Sex toy story: How soft sell works for women

I am standing on Sea Point Main Road in front of a shop with blacked-out windows. It is “female friendly”, the acid-yellow lettering tells me. Above that in equally searing neon is the name “Luv Land”.

Inside, the store is smaller than I expected, and warmer. It is stifling, actually, but that could be the black walls and floor-to-ceiling shelves of DVDs that greet you as you walk in — cellophaned women spread-eagled and pouting above their naked breasts and sweet incense wafting in from God knows where, certainly not an open window.

There is a selection of cheap sex toys, caricatures of human genitals, really, which seems to sweat in their plastic holders. Lingerie hangs limply from a pillar supporting hooks of Hustler-branded sex gadgets: butt plugs, cock rings and bullet vibrators.

While a solitary man in his 40s, who looks as if he is dressed for church, peers at a selection of rubbery vaginas in one corner, I puzzle over how this can possibly be considered a “female-friendly” store.  

I head for Angie’s Attic a few blocks down the road, the closest thing Cape Town has to a truly women-friendly sex store. Angie’s Attic is not much more than a very large off-street walk-in closet of fantasy gear, from nine-inch stripper heels to nurses’ outfits, but there is a sense of welcome, an easy chat about products and friendly advice about what will or will not work for you.

Angie Ford, the owner of the store, is making up parcels of lace and leather to post.

We shake our heads over the absence of women-friendly sex stores in Cape Town and she wrinkles her nose at the thought of Luv Land, which she refers to as a black-window store. “Nobody wants to walk into those.”

Retailer’s wet dream
Ford tells me sales of fantasy gear have been on the rise lately, as I poke through a package of black chiffon and tight leather corsets, fluffy handcuffs and fishnets on their way to a farm near Kokstad. I wonder how much of this uptake of kinky outfitting is because of the recent bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Billed as “mommy porn”, EL James’s erotic trilogy has sold more than 40-million copies globally. It follows the trail of Christian Grey as he teaches the naive and virginal Anastasia Steele in the ways of BDSM — bondage, domination, sadomasochism. The book is a sex toy retailer’s wet dream of dildos, floggers, cuffs and corsets.

According to celebrity news website TMZ, Fun Factory, the German manufacturers of premier sex toys, even penned a letter of thanks to the publishers for the 300% increase in sales in their Smart Balls, a Ben Wa-type weighted Kegel exerciser that is inserted into the vagina to tone its muscles. In the story, Christian makes Anastasia use the balls when they go for dinner with his mother.

It is a pity James has no way of cashing in on these sales.

Although Angie’s Attic is a lone women-friendly sex shop in Cape Town, elsewhere in the country these shops seem to be flourishing.

I head home to download a video sent to me by Chantal Edouard-Betsy, owner of The Bedroom, of her store in Umhlanga, which opened in 2007.

Like other women-friendly sex stores, Edouard-Betsy prefers to refer to The Bedroom as a “sensuality boutique”. The term “sex store”, she says, comes with preconceived notions and “what most people picture is a seedy, dirty store in an industrial area”.

Umhlanga is the flagship store — she has recently opened on 6th Street in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, and has another store in Hillcrest — and the epitome of what they are trying to achieve: a home of friends, replete with foyer (for a “soft landing”, Edouard-Betsy says) and bedrooms. The only difference is that these friends can recite the Kama Sutra and want to sell you a sex toy.

Gentle beginnings
From my computer screen, the shop unfolds and the effect is one of luxurious calm in natural light, soft furnishings, discreet art, plush couches and heavy, mahogany-stained chests and bookshelves. If it wasn’t for the displays of lingerie in the first room, it might easily be mistaken for a house in the suburbs.

“As you go through the store, you’ll see that it’s laid out like a journey,” Edouard-Betsy says on the video, “so ladies can sit on the couch and read a book, or start exploring lingerie before moving deeper into the more ‘hard-core’ areas. The idea is that they can go as far along the journey as they are comfortable with.”

I enjoy her idea of hard core, which seems to end in the “playthings room”, an area separated from the rest of the shop by a chiffon drop over a doorway. Here, there are huge wooden display units that would do well showcasing porcelain in an old Constantia home, but instead present neatly arranged boxes of the latest in sex toys. I notice the shiny boxes of the new global bestseller We-Vibe. But the really fun part of the adventure is hidden away in the drawers that Edouard-Betsy slides open — the demo toys.

“Buying a vibrator is an intimate experience,” she says. “I want to hold it, feel the material, fiddle with the settings, to get a sense of whether it will work for me … I would no more do this in front of a strange gentleman than I would try on a bra and adjust it.”

There is a staggering array of sex toys available and the very cosy space seems to offer a real intimacy in which buyers can ask questions about what to go for. After all, many people still do not know the difference between a vibrator and a dildo (one vibrates, the other does not), so there are likely to be many questions about the differences between clitoral and G-spot stimulators, “things with strings” (as Edouard-Betsy calls them, referring to Ben Wa balls) and even strap-on dildos.

The Bedroom is mainly for women — men are allowed only as part of a couple and by appointment.

