In the seven years she worked at Babeland, a sex toy store in Manhattan, Avital, a psychotherapist in New York, came to know all kinds of different customers. “As long as people were respectful, we were happy to help folks from all walks of life,” she tells me.
Even the occasional buzzed Sunday brunchers were fine, if not a bit annoying. But there was one type of folk from a particularly jolly walk of life that Avital and her coworkers were never happy to help: Santa.
Specifically, drunk Santas who barged into the store during SantaCon, an annual Santa-themed bar crawl in New York, Chicago and many other cities across the country. Despite allegedly being for charity, in 2013, the New York Times argued that SantaCon “contributes absolutely zero value — cultural, artistic, aesthetic, diversionary, culinary or political — to its host neighborhood. Quite simply, SantaCon is a parasite.” That same year, Business Insider deemed SantaCon a “dreaded annual event where frat house expats wreak havoc on the city dressed as the jolly holiday icon.”
For her part, Avital says, “Retail always feels a bit like a Wild West frontier town — people blow through, there’s a sense of general lawlessness, and there’s a small group of people trying to keep order. But SantaCon at a sex shop? That’s a very specific hell.”
Here’s exactly how specific, in her own words…
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During the first SantaCon I experienced, I saw an elf blowing a Santa in an alley in broad daylight. Then I heard a Santa using the n-word on the subway in front of a bunch of black schoolchildren. Perhaps this should’ve given me an idea of what to expect while working SantaCon at the sex shop, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what came next.
Before the Santas made their way through the city, the store was quiet, peaceful even. Then, like the orcs breaching the wall in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, we saw cheap red suits coming toward us, and suddenly, the store was full of drunk Santas. It felt like this unstoppable force of chaos and darkness. People freak out about sex and sex toys on their best days — they carry a lot of shame about sexuality and that gets turned into manic energy. So add all that to binge-drinking and a mob mentality, and things can become very unsafe, very quickly.
We did have protocol for when an individual shopper was behaving inappropriately, but this wasn’t the kind of situation where we were in a position to “ask” anything, including asking people to leave. There were too many of them, and they were too far gone — all wearing the same thing and blending together into a drunk Santa-singularity. They were just too loud, chaotic and destructive to call out any one individual or politely ask them to leave. It would have been like asking a family of rabid opossums to get out of your shed.
The terror of the moment caused myself and my coworkers to switch into survival mode, and we had no choice but to hide behind the register and scream at them to get out. Thankfully, they came in during a time of day when there weren’t a ton of shoppers in the store, but even if there was just one person trying to buy one condom, I wanted to do what I could to offer them a pleasant shopping experience. I felt protective of our customers — again, these were people seeking advice about something personal and intimate — and they deserved to do so without an army of shitfaced Kris Kringles screaming in their faces and hitting each other with dildos.
Still, we were committed to not calling the police and decided to just lock the door and refuse entry to the Santas. They’re not customers, which is an important distinction. They weren’t there to shop; they were there to laugh at our merchandise, break things, slap each other with dildos and behave inappropriately more generally.
In subsequent years, we just closed the shop during SantaCon. We knew what was going to happen and decided it would minimize the potential for harm to us and the store. It was a judgment call, but I’m glad we made it.
Finding non-carceral solutions toward our safety was something we were specific about fighting for in our union contract. For all the conversations we had about boundaries and consent with our customers, we were often penalized for asserting boundaries at work as employees, and it was that idea that led to our unionization — a sense of what we needed from our workplace in order to do our jobs safely and effectively.
All of which is to say, SantaCon stands out because, hello, Santas, but really, the behavior wasn’t that different from what we experienced on a smaller scale every day, which is similar to what a lot of retail and low-wage workers experience: harassment and an inability to have basic boundaries because we have to maintain a smile and pleasant attitude. We were making shit money (13 bucks an hour) for such an emotionally exhausting space, so when we came together to unionize, we wanted to raise our wages (and did!), but we also wanted to make it clear that we deserved the power to keep ourselves safe without fear of discipline by management.
That’s why I’m really proud that we won very specific protections in the contract — things like being paid for the remainder of a shift if you had to close due to safety reasons, mandatory minimum staffing levels at busy times so no one was ever alone on the floor and self-defense and de-escalation training.
And none of it would have happened without that raging crowd of drunk, aggressive Santas during SantaCon, which finally tipped the scales for us to form a union and secure those protections. — As told to Quinn Myers