will taking a job in a sex shop now harm me later?

A reader writes:

As a new grad, I’m sort of at a difficult transition period in my life, where there are a lot of directions I can see my professional life taking, and not too many organizations interested in taking a chance on me.

One thing that troubles me is that there are some career paths that I could follow out of personal passion, but they’re competitive, and worse, if I don’t succeed it could affect my chances to get work in other fields. Specifically, I have done some volunteer sex education work, and found that I like it quite a bit. Human health and sexuality fascinate me from an intellectual standpoint, and I find it a rewarding way to help people from a practical standpoint. When I apply to more conservative-seeming organizations, I’ll leave it off my résumé, or euphemise it to “health education.”

Anyway, a sex shop nearby is hiring for a part time retail clerk/ sex education type position. I obviously need some kind of job, and it’s something I would definitely enjoy, but it’s not something I could support myself with forever and I worry about how it would look on a résumé. It is one of those more woman-centric shops (clean, brightly lit) so it’s not too seedy as these things go. A lot of their stock is books, so I guess I could call it a book store, but that seems a bit dishonest. Leaving it off entirely seems like a bad option, because there will probably be a point where I’ll have to mention I have a job, when looking for a supplemental or replacement job. I don’t know if this is the exception to “sex stays off your résumé.” I would very much appreciate any advice!

Well, first let me clarify the “sex stays off your resume” rule. Things about your own sex life stay off your resume. But that’s different from being a sex educator, or even working in an adult-oriented business.

As for this particular retail job, if you’re going to go into sex education work, this isn’t likely to pose a problem. And while I hear you that if you give that field a go and it doesn’t work, then you’re stuck explaining those efforts to other employers who may be more conservative, at some point you’ve got to decide what you want to do for a career and go after it wholeheartedly. If you don’t take the risk, you guarantee that you’ll never succeed in it. If you do take the risk, there’s a good chance that you’ll do fine.

Now, are there trade-offs? Yes. If you don’t succeed in that field — or if you do succeed but end up deciding you’d rather do something else — you may encounter some employers who bristle at seeing work in your past that acknowledges the existence of sex. But honestly, it’s going to be fewer than you think. Yes, it may make it harder for you to gain entrance to some particularly conservative fields, but that leaves you with a ton of remaining fields — the majority, in fact. So think about what you’d like to do as a Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work out. Is your Plan B built around a conservative field? If not, I’d say don’t worry too much about this and pursue what you want to pursue.

But if you really want to be safe about it, you could take this job but also continue doing some other kind of supplemental work on the side at the same time  (as a volunteer or freelancer, for instance), so that you have something to put down for that time period if you someday find yourself applying for jobs where you suspect stodginess. Good luck!

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Andy Lester

    A variant of this question is common in the computer industry. “Do I go to work for a porn site to get my foot in the door, or will it harm me later?”

    My understanding is that porn sites are pretty cool places to work for geeks. They pay well, have a relaxed work environment, and if you want cutting edge tech, you can’t get much more cutting edge than the porn biz. The challenge of how to serve millions of users huge amounts of content is one that many geeks will relish.

  2. Satia

    “But if you really want to be safe about it, you could take this job but also continue doing some other kind of supplemental work on the side at the same time (as a volunteer or freelancer, for instance), so that you have something to put down for that time period if you someday find yourself applying for jobs where you suspect stodginess.”

    Brilliant advice!

  3. k

    I interned at a couple of organizations working on controversial issues in college, and was similarly worried about how they would affect my future career. But you know what I’ve realized, 4 years later? It’s the one of the best things I could have done — I basically self-selected myself out of working at organizations whose culture I wouldn’t mesh with.

  4. moe

    Hey, it’s one way to make your resume stand out!

    I like Alison’s advice a lot, especially about the supplemental work. Now is the time in your career/life to take risks.

    1. Mike C.

      On standing out:

      I think it is actually quite important. When an employer is trying to decide which identical looking people to bring in for an interview, they’re going to say, “yeah, and the one working for a sex shop, at least that will be interesting.”

      Then with your foot in the door, you can wow them with your brilliant interview skills!

  5. fposte

    I have no real advice here, but I’m going to plug one of the great blogs-turned-books: Ali Davis’s “True Porn Clerk Stories.” Funny, gross, thoughtful, humane.

  6. Jon

    I ran into this issue because I worked at an adult bookstore in college. This experience was important to include in my resume as I had eventually become an Assistant Manager and wanted to highlight my responsibilities and skills.

    What I ended up doing was using the store’s parent company name on my resume, which was vague and gave no indication of what the store sold. When asked, I simply told people it was a bookstore. Since this experience was in a smaller, collage town, people assumed I was referring to a college bookstore.

    Overall, it was a strange, but incredibly easy and entertaining experience. I still blog about my time there at http://www.jmopper.com.

    1. Letter Writer

      That’s a good suggestion but I don’t know if it would work for this particular store. It doesn’t have a parent company and while its name is ambiguous if you google it what it sells is immediately obvious. Your blog is very funny though.

