[Latest Update: 13th September 2018]
“I come from a small town, near Leeds, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and famous for its moors. I grew up with a lot of freedom. From around the age of 7, me and my brother were let out alone, to roam, play and explore…
My up-bringing was pretty anti-religious. The only memories of church are, when I was very young, my Grandpa would take me to Sunday school, whilst he went to the Methodist church. Rather than a desire to imprint a religious education on me, I suspect these occasional outings were simply to give my mum and dad some Sunday ‘alone time’.
My dad was working class, the son of a cobbler from Halifax and my Mum was from a more affluent Leeds’s family, with a strong female upbringing; My Nana was a GP, one of the 1st women to qualify from her college.
I found out much later that there was a family rift because my mum ‘married down’. But they married for love and she chose well. My dad was a lovely man, quiet but loved throwing grenades into conversations! He was also totally atypical as ‘working-class northern bloke.’ When my mum started training to be a teacher, he would take us away on camping trips so she could study.
It will be no surprise to anyone then that I am from a free-thinking, liberal background. I was always encouraged to discuss everything and nothing was off-subject. We talked politics, religion, sociology, philosophy, feminism and in my teenage years; sexuality and sex.
Looking back, I realise I was cleverly parented. There were rules, of course, and I got into trouble if (when!) I broke them. But dealing with their head-strong daughter, my parents realised battles were sometimes won with blindsiding, rather than a futile, out-and-out war.
Like when I was 14 and had decided I was zooming off to a festival on the back of a boyfriend’s motorbike, and nobody, least of all my parents, was going to stop me. There was no row, no locking in bedrooms, no flouncing off. My mum simply decided this was a good time for a new family cat. As I was packing, she returned home with a rescued kitten. So of course, I didn’t go. A cute kitty had much more instant appeal. That’s good parenting; not clipping your wings, but keeping you safe.
I came to London a long time ago, via an art degree at Brighton and a spell teaching English in Japan. I’ve been working for Sh! since I opened her 26 years ago.
Sh! was the first ever female-focused erotic store in the UK (and the 1st ‘boutique-style one, too) and she came about because I went shopping for sex toys with a friend in Soho and the atmosphere ( and products) were just so alienating, intimidating and oppressive for a woman. I just got more and more mad about it…
I grew up in a feminist household, with very little gender difference, and as a young liberated woman, I innocently believed it was my right to explore my sexuality and yet these shops were clearly no-go areas.
I found that being female in a sex shop, you were seen as ‘game’, clearly available to, and/or inviting pervy attention. The products were 100% male too; it was all porn, blow-up dolls, monster dick vibes and red PVC.
I must have visited 20 plus shops that day, spiralling outwards from Soho to more mainstream ‘lingerie with toys’ shops ( which appeared more female-friendly, but seemed mostly about being sexy for your man) to gay mens’ shops ( who were lovely, but had nothing for me)
I couldn’t believe there wasn’t ONE shop were I felt catered to. In disbelief and outrage, I stomped home, thinking; ‘This is ridiculous. Why isn’t there somewhere for women?’
A friend said ‘Why don’t you start one?’ and 3 months later…we did.
Aside from accepting a school-trip challenge by the boys to a race in a freezing North Sea; as much stupid as daring, and for which I got into a lot of trouble (despite nearly drowning) opening Sh! is definitely the most daring thing I’ve ever done.
I went to Art School, not Business College! Sh! was opeed on £700, 3 months after the Soho trip and, from its humble beginnings (the first shop cost £80 pw in rent) and a very lean stock-list of female-friendly products ( there were no other sex toy companies catering to women ) it pioneered a massive change.
We have had struggles – it kinda goes with the territory of being the first and putting your head above the parapets. The scariest was being taken to court by the local council. Two years after opening, these officials turned up with clipboards and counters and I was charged with running a unlicensed sex shop.
The definition of a sex shop is one with a ‘significant’ proportion of ‘sexual articles’ but its all context and all about the definition of ‘sexual articles’. The bottom line was the first women’s ‘erotic emporium’ was effectively being shut down. So I climbed back on my soapbox and fought it. The case was thrown out of court which meant we won and helped make a distinction between sex-positivity and exploitation.
20+ years on and, although times and attitudes have changed massively, there are still are challenges. Recently, looking for a new relocation space for Sh!, I was refused even to view a building, simply because of what we do – despite ‘what we do’ being completely legal and having decades of credit-history behind us. Anti-sex is so deeply rooted. It shows me how far we’ve still got to go…. They’re all around us; the anti-sex and misogynistic messages that we’re constantly having to battle against. Sometimes they’re difficult to even spot, because the messages and judgements can be subtle. We’ll keep on fighting!
We get all sorts of customers coming to Sh!; all ages, sexualities, ethnicities and from all around the world. Whilst some waltz-in, others can be nervous and others can be even more anxious because they have some really personal stuff or health stuff to share. We work a lot with body language and give people space to get comfortable and acclimatised. We’ve got decades of experience understanding the hurdles and. giving really tailored advice behind us
By simply creating a safe place where women can talk, ask, touch and questions; we make magic! We boost customer’s confidence and they leave happily swinging their bags.
A stand-out moment was being invited to a function at Downing Street. As I often do, I took the hostess a little thank-you gift. Having successfully getting it through the security scanners, I presented it to her, and later, after finishing her speech, I noticed her exit right, dash back, pick up the gift and leave the room, also swinging her bag!