But what she is selling is more than sex toys and fantasy gear. She also offers sexual education and advice about sexual health. Take, for example, quality. Novelty sex toys are generally made of cheap materials, most often a rubber-jelly material packed with phthalates, a chemical that is used to soften hard plastics to make them more flexible. But with time the chemical composition of these usually shiny, colourful toys starts to break down, making the surface a porous, bacteria-breeding playground. A good rule of thumb is: if your sex toy smells like the inside of a plastic factory, do not buy it. Try getting the manager of a mainstream adult store to explain that to you.

Sharon Gordon, the founder and owner of Lola Montez, South Africa’s first women-friendly sensuality store, has been explaining all things sexual since she first opened her boutique in 2004.

Doing it for themselves
Named after a famous courtesan and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, her Sandton store is a muted Moulin Rouge boudoir of crushed purple velvet, chandeliers and ornate silver-framed mirrors. It is a cliché, but a comfortable cliché and the stuff fantasies are made of — and maybe that makes sense.

Gordon, who was a human rights lawyer and later head of human resources for a large company, started the shop in the wake of a divorce after the “worst shopping experience of her life” — she had gone to buy a vibrator. “Then and there I decided that no woman needed to feel that dirty about her sexuality. I knew I could do it ­better.”

A veteran in the industry, Gordon believes a friendlier mass media is normalising the sex toy conversation well beyond the sealed sex section in women’s glossies. Thanks to more frank dialogue by celebrities about their sex lives (Halle Berry discussed her sex toy-buying strategy with TV show host Conan O’Brien and Gwyneth Paltrow was happy to reveal she is down with all that on The Conversation TV show), we now seem to be more comfortable discussing our own. In South Africa, our very own Dr Eve talks about sex in a prime-time slot on Talk Radio 702 with Redi Thlabi and Gordon has a show, Sensually Speaking, on Mix 93.8.

But it was in 1998 that sex toy retailers got their first real taste of the power of celebrity endorsement. That was when HBO screened the first season of Sex and the City. In an episode called “The Turtle and the Hare”, Charlotte (the good-girl character) is introduced to Rabbit Pearl vibrators by Samantha (the bad-girl character) and cannot leave her room for all her multiple orgasms. This episode catapulted both the Rabbit and the Pleasure Chest, the New York sex boutique where Charlotte and the girls bought their toys, into a consumer frenzy.

The manufacturer, Vibratex, reportedly sold millions of its Rabbit Pearl vibrators — and continues to do so — on the back of the 30-minute episode.

It is no wonder retailers are jumping on the Fifty Shades bandwagon; there are oodles of cash to be made. The Daily Mail reported in May this year that the British sex toy business was now worth £250-million a year, and Scientific American, in an article about consumer safety last year, pegged the industry in the United States at $500-million.

Lovehoney, the United Kingdom’s biggest online sex toy retailer, has estimated that the sale of sex toys will top £40-billion by 2020 — rivalling the figures for smartphones. That is a lot of pleasure plastic.

It is not just the hardware that hits the high dollar notes. Both Lola Montez and Bella Rouge, a more recent addition to the network of women-centric adult stores in South Africa, have been quick to see the opportunity that the Fifty Shades phenomenon presents.

Intimate education
Lola Montez recently ran a lessons from Fifty Shades workshop, part of its new Lola Montez Academy initiative to host a series of workshops covering a wide range of topics, including how to have an orgasm and sensual massages for couples. The workshop, its most recent, was its most popular and sold out in three days.

Bella Rouge’s answer to this was Fifty Shades Unveiled, an informal talk at Pharaohs Private Fantasy Club in Midrand about the safety issues that come up in the book, how the toys are used and what partners can do together.

Bella Rouge’s owner, Jenni Osrin, who broke away from Lola Montez, designed her shops with a more mainstream audience in mind. Indeed, they look a lot like La Senza outlets, sporting sexy lingerie up front. But, like The Bedroom, as you go further into the shop “the naughtier it gets”and there is a little nook of sex toys and lubricants at the back.

It reminds me of the wildly popular Ann Summers stores in England, the women’s lingerie and sex toy shop that made its way into shopping malls by toning down the sex toy part of their image and pumping up the lingerie part of it.

Bella Rouge opened its first store in Fourways, Johannesburg, in 2010 and now has stores in Menlo Park, Pretoria and Chartwell Centre, Umhlanga. A new store is planned for the Zone in Johannesburg’s Rosebank. Osrin believes that by keeping her business palatable to more vanilla tastes, she has been able to open outlets in malls.

So, now that vanilla has gone hard core, you might be able to pick up a nipple ring at your local mall. Or get it all in Bella Rouge’s “Fifty Shades hamper”, which comes with Ben Wa balls, a “sexy submissive” set of velvet restraints, a blindfold and a feather tickler, either a prostate stimulator (for him) or anal beads (for him or her) and a riding crop. It has all the ingredients for a bit of risqué indulgence.

“After all, it’s not sex we are selling,” says Osrin. “We’re selling sensuality and self-confidence. We are selling love and romance.”

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