      1. Anonymous

        It may be worth looking into. The DBA may not be the same as the name under which the company was incorporated. This is not uncommon for any type of business. Besides, I doubt the DBA or the Inc name is “SexxxySexSexSex!!!” or something ridiculous.

        Anyway, like others have said, this may only be an issue with very conservative companies, and, as GeekChic wrote, there’s always a chance someone will wrinkle their nose at your past experience no matter what you do. If this store is anything like the women-centric, sex positive shop in my neighborhood, you will probably gain a lot of great experience. They do a ton of outreach, run workshops and are a small business success story. I also get the impression that they are big on promoting from within, so, your “career” job could very well be with this company. Good luck!

  7. Steve

    I would say “go for it” however one caveat. I once had a job applicant apply for a position who had held one of these jobs. They used the title “relationship counselor” to describe it. If they had couched their title and scope as a type of retail position it would have served them better. What you are selling is less important than the fact you are selling and that is the transferable skill. In your case the transferable skills may or may not be different but focus on the skills and less on the industry.

  8. Letter Writer

    Thank you for addressing my question! I have applied to the job and now I’m waiting to see if I get an interview, and I’m realizing that it’s important to be brave at this time in your life. Supplemental work is definitely a good idea, and something I planned to do anyway as the clerk position is only for 20 hours a week. Plan B for me would be volunteer coordination or communication work at a non-profit, as I’ve also done that sort of thing before and enjoyed it, and I’m currently doing some volunteer work along those lines. There are a few non-profits that would might even view sex education work as a plus, so that’s heartening. I’m okay with never running for office.

    1. Letter Writer

      *Some of this before. My jerk neighbours got drunk and played loud terrible music until 5:30 am this morning, so I’m not optimally rested.

    2. Anonymous

      I worked in an adult store out of college before going into the corporate world. My experience actually helped – my company prizes diversity, and hiring leaders felt that my experience showed that I was open to all different personalities and orientations. I’m still here, 14 years later.

  9. Lola

    Love this OP. Anyways. My work revolves around Public Health and specifically prevention within sexual health, I too had the opporutnity to work in a retail venue for the adult inudstry as well as very sex-involved & health care related non-profit. My friend is a mainstream Sexologist and presently markets himself as a “Communication Specialist and a Negotiator.”. Of which he is qualified in both, but within the realm of the mainstream adult industry.

    We both have a lot of awkward conversations with people (and some not so awkward) about the work that we do and depending on our audience, we re-frame it. However, from my experience there are ways to optimize a job like this. If I received your resume with job titles such as “sex educator” or “healthy human sexuality promotor” I would probably go for it If you gave me a good description of how you accomplished that in your daily work.

    For example:
    You facilitate an anti-oppressive, sex positive, non-judgemental, open, and creative retail environment to help people info seek and choose products that fit their specific needs for 1. Client satisfaction in service & products. 2. Promoted & achieved retail quotas. 3. Added value of knowledge in the role of adult products in the promotion of human well-being and if asked, some basic knowledge of the role of the products in the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (to use your experience that you used in volunteering). Having this knowledge also allows opportunity for up-selling your customers to various products better suited to their needs (I.e. Depending on use you’ll want your customer to be buying silicone lube vs. Water based. Or certain brands of dildos depending on use. Or specific condoms to be used on specific dildoes or else they ruin their products. Or certain cleansing products for specific products or else damage or risk of infection. The list goes on!!) 4. be a Resource for people finding information for creating safe, safe, and consensual relationships through book section. You provide customer service for the bdsm niche, as well as the market seeking products for strictly for recreational use. You also are flexible in being able to take on each role depending on the goals of your clients. And so on…

    There are ways to massage (no pun) this job onto your resume without taking on mis-leading job descriptions/titles that you can spin to convince conservative and even possibly religious that this job highlights and develops job skills just like any other retail opportunity. Also, if non-profit is a goal, many non-profits tend to love seeing people in “fringe” and “alternative” roles on their resumes. Evidences your desire & ability to work with and advocate for “under-dogs”.

    Good luck, & don’t forget to enjoy & celebrate your successes :)

  10. Anna

    I’m glad I get to comment on this post! I say do it, but also do something else at the same time, chances are its part time- so you certainly could. I used to work at priscilla’s (now cirilla’s and the larry flint hustler store, which was amazing!!) But not cirillas. My coworker was tied up in the back by a crazy customer and even though we are careful and wear those panic buttons, things do happen. On the up side, I took a lot of pride in being able to get those shy people out of their shell and provide them with so much info, they felt comfortable. It was pretty rewarding, then ofcourse there are creepy creeps every day that ask you the sickest things..personal things..and for the most part if you can teach sex ed, you will like it. I mean with women, I’d find myself very open with my likes and experiences. Then when the grossest guy I could imagine was asking me what I…etc…you get it. But most of those stores, especially if smaller, have the employee work alone on their shift. Which can get scary. So make sure you find that out. Another thing is working in that niche boutique makes it VERY easy to get another similar job, anywhere if u need to move, or end up liking it. I worked a job that was far more accepted at the same time and left It off my resume, but for certain things, put it right back on. It shows you can talk to anyone, about ANYTHINg and are comfy in your own skin. Good luck!

