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The Sex Shop Workers Fighting Their Hypocritical, Anti-Union Bosses

The predominantly LGBTQ employees of the Pleasure Chest decided to unionize after facing unsafe working conditions, including in-store assaults from customers. Now, they're calling out their supposedly progressive management's union-busting antics.
Photo courtesy of RWDSU

In June, customers at The Pleasure Chest—a small chain of boutique sex toy stores with locations in Manhattan, Chicago, and LA—were greeted by large window displays encouraging them to "Resist!" The store logo was transformed to read "RESIST" and emblazoned with names of queer icons such as Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, and Audre Lorde. A pride-themed post on The Pleasure Chest's blog asserted: "Now more than ever, we know the importance of standing up, speaking out, and fighting for what we believe in."


The feel-good activist messaging likely resonated with customers, who go to The Pleasure Chest for an educational and open-minded sex toy shopping experience. But for the workers providing that experience, the messaging rang hollow. While on the surface the company implored the public to "carry on the great tradition of protest," management was carrying out an intense anti-union campaign against its staff.

Read more: We're Living in the Era of the Hypocritical 'Feminist' Boss

As New York workers walked past the signs and into mandatory meetings with well known union-busters, the company's message was clear—in the words of employee Nico Fuentes, "Resist! But don't resist me."

Fuentes is a sex specialist who's worked at The Pleasure Chest for a little over two years, where employees are not only responsible for selling sex toys and educating customers about anatomy and pleasure, but also regularly lead workshops like BDSM 101. She explained that due to the nature of this work and the demographic of the store's workforce, employees regularly navigate harassment in the form of homophobia, transphobia, and racism from customers. "The nature of the job—we're all dealing with sex at the end of the day—is that you can easily become a part of the merchandise. You can be easily objectified through the lens of sex and sexuality," Fuentes said, adding that she and other workers who are queer, trans, femme, and/or women are already routinely targeted for harassment both in and out of the workplace.


For Fuentes, in-store harassment has escalated to violence twice. She tells Broadly that the first time was in July 2016, when a group of young men came into the store and threatened to, among other things, "Strip [her] clothes off so that they could identify [her] genitalia." She says she emailed upper management to report the assault but never heard back. A supportive assistant manager arranged for a small de-escalation training for one store only.

Fuentes and other employees asked for de-escalation trainings for the entire staff of The Pleasure Chest, but before any were scheduled, she was assaulted again. In March of this year, she asked a customer not to take a picture of her, and the customer yelled at her and eventually, spit on her. This time, Fuentes received an apology email from Sarah Tomchesson, The Pleasure Chest's head of Business Operations. Tomchesson met with Fuentes to discuss next steps and, finally, the company put money towards a broader de-escalation training for staff at both New York stores.

But for Fuentes, who says she "still walk[s] around with" the trauma of the experience and isn't making enough money to access the mental health care she needs, this was "too little too late." "I lost in that situation," she explained. "It's one thing to get an email saying we're so sorry that happened to you…It's another thing to open my paycheck and know that I can't hire a therapist to deal with the trauma."


Clockwise from bottom left: Elliyah, Greer, Carly, Nico, Dylan. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Fuentes

New York employees at The Pleasure Chest, concerned with their safety, low wages, and lack of a voice in management decisions, worked with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) for months and on June 2, asked management to voluntarily recognize their request to join the union. The Pleasure Chest refused. On June 6, RWDSU filed an election request with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of The Pleasure Chest workers, so that employees could vote on whether they wanted to join the union.

In response, The Pleasure Chest hired two well-known anti-union firms: Jackson Lewis, a law firm which specializes in "union avoidance," and Labor Relations Institute, which is described on its website (which boasts grateful messages from employers who remain union-free) as "the preeminent firm in countering union organizing campaigns." In an email to Broadly, Tomchesson said management "held five meetings over the course of three weeks" but maintains that the purpose of meeting with these firms was to "ensure our staff was well-informed on the business of the union."

