Good Vibrations, established in 1977 as a trailblazing sex toy retailer with the goal to create well-lit and accessible alternative adult bookstore spaces for the community, is now under fire from employees of its Boston locations. The Sex Educator Sales Associates from the Brookline and Harvard Square stores have organized under the collective Solidarity with East Coast Sex Educators (SECSE, yes, pronounced ‘sexy’) to demand better communication from upper management that is headquartered on the West Coast.
Back in May, when Good Vibrations was beginning its process of reopening amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, employees only found out via social media and were not consulted about safety policies, despite the fact that they would be the ones enforcing these measures.
Many of the group’s demands predate COVID, but were exacerbated by the fact that employees are now risking their lives by working on the floor. On August 15, workers of Good Vibrations East Coast announced a strike when demands were dismissed by management. On August 22 and August 29, picketers gathered outside the store locations, alongside friends, supporters from the community, customers, representatives from the Industrial Workers of the World, and a mandolin player. The mood was enthusiastic as Good Vibrations employees spoke about their treatment and partook in meaningful conversations with neighbors and pedestrians.
It is disappointing to see a brand, which has become a focal point in the community for inclusivity, sex positivity and healthy communication, falling flat on its promises to create this same safe environment for its employees. I spoke with Aria Carpenter, a member of SECSE, about employee demands, the erosion of trust between workers and management of the Good Vibrations brand, and the outpouring of support from the community as workers continue to strike.
SESCE’s GoFundMe reached its goal, which is so great to help with the immediate financial needs of those striking! How have the strike demands been met by management?
We came to the company with a primer on our demands. One, better COVID protections to keep people safe in the store. Two, transparency from management, and better communication so we can make more democratic policy decisions. Three, stronger human resources–we have double digit locations on both coasts and one human resources representative for everybody. Four, to receive our overdue raises and check-ins. And five, to have a better decision making agency on the East Coast.
Now, in terms of which of those demands have been met by management: zero. When we first came forward with them, we received no response for quite a while. Once we said we were going to go public, they said they would meet none of our demands.
Early on we didn’t have any experience with this kind of thing; it was purely something that we as a community felt was a necessity. We began losing some of our most talented and skilled educators, who left amidst this mistreatment. But as labor organizations reached out to us, we learned a lot about how to effectively run this sort of thing, and how to reach out to our community a bit better and take action.
And we’ve since taken another approach. We’ve said we can compromise on a number of our demands if we are recognized as part of a union. The union in question is made up of employees from Babeland of New York, which is another sex toy retailer already owned by the parent company of Good Vibrations. We were hoping this compromise would be the quickest method to get us back on the job. But this has been denied as well.
Many ‘progressive’ companies have received major backlash for their decisions to not prioritize their workers during this pandemic. Good Vibrations uses rhetoric of inclusivity and equality. Do you think the customers of Good Vibrations see the hypocritical nature of this?
I think so. What makes Good Vibrations beautiful as a company is the people it attracts to work there. We’re trained extensively in sex education, product knowledge, and anatomical knowledge, but they don’t train us in things like how to assist costumers who have disabilities or customers who have multiple mental illnesses or trans customers beyond very simple rudimentary knowledge. And I think the customers can feel that. If the Sex Educator Sales Associates aren’t there, it’s a glorified warehouse of sex toys and I think that the customers can feel that. We’ve seen a wonderful surge of customers leaving these beautiful testimonials on the fundraiser page and on our petition, which just reached a thousand signatures! They appreciate us and love the experience of being at Good Vibrations and that makes them want us to be safe, happy, and confident in our space. Because, at the end of the day, consent doesn’t end in the bedroom. It doesn’t stop in these abstract conversations about sexual health and pleasure. It’s something that needs to be present in our entire lives. Attention needs to be paid to communication and making sure everyone feels safe, making sure employees aren’t saying yes to something under duress. COVID is testing businesses on their ability to mitigate that duress before attempting to keep their businesses open.
