Is That a Perfectly Legal, Anatomically Correct Condom Education Model, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Cock rings. Anal plugs. Nipple clamps. Dildos.

One of these things is not like the others. Can you guess which one?

Sure, they're all sex toys, but only one -- the humble dildo -- is legally verboten in the state of Texas. According to the Texas Penal Code, which details what devices good, law-abiding Texans may and may not purchase for their personal pleasure, dildos (and all other items made specifically to stimulate the genitals) can't be collected, bought, or sold in the state.

What's that you say? You think you bought a dildo here in Austin? That's an "anatomically correct condom education model" to you, young lady. Which you would already know if you had read the release form some local businesses have started making their patrons sign.

It's not that businesses are going to personally hold you to that promise, any more than head shops really think you're going to use that "water pipe" to smoke tobacco. It's just that they've been burned before. The law is a harsh, unforgiving mistress, but what it says is fairly simple: "Obscene devices" -- defined as anything, including a dildo, vibrator, or artificial vagina, "designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs" -- can't be sold in the state of Texas (or in Georgia, for those keeping track), except for "a bona fide medical, psychiatric, judicial, legislative, or law enforcement purpose." If you can prove you're using those models to demonstrate how to put on a condom, that's fine. If you're thinking about using them for a more personal sort of education, that's not. (Oddly, the law doesn't prevent people from owning sexual devices; it just makes selling them illegal. But don't let your collection get out of hand: If you're hiding more than six dongs in your closet, that's intent to "promote" -- a class A misdemeanor.)

How much you can get away with depends on how strictly local police choose to enforce the law; nothing requires, for example, that a police department have a vice squad devoted to rooting out victimless sexual crimes in the first place. Austin's 20-officer vice squad was disbanded in 1998, and its responsibilities were devolved to the various street response units, on the assumption that different neighborhoods had different problems, not all of them directly related to so-called vice. According to APD Assistant Chief Rick Coy, who heads the department's organized crime division and oversaw a major reorganization of the department two years ago, the problems vary widely from area to area; in Northwest Austin, Coy says, the biggest problem is burglary; in most of East Austin, it's drugs.

Major long-term investigations involving sexually oriented businesses continue under the department's organized crime division, but an APD spokeswoman says most one-time "stings" on such businesses involve sexual behavior -- e.g., indecent exposure and prostitution -- not trade in sexual devices.

It wasn't always that way. As recently as the late Eighties and early Nineties, at least two high-profile raids were conducted on local shops by two prominent vice squad commanders. Forbidden Fruit was raided by the notorious Bubba Cates in 1989 (for offering dildos, vibrators, and other so-called contraband); and four years later, Planet K got stung by Cates' successor Jack Kelly, for selling a plastic inflatable sheep.

"They came flying through the door, busted in, and ransacked the place, and took everything they could get their hands on," recalls Lynn, the owner of Forbidden Fruit (who spoke to the Chronicle on the condition that her last name not be used). According to a news report in the Austin American-Statesman the day after the raid, the sting "netted about 400 sexual devices and the arrest of the store manager," Carole Vise. After taking a huge loss in the raid, the store got more careful about the packaging and display of its merchandise, most of which is marketed almost exclusively to women.

The irony -- that most sex crimes are committed by men, yet the people targeted by "obscene device" laws are predominantly women -- isn't lost on Lynn, who speculates that the men writing the laws "must have three-inch penises" to be so concerned about regulating female pleasure. Still, no one has talked seriously about rescinding the law since it was passed in 1973.

On the bright side, the dildo law -- or the "obscenity" ordinance, as puritans would have it -- has made adult-oriented businesses more creative about what they sell and how they sell it. Forbidden Fruit, for example, could probably get by, financially speaking, on its piercing and fetishwear businesses alone, not to mention its massive (and perfectly legal) collection of bondage gear. They're even branching out into e-commerce, but unlike such massive mail-order companies as Xandria and Adam and Eve, they won't let any "questionable" merchandise cross state lines. Instead, Lynn says, they'll focus on things you can find only in Texas: custom body harnesses, handmade leather restraints, and other toys the laws of Texas smile upon.

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