  11. CL

    I know someone who got a degree in sex from IU, where the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction is located. She works as a fundraiser and has worked for a variety of businesses. It hasn’t hurt her at all – any field that wouldn’t want someone like that is a field that she wouldn’t enter.

  12. GeekChic

    For what it’s worth, OP, my friends and I have received grief (including from HR folk) about working in the following fields:

    – law
    – nursing
    – IT
    – librarianship
    – music
    – military
    – social work

    Someone will always dislike where you work (or have worked in the past). Use it as a useful filter for places and people you don’t need to hang around and live your life.

  13. Charles

    OP, I hope that I’m not raining on your parade; but, I hope that you have also asked this question to those that you used to do volunteer work for. If not, I would suggest that you ask for an informational interview to get their take on this.

    Even though it shouldn’t hurt you I could see that it might, even if you are going into some sort of social work career. Here’s why:

    Sometime in the future you decide that you want to apply for a tax-payer funded social worker position. Let’s also say that the program is somewhat “controversial” (and when is the issue of tax dollars and sex not controversial?) to the point that the program is under the microscope. Even if you do not include this job on your resume it might still show up in a background check. Due to the media spotlight and other “scrutiny” the hiring manager decides that they don’t need more “ammo” to give their opponents. The hiring manager decides that your “background” is too much of a risk.

    This could happen if there are no tax dollars involved – a private organization might not want to risk losing donor dollars for the same reason.

    I’m not saying this will happen or if it is even likely; but, it is something that I would suggest that you check out further with those who might be in your future career path. See if you cannot get some informational interviews with folks in the careers that you are thinking of going into.

    (for some reason Jim Thorpe comes to mind; a great athlete who lost his well-earned Olympic medals because he played baseball for pay one summer)

  14. Cruella Da Boss

    I would list the job as “retail clerk in specialty shop.” Not a lie, you are just not listing what the “specialty” happens to be.

    When I see something like this listed on a resume, I think “women’s clothing,” and skim right over it.

    Hmmmm….on second thought, maybe I should start asking what these shops specialize in. Might make some of these interviews more interesting!

  15. Anonymous

    I think, as many have already mentioned, this depends entirely on the type of job you’re applying to and the culture of the organization.

    If you’re looking at working in not-for-profit (as you mentioned above) at an open-minded organization you shouldn’t have any problems. The only place I could really see this being an issue is if you applied to an organization with strong religious ties or a more conservative atmosphere (although you should be able to pick up on those attributes from looking up info about the organization). As other posters mentioned above, I would focus on the fact that it’s a retail environment and what you learned/accomplished while working there rather then focusing on what you were selling.

  16. KX

    I’ve worked in two separate sex toy shops (similar to the one you’re describing) and both were, by far, my favorite jobs. I always considered it community service. People came in with a variety of issues/questions/doubts and I was able to help them. As for the resume, I keep one/both of them on if I’m applying for retail positions. As I have sought out “more professional” work I don’t necessarily keep them on my resume but I certainly have brought up the experiences in interviews (obviously, when appropriate and after “reading” the people I was interviewing with). I have found that most interviewers can appreciate the delicate nature of the job and value my ability to be discreet while also putting people at ease when discussing sensitive topics. There’s always a way to “spin” a previous job but I have found that even in totally unrelated fields, my experience selling sex toys have been immensely transferrable. Good luck!

  17. HB

    Former sexuality educator here. I was worried this experience might hold me back for similar reasons. When I was job hunting last year, I really stressed about if I should name my former company (think nationally known, incredibly controversial) on my resume, for the same fears you have. Ultimately, I decided that I wouldn’t want to work for a place that would hold that against me. Luckily, when I interviewed for the job I have now, both a member of the hiring committee as well as my immediate supervisor both had worked for the same organization earlier in their career, so it actually turned out to be a gold star rather than an albatross.

    I think experience as a sexuality educator says to employers that you are comfortable dealing with sensitive subjects, you are a skilled communicator, and you handle controversy gracefully. My experiences turned out to be great talking points during interviews.

    I say go for it. I LOVED teaching sex ed! Incredibly rewarding work if you can find a stable, paying position!

  18. Tabbitha

    I am in a similar situation. I am in a real financial bind and have no idea how I’ll make it through the next 5 months before graduation. With no real promise of a career in sight, I’m seriously considering phone sex, but am very afraid that it will ruin me professionally leaving me to be a pso for the rest of my life. That is NOT what I spent a big chunk of my life and got $85,000 in the hole for. Unfortunately, the careers I’m looking to get into would frown on it more than not. If it weren’t for homeland security background checks (or any kind of background checks including employment) it’d be a lot easier. Any creative ways to make phone sex operator look good to a stuffed shirt in a predominantly male oriented work place?

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