F*cked by the Dildo Shop - Zoe Noe

A tale of the toil of work in a cooperative sex shop.

Submitted by Steven. on December 6, 2010

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."
—Franz Kafka

It’s the eve of the annual planning meeting for the staff of Feelin’ Groovy, America’s favorite sex toy company—a worker-owned cooperative! A year ago, I was instrumental in helping plan the event. A year later I’m sitting on a California beach, soaking in the waning hours of sunshine, watching the dogwalkers and the kites fluttering in the brisk breeze. I won’t be attending or helping to plan the annual meeting tomorrow because I no longer work there. How did this happen?

When I wrote part one of this odyssey through the revolving door of the job market (see “Lose Jobs Now, Ask Me How!” in PW #17), I began with the realization that “all jobs are temporary”. That is no less a truism today, although in recent years I have concentrated—even staked my employment hopes in enterprises that at least appeared to offer some semblance of a collective work environment.

I joined a neighborhood recycling center which had recently “collectivized” ( see Goodbye Kitty, below). The collective part was true in terms of staff having considerable latitude over day-to-day working conditions, but it was fundamentally limited in that we did not actually own the business. It was owned by the neighborhood council, and major decisions were made by the Board of that organization. We had all the frustration of the worst aspects of the collective experience—acrimonious, excruciating five-hour staff meetings—with very little of the actual control and none of the rewards of ownership. The worst problem was a fundamental schism between the collective and a faction within—led by the son of the man who founded the recycling center back in the seventies—who wanted to bury the collective experiment. They eventually prevailed of course, with the help of the mostly spineless Board, and our collective was history, and the work experience became more regimented, etc.

I never imagined I would become a Macrobiotic cook—certainly one of my early restaurant managers, in firing me, advised me to try anything else—yet I worked for a number of years at an eccentric Macrobiotic restaurant owned by a gruff curmudgeon with tightwad tendencies, who nonetheless was hands off most of the time and in most ways we pretty much ran the place ourselves in a fairly anarchic fashion, and had lots of creative freedom. But we didn’t own the joint; and however much it was evident that things generally ran much better when the owner wasn’t there to fuck things up, still he would meddle often enough that the place could never really be the place we imagined it could be—and was, at moments—not to mention it was constantly losing money.

A new career

I never imagined I would be selling sex toys for a living either, but in the summer of 1999 I landed a temp job working the reception desk for Feelin’ Groovy Sex Toy Emporium, a company that did its part in the latter 20th century to help make masturbation a household word (along with its accessories). Surprisingly, the company was even a worker-owned co-op!

It was an accidental career choice, like so many I’ve experienced. I was jobless, returning from six months away, during the height of the dot com boom. I asked a friend if he knew anyone who was hiring—he forwarded me an email exchange from a woman friend of his who worked there, on the subject of whether they use temps, and whether they even hired men at a woman-owned company. Both answers were affirmative, and I put in a request to be added to their pool of temps, to be perhaps summoned whenever a plethora of boring data entry work accumulated.

I heard nothing for a couple of months, but then was surprised with a call one day from the office manager, asking if I could fill in mornings at the reception desk.

While training, I found that the company was actually between receptionists and was filling the position with temps while accepting applications for the permanent position. Both I and the other part-time temp decided to apply for the job—and since we were already trained in the basics by the time the interviews came around, they hired us both.

I actually lied during my interview and said “a few years” when asked how long I planned to work there. It wouldn’t look good to tell them that I was probably heading back to Florida after a few months, so I didn’t mention it. But then, once I was hired, with the possibility of benefits starting after three months, the new job started to seem pretty good to me, and I quietly decided not to return to Florida. It was a fun place to work, pretty easy, and I got to interact with all sorts of interesting people on a regular basis—not only our eclectic staff, but many sex industry luminaries who would cross my desk on any given day. Also, I was on track to become a co-owner of the company, which basically involved a series of co-op orientation classes, maintaining a satisfactory meeting attendance record and having a token ownership payment deducted from one’s paycheck over the course of a year.