I give out vibrators as pressies all the time and they’ve always been well-received, even if it’s sometimes shyly or with eye-rolling comments like ‘I don’t need one of those!
One of the things I refuse to do is think ‘they won’t want one, they’re too old’ or ‘too conservative’, it’s not ‘culturally ‘acceptable’, or anything else like that….
We supported a fundraiser for women with FGM and I suggested adding a small bullet vibe to the goodie bags, but this was refused by the organisers, who weren’t FGM women themselves. The vibes were deemed just too sexual for survivors of this most brutal and permanent form of sexual violence. I get it, but the issue is there’s no research done into if vibrators or other toys can help FGM women – which means the sexuality of a huge group of women (200 million worldwide) remains invisible and ignored. If just one woman had felt pleasure from vibration, wouldn’t it have been worth any possible offence? It pisses me off when women police other women’s sexuality.
Often, when advising customers we’re asked what we like, but it’s our policy to be vague about our own sexuality or likes and dislikes. It’s important to explore your own pleasure, not be swayed by mine. So we’ll subtly turn the conversation around and, without too much direct questioning, find out if the customer’s pleasure is mostly external or internal, whether they enjoy an intense or a softer touch and go from there….
In terms of my own sexuality, lets just say; I might be mature but I’m most definitely modern. This new-age of fluidity in terms of sex, gender and relationships is brilliant. Labels are for clothes. #LoveIisLove – it’s all coming together! I’ve decided I’m not doing monogamy, least not long-term. It seems to me that monogamous, ‘married’ relationships (with passionate sex involved) are some difficult-to-achieve ‘perfect dream’ that we’ve all be sold, much like the penetrative orgasm!
Every sexuality is a journey. It gets better with age. I learned early on not to make any judgements about anyone. Never assume or judge.
Do I own any sex toys? Heh! Of course! I have my pick of toys, as they all need testing before making it to the Sh! shelves – we cherry-pick our stock range to save customers choice-fatigue and utter bafflement – nobody needs a veritable warren-full of rabbit vibes, that all essentially do the same thing.
I could give you a list as long as Brexit proposals on my fav toys, but I’ve narrowed it down to my top 5;
We started making our own strap-on harnesses and silicone dildos about 20 years ago, because the only ones available at the time were huge, dick-shaped monsters and hard-as-hell cheap leather harnesses – urggh! I am very fond of our lovely, sensual and *sensibly-sized* strap-ons – our best strap on kit has a long and loyal place in my toy box.
The rabbit vibe also has a special place – I discovered ‘Roger Rabbit’ amongst a million ‘realistic’ vibes at a sex toy warehouse about 25 years ago, tried it, got mind blown, renamed it ‘Jessica Rabbit’ and rest is herstory… Like many women, actually, I’m not too bothered about beady shaft; it’s ALL about the bunny’s ears.
Holy Sweet Mother of Orgasms, when I first tried a suction vibrator (any one will do!) it was all a little too fast, but boy was it intense. I’ve since learnt to slow things down and am discovering a whole new level of orgasmic ability, which is always a most satisfactory thing to do in life.
Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of bondage play? (if you know and trust the person, and have sorted a safe-word, of course) There’s just something 100% liberating about either taking full control, or fully relinquishing it…
Leather wrist cuffs and ankle cuffs are the safest to play with, but can feel a little intimidating, so I have them attached with Satin Bondage Ties and whether doing the whole Mistress thing or simply coo-ing ‘let me tie you to the bed, baby’ both scenarios are
The best, most liberating sex-accessory in the world is lube and it’s by every bed in my house, including the spare bed. I couldn’t live without lube. No woman should. At Sh! we’re on a mission for every woman to feel comfortable using it. Unfortunately, despite these liberated times, still too many women don’t, or get uptight and say ‘Oh! I don’t need that’ – we need to debunk judgy concepts about ‘not being wet enough’ or ‘not needing it’ and replace with the uber-sensuality of adding more, whatever your up to and however wet you get…
The lack of true sex talk, along with the lack of true representation of female sexuality, continually frustrates me. Sexuality is key to self-esteem and yet it’s often seen as a sideline, or titilatory or some little thing that too many people are obsessed with.
You can understand why. The media is full of sex and it’s acceptable to be a sexual woman there, so long as you’re young, pretty, able-bodied and mostly white. As long as you fit into certain categories, you’re allowed, but so many other women; older women, Muslim women, black women, gender-fluid women, the list goes on…….. They’re made to feel invisible or scary for being sexual.
To women who want to explore their sexuality, I’d say; Come into Sh! It’s not a shameless plug – it’s what we DO! Masturbation is at the heart of the exploration; Understanding and testing the boundaries your own pleasure, away from your partner(s), is at the core of exploring your sexuality. Read a lot, too, although that can add to the pressure. There’s so much pressure to be ‘sexy’. Find your true sexual selves.
I couldn’t live without music. I regularly compile my Desert Island Discs list, in readiness for the call from Radio 4!
Finally, I’d tell teenage me; Look into yourself, look at yourself. Make a distinction between an external socialisation of sexiness and an internal feeling of sexy.
And never choose a carpet just because it feels soft enough to have sex on (which is what my teenage-self once did) – they all give you carpet burns…”
Photos via the author.
– As told to Scarlet Ladies.