both clerks retrieving the products or removing them altogether. And a bit of subtlety never hurt anyone. You may have noticed in the viral internet photo from Target that the sign above the 50 Shades of Grey toys screams, “Check This Out!” Geez, Target. Save some excitement for the red room these people are building! Will ya?

—–S&M jokes aside, it’s interesting to think about how far we’ve come in terms what we can purchase on mainstream retail floors. And comparing that evolution to how it parallels our ever-shifting social attitudes and norms, it seems we’re probably in for more surprises, for better or for worse. But, for now, I’ve got a diaper to change and five minutes until Sesame Street.


About Patrick Barcus

Patrick Barcus holds an MFA from Butler University and teaches writing at Indiana State University. He’s the front-man for the local band, Saturday Shoes, and also happens to be one hell of a poet.

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