I took being a co-op member quite seriously. Finally, here was a chance to achieve true worker’s self-determination, in a business that really was worker-owned! I got involved with various committees, helped mentor new hires into the co-op process, and even ran for the Board of Directors.

About the cooperative

Feelin’ Groovy didn’t start out as a cooperative, but began as a sole woman proprietorship in the late seventies, an outgrowth of the feminist consciousness raising of that era. Much legend has attached itself to the story, but fact is she tapped into a substantial need for quality sex merchandising and education in a setting that wasn’t demeaning. By the early nineties she had a staff, and a mail order catalog as well, and sales continued to multiply. She sold the business to the staff, who formed a cooperative of 13 people or so—all women. The first man was hired in the mid-nineties. By the time I was hired, staff size had mushroomed upwards of 75 people.

The cooperative dynamic was different from businesses which had been formed as cooperatives or collectives. So-called sex-positivity was the common variable, and there was always a creative tension between those for whom being a co-op simply meant that the profits were shared and others who came into it with a lot of idealism about what it meant to be a co-op; that it implied a more horizontal authority structure. (That tension continues to exist today.)

Such exponential growth brought challenges to the cooperative model that simply did not exist at other co-ops which were much smaller, or whose size had remained somewhat constant over the years. Fact was that, for all of its cooperative idealism, it always retained a fairly hierarchical authority structure, which only became more pronounced as the company increased in size, especially as we began to hire more from outside the company for certain specially-skilled positions high on the hierarchy food chain. The company would often give lip service to, but then usually gloss over, options of job sharing and skill mentoring.

Managers regularly complained about having decisions micromanaged, often by people who worked in other departments. In the late nineties the membership approved a far-reaching proposal that would give managers much more latitude to make decisions unchallenged. Formally separate realms were established within the company: “Operations” which meant the realm of managers to conduct day to day decisions about the functioning of the business, and “Governance” which meant the “co-op” and the issues that the workers were allowed to have a voice in. Issues pertaining to the “co-op” became relegated to a status kind of like being involved in after-school extracurricular activities; sort of noble, and you were often given kudos for doing so, but increasingly they tended to occur a pretty safe distance from the actual governance of the company.

I think many of the workers at the time voted for those proposals without really grasping the far-reaching implications of what they were approving, or how much they were giving up. For it led to a general state of affairs in which the management team made all the really important decisions, with the “governance” side of the company often acting as a rubber stamp to management decisions at tightly scripted general membership meetings where there wasn’t much room for controversy, and at which the really important decisions were usually not in play. Calling Feelin’ Groovy a “cooperative” was similar to calling the United States a “democracy”: it was mainly window dressing to add a kind of legitimacy to management decisions, by being approved by the group at large. This trend within the co-op was further accelerated after the crisis to the business following 9/11, when our managers were trusted to steer the ship, and many of the interesting things that made the co-op a co-op were jettisoned for not being cost-effective. Just like in the real world.

The day that changed dildo sales forever

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 shattered the illusion that ours was a recession-proof business. We were always amazed by the phenomenal success of the business; every year we would show 15-25% growth almost despite ourselves. Our revenue took a serious hit in the aftermath of the attacks—our retail stores took a big tumble as many people cancelled their vacation plans, and we suddenly discovered just how dependent on tourist traffic we really were. Our mail order division also took a big hit with the anthrax scare. All of a sudden we faced layoffs for the first time in the history of the company. I was amazed that the reception job survived this period, as mine was not one of the jobs eliminated. Many recently hired retail staff were laid off however, and I found myself in the strange situation of training to fill in shifts at the stores.

Along with the reality of layoffs, the culture of our cooperative received a serious blow, as many of the committees and classes and meetings were deemed peripheral to the survival of the business. A great deal of power was consolidated in the hands of management at this time: most people in the company were scared; just wanting to keep our jobs. Indeed, we were in many ways a microcosm of the national mood at that time; that our survival was in jeopardy, and people were willing to trust that our leaders knew best.

