“Well… that’s just going to fall straight out of me.” I closed the box of assorted butt plugs with a sympathetic nod, but he wasn’t finished yet. “It’s just, when you’ve had fists and God knows what else up there…”
Fresh out of uni in the summer of 2011, I took my CV to my local Ann Summers store, because I figured it’d at least provide me with some stories to regale my friends down the pub with and, well, I’d always been comfortable talking about sex. I was certainly right about the first part but, oh my, did Butt Plug Man put the latter to the test.
These days, I’m a film and TV journalist, and it was watching Brief Encounters – the new ITV comedy drama about a group of women who become friends during the early days of the Ann Summers parties – that brought it all back; how much I loved the job and the people I worked with. It built my confidence, smashed my preconceptions and, above all else, was endlessly rewarding.
But before I get into that, let’s address the FAQs I’ve become used to answering.
“Did you deal with more women than men?” Pretty much, and that gap only widened when Fifty Shades Of Grey, ahem, arrived. The only notable exceptions were Valentine’s and Christmas, when men sheepishly flocked in, hoping that a cupped hand was an adequate alternative to an actual bra size.
“Did you get some proper creeps?” Almost never. But I’d have swapped the occasional sexual deviant for the daily occurrence of dickheads in a heartbeat. “Yes, it’s a dildo. Now stop lobbing it about and get out of my shop.”
If you don’t like surprises, you need not apply
“Were customers always shopping for 'someone else’?” That one was 50/50, but I learned very quickly not to make assumptions. When one woman asked about the size of fishnet tights, I told her it depends on height. She promptly let slip, “My husband is…”
If you don’t like surprises, you need not apply. Over the course of 18 months, I relished having to forget everything I thought I knew about sexuality. But as much as I learned from every new customer, it’s my little Ann Summers family who taught me the most – and not just about vibrators, licks and lube.
My manager was a warm, wink emoji of a woman. Think Queen Latifah in Chicago and you’re not far off. Then there was the assistant manager, who reluctantly accepted the title “Anal Queen”. It wasn’t because you could shorten her job title to “Ass Man” (though we did). She loved educating others about things she was passionate about. And she was really passionate about bum sex. Then there was Chipmunk, the tiny but mighty supervisor with a laugh Barbara Windsor would be jealous of. Get on the wrong side of her and you’d know about it – but she’d move mountains for those she cared about.
Well, what were you expecting? Probably what the group of lads we met on a night out did. When they got wind of our jobs it didn’t take long before… “So you’re all filthy, then?” The Anal Queen was having none of it. “Actually, we’re all in long-term relationships, because we know how to keep our men and ourselves happy.” Mic drop.
You don’t have to be a card-carrying “sexpert" to work at Ann Summers (we had badges) but if you’re easily embarrassed, forget it. On my first day, Chipmunk told me, “It becomes no different to selling jeans.” And it’s true. Before I knew it, there I was, a Rampant Rabbit in each hand, explaining the merits of silicone to a small group of coffee morning mums (it’s smooth, soft and speedily warms to your body temperature, since you asked.) But the biggest lessons were yet to come.
I felt privileged to have their trust, curiosity and honesty; to be able to show them that a happy, healthy sex life was theirs for the taking
I quickly discovered that this was a job about helping people; really helping people. Well, not like that, although one young man did once ask how much we “cost”. EL James may get a lot of well-deserved stick but, on this occasion, I’d like to thank her. From my Ann Summers bubble, the Fifty Shades effect was nothing but positive. And I’m not just talking about the 200% increase in jiggle ball sales (now people finally understand what they are for – sort of.)
It was like a light had been turned on and women everywhere said, “Let’s leave it on.” Open discussions about sex were happening outside of the shop as people realised that wanting to be spanked or tied up didn’t make them bad feminists. There were couples who hadn’t had sex for years; terribly posh, timid ladies who’d never talked about “this sort of thing.” I felt privileged to have their trust, curiosity and honesty; to be able to show them that a happy, healthy sex life was theirs for the taking.
I was most humbled by those with actual medical questions; from new mothers to pre-op transsexuals, women going through the menopause and the severely disabled. I can say categorically that working in Ann Summers changed how I see the world. Because let me tell you, until a woman in a wheelchair shakes you by the hand for helping her achieve her first ever orgasm, you haven’t known true job satisfaction.
Brief Encounters starts Monday 4th July, 9pm, ITV.