WARNING CONTAINS EXPLICIT LANGUAGE: Greg Bruce discovers there is both pleasure and discomfit to be found in a sex emporium.
If you disregard the preliminary scoping visit I'd made a few days prior and the visits I'd made a few years earlier to Peaches and Cream, Peaches and Cream Extreme, D.Vice, The Basement and Nauti NZ and the visits I'd made in my 20s to several tourist-friendly emporia overseas, I had never been in a sex shop before.
I asked my guide, Rayan Fu, if it was okay for me to take photos.
"It's fine," she said.
"Not for publication," I said, "Just for my own sort of use."
She didn't reply.
I meant for reporting purposes.
The shop divides roughly into three areas. The novelty/game/party supplies section, the sexy undies section and the section with the stuff for getting off. We'll be focusing on the stuff for getting off.
The plastic packaging on the "LAURA DOONE PENTHOUSE PET 1974 HAIRY VIBRATING CYBERSKIN ***** FEATURING 70S STYLE **** ****, part of the Penthouse Pet Collection, comes with a small square window, roughly finger-sized, through which you can feel the popular and reasonably ubiquitous Cyberskin material. I touched it. It was very soft and responsive. When I withdrew my finger, I noticed the area I'd touched was discoloured.
"We have so many customers come in and play with these," Fu said.
I made a mental note to amputate my finger.
The Cyberskin ***** was part of a wall of products that fits into a broader category of disembodied sex - and sex-related - organs, including boobs, butts and midriff-attached dongs. Of the dongs, Fu said, "Not many girls are going to buy those."
I asked why but really I already knew the reason, because it filled the bulk of the shop: the toys. Dongs had been rendered obsolete by toys. Everywhere the toys! So dense the supply of toys! We walked down the aisles, surrounded by brightly coloured toys - toys made mostly of silicone, in a blizzard of shapes, many of which I could not decipher spatially, in terms of how they might be applied to, or inserted into, the human body: Curves and right angles, ridges, asymmetries, U-shapes, C-shapes, S-shapes, paddles, saddles and flattened stalks. One looked like a frightened penguin, another like the eye and beak of a large seabird.
I did a rough calculation and concluded that so numerous were the toys, if every masturbator in Auckland arrived at the store simultaneously, none would need to go home empty-handed.
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Such a diversity, too, in the functions of the toys, an increasing quantity of which, Fu told me - particularly in the category called "wearables" - are smartphone-controlled. Wear them out to dinner, work or the movies and tap the screen every time you want them to vibrate. Play yourself like an instrument, or have someone else do it, from thousands of miles away, if that's your thing.
Whatever your thing is, it's probably available at Gigi's. Even things that are patently no one's thing are available at Gigi's:
"Surely no one's buying that," I said to Fu, pointing at King Cock's 15" (38cm) extra-wide dildo, lying atop a Strict Bondage Board like a toppled roadside bollard. "People do buy it," Fu said. "I don't know what they do with it."
We arrived at the cock ring aisle: "Here are all the cock rings," she said. "All sorts of cock rings."
The purpose of a cock ring, she told me, is to slow blood flow to the penis and enable the man to engage in sex for longer before reaching orgasm.
"This you can wear," she said, pointing at a basic-looking model, "And it does actually have a ball stretcher at the bottom there as well. And then for this kind of shape," - she picked up a package containing two pink silicone rings attached to the underside of what looked like the head, ears and horns of a small giraffe. "This can stimulate the clitoris. So it's more like a couple thing now."
I tried and failed to imagine the product in use. It seemed at best uncomfortable and at worst painful. I had to assume this was a failure of imagination on my part, although obviously imagination will only get you so far.
The We-Vibe Sync Couples Vibrator ($349.99) looks like a dolphin that's bent itself in half and is dancing, upright, on the bent part. By Fu's estimate it is one of the store's three top-selling items.
She held it up to demonstrate its workings: "Part of it's going to insert in the body," she said, "then part of it's going to stimulate the clitoris, so you don't need a cock ring to stick it on the bottom of the penis, and it can vibrate on both sides."
I looked at it, then looked at it from alternative angles, then tried to mentally reassemble the images in three dimensions within the bodies of a sexually-congressing couple but I couldn't find a way in which to make that seem feasible.
"So how does it attach to the man?" I asked.
"It doesn't attach to the man," she said.
"Oh! Sorry!" I said, presumably flushing humiliatingly. "So he's just … against it?"
"Yeah, she said, "So the thing is it's just actually inside the woman's body and, they have two motors, so the motor can actually vibrate for ...
"Right!" I said, interrupting out of fear and shame. "Okay. I see!"
I didn't see then, as I don't see now. I have a photo of the product on my phone and have just spent a long time staring at it. The packaging features a schematic of a couple engaged in physical union, the location of the We-vibe interposed in the region of their sexual expediency. No matter how hard I look, though, I can't figure out exactly where it is, how it's connected to penis, vagina and related items, how it's delivering pleasure and how no one's getting injured.
On entering the shop for the first time a few days earlier, mid-afternoon on a Friday, I had made eye contact with a man in a flat cap, who looked up from whatever he was doing like he was about to speak to me. I thought about speaking first, as a sort of pre-emptive strike, then I noticed something off in his expression - surprise? Shock? Pervertry? - which put me off. Then I realised he was holding a pornographic DVD and I realised: it was shame.