In these mandatory meetings (which Broadly obtained audio recordings of), staff listened to consultants (including one who warned the largely queer and trans staff that he would likely mis-gender them) and members of the managerial team follow a typical union-busting script: implying that unions are just another boss to answer to, disparaging organizers, and threatening workers that they might "lose everything." Though The Pleasure Chest asserts they were simply sharing information, Broadly obtained a follow-up email sent by management claiming that a union would "make decisions for you," require you to "pay monthly dues and an initiation fee" (a fee that the RWDSU does not require) and encouraging workers to "VOTE NO."


Management provided Broadly with a factsheet that points to the company's opportunities for full-time work, health insurance options for those who work full-time, "high" wages compared to the rest of the industry, and the de-escalation training implemented after Fuentes's assault as evidence of their history of good treatment.

Read more: Working at a High-End Sex Shop

Workers scoff at the company's assertions that they pay a living wage—due to a complicated commission system that most workers don't understand, employees may sometimes make up to $15 an hour, but rates are not standardized. Either way, employees say it's not enough. Greer Paris, a sex specialist who's worked at The Pleasure Chest for more than two years, told Broadly, "Even if The Pleasure Chest was, as they claim, setting the bar for wages, benefits, etc against their competitors—this self congratulation exists within a context of already too low standards within the sex industry as a whole."

Two weeks ago, The Pleasure Chest published a blog post accusing the union of leveraging coverage of its "largely LGBTQ workforce" to "help bolster RWDSU's standing on the national stage as a Union that is putting LGBTQ rights at the center of their efforts." But this claim rings especially hollow given the demonstrable measures the union has taken to strengthen its protections of LGBTQ rights. (In the last year, RWDSU has run a trans competency training for staff, made its workplace bathrooms gender neutral, and, according to its organizers, changed healthcare plans to ensure that gender affirming procedures are covered.)


Paris also pointed to the disconnect between The Pleasure Chest's supposedly inclusive mission and its pushback against the union: "One of our main values at The Pleasure Chest is conversations around consent in relation to our bodies. Why is this such a hard thing to digest for upper management when it comes to our own bodies? Why is it so hard for them to realize that we want to engage with consent when it comes to lack of agency of our bodies in that space?" Paris asked. "Having us be in conversation around boundaries of our labor while doing work that's in proximity to sex work and within the sex industry is exactly what we want."

Her coworkers agreed. On June 29, non-managerial staff at The Pleasure Chest unanimously voted yes to union representation.

Following RWDSU's successful organizing of Babeland last year (full disclosure: I was a Babeland worker and helped lead the unionizing efforts there, and I now work at another union) the Pleasure Chest is only the second sex toy store in the country to unionize. But their vote is notable for other reasons: Even in comparably small campaigns, a unanimous vote is extremely rare. And then there are the workers—most of them young, many of them native New Yorkers, and many queer and trans people and people of color—who have a deep connection to each other and, as Fuentes put it, "earnestly believe in community."

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Broadly spoke with four workers at The Pleasure Chest who all said their coworkers were one of their favorite things about the job. Fuentes even added that they're what keep her in this precarious and often dangerous industry, because it's meaningful to work with "incredibly smart people, people who view and experience the world similar to how I view and experience the world" and who care about collaboration and building safer places.

The Pleasure Chest workers are part of a newer wave of union organizing—an attempt to revive a dwindling labor movement, where private sector union membership is at a measly 6.4%. Kashana Cauley's recent New York Times op-ed offered hope that millennials might lead the next labor movement, and these successes at Babeland and The Pleasure Chest certainly point towards that.

Workers will head into contract negotiations on July 31, and Tomchesson tells Broadly that management is committed to "coming to the negotiation table in good faith." Employees are eager to enter negotiations and hope to inspire others in the industry. "In this moment we're able to collectively grasp onto a sense of agency," Fuentes said. "We're finally able to say stop. Enough. It's time for you to listen. And you haven't listened to us before so we're going to make you listen."