Female focused sex shops
This week I’ve been spending time in sex shops. Oh, stop sniggering at the back there. I bet you’re thinking of sticky floors and flickering neon, now, aren’t you? Grubby windows and lone, sweaty-palmed gentlemen who can’t quite meet the cashier’s eye. Wrong. The sex shop might still suffer from a bit of an image problem, but a new wave of female-orientated outlets are taking hold of central Scotland, with the emphasis on serious, grown-up glamour.
In the beginning, there was Ann Summers, the ‘upmarket’ chain of sex-shops reinvented as female-friendly party planners by young executive Jacqueline Gold in 1987. Ann Summers parties feel almost innocent these days – peekaboo bras and French maid costumes are pulled on over sweatshirts; the party-goers sit cross-legged on the floor and giggle as they try out vibrators on their noses. There’s now a store on every high street in Scotland (except Perth, where concerned citizens had it shut down), selling jokey, genital-shaped chocolate, hen night smut and softcore erotica, and while there’s no doubt that the company helped make it more acceptable for British women to be open about shopping for sex toys and saucy lingerie, today’s increasingly sophisticated consumers are looking for something a bit different. London store Coco de Mar, run by Anita Roddick’s daughter Sam, was among the first to realise this, reenvisaging sex shopping as a high-end lifestyle experience, and one in which women were encouraged to take a lead – and it finally seems to be catching on north of the border too.
Entering the newly-opened Agent Provocateur store on Glasgow’s Ingram Street, with its complex, splendid set pieces, concept lighting and legions of housecoat-clad glamour girls, is a bit like shopping in a Busby Berkeley musical. Busby probably wouldn’t have got the display cases of glittering whips past the censors, right enough.
‘The Agent Provocateur experience is about avoiding that very British prudery, where we insist on categorising anything to do with sex as sleazy or smutty,’ said their spokeswoman Jacqui Soliman.
Agent Provocateur landed in Glasgow just as their controversial, high profile ad campaign, featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a reclusive Norma Desmond-esque Hollywood star who schools corn-fed prom queens in the ways of lingerie, was creating ripples. In her slicked-on black liner, red lipstick, and see-through slips, Gyllenhaal recalls Dita Von Teese and Bettie Page, the current fashion for burlesque performance and the femmes fatales of 1930s and 1940s film noir. Worlds away from the seedy strip joints and video shops marketed at men, this is an accessible, overtly sexy form of expression that allows women control over their own sexuality, and which is becoming increasingly popular.
‘In the 1930s and 1940s, burlesque shows were aimed at men. There were a few break-out stars who managed to transcend that and get women into the audiences, but the thinking behind it was always “Ooh, this is a bit naughty”,’ says Tina Warren, the brains behind Glasgow’s increasingly successful burlesque night Club Noir. ‘These days, burlesque means something very different. It’s not about titillation, it’s about glamour. Far more women come to our clubs than men, which I think says it all.’
Warren, who also performs her own striptease routines at the club (with the emphasis firmly on the tease), has been running day-long burlesque workshops offering women advice in hair, makeup, tassel-twirling and putting together their own routines. ‘Even the girls who are a wee bit worried at the start of the day come away glowing,’ she purrs. ‘When do any of us really take the time to do that; just spend a day paying attention to our bodies and being utterly frivolous?’
The current zenith of grown-up girly sex shopping is a tiny red, black and gold room on Broughton Street in Edinburgh, where gilt-edged mirrors reflect rails of silk and pots of ostrich feathers, and the antique armoirs are full of ethically-sourced handcuffs, organic lubricant, pure silk blindfolds and non-toxic sex toys. Organic Pleasures, run by 25-year-old Lucy Tanat-Jones, feels like your teenage dream boudoir made all too pliable flesh.
‘Some sex shops, even the ones aimed at women; you walk into them and you don’t feel sexy – they’re not appealing, or comfortable even. I deliberately tried to evoke that sort of 1920s-1950s glamour in the shop because I think it was a much more sensual time. Women’s bodies were being freed from restraints like corsets and ankle-length dresses while still retaining that emphasis on glamour and beauty. It was an era that really celebrated curves, not like the straight-up-and-down shapes we get today,’ she says, pulling a face.
Organic Pleasures, though, is much more than another retro-influenced boutique. It is, Tanat-Jones says with pride, the first shop in Europe to make a point of only stocking ethically-produced, hypo-allergenic and non-toxic sex toys. ‘The vast majority of sex toys on the market today are made with PVC, and a lot of them use phthalates, which can be really bad for you. There are no regulations on that part of the industry, though, so we just don’t consider it, even though it’s such an intimate concern. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to start up this shop, really – to make women more aware of what they’re using.’
Tanat-Jones has been in business less than two months, but the response from Edinburgh’s grateful womenfolk has been overwhelming.
‘So many people have come in and said, “about time!’’’ she grins. ‘When I started out, I assumed that most of my customers would come from our generation: 25–35 year olds. However, it’s the older women who’ve really surprised me. They really know what they want. They bring their husbands in and buy the top-end toys, the gold-plated ones. Younger girls come in pairs and giggle; younger men buying presents for their girlfriends need a bit of reassurance that they’re actually allowed to be in here; and my favourites are the completely confident women who march straight over to the toy shelves.’
While the full range of Organic Pleasures’ products are available for shrinking violets to buy on the shop’s website, Tanat-Jones says that she tends to sell more face to face.
‘I run a shop for and about women, and I think we’re quite picky these days. We want to be able to actually see something and ask questions about it before we make that kind of intimate investment – we just don’t live in that sort of ignorance any more.’
CLASSES AND CLUBS
Carling Academy, Glasgow. Next club Sat 20 Oct.
Club Noir burlesque performance workshops The next workshop takes place on Saturday 3 November in Glasgow – see www.clubnoir.co.uk for full listings.
The Academy of Burlesque and Cabaret run classes each term and one-off workshops at Dance House in Glasgow and Dance Base in Edinburgh, and can be hired for birthday or hen parties.