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Monday, February 27, 2006

Sex Toys Are Us

From backstreet to high street … but is women’s increasing interest in risqué bedroom products more to do with marketing than sexual liberation?
By Vicky Allan

ALTHOUGH better known as the nation’s favourite chemist, Boots is currently considering stocking sex toys in a bid to restore flagging sales and attract more of its main customer base of women into the stores. Sex sells. This is no big revelation. The difference now is that it sells as well to women as it does to men. The creation of a slew of stores, from industry pioneer Ann Summers (set up 20 years ago) to high-class sophisticates Myla and Coco de Mer, is a testament to the cash millions out there to be harvested. On Friday, Hustler Hollywood opened in Birmingham. It’s target customer? Sixty percent female. Theresa Flynt, daughter of Larry Flynt and director of the UK Hustler stores, is pitching the shop as a “date destination”. But have sex products really become so mainstream that we’ll be able to walk into our local Boots and pick them up with our toothpaste? Spokesman Donald McCabe points out that as yet the discussions on the stocking of the Durex Play range are still in their “early stages” though the store does already sell the Vielle stimulator. “These things [sex toys],” he says, “are much more prevalent on the high street than they used to be and they’re much more part of modern life. Our history is of being a modern retailer adapting to social change. So why would we not look at it?”
Why not, indeed. Last year, Ann Summers boasted a turnover of £110 million, selling more than two million vibrators alone. According to surveys, between 40% and 56% of women now possess at least one toy. Women, it seems, have earnings and are ready to spend on products designed for sexual gratification.

Boots is not the only company hoping to cash in . Earlier this month new magazine Scarlet was launched, in an attempt to do what For Women, Viva and Playgirl foundered at, and create a publication with explicit content that appeals to women.

This is a tricky remit. Editor Emily Dubberly describes it a “sex magazine for women”. “I wouldn’t use the word porn,” she jokes, “because apart from anything else it’s technically inaccurate because it means the writing of prostitutes – and none of us is a prostitute.” It also differs from past publications in that most of them have been “filled with pictures of Chippendales waving their meat and two veg around. And that just ain’t sexy.” Instead Scarlet contains a few black-and-white shots of bare-chested “boytoys”, humorous articles on topics , she says, “you might discuss with your friends after a few cocktails” (Do Ugly Men Try Harder?, Ban The Brazilian) and some gentle erotic fiction.

As ex-editor of a website publishing women’s erotic fantasies and stories, Dubberly can claim to be an authority on what women find compelling. When she was in charge, the site had more than 100,000 female visitors a month and she studied which readers’ stories got the most hits. One of the biggest fantasies for women, she says, is sex with a stranger – hence a brief encounter on a train in Scarlet. Yet, in general, what Dubberly considers to be sexy is emotion-led fiction. “It’s very easy to trivialise sex and pretend that it’s about rubbing body parts together, but that’s so not what Scarlet is about.”

Without a doubt there is a market for female targeted publications. Around 15% of people who use porn on the internet are female and there has long been a strong tradition of erotic narrative. Black Lace, the most successful publisher in women’s erotica, has sold five million books . According to the London-based female sex shop Sh!, women are buying increasing amounts of erotica – one of its most popular publications is the classic collection of women’s fantasies, Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden.

Meanwhile, in mainstream literature, there is an increasing emphasis on true female sexual experience. Scottish broadcaster and columnist Anvar Khan’s new book Pretty Wild declares itself, “The most honest diary about men, women and sex you’ll ever read”. In it we follow Khan as she goes on a merry-go-round of casual sex, detailing morning breath , orgasm faking, let-downs and betrayals.

Central to this revolution, in recent years at least, has been the vibrator. Used by straight couples, gay couples, singletons, in casual sex and marital sex, it has worked its way to the centre of the bed. But the vibrator is more than just a toy. In its own quiet way, it has become the ultimate symbol of women’s independence from men. “How could I miss you baby,” Missy Elliott raps to her man in the track Toyz, “I didn’t even know you was gone/ It’s obvious you aren’t needed in the bedroom any more.”

Are these changes about anything more than fashion? Is there any difference between wanting a Rampant Rabbit because Charlotte has it, and coveting her Sex And The City cohort Carrie’s Manolo Blahniks? In the toy market certainly, vibrators have been reinvented as trendy and alluring objects of desire – like an exquisite handbag or sculpture. Coco de Mer, run by Sam Roddick (daughter of former Body Shop boss Anita) aspires to provide “sophisticated and beautiful objects of desire to trigger arousal and inspire intimacy”; its range includes fox masks, dildos and crystal whips. Meanwhile, at Myla, where they sell the abstract but phallic Bone for £199, director Charlotte Semler declares that they are “really about luxury goods.” And at Sh! it’s still the Rabbit that outsells all other items.

Of all the topics related to sex women seem most at ease talking about toys. They will far more happily discuss their merits with female friends than masturbation which still has a smutty ring to it. Buying your first vibrator is like a rite of passage, an initiation into contemporary womanhood and all its freedoms, joys and pamperings. The Good Vibrations sex shop in San Francisco has reported mothers coming into the shop with their daughters to buy vibrators for them, and, undoubtedly, we will soon be catching up.

O n one level this is good. It is a sign that women’s curiosity is encouraged, that we are allowed to explore our bodies. But, as sex psychologist Petra Boynton says of the sex shop boom: “My concern is that all these changes are about getting people to part with money. They’re top-down , rather than from the bottom up. We see all these new sex stores and openness as sexual freedom, but our whole culture for women is very prescriptive. Name one overtly sexual female role model who isn’t constantly pilloried. Think about how they treat Jordan. The idea of a Peter Stringfellow character for women couldn’t exist.”

For Dubberly, however, the mainstream provision of explicit fiction and sex toys for women represents a significant step in our embracing of our sexuality. “With feminism in the past,” she says, “being sexual as a woman was seen as quite demeaning. Now we’re getting closer to pay parity, women are getting decent jobs, and it’s less threatening to us as women to admit that we’re sexual.”

There’s no avoiding it. The demand for sex products is there, as is the supply. And, even if in the end it is all style, the right shoes, the right bag, the right Rabbit, it’s our money and no-one is stopping us.

Pretty Wild by Anvar Khan, Black And White, £9.99. Scarlet magazine is available in high street stores, £3.50


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