August 1995-Spring 1996:
I got my first job, if you don’t count my previous work mowing my neighbors’ lawns, at the age of seventeen. I worked at the video store owned and managed by one of the couples that lived across the street from me when I was growing up. I had grown up not knowing them particularly well but knowing their mentally disabled son very well. Cognitively he connected best with young elementary school kids and so even though he was some years older than me I hung out with him a bit when I was about that age and then observed that year after year he would be riding bikes around the neighborhood with kids still at about that age. He was a sweet and happy guy and as far as I could tell his parents took very good care of him.
And when I went to work for them I rarely saw the husband (who I believe spent most of his work time managing another store location farther from home) but would regularly see the wife, who managed the store which was just a couple minute drive (and fifteen minute walk) from our neighborhood. She managed the day shifts with another woman her age. Most of the staff covering weeknights and weekends was teenagers like me or early twenty-somethings. The pay was minimum wage. I think I started at $4.25/hour. I took the job because I didn’t have a car and could walk to work, because I loved movies, and because I had an in to get hired given the owners knew of me since I was little and had been friendly with my parents.
Most of what we rented out was new and old releases across the mainstream genres. We had a family section in the right back corner of the store that despite lacking a door otherwise functioned as a room unto itself. It was filled with kids’ movies. And on the other side of the back wall of the family section, unbeknownst to all the children, was the adult section with all the pornos. We were always running a deal where customers could rent two movies for the price of one, as long as not both movies were (mainstream) new releases. That meant a lot of people would come to the counter with a mainstream blockbuster for the evening and a porno for the later evening. Or sometimes they would rent a kids’ flick for the little ones and an adult flick for themselves which always made my computer screen into a funny read as I checked them out. I would wonder a bit at how a lone parent would manage to sneak into the adult section of the store; what were their kids doing at those times? Then one day, I observed a parent walk his kid into the family section and give strict instructions to stay there and pick out a movie. Then I watched him go around the corner up the narrow hall next to the kids’ section leading to the adult room behind it, disappear for merely seconds before emerging with one of the opaque blank dark red boxes all our pornos were rented out in, and return to his kid. He was gone for so brief a time that had he not said anything the kid, lost in all her kid-friendly film choices, might not have even noticed he had stepped away a second.
The pornos were a huge part of our business. Blockbuster wouldn’t sell them so people relied on small independent outlets like ours to get them without having to go to a store that wasn’t more explicitly about sex. I always guessed that the pornos, while not the majority of our sales, were a big part of what kept us a preferred option against richer chains with bigger names, bigger shelves for new releases, and deeper back catalogues. These were the olden days before everyone had the internet (I personally wouldn’t get online for another five more years). Speeds were super slow as everyone was still on landlines, there was no such thing as HD, and, even on the internet, I’m pretty sure porn was harder to find for free than it is today. So for many people watching a pornographic video meant dealing with people in public who would see what you were up to. For countless married couples it meant picking up a porno alongside your Arnold Schwarzenegger movie like you were tacking on dessert to your dinner order. For family people it meant grabbing your porno for the night while your little one was picking out a cartoon for the afternoon.
My whole time working there I was a devout evangelical Christian. I was very morally and sexually conservative. I was determined to remain a virgin until I married. I believed that not only pornography was sinful but even masturbation itself was and would, over and over again, feel waves of guilt immediately following upon any sessions doing it. I had struggled against the temptation to use pornography throughout my teen years. In one typical episode, a friend had let me borrow a tape with hours of pornography on it and after I watched it I felt so “convicted of my sin” that I elaborately destroyed the tape. I believe I didn’t just smash the casing but I unspooled the whole thing. I brought it back to my remarkably understanding friend who agreed to be an “accountability partner with me”.
So, when I started working at the video store I was resolved never to step foot in the adult room. I was conscientious about rushing all the other movies to their shelves when they came back from customers. But I would let the adult ones stack up in a long row of opaque blank dark red boxes until one of my co-workers would make one long trip to take care of them all at once. Absolute work related necessity sent me back to the adult room possibly twice in my whole time working there. In my mind the prospect of going back there was about as tempting as a cesspool. And even though at home I was inevitably caving and masturbating (usually resorting to something far milder like women dancing on MTV’s The Grind), I would never have broken down and rented a porno from the store. Even though I wouldn’t have had to pay for it and probably could have checked it out and gotten it out of the store without being seen, my co-workers could figure out it was on my account. I mean, I checked their accounts and could confirm they were all renting the videos. And with most of them I didn’t have to spy, they were far more nonchalant about leaving with them right in front of me and I had a few conversations with a couple of my bewildered young women co-workers who couldn’t understand my hang ups about going to the adult room. I remember one night one of them let the videos stack up for hours just to see if I’d eventually break down and shelve them. I remember another one would have long frank talks with me about her dating and sex life. She treated me as a fascinating weirdo as I would explain the details of why I was waiting for marriage to her–and tried not to focus on my lust for her or the way that her descriptions of the sex she was having was fueling my own sexual fantasies.
