It’s 11:45 on a Wednesday night in Des Moines, Iowa, and I’m watching an adult video in the Lovers Playground Arcade. I’m sitting on a vinyl seat in a black wooden booth. No curtains cover the doorway, and a single TV screen burns in front of me. My hand is filled with a $5 roll of gold tokens, all etched with a lowercase command: explore your curiosity.
Each coin buys me 45 seconds of pornography from 30 DVDs that are spinning in some far off control room. The DVDs cover the gamut of sexual fantasy, and with each punch of a button on the wall a new curiosity fills the screen.
When each turn is up, the screen turns white and reads, “Keep the booth clean for other customers.” The message is accompanied by a smiling, buxom cartoon woman wearing a French maid outfit. I’ve dropped one coin beneath the vinyl seat and have decided to leave it in case previous occupants failed to follow the maid’s request.
There are no multicolored flashing lights to illuminate the aisles of booths in this arcade; in fact, they’re in abject darkness. When my coins are gone, I exit in search of the well-lit showroom at the end of the aisles of booths, separated only by a hinged saloon door. I’ve been alone in here—well, apart from my friends on screen, plus one round, older man whom I bumped into twice trying to find a booth with working sound. We thankfully didn’t make eye contact. As I leave, I hear his picture playing, the emphatic sound of sex ushering me out of the darkness.
My appearance in The Arcade, at the Lovers Playground at all, is an anachronism.
To say that Internet porn is “ubiquitous” would be to sell its presence short. As of 2013, 12 percent of all websites—that’s 24,644,172 sites—were adult entertainment sites. A quarter of all Internet search requests were related to watching people have sex. And as for data: a full 30 percent of the bytes transferred through the Internet were for, well, take a wild guess.
Adult videos are available for free at the tips of our fingers virtually anywhere a smartphone gets bars. Sex toys, lingerie and other pleasure products can all be purchased online or over the phone anonymously without the uncomfortable process of doing so in public. So how are adult superstores surviving in the age of the Internet?
Alex The Cashier, who looks like he could just as easily be prepping espresso shots as pedaling magazines and videos, tells me that most of the Lovers Playground’s business is done while the sun is still up. Nights are hit or miss. This night has to be a miss. In my 45 minutes in the establishment only one other customer comes in the store besides the watermelon of a man wandering around the arcade.
The guy, looking like a retired high school quarterback, asks embarrassingly, “Uh…where’s the lube?”
This is a complex question in a sex shop.
“Flavored or conventional?” Alex responds.
“Strawberry, I guess,” the quarterback says, his cheeks emulating those cardinal fruits.
“Over in the corner on the middle rack,” Alex responds, pointing at a glass rack in the general direction of the vibrators and dildos.
Dusty DVDs line most of the walls, at least the ones that aren’t wrapped in sex objects and blowup dolls. A small rack of magazines is in the center of the room. Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” plays softly overhead. A TV on the opposite wall idly shows a DVD that I see the flannelled janitor glance at intermittently.
I ask Alex about the DVDs and why he thinks people still buy them when pornography can be had for free. He gives me the equivalent of the sex shop party line.
“Online content is dangerous. Every video is packed with viruses. With DVDs you never have to worry about people hacking into your stuff,” he says. He estimates off the top of his head that 30 percent of all sales are from DVDs, a drastic shift in an industry that used to survive solely on its video content sales.
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“The industry’s changing. It used to be carried by video and DVD sales,” Pete Potenzini, Lions Den director of marketing, tells me a few days later over the phone. With over 40 brick and mortar locations, Lions Den is one of the largest adult superstore retail chains in the nation.
“There’s free content online, and you get the added convenience of anonymity online,” he says. “We used to cater to travelers, people who drove trucks or sales people on the road. We have to appeal now to a wider range of folks, specifically women and couples.”
A week before the Arcade, I’m at one of his stores, a Lions Den in southern Illinois where it all becomes the Land of Lincoln and is no longer Kentucky. I’m here to see how stores like the Lions Den are trying to appeal to a wider audience.
