Has Anyone Seen My Dildo? A Workplace Tale

I’ll never know for sure, but I’m probably one of the only people to ever send an email to their entire office with the subject line, “Has Anyone Seen My Dildo?”  And instead of being fired or reprimanded, I received an outpouring of sympathy from the entire organization. “Dude, that sucks,” one manager told me. “I hope you get it back.”

Obviously, context matters, so I’ll try to fill you in on the essential details. When I got my start in HIV/AIDS services in the early 2000s, there was still a great deal of urgency to the outreach that needed to be done. Even though there were finally medications to prevent people from dying, the drug regimens could be quite harsh and complicated, not to mention expensive. For those of us who were providing prevention education, testing, and social support out in the community, there were no pharmaceutical options to offer that would stop new infections, like the current pre-exposure prophylaxis, or “PrEP.” The name of the game was (and continues to be) harm reduction, meaning that any step a person could take to reduce the odds of being infected, including abstinence and correct condom use, was considered a positive step.

Whatever we did, it had to reach people with information that could potentially save their lives, which added plenty of pressure to the job. However, because we worked in community-based settings instead of public health clinics, there was a bit more latitude, up to a point, in crafting our messaging. So yes, I was working in an AIDS organization where I kept a dildo on top of my cubicle. And that dildo went missing over Pride weekend 2004, but this wasn’t just any dildo. Here’s the story.

Tricks of the Trade

When I began working in HIV/AIDS in Lansing, Michigan, I was lucky to have colleagues and mentors who were not just clever and open-minded, but also willing to let us push the edge. Everyone who did outreach at local LGBTQ clubs, Pride festivals, and other community events was given their own demonstration dildo, so that we could engage people in ways that would make safer sex more provocative and fun. Armed with a variety of condoms – ribbed, extra-large, petite, flavored, and more – as well as dental damns, lube packets, candy, and plastic Mardi Gras beads, we would set up an outreach table and discreet testing area. If we could get people to practice their harm reduction skills using the condoms and dildos, there was a good chance we could convince them to get tested.

To add to the spectacle, I talked my boss into letting me buy an anatomically correct blowup doll named Big John. Anything a person could do with their date, they could practice on Big John, right there in the bar, including frontal options (with flavored condoms) or the backdoor (by removing the plastic ring of a female condom for anal use). And, well, Big John was not only obliging, but a big hit wherever we took him!

Imagine, if you will, a downtown gay club with a popular College Night, where patrons in their early twenties would pass our inflatable boyfriend around their group of friends, testing different safer sex supplies on him. Our outreach and testing numbers skyrocketed, we were invited to share our methods at a state outreach workers’ conference, and soon after I was offered a job in Minneapolis, doing similar work for a gay and bi men’s outreach and education program. Before I left, however, my wonderful colleagues presented me with a gift, “retiring” my outreach dildo like a sports jersey, and giving it to me at a going-away party, right in front my parents.

“Don’t bother me, I’m working!” – Big John, October 2003

Missing in Action

When I arrived in Minnesota, the dildo came with me to the office, sitting atop my cubicle with a purple Tinky Winky doll straddling the balls, surrounded by various beads and other rainbow-colored Pride trinkets. Never again would it be used for work, as this was my personal property, but it just sort of blended into the surroundings. In an office space that was explicitly queer and unapologetically sex-positive, people barely batted an eye. In addition to safer sex posters and all manner of gay-themed publications, we also had a giant, inflatable penis sitting in the corner of the drop-in space we used for social events. In this small corner of the world, where “queer” was the dominant culture, my dildo simply became another piece of scenery; at least, until it went missing.

Twin Cities Pride always brought with it a flurry of activity, as it seemed like we took half of the office with us to the park and parade. It wasn’t until after the weekend that I looked around my cubicle and noticed the missing dildo. What seemed like a simple misplacement soon turned to confusion, as none of my immediate co-workers knew where it had gone. After making a few discreet inquiries, I explained the situation to my supervisor, and with her permission, I went ahead and crafted an all-staff email. The subject line, you guessed it, was “Has Anyone Seen My Dildo?”

In the message, I gently explained its origins, emphasizing that while we had plenty of other dildos in the building (we did), this one was not for staff use. If it was returned, undamaged and clean, I promised to hold no grudges and would ask no further questions. A few hours later, one of the administrative staff, about the same age as me, quietly came into our work area, pale-faced and slightly trembling. She was so sorry, she told me. On an after-hours visit to our drop-in space, her boyfriend had slipped my dildo into her purse as a practical joke. Soon it was returned, intact, to its place of origin between Tinky Winky’s plush fabric thighs. The boyfriend also emailed me a sincere apology, with the subject line, “I Am A Dil-Hole.”

