Rubbing One Out on the Road: Adult Stores in the Era of Internet Porn

Shopping at a porn store is like navigating by atlas or making a phone call with a landline. Despite the dominance of internet porn, however, “Adult Stores” still dot roads throughout the U.S.

Freeways are one long advertisement. Spend enough time driving and you become numb to the continuous stream of billboards. But entire industries are built on making you look up from the road. In its most effective forms, this is achieved either through novelty or anticipation. Slap half of a car on a billboard and you have a great ad for an auto body shop. Make someone laugh or think and you are bound to have more customers. Or you can harass the shit out of drivers for hundreds of miles.

Travelers subjected to: “100 miles ‘til the world’s best cup of coffee, 99 miles ‘til the world’s best cup of coffee, 98 miles ‘til the world’s best cup of coffee…” are likely to stop more from the built-up anticipation than from any expectation of good coffee. Some businesses have found that attracting customers is about wearing them down until they say: “Fuck it, I’ve got to try this coffee.” This is how I found myself standing outside a 24-hr cafe holding a lukewarm brown mess deemed “The World’s Best Cup of Coffee.” It’s also how I ended up at Sarah’s Adult Bookstore.

100 miles to Sarah’s.

The best chance you’ve got in the middle of nowhere

Roadside porn shops are a respectful part of the sex industry. Titles like “Gift & Novelty Shop,” “Adult Videos,” and “Adult Boutique” make them relatively hidden. Zone out and you may not even notice them. But tasteful names create a thin veil for the stores’ true content: beating-off material for the men and women of the road. This purpose was clear from the second sign: 95 miles to Sarah’s Adult BookstoreTrucker’s Welcome. Based on the fact that truckers spend most of their time looking at the road, I found it unlikely that they were stopping at Sarah’s for steamy adult fiction paperbacks.

75 miles to Sarah’s Adult BookstoreCouples Welcome.

This struck me as an odd line. Were long-haul truckers in relationships stopping for little trinkets to spice up their sex life? Did burly couples in flannels represent the largest consumers of giant purple dildos? Did Sarah have regulars who stopped in for beef jerky-flavored condoms? Who had seen the sign 20 miles earlier for truckers and thought: “This seems like a great place to take my spouse, if only they were somehow couple friendly…”

50 miles to Sarah’s Adult BookstoreOver 1,000 Videos Available.

This only intensified my suspicion. Who still buys porn DVDs? With free internet porn easily accessible on all your devices, how did stores justify stocking hard copies? And who the hell carried a DVD player around in case they stopped at Sarah’s? These questions baffled me for the next stretch of road. How could Sarah’s exist in a world with internet porn?

With endless content, zero cost, instantaneous access, and full discretion (provided you know how to clear your web browser’s history), internet porn destroyed sex shops like Sarah’s. In the last 10 years, it has become pervasive enough to spawn pop culture references. 2009’s I Love You, Man featured a “grandma riding a sybian” joke that was lost on no one. Most viewers not only knew what a sybian was, but had probably seen a similar video. Given recent statistics that suggest the average age at which a child first sees porn is 11, this is not a surprising revelation. Millennials that grow up with internet sex consider it normal. In 2008, researchers found that ⅔ of young males and ½ of young females agreed that “viewing porn is acceptable.” The epitome of the recent normalization is “2 girls, 1 cup”: a scat fetish video that not only spun thousands of reaction videos, but also warranted a Wikipedia page. If everyone is watching porn—or has at least seen it—then who are the patrons of the physical porn shop?

25 miles to Sarah’s Adult Bookstore—Since 1975.

I grew up in the transition years between magazines and hardcore internet porn, old enough to remember stealing Playboy’s but young enough to have explored the far reaches of internet depravity while sexually maturing. Sarah’s is a relic of past erotica and as I drive towards it, I become nostalgic. Pausing an R-rated movie on a racy frame to masturbate is innocent. Getting busted when “you mom threw away your best porno mag” is funny. But becoming addicted or jerking yourself into porn-induced erectile dysfunction is neither.

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10 miles to Sarah’s Adult Bookstore—You’re almost there.

The first time I viewed internet porn was in my middle school library. Our school had just purchased fully-equipped computers, and the librarians were not yet up-to-speed on safesearch or parental controls. Crowded around a monitor, typing in “boobs” and “vagina” into Google, my classmates and I discovered the dream of every 13-year-old boy.

6 miles to Sarah’s Adult Bookstore—Come see the state’s largest collection.

Since my first viewing, internet porn has frequently appeared in my life. A faux orientation email that landed in my inbox during my first week of college led to a video titled: “Anal Acrobats.” I will leave the content up to your imagination. While living in a dorm or college house, it’s hard not to walk in on someone watching porn. I had a roommate so comfortable with the process that when I once caught him mid-stroke, he continued and yelled over the sound of the video: “I’m masturbating!”

2 miles to Sarah’s Adult Bookstore.

Denying personal use is to refute scientific data—studies find that 70% of men aged 18-24 visit porn sites in a typical month—but I find the habit to be disturbing. I am opposed to internet porn not based on any moral, religious, feminist, or psychological viewpoints, but rather based on social reasons. Do I want to be associated with the person who stares at pictures of assholes online and then quickly deletes any evidence? Or would I rather be alongside the creep proudly browsing the DVD rack? A giant sign for Sarah’s Adult Bookstore filled the parking lot alongside I-35. As I parked next to a semi and exited my car, a trucker gave me a firm nod. Maybe this was the community of perverts I wanted to belong to.

Images courtesy of Joel Kramer and Missouri News Horizon