I’m so glad you’ve brought up this concept of consent. I would love to hear your thoughts on the parallels between consent as a requirement for healthy and safe sexual experiences and consent from employees as a requirement for a healthy and safe professional experience.
Oh absolutely! Working during a pandemic is scary for everybody, but especially for service workers. However, a lot of our issues predate COVID, issues around communication; we don’t want to have to wait months for emails about sexual harassment, discomfort in the workplace, and abuses of power from management–and that’s what we’re dealing with. If the company says it’s going to engage in a culture of consent, in a culture of really holding up intersectionally marginalized voices like queer and trans people, then these conversations can’t just stop at paying customers. If your voice as an employee isn’t really being listened to, then are you only there to be tokenized or used as a marketing tool?
I noticed harassment was an issue noted in the strike demands. What was the current protocol for management to deal with these complaints? In your opinion, what’s a better approach?
What we need is a trauma-informed spearhead toward sexual harassment protocols. We need people in human resources–or in the case of a union, we need representatives–who understand that in sexual harassment cases, things like gaslighting or asking how the victim could have prevented it, or saying that the victim should’ve come forward sooner, are not okay.
Sexual harassment protocol should be centered around the experiences of the victims, who are already shouldering this constant requirement in retail settings to reassert their boundaries over and over again, especially during a pandemic. As an employee, I’m no longer just selling products or educating people. I’m making sure they’re wearing their masks fully, I’m making sure that people are holding to six feet, and making sure the other six people in the store are doing that too. So there are so many boundaries that need to be enforced. We need a sexual harassment spearhead program that is meant to make judgments swift and centered around the people making the claims, rather than what we’ve seen in the past.
What kind of on-the-ground practices do you envision to give Good Vibrations employees more power and control over their experience in the workplace?
What I envision is a situation in which the power dynamic between manager and employee is not so stark and unbreakable. A lot of what we’re facing in this process is upper management asking if we want more management or different management. What this fundamentally ignores is that there is a power dynamic between an owner or manager talking to an employee. If an employee wants to be more open about abuses of power, there needs to be a place for employees to go where they’re not also fearing for their job. This is something that upper management is really struggling to recognize. If you’re in a room with people who have control over whether you have a job in a pandemic or not, you’re not going to be comfortable telling them all this sensitive information. Thus having something like a union representative or a human resources representative is imperative.
I think a lot of employee-manager relationships are being really strained and tested right now during the pandemic because they’re not prepared. We have people out in California making decisions about how we run the store here in Boston. In terms of the pandemic, these are incredibly different situations that require different approaches. When we came back to work, policies were changing by the day, and when we spoke up we were disregarded. People who are allowed to sit isolated in their homes shouldn’t be dictating the risks that people on the floor need to take.
How is morale amongst those striking? Are you optimistic about any compromise in the future? Is there a Plan B?
Most, if not all, of us are extremely disappointed in the company. We once believed in this kind of mission, not only in the abstract sense, but in the literal sense. We believed that upper management must also believe in it through and through. But we sent them so much evidence and proof of transgressions and oversights, and they said that it wasn’t a problem. We’re really disappointed in the company’s lack of empathy toward us as workers. But if this is the kind of person who is running the company, then good riddance. I’d rather not consider them this benevolent being. I’d rather see Joel Kaminsky, the owner, for who he is. Which is someone who genuinely doesn’t think this is an immediate problem. Somebody who doesn’t see the point in having an unbiased union representative present in the store. Someone who thinks that he can just throw money at new managers until we’re pleased, rather than meeting these modest demands that we have set forth. Every organization we’ve been in contact with says that we have modest demands and we are engaging in tremendous action. And if that’s not enough, our next step is to hit them where apparently it counts, which is their reputation. If their reputation matters more than the lives and wellness of their employees, then we’re going to show them how that makes us feel.
But we have seen so much love from the community. We’re very excited as a group for the amount of support we’ve received. It’s impossible not to be. The first day we were picketing, the store closed in anticipation of our strike, on the busiest day of the week. And we’re about to go out and picket today in a thunderstorm, so we’re out here! We’ve talked with so many customers and people in the community who are so sympathetic to our cause. That’s what is keeping us at a high morale. That’s what keeps us fighting.