Later—once the business stabilized somewhat away from the brink of dire emergency, and the more normal mistrust (between management and front line staff) had room to reassert itself—there arose a pretty substantial backlash to the concentration of authority in the company, but mostly it played itself out in the form of impotent grumbling, an occasional flame at a general membership meeting, but never resulted in any serious challenge to the corporate order. Occasionally, certain disgruntled floor staff were able to ride the backlash to elected seats on the board, but usually within six months on the board those same individuals could be found conforming to the management line about the sacrifices required in order for profitability to happen.

MAO: If we raise the salary differential to 75:1, we'll drive our competitors out of business!

A hostile takeover

Anyway, propelled by my enthusiasm for the co-op, I applied for, and was hired as the Secretary to the Board of Directors, which meant taking minutes at Board meetings, as well as being the one to oversee whether everyone was keeping up with their ownership duties.

The co-op part of the business took pride in the fact that we adhered to a reasonable pay ratio between highest and lowest paid employees. At the time I was hired, the differential was 3 to 1; sometime during the past few years the co-op voted to change it to 4:1. (According to Equal Exchange’s web site, based on Business Week’s 2000 annual survey of American corporations the ratio between typical CEO pay and that of average workers is 475 to 1!) Management was often maneuvering to increase the ratio, claiming that it was difficult to attract qualified management personnel for the wages we were able to offer. During this time, the Board and management were working hard on overhauling the company’s compensation policy.

After months and numerous drafts, a completed compensation policy was sent to the Board for approval. The Board passed it, but many staff were unhappy about it; particularly with the provisions which would greatly reduce annual seniority wage increases, and also with the timing: the completed policy was presented to the membership and then Board was scheduled to vote on it the following day!

A group of retail staff, in an effort to keep the new policy from being railroaded through, organized a special meeting of the cooperative in order to veto the Board decision. It was unsuccessful, as most members voted to uphold the new policy. But in the week leading up to the special meeting there was much confusion regarding exactly how many votes were needed to veto a Board decision, since it had never been attempted before. The Bylaws were vague on this topic, and many members—including several Board members—were consulting me in my role as Secretary for a definitive answer.

I used simple logic in figuring out the threshold for a veto, but it turns out my logic was not simple enough. My answer was at odds with the president of the board, who said it was one greater than the number I came up with, which was certainly open to interpretation, and hardly mattered anyway as it was not expected to be a close vote at all. But after the phone call where the board president called me to reassert her interpretation, I knew I was fucked.

Several days later, as I was seated at the reception desk, someone came up to me with a stack of papers she’d found in the restroom, and asked if I could figure out who they might belong to. It was a stack of printed-out emails, left behind by a board member, and I recognized the same blizzard of emails I’d been involved in previously. But there was one added that I had not seen before, from the board president to the other board members, stressing that they needed to get rid of me as Secretary (as I had already been duly warned never to disagree publicly with board members in my role as Secretary), and that there would be a closed door discussion about it at the next board meeting. I was clearly not meant to see that email, but I decided to beat them to the punch, and wrote my resignation letter, and presented it to them at the beginning of the next board meeting, and gave four weeks notice.

My satisfaction was short-lived however. In a seemingly unrelated turn of events, I was summoned the next day to the General Manager’s office, where I was told that my reception job was being eliminated at the end of the month. I was offered part-time hours at one of the retail stores, and after some consideration I decided to take it, even though I really didn’t think I would do very well at retail.

Sheesh, the things I have to do to
just to keep my job!

Yes ma’am, humiliate me some more!

I was often amazed at how I managed to get on the other side of the counter of a place that I wouldn’t otherwise frequent—while meeting so many earnestly kinky young sex radicals who would do anything to have my job. Still, my first few months at the store were surprisingly fun as I was trained in the ins and outs of dildos, vibrators, erotic videos and books, condoms and lubes, light bondage gear, customer service, register skills, ridiculous novelty items, how to deal with unsavory customers (known as “wankers”), and the potential benefits and hazards of various materials (such as silicone, and the ubiquitous jelly rubber). My coworkers were lively, and I appreciated the change of pace; working as a team, compared with the office which was so compartmentalized. And for the most part I enjoyed having direct contact with the buying public (in my dual role as sales associate and occasional sex counselor). I enjoyed doing the actual front line work fulfilling the company’s sex-positive mission, and proved more adept at it than I would have thought possible.

