Retail Therapy: Sex Shops, the user’s guide

With just under a month to go before Santa swings his sack down your chimney, the season of good cheer, mince pies, and frantic spending is well and truly upon us.
To celebrate this much need boost to the flailing economy, I thought it would be a good idea to indulge in a little retail history lesson, and talk about sex shops.

Yes, instant pause, and the odd shudder. Now, when you ask your average Brit what they think about sex shops, you generally get a blank look, followed by a description of either Ann Summers style pink and girly, or a seedy little place with bad lighting and blacked out windows. Research has shown that many people still feel that they are a taboo subject, an unacknowledged area of retail, hidden at the back of the economy behind a fake wall and a doorman.
Even after BDS&M became one of the most read about subjects of 2012 through the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, it seems we still have a long way to go…now it’s OK to talk about sex toys and paddles, but we get embarrassed if we enquire where to buy them?

I find this taboo most upsetting.

I think that when it comes to the unknown, the great Terry Pratchett has got it right. People fear the unknown, and if you name, and discuss a thing, it becomes less frightening. OK then class, here’s Sex Shops 101.

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s first sex shop, Beate Uhse AG, which opened in 1962, in Flensberg, West Germany. It was called ” The Institute for Marital Hygiene. They sold lingerie, magazines and books, contraceptives, pharmaceutical preparations and “stimulatory products”. No films! There was a massive demand, and by 1971 there were 25 shops all over Germany. Today they operate in over 60 countries world wide, and employ over 1,500 people.

In the UK, sex shops are governed by strict laws and regulations, and you need permission from the local council. The fall into 2 categories, referred to as “licensed” and “unlicensed”, which can be confusing. Basically, licensed shops can sell adult films(R18) and unlicensed shops can’t – this does not mean unlicensed sex shops are operating illegally! If a shop is found to be selling adult films without a license, or illegal porn, it will be closed. The council makes sure that they don’t open before 9 am, and aren’t in unsuitable places, such as next to a primary school, and make sure the window displays are appropriate.

So, after Beate Uhse started in 1962, sex shops began springing up all over the place. The first shops weren’t half as swish as the ones we have today, and helped to create the dirty, seedy image still so frequently associated with erotic retail. Ann Summers shop opened in Marble Arch in London in 1970, and after Jacqueline Gold initiated the party idea in 1982, the industry became a little more female friendly.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the creation of the internet snowballed into a boom, which was partially fuelled by the demand and supply of online porn and erotica, let alone the online sex shop businesses. After typing in “sex shop online” just now, I had roughly 277,000,000 hits. It’s very difficult to get up to date info on the industry value, as few people study it, and it depends which categories you include…toys, clothes, outfits, accessories? A 2006 report on the sex toy industry said that globally it was worth $15 billion, and growing fast.

With around 4,000 Ann Summers parties in the UK a week, and their Rampant Rabbit sales hitting 2 million a year, it’s fair enough to say that like it or not, sex shops are here, and not only surviving, but thriving. So why the fear?

Now, I’ve always been quite liberal when it comes to sex, as you have probably guessed from this blog. I’ve researched erotic retail and produced academic work on the subject. I frequently pop into sex shops when I’m out and about to have a nose at the latest incarnation of the Rabbit. I’ve also worked in a sex shop, and have first hand experience of the type of people who run them, and the type of people who visit them. Do you know who shops in these places?…


People just like you and me. People of all different backgrounds, ages, races, socio-economic backgrounds. Men, women, young, old, LGBT, straight…everyone.
I’ve sold sex toys to pensioners, and condoms to students, shoes and outfits to strippers, and underwear to working mums and dads.

The shop was brightly lit, and clean, with clear signs pointing out the cut-off between the clothes, underwear and shoes at the front, and the toys, accessories, and other outfits at the back. The window display was respectable..saucy at worst, because we had to keep to the rules. They had a birthday party while I was there, to celebrate 10 years of the business. 10 years!

The owners are lovely…just a normal couple, trying to make a living from providing a service, and doing their best to make sure they don’t upset anyone who might get offended, not just because they don’t want to lose their license, but because they are decent people. It was a fun, friendly environment to work in, and I loved it far more than many better paid ” respectable” office based jobs I’ve had since.

I’ve been into some examples of the seedy type of shops, and some of the not so seedy, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry the first time I visited one of the downstairs establishments in Soho…it turned into trench coat bowling, with a mass exodus of embarrassed looking middle aged men hiding their porn under their briefcases.

I’ve seen some beautiful shops in London, Brighton, Paris, and Amsterdam, catering to the high profile clientele, with the best quality corsets, beautiful hand crafted toys in exquisite display cases. The customer service and product knowledge was excellent, and it saddens me so much to think that even places like these have to fight the stigma of being seedy, dirty, and disrespectful.

At the end of the day, people like sex, and with that, sex related and sexy products. Some people are unhappy, uncomfortable, and very reluctant to talk, or even think about these places, and I understand that. I hope that I have answered a few unspoken questions, and at the very least, given some encouraging economic statistics! Let’s face it, sex sells, and we could all do with a little retail therapy now and again. Just don’t forget the batteries!




About littlewelshminx

I'm a Welsh girl in my 30s, living and working in south Wales. I like reading, writing, watching films (especially things that make me laugh) hanging out with friends, going to bars to drink and dance playing guitar (badly) listening to lots of different types of music (opera to dance to bluegrass to rock) going to the theatre, and I've recently started swimming. I have 2 degrees, and have had lots and lots of different jobs, including working as a barmaid, waitress, KP, shop assistant, admin assistant, events, sales, PR, marketing....writing suits me best. I will be writing about sex from as many angles as possible - from personal experience, through academia, history, geography, culture, myth, legend, fact and fiction. What is sexy? What turns us on? What do we really think and feel about sex? If you like what you read, please follow me, and pass it on :)
This entry was posted in economy, erotic, erotic retail, Personal experience, Sex, sex shops, shopping, UK Industry. Bookmark the permalink.

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