• German
  • English
Home | Sexual health & rights | Stella and the Sex Shop

Soho as my first point of call – and what a place to start…

Stella and the Sex Shop


As a teenager my dad would take us up to London when he worked on a Saturday.  His office was in Central London and one early evening we walked through Soho (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soho) to the tube station.  As we walked through down one street he showed us the entrance to a brothel; a dark doorway lit by a red bulb, he explained what it was and I was intrigued. I guess that day Soho became touched with mystery; mysteries are so fascinating… and maybe a bit dark.

I came to love Soho and worked there in different places.  One of my jobs there was as a sales assistant in a popular gift shop; we sold lava lamps, wind chimes and incense.  What made it even more interesting was that we worked in Walkers Court (Walker=Street Walker=Prostitute) and our neighbours were all sex shops. Soho sex shops (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soho#Soho_and_the_sex_industry) are ‘special’, specially gritty and closed to the outside. The front will be blacked out and the contents of the shop are not visible from outside. 

To add to my delving into the underworld I had a short relationship with a guy who worked in the sex shop next door (he was gorgeous!) and I got to see the inside of one of these shops. They were filled with rows of porn movies and magazines – this would probably be more hardcore porn than you can buy in the local store, but everything is wrapped in plastic so you have no idea what you are getting. The sexual patriarchality within our culture weaves it’s way to the local store too, so you can buy the Sun with it’s page 3 big breasted girls or soft porn magazines for men but where, oh where, are the naked torsos of beautiful men for women?

The only people I ever saw in these shops were men, I saw a lot of guys walking around with their sports bags for new porn – it gave me the creeps.  One time the boss found me in the shop with my boyfriend “Get her out of here” was his response. I am not sure why I had to leave, but I guess the men would feel uncomfortable with a woman there. 

It is a “man only” environment and I felt really unsafe, and dirty, along with this trade is a darkness which I only witnessed the edges of – but included hard drugs and violence. 

Anne Summers – a British institution


One shop you will find in the high street (or shopping mall) of almost every major town is Anne Summers (http://www.annsummers.com). It’s an unlicenced1 sex shop and has a lot of sexy lingerie. They also have sex toys too, which can be found at the back of the shop, at the front you find the underwear which is more palatable for the English people, the toys are at the back of the shop. There are also Anne Summers parties – people invite a sales person to bring the toys to their house and women only are allowed to come and explore the toys in a relaxed environment.

A short interlude – the British attitude towards sexuality

I have had different experiences regarding the attitude of other British people towards sexuality – as a teenager my mother was very liberal, my father seemed liberal with regard to his and the sexuality of my brother, but he insisted I should be in love on when I lost my virginity. My grandmother told me that she had kept her pregnancy hidden for the first six months and was considered by neighbours a respectable person because of this.  Sex is used as a tool to sell a fridge, a car, computer equipment, etc., but having a conversation about it with a friend is a rare thing – we can be so ashamed, disgusted, shocked, embarrassed. I was so relieved to make a friend who talked openly about sex – I could breath. Anyway this is nothing special to the UK – in the West it’s common.

Back to Anne

Queen Victoria 1887
So it is rare that Anne Summers, a sex shop, is on almost every High Street of England – is it normal to have a chain of sex shops in every large town in a country? In Britain only 200 years ago the Victorians insisted on covering the legs of tables (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_morality#Victorian_morality) because it was considered sexual, this just gives a little idea about the roots of English attitudes towards sexuality – and with the wide spread presence of Anne Summers we can see how it has since advanced.

I went with a friend in my mid 20’s to this shop full of shame & embarrassment, to buy a vibrator. I insisted she buy it for me. I recently went into a branch and found it really easy, felt no shame myself but did feel shame and embarrassment hanging in the air the deeper into the shop I got. Sales assistants aren’t very friendly or approachable – if I had a question I would definitely hesitate to ask. There is something of “lie back and think of England” (an expression given to new wives regarding the sexual act before the sexual revolution), so turn the lights off, close your eyes and get it over and done with – this was the feeling I had when I went in. It is more comfortable as a woman to go in, more acceptable, I felt safe, and I could, if I needed to, ask a question. I do feel that it shows an opening towards the UK’s attitude to sexuality, but there is still an attitude of shame and wish to hide, to be secret, there.

Sh! (http://www.sh-womenstore.com)
Is another shop in London – for women only, though men are allowed if they are accompanied by a woman. It is full of toys, literature & lingerie. What struck me was how comfortable I felt and how much more freedom I felt that men weren’t walking around the shop. I also loved that the sex toys were laid out on a table and you could play with everything – there was an air of playfulness and the other women in the shop & I stood laughing with the vibrating rabbits & dolphins. It was much more open in here, a feeling of normality pervaded, the windows were misted so you couldn’t see in and this gave a sense of security.

The Nua Age


More recently I was wandering around Brighton putting out flyers for a meditation event and found Nua, (http://www.nualifestyle.com) they agreed to display my flyers (unusual for a sex shop).  I immediately liked the clear windows at the front of the shop and that all the toys they sell are visible to the passer by.  When I went in I didn’t feel any embarrassment, it felt very accepting, I didn’t feel uncomfortable with guys in there, even playing with the toys (which are out and you can play with all of them) – I felt I have my place here. My feeling was confirmed when a sales assistant approached me and started talking about the toys and showing me how they work. I did start to feel embarrassed, however, as she asked me very intimate questions which would enable her to give me the best advice on which toy to buy – she didn’t stumble over my embarrassment, she wasn’t affected, she wasn’t insensitive either. I was so grateful to her for this, she helped me overcome my shame with her naturalness. We laughed a lot which also made it easier for me. 

After I left the shop I realised how liberating an experience it had been for me, as she had been so natural I could now be more natural with others – I saw that if I am natural others also have the freedom to be natural and ‘normal’. 

Climax

So my dears, I am hopeful that this experience is harkening the dawn of a Nua age  - from the darkness and men-only Soho sex shops, to the cheap, smutty and  “lets not talk about it” air of Anne Summers to the openness I experienced in both Sh! and Nua. Is it possible that this trend could mean that the people of Britain are becoming more open, more honest? Are Nua and Sh! on the forefront of the change to bring an honest, straightforward attitude towards sexuality to UK’s dinner table? 

I truly hope so! I hope so for my benefit and for the benefit of the UK society, so that we can talk about our sexual lives and we don’t cringe, shrink back from one another or laugh too loudly from embarrassment. Or make crude jokes, stare at the big boobs in the Sun, or lie back and think of England ever again. I hope that sexuality can be discussed openly, freely so all the shame that lives within us surrounding this subject is freed, that we can sleep peacefully, and look our children, mothers & fathers, work colleagues and friends, in the eyes and discuss our sex lives with candour.



1 unlicensed means a sex shop can legitimately only sell a small proportion of the available product lines can be sex toys and the range of pornography sold is strictly limited in both volume and content.