Or so I thought. My illusion of comradely co-existence was rudely shattered nearly four months later, when I finally had my overdue mid-training performance evaluation with my supervisor and found that we had a serious mismatch of expectations. She had pages worth of minor infractions, which became major due to the sheer volume of them (many which I could have worked on much sooner if they had not been kept secret from me for so long). Heinous misdeeds such as asking too many questions (as training retail staff we were encouraged to ask questions, but apparently it was not okay; in my case it often came down to asking the wrong question to the wrong person at the wrong time.), talking to people sometimes while they were on their break (horrors!), picking the wrong time apparently to explain something to a customer (or failing occasionally to take advantage of an opportunity to cross-sell a certain product). (Oh yeah, and lateness. Though once I found out I was officially in the doghouse, I was not late again!)

I was put on probation, with a month to basically clean up my act, and request any additional training I might think I’d need. I pretty much gave up on asking questions altogether, for fear I might step on some toes. It became increasingly obvious that many of my coworkers were spying on me—and that many of them would run to my supervisor to complain instead of just bringing it up to me. Which provided some real gems at my probationary check-in a month later. I thought I’d been really making some improvements, but my supervisor came in with pages more of infractions against me. Such as putting deposit slips in plastic ziplock bags even when there were no coins in the deposit. Or (gasp!) taking a little too long to gift wrap a purchase. Or being unduly generous in offering to fill in for people at the other stores who were calling me almost daily begging me to cover shifts for them.

By this point I was begging my managers and HR to let me give up my cherished status as an “owner” of this great establishment, let me just be an on-call flex person at the other retail stores. That way everyone will be happy; people will be thrilled to get their shifts covered, and you guys will be spared having to answer the wrong questions at the wrong moments. But because I was on probation, I wasn’t allowed any flexibility over where I could work at all. Isn’t being part of a cooperative wonderful?

I was given an ultimatum of no more than two infractions in the coming month, which I unfortunately wasn’t able to overcome, especially now that coworkers at the other stores I filled in at were also spying on me; reporting such grievous offenses as taking a long time to complete a downtime task, or being in the wrong section of the store at a certain given moment. My supervisor deftly ambushed me one afternoon, cheerfully suggesting we could step outside for a little check-in, and casually shooting the shit with me on the way out there, where the store and HR managers were waiting for me with my last check in hand.

At Feelin’ Groovy, we often prided ourselves on navigating uncharted territory—being a sex toy company the size we were while remaining worker owned and operated—but I wonder if the sheer size of the group is fundamentally incompatible with the co-op experiment. Other pressures have to do with the fact that, despite the universal need for non-judgmental sex information and quality sex accessories, our revenue was essentially reliant on selling luxury items—there’s only so many Rabbit Pearls or Hitachi Magic Wands the average person could need. (It’s not like co-op natural foods store with a regular customer base that can be counted on to come in and buy their organic rice and veggies every week.)

It’s remarkable to me how an organization with an oft-expressed commitment to “diversity” can result in such a cookie-cutter approach to sales staff. And how such creative free speech enthusiasts can end up creating a work atmosphere where people are afraid to speak their mind about the subject of work—and where it gets more likely to be fired for the crime of just wanting to be a human being while at work.

I feel for many of those who are still there, who tell me how morale is at an all-time low, with everyone—even veterans of over ten years—fearful that they will be the next ones to get the axe. I may have exchanged some relative certainty for an additional degree of precariousness, but I don’t miss the impending betrayal and humiliation. Nor do I miss being expected to sell an increasing array of cheesy gag gifts aimed at suburban bachelorettes with loose wallets in order to meet the bottom line. How sad that “sex-positive” would come to this!

