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Last Updated: Friday, 12 November, 2004, 10:26 GMT
Selling sex on the High Street
By Georgina Pattinson
BBC News

A sexual revolution is sweeping Britain's high streets like a Rampant Rabbit through a hen party.

Shops selling vibrators, bondage kit and naughty nurses' uniforms were once grubby basements, patronised by seedy men in macs.

Now they can be found all over the UK. But there's nothing furtive about these stores, with their novelty knickers and massage oil. They are well-lit, welcoming and packed with women.

According to surveys, half of all Britons use sex toys. Certainly, two million vibrators are bought every year from Ann Summers and 500 platinum Rampant Rabbit vibrators are sold every week.

Ann Summers says 70% of its customers are ABC1 women and the other 30% are men shopping with their partners.

The "UK's number one pleasure retailer" - as Ann Summers calls itself - now has a total of 117 High Street shops across the UK. Its turnover last year was £110m. And it's facing new challengers for its position as market dominatrix.

'Erotic department store'?

Boots has been talking to condom-maker Durex about stocking sex toys. No decision has been reached - but Garry Watts, chief executive of Durex's parent company SSL, says Boots is simply investigating a trend.

It's good we've lost that smutty attitude towards sex
Zelda West-Meads

"People are becoming...more open-minded. Products to help people have a healthy and happy love life are much more normal," he says.

Hustler Hollywood opened in Birmingham this month. Described as an erotic department store, the outlet is a 6,000 sq ft adult entertainment, leopard-printed extravaganza.

The company wants to expand to 10 sites across the UK by 2012 - London, Nottingham and Cardiff are next on the list.

And the store is certainly not sited in the city's equivalent of the plain brown paper wrapping. No, it's parked on Birmingham High Street.

Ann Summers advertisement
Sex and the City boosted the popularity of the Rampant Rabbit

Britain already has Agent Provocateur, selling lingerie that blurs the lines between luxury and fantasy. Whips and nipple tassels are available alongside basques and suspenders.

And there's Myla, with outlets in London and Manchester. It is famous for its designer sex toys, which it sells to women who - as creative director Charlotte Semler puts it - are the kind to have "Phillippe Starck accessories in their kitchen".

What you can buy (for a palpitation-inducing £199) is a work of art, which can be proudly displayed on a coffee table. Sex isn't embarrassing, Ms Semler says, it's just private. And Myla stores, she insists, are oases of good taste and restraint.

So is Britain is shaking off the fur-lined handcuffs of prudish behaviour?

Two and a half cheers if we are, says Zelda West-Meads, counsellor and psycho-sexual therapist, who writes advice for the Mail on Sunday.

"It's good we've lost that smutty attitude towards sex. Going back generations there was so much - shame and sex were mixed together.

Hustler opening
Birmingham residents did not seem particularly shocked by Hustler

"Good sex is as natural as eating and breathing and having fun."

It's women who are reaping the benefits, after all, she says. "I think what the increase in shops that sell sexy things shows is there's a much more open attitude to sex between couples."

Surely though, a display of phallus-shaped devices in family-friendly shops is a step too far? Ms West-Meads agrees and says Boots would have to make products accessible but discreet.

"I think it's important if they are going to do it, that it's nicely packaged and tastefully displayed."

That's the attitude at Myla, says Charlotte Semler. "It's all about recognising that 'in your face' is not sexy," she says.

Indeed, one of the things she is proud of is that parents are happy to pop in, even if they have children in tow. (Stores are filled with lingerie - sex toys are unobtrusively displayed).

When you put sex shops on the high street you are normalising a distorted view of women's sexuality
Catherine Harper

In fact, councils have control over sex shop licences. Westminster City Council, for example, insists window displays are restricted to lingerie and that staff should stop children from wandering into areas where more risqué objects are for sale.

A minority could be offended by graphic sex toys on prominent display, says John Lenkiewicz, director of the Institute of Sexuality and Human Relations in London.

"It very much depends but the overwhelming majority - especially young people - are accepting of that kind of merchandise."

But, he says, openness helps. "I do feel that taking a more relaxed attitude to sex and relationships matters. It makes communication in that area easier."

Double standards

Some are unhappy about such stores, though. Catherine Harper, from the group Scottish Women Against Pornography, says she is not anti-sex - but thinks a store like Ann Summers legitimises porn.

"When you put sex shops on the High Street you are normalising a distorted view of women's sexuality," she says.

Dr Sasha Rakoff, a spokeswoman for Object, which campaigns against sexual stereotyping, says shops like Ann Summers can be positive - but their presence on high streets can reinforce the message that it is a woman's job to be sexually attractive.

"I am not saying that this is not a part of female sexuality - of course it is and thank God that is now recognised - but it seems that this has now become the only way women express their sexuality," she says.

"Surely it should be equally a part of the expression of our sexuality to want to see men sexually display to us - in the way men apparently want to see 'female sex' . But 'male sex' simply does not exist on the High Street."

Hustler boss eyes 10 UK sex shops
31 Oct 04 |  Business


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