Which makes sense given the fact that your interaction with customers is such an intimate process based on what you do and it really creates such meaningful relationships, so it’s so good to hear that those relationships are being respected!
Yeah! It’s uplifting. But I want to say that I never doubted my community for a minute. When we came forward with this we were told by organizations that we were a pretty small worker base, that we lost a lot of our power, which is heartbreaking that we’ve lost so many people. But they’ve helped us in any way they could. From the beginning we said, don’t underestimate the queer and trans community of Boston, of Massachusetts and beyond. Because when one of our own is hurt, is abused, stepped on, we come out in force. Look at movements all across the country right now, seeking racial justice, seeking justice against police brutality, workers rising up in the COVID crisis. You see people drawing attention to these power dynamics that keep people so suppressed that they can’t properly care for themselves in an epidemic.
And historically speaking too, you see the queer communtiy coming forward in times like this. Look at the AIDs crisis: healthcare, housing and safety were integral to that movement.
Exactly! And y’know the first pride was a riot. Everything that the queer community has is owed to the Black trans women who started throwing bricks. I believe in the honoring of that history of queerness and transness, of consent, of sex positivity. That’s what gave birth to what Good Vibrations is! So to imply that if we want to be treated like human beings, we should stay quiet and accept more administration, more management – anyone should be able to smell from a mile away what that is and why we’re rising against it.
SESCE’s Instagram has some great tips on how to picket safely and effectively. What advice would you give to workers who are looking to organize for safer working conditions amidst this pandemic?
Talk to your coworkers. What started all of this was that we didn’t know what was going on, we were all being recalled on invisible timetables, we were all enduring these hyper-individualized moments of suppression, cause that’s what the company wants. They want to keep you divided, they want to keep you feeling like you’re too sensitive or you can’t demand boundaries. The United States tries so hard to push this narrative of rugged individualism, but individualism isn’t properly equipped to keep us alive right now.
We can help each other, even if it just starts by reaching out to your coworkers and asking them how they are doing. Talk to each other about your struggles, take each other seriously. You need to care about each other and trust each other, because ultimately that’s what a strike is: it’s putting your livelihood in the hands of your peers. And I’d much rather put my livelihood in the hands of my peers than some man I’ve met once.
Solidarity is the name of the game. Reach out to your local organizations. There’s a lot of wonderful labor groups, like the Boston DSA and Emergency Workers Organization Committee. Reach out to your local union reps. Call people. Learn from our experience: reach out to these organizations first. If you feel pained about your treatment, and the treatment of your coworkers, the best first step might be reaching out to an organization to ask for help.
Since Good Vibrations’ employees educate and care for those in their community, what are some things that the community can do to support these vital sex educators as the strike continues?
So of course, the usual things: donate to our strike fund, sign our petition. We need to make it clear that this isn’t just a few employees trying to advocate for a single store. We need to send a message all the way to the other coast, all the way to upper management, that if they think the reputation of this company will be more damaged by a union than this strike, they need to understand that they’re wrong.
This message needs to come not only from the employees, but from the community. We need people to talk to the company, we need people to go on their social media, we need people to shout it from the rooftops, to tell their friends that Good Vibrations employees are on strike. Over the years, our trust in the company slowly eroded away until the only people we feel we can trust is each other. And we’ve learned we don’t just have each other to trust, we have our community. And our community doesn’t want a resource that’s exploiting its workers. We want people to join us. We want people to be loud about it. And we really, really want people to commit to a sex positive revolution that isn’t just buying stuff.
SECSE members will continue picketing this Labor Day Weekend.
If you want to support SECSE online, you can sign their petition on coworker.org or make a donation to the East Coast Sex Educator Strike Fund through GoFundMe. Use hashtags #StandWithSECSE and #ImWithSECSE to show your support on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and find updates on their website SECSE.net
SECSE photos accessed with permission from the group’s Instagram