The mystery was solved, and all was forgiven.

The fun part, for me at least, was that the story never really went away. For years afterward, I heard supervisors telling their new employees, “This is a different kind of workplace. You might see emails like this…” Occasionally, someone would even repeat the tale to me, not realizing that I was its originator. When I left the organization in 2011, I offered a brief dramatic reading of the email at my goodbye party, just to make sure my legacy was cemented.

Queering the Context for Public Health

The point of all this was to do more than just mimic the slang that people use to describe their body parts and what they do with them. It was essential that we convey openness, understanding, and acceptance, so that anyone we spoke with would feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of their lives, without fear of judgment, in order to get help in protecting themselves. Condoms, dildos, and blowup dolls were the eye-catching hook; beneath the surface, the work was much more serious.

In my Doctoral program, I remained fascinated with these organizations, where there seemed to be a higher acceptance for individuality and creative self-expression, as well as a willingness to put aside the dry, clinical language of sexual health, to reach people where they were. In my research, I uncovered a history of LGBTQ community services predating the AIDS epidemic, which played a key role in influencing the culture of HIV/AIDS organizations from the 1980s to the present day. And the history of HIV/AIDS is littered with examples of anti-LGBTQ politicians using their power to try and suppress these forms of self-expression, attaching “don’t say gay” provisions to funding bills as a way to punish organizations they felt were “promoting” homosexuality.

Artifacts of an earlier era

Organizational theory around health and human services has a lot to say about workplace development, structure, culture, and goals. Sadly, there’s not a whole lot in that literature addressing the role of dirty words, condoms, dildos, and blowup dolls. I suspect that there are a lot more stories like mine out there, and I’m hopeful that they won’t be overlooked or forgotten in the future. As academia and pop culture continues to look back at the impact of HIV/AIDS, these anecdotes are important for documenting not just who was doing the work, but how the work got done.

For any readers who have a sexual health workplace-related “dildo story” of their own, feel free to drop it in the comments! And don’t be surprised if I contact you for an interview in the future.  

3 Comments on “Has Anyone Seen My Dildo? A Workplace Tale”

  1. Great article. It was well written – imparting an important message. It reminded me of an incident that took place one morning at LAAN. I don’t remember if you were working that day. My guess is not as we had been out until the bars closed the night before. We had engaged in another successful outreach in one of the local clubs, a popular night spot on Washington Avenue, in downtown Lansing. The incident in question took place on the morning after. As I recall, Kaye and I were at the LAAN main office, meeting in one of the Prevention offices, reviewing the activities of the night prior. We heard a scream and then a crash. We ran to the “kitchen” to discover an older woman sprawled out on the floor. There were a few dishes on the floor next to her and the dishwasher door was open. The lady was a volunteer receptionist, at the office to do a four-hour shift on the switchboard. Apparently, it was a quiet morning so she had decided to be helpful and put away the clean dishes from the dishwasher. When she took a few dishes out of the dishwasher, she observed some nice sized, life-like penises, standing at attention, greeting her with pride. Upon seeing them, she let out a scream, fell backwards, and dropped the dishes she had in her hands. We all got a good laugh out of the “event” and as importantly, that volunteer receptionist was unhurt and able to finish her shift. To our amazement, she was back the next day for another shift. I don’t recall, however, if she ever emptied the dishwasher again. For those of us who used realistic replicas of body parts as tools of the trade, finding an erect penis in an unusual place was not surprising. For an elderly woman in one of her first days of volunteer services with an Aids Service Organization, the experience swept her off her feet.

    • Thank you for sharing, Tony! I feel like the very idea of a workplace culture where human sexuality could be acknowledged so candidly and positively is a story that needs to be told. “Professionalism” is not a one-size-fits-all concept!

  2. Oh Michael, isn’t it rich that being culturally literate and reflective of those we serve can be construed as inappropriate! When “Mrs. Smith” has more power than educated professionals, we know politics impede public health. The fear of a legislator getting a complaint from a voter prevents effective, appropriate public health work. But here’s to creative educators. I’ll always take pride in my “Talking Gloryhole” that was used during interviews so that any potential employee could see the graffiti on the clothing box made up to be a wall of a restroom stall. It was a wonderful illustration that said, “we respect sexual diversity and celebrate sex” in this workplace. Thanks for your perpetual advocacy and keeping gay men’s sexual culture front and center. Hugs, dear friend.

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