“How dirty?” was the first question asked of us, after reaching a tiny shop called ROPE in the middle of Tokyo. It was on the second floor of a suffocatingly small building, with rows and racks of school girl uniforms lined up along one wall. We only saw the mountain of underwear once we'd gotten to the got to the other side of the store.
My friends and I had decided to sell our used panties for some extra cash in Tokyo. We heard about it through a friend of a friend and wanted to do it for ourselves. The cash was one incentive, but my curiosity about the industry and its customers was my main motivation.
Tokyo is a city that does not talk about sex, let alone—according to many write-ups—appear to have a whole lot of it. There's much to be read about how the high-stress levels of working life are damaging to the sex and social lives of Tokyo locals, to the point it is affecting reproduction rates. Sex is under wraps, and to have sex with a partner before marriage is generally to pay at least $40 for three hours in a love hotel. Otherwise, pre-marital sex does not exist, unless you go into a sex shop or keep the act strictly secret.
“How smelly?” he asked next. "Very?” I replied. The entire exchange felt both a bit off and strangely professional. The shopkeeper, in his late 50s, began to barter, negotiating a price for something I never thought had worth. But my trash was another’s treasure, and who was I to deny them of that? We settled on $30 AUD, which in hindsight I suspect may have been a rip-off.
Along one wall were rows of dirty underwear in ziplock bags, with the previous owners’ photographs attached. There were no names or ages, just their smiling faces. Most had their skirts up, and some were naked. I wondered about why they did it, what they’d spend the money on, and who was going to buy them.
The shopkeeper requested to take my photo to accompany my panties. As I lifted my skirt for my own photograph to be taken, I saw a flash of disappointment from my parents, felt the glow of my femininity, and pictured the back of the head of the man who would go on to purchase them, using them however he chose.
We had to take off our underwear in front of the guy. That was a strict rule; you also couldn't provide panties more than once every few months. There were moments of hesitation for me, moments when I wondered if I’d regret it, or if the panties would land in the wrong hands. But the panties themselves were as anonymous as the buyers would be, and the initial chill slowly wore off. It was a safe environment and I was in solidarity with my peers.
The business runs on the kink of salivating from a distance, of going home after seeing a hot stranger on a crowded train, of needing that extra human element without the human contact. The customer gained, and so did I.
Safe spaces for the consumption and commodification of sex are essential for the healthy expression of sexuality. In sex industries, I see consenting independent women all the time being condemned for profiting from sexuality, without consideration that there can be a reclamation of the sexual self when seen through the eyes of a consumer.
Selling my underwear was, for me, a reclamation of my pussy. I was making a conscientious choice to sell something I knew somebody would find pleasure in, privately. Who was I to judge somebody’s kink?
Afterwards, we left and bought ourselves dinner, hopefully having also satisfied someone else's appetite in the process.