The trademark red roof and gravel parking lot of the Lions Den are tucked between trees and are miles in any direction from something resembling a township. There are security cameras pointed in every direction from beneath the rooftop, accompanied by plenty of “NO LOITERING” signs and an 18-wheeler parked a few yards from the front door.
Inside, I pace.
I look at DVDs, arranged mainly by participants and areas penetrated, all much higher in price than I would have imagined. I look at glass bongs and incense that two young men, assumedly both freshly 18, are incredibly interested in. I watch three larger middle-aged folks hold lingerie up that wouldn’t cover so much as one of their legs. And finally, I look at the bookshelf.
On one side of the shelf there are many “How-To’s”—How to Be a Bad Girl in Bed, The Field Guide to F°cking—and a few romance paperbacks by Sylvia Day, all with enticing photographs. On the other side: an entire display of Fifty Shades of Grey paraphernalia.
I look around again. There’s Fifty Shades lingerie in the corner, Fifty Shades-approved handcuffs, masks, whips and straps hanging from the wall. At the counter, an entire section of the glass case is filled with Fifty Shades lubes and party games.
“50 Shades of Grey has really helped to mainstream the industry,” Potenzini says. “It has piqued customer interest. People are more open about their sexuality and how they go about pleasing themselves or pleasing each other. Organically, people are becoming more open to things as well.
“We’ve gone from focusing mainly on video content to actual sex toys, relationship aids. It’s almost like a foreplay for some people to come in with their partner and pick out lingerie, a toy, a DVD, whatever. There’s kind of a romance to it, romance in the broader term. That’s just something that you can’t get online.”
The series has not only changed the business model for the Lions Den and other shops but also how content providers are considering reaching their audiences.
Evil Angel Studios is among the elite adult film production companies in the United States, if not only for their products, which regularly sweep industry awards, but also for their longevity. U.S. News and World Report once named it one of the most profitable adult entertainment studios, and since 1989 the company’s films have lined the shelves of all major adult superstores in North America and Europe.
Evil Angel CFO Adam Grayson says that the industry as a whole is still “on a slow climb out of death valley” after the global economic crash of 2008. He estimates that while there are only 10 percent of the companies producing content compared to 12 years ago, the remaining companies have found firm ground, at least for a while.
“The industry has rediscovered what the next 10 or 15 years is going to look like and sort of stabilized things. The survivors are still here and a lot of people have vanished,” Grayson says.
I ask him if he ever envisions a time when tangible adult content such as DVDs aren’t produced.
“I envision it every day,” he says.
But for now, cultural stimuli such as 50 Shades are going to continue goosing consumer interest in this time of sexual freedom. It’s women whom Grayson sees as saving the brick and mortar adult shops.
“The stores that cater to the female audience are really healthy,” he says. “(50 Shades) has really reinforced the idea that brick and mortar stores are going to do a better job if they are serving the female demographic.”
The goal is to rid the retail space of the “rain coater” stigma, essentially that the only customers are old pervy guys in rain coats, not unlike the spherical man I continually stumbled into in the darkness of the Lovers Playground Arcade.
When I ask him whom he thinks the new demographic is for the Lions Den stores, he says, “Women and couples, you know, your more suburban customer. Hockey moms, soccer moms, that type of person.”
“We’ve begun to really stress the shopping experience,” he adds. “Our lingerie and apparel sales have increased tremendously over the last two years. DVD sales remain on the decline, so we’ve got to pick up some other revenue streams.”
As I leave the Lions Den, I look back at the counter. From my vantage point, it looks like the line of patrons runs all the way to the back wall where the edible underwear are. I realize as I exit that many of the patrons at the back are actually mannequins in lingerie, but the ones up front are indeed women, lingerie and novelty items in hand.
It seems as long as there is a need to “explore your curiosity,” adult superstores aren’t going anywhere.