16 years of Sh!

// 16 April 2008

sh.jpgSh! – the “women’s erotic emporium” – has just celebrated its 16th birthday. Tonight they marked the occasion with a party, and, ever eager for free champagne and the promise of a goody bag, I went along.

Today, relatively woman-friendly sex shops are quite common. Ann Summers may be problematic, but it is at the minimum a safe, mainstream and non-sleazy option on every high street. And they sell those “joke” wind-up penises, for those who still feel unable to enter such a place without an excuse.

But Sh!, in Hoxton, London, goes a step further. For a start, it is centred on women and women’s pleasure. Men can come in, but only if they’re accompanied by a woman. The Sh! website is a repository of information on safe, consenting, orgasmic sex, focused on pleasure rather than looking sexy.

You might remember from the last episode of the podcast, it was not always thus. Polly related a story told her by a second waver, about how radical it was for women to go into a male-dominated sex shop and just have a normal conversation.

Speaking at the birthday party tonight, founder Kathryn Hoyle said: “16 years ago, the sex industry was a male-dominated business that exploited its customers’ ignorance and embarrassment to sell them some ugly, perma-tan dick-shaped vibe, which buzzed so loudly (if it even worked at all) when they got it home and out of the packed, that it was soon relegated to the bin. Not only were the practicals of buying a sex toy pretty harrowing, but attitudes to women enjoying sex toys were totally disparaging. Such women were either sex-starved, sex-crazed, couldn’t get a man or just buying for a joke.”

Well, not any more, and Sh! is one of the pivotal reasons why. Although I knew about Sh! before, and had been in there a few times, I had no idea the amount of good work – above and beyond helping women have some sexy fun – that they’ve done. For example, Sh! works with the NHS on women’s sexual health. They design and manufacture their own toys, free of toxic phthalates and made of silicone. And, as we’ve been considering whether Sex and the City is feminist, you might be interested to know that Sh! named the Rabbit vibrator made famous by the show.

The shop is open to all. Angel Zatorski, research and development manager at Sh!, said: “One of the biggest things we’ve learnt is not to make judgments. Within the last few years, we have served a Muslim woman in full burka, an 82 year-old grandma and a Hasidic Jewish man who came in to try on a PVC nurse’s frock. We have constantly tried to challenge our own preconceptions and cultural biases in thef ace of such amazing diversity.”

In the press materials for tonight, they quote this letter from a customer, which surely demonstrates the positive effect places like Sh! can have:

Dear Sh!

I had to write to thank you. I bought a Jessica rabbit and after 15 years of marriage and three kids, finally had my first orgasm!

Thank you.

Comments From You

Cruella // Posted 17 April 2008 at 1:18 am

Next time you have an assignment like this Jess, I feel certain I should go along too – just to give a second opinion…!

Samara Ginsberg // Posted 17 April 2008 at 10:47 am

I have to say, I think that the “Rabbit” is a rather misunderstood contraption. It seems to be lauded as the key to sexual independence, liberation and multiple orgasms, and for some women it is all these things, but for others it is definitely not. I bought one a while back and it did absolutely NOTHING for me. I get the impression, from having spoken to other women about it, that the Rabbit is very much the Marmite of the sex toy world – either you love it or you hate it. I would recommend that anyone feeling curious about it takes a good look at one up close and actually imagines what it would be like having those buzzy rabbit ears jammed up against your clit. If it makes you wince and cross your legs, don’t bother!

Jess // Posted 17 April 2008 at 10:52 am

Kate – next time for sure!

Samara – I’ve not tried it, but I suspect that it is more useful in being a very visible & acceptable example, rather than the One True Vibrator to bring all women to orgasm…

Laurelin // Posted 18 April 2008 at 10:56 am

I may be wrong about this, but I’ve heard that the Jessica Rabbit is actually made of jelly, and thus is dangerous to women’s health because of phthalates?

chem_fem // Posted 18 April 2008 at 11:49 am

I had heard that because of the phthalates issue you should use them with a condom. Using condoms with a toy probably isn’t a bad idea from a hygiene POV anyway.

Alice Casey // Posted 19 April 2008 at 12:02 pm

The thing that makes Sh! exceptional in my view is that it has a truly positive attitude to women’s sexuality – managing to be both relaxed and saucy at the same time- a difficult line to tread!

Also, it has a really welcoming and genuine feel to it, something I feel that Ann Summers et al fail to acheive – words like ‘novelty’, ‘cheap’ and ‘profits’ spring to mind more readily! … :)

I blog about public participation and related empowerment issues and mention Sh! here: http://tinyurl.com/4ychjb

Dizzy // Posted 23 February 2009 at 12:10 pm

Samara, you touch on an interesting issue. Namely, that -surprise, surprise- not all women are the same. Whilst some women love the rabbit, others feel it’s really not for them. Ideally, we should be educating women to get in touch with and understand their own bodies, and what they enjoy as individuals. Sadly the sex industry is no different to any other industry when it comes to profits and hype, it’s all about creating demand and shifting units, so the latest toy will be hyped as the “next big thing” and marketed to sell as many units as possible without obviously acknowledging that it won’t work for everyone. Those women for whom such toys do not work very rarely dare to raise their voices for fear of being seen as weird or frigid or dysfunctional.

If as women we take time to learn about our bodies and feel comfortable with them, we can be more confident about how best to enjoy them to the max.

FruitSalad // Posted 23 February 2009 at 1:07 pm

Cool, I may have to make a trip to Hoxton ;-)

Dizzy, interesting point. Yes, not all women are the same.

I don’t know, yes, sex shops are still shops and market sex toys to consumers, but sounds like Sh! at least are doing all they can to be responsible and women-friendly, such as working with the NHS.

I guess I agree that there are issues with commercialising sex, though.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds