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#beboldforchange: How Sh! Helped Change the Female Pleasure Game

This year’s International Women’s Day theme of ‘Be Bold for Change’ got us thinking about the times in Sh!’s herstory when we were bold, when we were determined to make a change, despite men ( and yes, mostly it *was* men) telling us that this was not a mould to be broken.

The sex industry today may be filled with women-led crowdfunded sex toy designs, female-focussed websites and couples-friendly packaging but 25 years ago it was a very different matter…

‘We don’t get many women in here Darlin‘ leered the moist male shop assistant on our first ever preamble to a sex shop…

We’d gone on our little shopping trip because as young, liberal women, we believed it was our right to explore our sexuality and I just wanted a nice vibrator and my friend wanted a strap-on!

Turned out that wasn’t to be. There were no nice toys, let alone female-friendly ones…

It also turned out to be the defining moment that spurred us to #beboldforchange.

For millennials, who have grown-up and honed their sexuality in a post-Sh!, post-Lelo, post-Agent Provocateur world, it’s difficult to explain to just how bleak and ignorant was the world towards female sexuality, 25 years ago.

It was 1992. At once both an age, and also a nano-second, ago.

It may have been 40 years after Dr Gräfenberg identified ‘an erotic zone [that] always could be demonstrated on the anterior wall of the vagina’ –  the famous G-Spot of his namesake.  Yet it would be 6 years until Helen O’Connell discovers that ‘the vaginal wall is, in fact, the clitoris’ in 1998 and a whopping 16 years before the first ever 3D sonography of the stimulated clitoris,  in 2008, reveals its true size and intricacy.

It’s not just the ignorance around female pleasure that’s shocking to look at within the last 25 years.

Within the last quarter century there has been a massive shift around sexual identity along with a rejection of limiting binary labels. The fact that half of all millennials don’t identify as 100% straight is beyond brilliant to those of us honing our own sexuality 25 years ago.

In 1988, Section 28 had been enacted; the nasty little law that stated local authorities ‘must not intentionally promote homosexuality’ and it would be a long, out and proud fight to get it repealed in 2003.

It was this fight that led, in a lovely rainbow line, directly to the equalisation of all relationships within the law and legalisation of gay marriage in 2013.

A time, when Madonna released  Erotica and leather-clad lesbians ran their own SM sex clubs  and yet when Operation Spanner was criminalising consensual SM and if you were a ‘proper’ feminist, you argued against porn, sex work and penetration.

It was a time of glimmers of sex-positivism amidst the oppressive gloom of the anti-sex brigade.

Radical was the concept of a sex shop where women were not only not only welcomed but were the main deal.

But we were bold. We wanted change. We opened one anyways!

‘I hereby charge you with running an unlicensed sex shop…’

The Licencing team from the local Authority had come armed with clipboards, counted up all the  ‘sexual articles’ in Sh! and decided they constituted a ‘significant degree’

[ The legal definition of a ‘sex shop’ is a place that displays/ sells ‘sex articles’ to ‘a significant degree’ ]

Oh dear. Either we were to pay the sex shop licence fee of £17,000 per year, or they would see us in court.

A licenced sex shop is legally allowed to sell R18 porn videos, which in a pre-internet world was a super-lucrative business within male-focussed sex shops.  We were already being radical by creating a shop for women to explore their sexuality, in a world that frowned upon or just plain disbelieved that women should even want to. But making up our sales with porn for women ( where precious little even exists, now as then) was asking too much!

Financially it was tantamount to closing us down.

But the bigger issue was around the meaning of a ‘sexual article’ which is legally defined as anything that ‘stimulates or encourages sexual activity or the force or restraint  associated with it’

Gosh! First off, how strange to place equal emphasis on  ‘force and restraint’ when F&R (or S&M as most of us would put it)  is quite a specialised sexuality. But no mention of spanking which is historically  La Vice Anglais (or perhaps that’s force and having it enshrined in law has somehow created a self-fulfilling  prophecy of kinky Englanders?) What about feet or food or silk? Oh dear but no – that would mean that Clarkes, Tesco and the haberdashery counter at Selfidges could be deemed to have a significant degree of sexual articles and were thus sex shops.

Definition surely always exists with context and  within the context of Sh! surely anything could be deemed sexual.

We purposefully rejected ‘realistic’ toys and porn-star packaging. There was nothing overt or ‘obscene’ ( another scurrilous legal definition) on our shelves precisely because these type of toys were made for the male gaze and had nothing to do with female-friendliness let alone female-pleasure.

‘They could all be electric toothbrushes!’ we retorted somewhat cheekily,  as the Council officials surveyed the brightly coloured, non-phallic vibes on our display table.

Which of course is true, because before Sh! and before Lelo ( who in 2003, were one of the 1st companies to design female-friendly sex toys) a lot of women used there trusty Braun to get off.

Sex and health are, of course, intertwined (which is how come you see vibrators in chemists & drugstores these days!), but back in the dark ages of the ‘90’s few businesses or institutions shared this healthy attitude to sex.

We were determined to bring sexuality out of backstreets of seedy-land and into the light of everyday life. But we had a fight on our hands if we were to even survive long enough to get our message out. There was nothing for it – we had to go to court. There followed a hysterically scary few days as we all pondered the precise nature of a ‘sexual article’ ‘Is THIS a sexual article Madam, …or this?’ quizzed our barrister of the magistrate as he flourished a feather duster or a length of chain around…

The case was thrown out, perhaps as much as on a technicality as on principal, but the bold issues had been raised and change was on its way.

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‘This is Mr Listen to Me from *much bigger sex toy company than yours love*….’

Sh! must stop calling your rabbit ‘Jessica Rabbit’ because we have bought the rights to that name and it’s ours, ALL ours!’

The rabbit vibrator may seem like it’s been around forever but it was a revolutionary design when it first hopped onto the scene, since when it has revolutionized possibly millions of women’s orgasmic capabilities.

We received this ‘order’ at least a decade after discovering a rabbit vibrator on the shelves of our local sex toy warehouse, re-naming it Jessica Rabbit Vibrator and telling the world about this fabulous new discovery.  The rabbit has had many guises, but this was one of the earliest, before Rampant, and was called (in the same vein) Roger Rabbit.

‘Did you recommend it in a 1993 Cosmo article?’ we asked.

That was the last we heard from any late-to-the-party sex toy company lawyers. We have proudly, boldly, and with a certain ‘so, sue us!’ righteousness to call our rabbit vibrator; Jessica Rabbit, ever since!

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