I understood, because I also felt shame. Here I was in this place full of sinful images and sordid slogans and things you don't want your parents seeing you with. Sure, I was there for research, but wasn't everyone? Who among us wants to admit to entering a sex shop purely because we've got the horn?
Three other customers were browsing the shop - two women and a man - but they left after only a few minutes and the man in the flat cap stayed on and on, exclusively, as far as I could tell, in the DVD section, which was an incredible feat because it was smaller by far than the arts/festival section at Video Ezy Panmure in the mid-90s. Eventually, he bought something, left, then almost immediately returned to ask staff if he could buy any of the posters of semi-naked women on the wall. They said no.
A few days later, at the counter, I asked Fu about the need for DVDs in a world awash in free online porn. "The same question," she said. "I've been having this question for years."
People still buy them, she said. Some things can't be found on Pornhub, she claimed.
As evidence, she produced the three-disc collector's edition of 2005 landmark film Pirates ($159.99). She placed the thick DVD package on the counter and unfolded it to reveal its contents.
"You can actually play," she said - her voice dropping to an incredulous whisper - "A whole day." Apart from the feature film, she said the package includes a bundle of extras, including behind the scenes footage. "If you were going to play all three DVDs, it's going to be a whole day - 10 hours."
I tried to imagine a 10-hour porn marathon: exhausting, futile, nihilistic, boring but thinking about it now I wonder if it's not perfectly aligned with the spiritual self-improvement mores of our time; the ultimate antidote to the ubiquitous and utilitarian 12-minute Pornhub clip and the collapsing attention spans of which they are a symptom; our inability to engage with anything for long enough to have anything but the most masturbatory response; life as a relentless series of orgasms.
Subsequent research shows that Pirates is available for loan at the library of leading United States University, Duke (still available as of press time). The movie's topics, according to the library's online catalogue, are: "Good and evil", "Kidnapping victims" and "Pirates".
On the way through the male masturbator department, I noticed we were passing the Fleshlight Stamina Training Unit: Butt ("Every man knows the best way to improve on any skill is to practise, and practise often ...") and, although I know from friends that Fleshlight is one of the leading brands in the male masturbator space, Fu barely slowed. What she really wanted was to show me the premium Tenga products, made in Japan.
Most masturbators, e.g. Jasmine's Hot Mouth, are made to resemble body parts ("I think guys just like blowjobs," Fu said), but Tenga's high-end Flip Hole and Flip Zero products look more like Bluetooth speakers or high-end male deodorant. What matters to Tenga, apparently, is not what's on the surface but what's underneath.
"The texture is, like, really different, a very complicated texture," Fu said, opening the Flip Zero to show me its innards. "So once you put it inside, it's all over."
THE ESCALATING PRICE OF SEXUAL FULFILMENT (A litany)
Foreplay Dice (x2, glow in the dark - in Spanish), $29.99;
Pjur Superhero concentrated delay serum, $69.99;
The Horny Pony ******** **** **** with horsetail, $99.99;
Man Cage 3.5" (9cm) polycarbonate cock cage (clear), $259.99;
Shots E-Stimulation Vibrating **** **** (Black), $299.99;
Cock Cam, $499.99;
Autoblow 2+ Extra Tight Edition, $599.99;
Cowgirl Premium Sex Machine, $3,999;
Ultimate Fantasy Doll with Fanta Flesh ("Detailed eyes, supple lips, perfect breasts," etc), $5999.99.
Fu led me to the Satisfyer Pro 2 ($199.99), arguably the store's hottest product, the one that's shifting serious units, making waves, catching fire, going viral, having an extended sales orgasm.
It looked unimpressively functional, like an electric shaver, blackhead remover, infrared thermometer or epilator. When applied to the body, it provides suction from a clitoris-sized hole. Streams of people have been coming into the store asking for it by name.
"I don't know what's going on," Fu said.
Because I've since googled it, I can tell her what's going on. Mid-last year, The Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes, who says the Satisfyer Pro 2 changed her life forever, wrote a short laudatory review on her website, after which the product quickly began selling out and disappointed women started emailing her asking where they could get it. She then wrote an article about the madness, after which, presumably, the whole cycle began anew.
Then, at the end of last year, online retailer Adult Toy Megastore released its annual list of New Zealand's 10 most popular sex toys, which was picked up by national news websites and on which the Satisfyer Pro 2 was number one.
"The Satisfyer has been taking the world by storm," Newshub reported, "with anecdotes of orgasms so powerful women are almost worried for their safety."
The internet is awash with glowing Satisfyer reviews. No hyperbole, it seems, is too hyperbolistic: Multiple orgasms, instant orgasms, physically dangerous orgasms; everywhere you look, orgasms.
The internet is a comprehensive place, sexually speaking. Unless you're looking for a partner - and often even then - there's really no need to venture out of the house.
But what the internet delivers are products, not experiences. There's something so visceral about being in a real place full of intriguing, baffling, sometimes-impractical, sometimes-frightening products, picking them up, trying to comprehend them, touching their filthy surfaces, browsing them alongside other shoppers also there for research, everyone filled with shame, pretending to watch the Bathmate Hydromax penis pump demo video until the others have moved on, then going back to the cock rings.
Sexual fulfilment isn't just an end product but a process; not just a destination but a journey; experienced best not as a sudden, violent orgasm in the shower of Google search results but a long and winding walk of discovery down multiple aisles of desire, potentially with an extended stop at the Dr Joel Kaplan Essential Pump Kit, featuring erection pump, curved prostate probe and ring enhancer set.
Just to be clear, I didn't buy anything.