The erotic industry has changed considerably over the past decade as female-led retailers have moved into what was once seen as a predominantly male market place. This image shift has come from the rise of women focused erotic shops. The UK has five strong contenders: Myla, Ann Summers, Beate Ushe, Coco-de-Mer and SH! These retailers have disassociated themselves from the negative image of sex shops to create plush, boutique style, shopping experiences. The shops are often luxurious, opulent, ascetically pleasing and most of all female friendly.
A major development in encouraging the growth of the female erotic retailing industry is women’s changing attitudes towards sex. “Once renowned for being sexually repressed the British are now seen as ready and willing to welcome chains plying risqué underwear and adult objects,” (Marketing Week 2002, pp19). Female independence – financially and emotionally – has played a major part in why female erotic shops have become more acceptable sex shop.
Michael Vaughan, Beate Ushe’s UK Retail Executive takes this view further. “Attitudes have changed enormously in the past five years and even more dramatically in the past two. There are some broad factors, such as more divorcees, meaning more single women, more women living alone, and more equality that account for this. Women generally have greater control of their lives,” (Marketing Week, 2002, pp19).
When I wrote my first dissertation on the rise of women as customers of female-led sex shops I surveyed women from across the UK. The results showed a strong negative image associated with sex shops, even though there are more female erotic shops in the UK than there ever has been – albeit mostly in London. Although the industry is growing, the old perceptions are difficult to shake off.
For the women surveyed the overall feeling of sex shops was of ‘seediness’, ‘men in long raincoats’, and being located down ‘dodgy back alleys’. These perceptions were spread across all age ranges, and locations. Another issue which arose was one of embarrassment. Being seen in a sex shop, buying objects of a sexual nature caused a great unease amongst the women.
The problem then is how respond to these issues. Shops such as Myla and Coco-de-Mer have done this successfully by creating high-end luxury boutique shops that are far removed from the male sex shops that dominate the industry. With open, clear windows and beautiful furnishings the shops give a sense of openness showing women they have nothing to fear.
The research identified great interest amongst women regarding erotic shops, and their product. But the indisputable driving force that stopped women from visiting sex shops was the negative associations connected with the industry. Bringing female sex shops into the shopping mainstream is an important aspect in changing this attitude. Location is also critical. Women need to feel safe.
There is no doubting that women, like men, are interested in sex, but in terms of sex shops women want style, safety, comfort and fashion. The belief that sex shops are frequented by ‘dirty old men’ is undoubtedly a view that needs changing. Shops like SH!, in London, have taken this on by adopting a policy that men aren’t allowed into the shop unless accompanied by a responsible woman. Where ten years ago access to items of a sexual nature was limited for women, the UK now has five strong female-led erotic retailers, each with their own style, but all with a strong awareness on women as consumers.