Since becoming a patient educator in the Program for Integrative Sexual Medicine (PRISM) Clinic, I habitually check the “feminine product” aisle each and every time I’m at any grocery, drug or convenience store. One piece of education provided to every PRISM patient is if, when, how and why to use vaginal moisturizers and/or lubricants, so I like to stay current on what’s typically available and where. Recently, I was grocery shopping at one of Chicago’s supermarket chain locations and made my way towards my number one aisle of interest.
Please let there be lubricant options besides KY Jelly, I think to myself. Maybe Good Clean Love, Pink or Uberlube? Do they carry vaginal moisturizers? They probably sell Replens, but which packaging: pre-filled applicators or fill-as-you-go? Will this be the first store I encounter to carry Hyalo Gyn, a popular moisturizer that is currently only available via online order?
Upon finally locating the aisle (at the very end of the last aisle, next to the storage room), I was shocked to discover that the lubricants, condoms, pregnancy tests and over-the counter yeast treatment products were held captive behind a locked glass display case. Vaginal moisturizers were, thankfully but inexplicably, spared. To access these items, a customer would need to locate a store attendant to unlock the case and then select her item(s) of choice with said attendant by her side.
Many of us can relate to the unease that accompanies a first-time purchase of condoms, tampons, pregnancy tests or lube. Coping strategies might include purchasing additional (likely unneeded) products to detract attention, visiting a less convenient location to minimize risk of recognition, selecting a store with the coveted self-checkout function or even shoplifting. While no one should be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed for purchasing sexual self-care products (anyone interested in practicing safe, comfortable and pleasurable sex gets an A+ in my book), imagine the message that’s sent by making these products physically inaccessible to customers “STOP. Do you really want to buy this product? Do you want it so much that you will go through extra steps, that include a lock and key, to acquire it?” YES. The answer is yes, and that’s okay. But what’s not okay is that this barrier exists.
Apparently, placing condoms and other sexual health products behind glass is not unique to this Chicago establishment. Back in 2006, George Washington University students launched the “Save Lives: Free the Condoms” campaign to persuade CVS to stop restricting access to condoms with locked display cases. The group reported that CVS was more likely to restrict access in low income, primarily minority communities with high rates of HIV/AIDS. According to a CVS spokesperson, the condoms were secured due to high rates of theft. However, in a 2011 study, University of Iowa researchers analyzed condom sales and theft data from eight Iowa community pharmacies. Though the study does have its limitations, the researchers found that when condom displays were unlocked, more condoms were stolen and purchased but that sales outweighed theft in all pharmacies.
In an ideal world, this barrier to access would not exist or would end with the publication of this blog. However, while we continue to raise heck about this issue at our local stores, we also need to buy our lube.
So, if the lube is locked up at your neighborhood store…
1. Ask for assistance. While it may feel uncomfortable, flagging down a store employee doesn’t have to be an unbearable experience. If available, pharmacists can be a great resource for over-the-counter purchases and may be better equipped than a sales attendant to answer questions. If you need help locating or accessing lubricants or vaginal moisturizers, take a deep breath, find the nearest store employee and say “Can you assist me in accessing the vaginal lubricants?” One of my favorite sexual self-care product purchase stories (yes, there are many) comes from a PRISM patient who, somewhat hesitantly, approached a drugstore pharmacist for help locating the vaginal moisturizers (hint: I usually start near the menstrual products). The patient briefly explained to the pharmacist that she was suffering from severe vaginal dryness as a result of her cancer treatment and that her doctor recommended she try a vaginal moisturizer. As it turned out, the pharmacist was also a cancer survivor and a regular vaginal moisturizer user! The pharmacist was able to escort the patient to the moisturizers, describe the available options and even speak personally to her brand of choice.
If the thought of approaching a pharmacist or sales attendant makes your heart beat faster…
2. Go for an oil-based lubricant. Coconut oil, olive oil, and vegetable oil are great, all-natural lubricant options. You might be thinking to yourself – “What?! The same stuff I use to sauté vegetables??” Yes. I know it might sound crazy but these oils often used for cooking can also be used in the bedroom! One of the perks of using an oil-based lubricant is that they are at extremely low risk of display case incarceration. These lubricants can typically be found in the cooking oils aisle at the grocery store. The checkout clerk will have no clue what’s on the menu for your night (see what I did there?). You can find more information on the pros and cons of different types of lubricants here.
3. Visit a store that specializes in lubricants and moisturizers. Often called ‘sex shops’, ‘adult toy’ and ‘adult entertainment’ stores, these places are locked-case-free and may even have tester bottles and samples so that you can smell and feel (with your fingers) the various products. In my experience, employees at these stores (often women) are extremely knowledgeable, friendly and judgment-free.
4. Order online. Many brick-and-mortar sex shops have websites to facilitate online orders, but Amazon.com also has tons of options (and discreet packaging!) for lubricants, moisturizers, vibrators and dilators.
5. Make it a date. Bring your partner, friend, mom, sister with you for social support! I find asking for help is always easier with a companion.
I hope we will one day live in a world where anyone can purchase these products without feelings of fear, shame or embarrassment. Until then, my plea to this store, and any other store imprisoning their sexual health products, is to free the lube (and the condoms, pregnancy tests and “feminine care” products, too)!
** Please note—products above are listed as examples and are not indicative of endorsement or sponsorship