“Goodbye Kitty”

I knew it was an exciting fashion moment when I looked at the full-page Macy’s ad in the paper, which featured full-body catsuits in luxuriant velour. Not my usual style, but I was especially enticed by the black & white leopard print variety. “I have to have that!,” I remarked to my co-workers at the restaurant.

They didn’t have my size at Macy’s (I’m a big guy; tall and slender), but I shopped around, and found one at a boutique on Haight Street that fit me pretty well. I wore it at all three of my part-time jobs. Customers at the Macrobiotic restaurant were amused, slightly titillated, but took it in stride, quite used to the eccentric staff. People barely raised an eyebrow when I wore it at the gay newspaper where I worked as a production assistant. I had no reason to imagine they wouldn’t be similarly blasé at the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood recycling center where my commitment was dwindling anyway.

I had worked at the recycling center for five years, much of it enjoyable (see my tale of toil, “There Goes the Neighborhood”, in Processed World issue #26/27), but it was a grimy job, our failed attempt at collectivization had taken its toll on me, and I had recently moved across the Bay to Oakland, and was holding on to just one shift a week while I contemplated giving notice.

My remaining shift wasn’t even at the yard, but helping staff a pilot program for recycling office paper at some of the large office buildings downtown. Since I was commuting from Oakland, I would just meet my co-workers at the loading dock of a certain building. They would drop off a truckload of empty barrels along with a handtruck, and my job was to visit all the offices we had contracted with, and exchange all our empty barrels for full ones, and bring them down to the loading dock.

I actually tried to give three-weeks notice, but it was denied by the assistant manager (who was in charge while our regular manager was out on paternity leave). For some petty, ridiculous reason that I never understood, he didn’t trust me to train anyone else to take over my duties: I had to wait until the head of the office pickup program returned from a lengthy vacation before I could resign. This didn’t sit well with me, and I wasn’t sure yet how I would respond. Certainly, it was a discouraging reminder of how far workplace dynamics had fallen in the couple of years since we ceased formally being a collective.

One particular September morning (coincidentally the same day that would have been my last had I been allowed to give notice), I met my truck crew and received the barrels, then decided to change into the catsuit in the bathroom on the 41st floor before working my way down to the ground floor. As I made my way from floor to floor, I received quite an assortment of responses. Secretaries and receptionists loved it; it brightened their day, and was a welcome relief from the usual business drag. Senior stockbroker types also got a kick out of it, regarding me with slightly condescending smiles that nonetheless suggested that they too welcomed a sight that was a little out of the ordinary. It was the middle management types—who were still concerned with climbing the corporate ladder—who couldn’t handle it.

On the 29th floor, middle-aged woman, her face as severe and ashen grey as her power suit, confronted me, shaken, and told me that my attire was completely unacceptable, and that I must leave the building at once. I sidestepped her and boarded the freight elevator amused with how uptight some people are. When I got to the loading dock though, a security guard was waiting for me, and refused to let me even unload the full barrels of paper from the freight elevator, insisting only that I leave the building at once. I said “fine, you get to unload the freight elevator then!”

Once outside of the building, I found a suitable location and changed back into street clothes, and took a lunch break. Then I slipped back into the building and quickly, quietly did the remaining floors (so that my co-workers wouldn’t be stuck having to do it). I gathered all of the full barrels on the now unattended loading dock, and went home.

The next morning though, I received a phone call at home from the assistant manager, who was very angry and upset, saying that the phone had been ringing off the hook during my stunt, with calls from various offices that I had visited, complaining that my attire was inappropriate and left very little to the imagination. (He said one of the callers said they could “see everything”.) In short, I was being fired. When pressed for comment from me, I just laughed and said, “Sayonara, I’m through!”

Several years later, I was in the Haight, and happened to pay a visit to the recycling center. A couple of my former co-workers were still there, and one of them introduced me to a young woman who had recently begun working there. When I told her my name, her eyes widened and she exclaimed, “Oh my God, are you the one who got fired for wearing the cat suit?!!”