I understood it was my job to rent out the videos and so I never complained or abstained from doing it. I just avoided the part of the job that a co-worker could do instead. And I was always genial with our customers when renting the videos out. I don’t remember ever saying a solitary word about what the customer was renting. We just made the same pleasant conversation about mainstream movies that I would make with anyone else. There were a number of regulars who would rent a new release and a porno multiple times a week and, in the familiar chatter about movies and life one gets into with a regular, I never brought up any qualms I had with what they were renting. They didn’t need my judgmentalism. In fact I don’t remember even feeling judgmental towards them. I certainly wasn’t any better than they were. And even if in the abstract I believed that pornography was wrong, putting faces to the average porn users meant not being able to see them as anything other than ordinary people.
For several reasons I decided to quit in the spring as my senior year of high school was nearing a close. I wrote a long letter to my manager and neighbor expressing my great gratitude to her for giving me the job and apologizing that, for reasons of conscience, I just didn’t want to rent out adult films anymore and that that was one of my main reasons for quitting. She was so impressed with the letter she offered recommendations should I ever need them. In retrospect I haven’t the slightest remembrance of just how much the adult videos factored into my decision to quit. It may have been as much as I let on or I may have been exaggerating.
Around the time I quit, I started driving my first car. And with the increased mobility I remember buying pornos for the first time in my life. I remember the intensity of the guilt. I would awkwardly stand around with a lump in my throat and my skin flush waiting for every other customer to leave the store before going up to the counter and trying with all my nerve to request a specific porno from behind the cashier without losing my cool. I dreaded being shamed by the clerk but they were usually entirely nonchalant. This was for them, as it was for me in my video-renting days, just a constant routine. But I felt incredibly exposed. I agonized over my “habit”. Within a couple months of starting to buy pornos, I wrote a long, highly explicit and gut-wrenched, poem about all my guilt and ambivalence related to it. By the fall I was at my choice of evangelical Christian college and used the new start to pull off a solid two months masturbation free. I would sometimes cave and buy pornos in Penn Station on my way home from college. To this day, I can’t go past the magazine shop I would sneak to without remembering it.
Eventually in the fall of 1999, at 21 years old, still a scrupulous virgin waiting until marriage for sex and actually riding another excellent two month streak without masturbating, I found myself for unrelated, philosophical reasons unable to believe anymore. And as I’ve written about before, the first thing I remember doing upon letting go of my struggle to preserve my faith was masturbating without guilt for the first time.
The next summer I was at a convenience store, conspicuously waiting for all the other customers to leave so I could buy a porno. Since by now I was 8 months into learning to reclaim my sexuality as fundamentally something to embrace rather than war with until marriage, I wasn’t ashamed of what I was buying but it still felt awkward to risk being seen by other people admitting to my interest in sexual materials. When everyone had cleared out, I went to the counter and put my magazine up. The clerk, who seemed to be the owner, asked me how old I was. Nervous, I said 22. She asked if I should be buying this. And I asserted myself, I’m 22, I’m allowed to buy this. And she spat back at me, “I’m not questioning whether you’re allowed but whether you should.” I don’t remember saying anything else. As I left, I felt an inconsistent mixture of humiliation and fury at her hypocrisy. All I could think was “If she had such a moral qualm with people buying them that she would bully someone over doing it why was she selling them??”
For the full story of my years as a Christian and my journey to atheism and beyond, read my deconversion series.
More Camels With Hammers Posts on Sex:
4. “You Can’t Stop Teenagers From Having Sex”
5. Sex and Spirituality
6. Hot Passionate Rational Sex
7. How to Create The Sexual Utopia
9. Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery
10. On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”
11. A Debate About The Wisdom of Trying To Deconvert People
12. The Brothel Next Door