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Interview with Sh!, The Sex Shop Created by Women for Women

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According to statista.com, the business of sex toys in 2020 is expected to reach the value of $29 billion (the equivalent of more than 22billion pounds), after five years of global growth. What has changed in the last decade that lead to this huge change are the customers.

Women have indeed started to approach the sex tech industry more and more, becoming a substantial portion in an area traditionally dominated by men.

But why now? Times have changed, and so have women.

It all started with social movements fighting for an immense range of rights, among which equal opportunities in full relief. Even for sex. It follows that women’s sexual empowerment became so pervasive that even mainstream media outlets began to embrace it.

Women are now emerging as self-sufficient and in control of their lives, all the way into the bedroom.

These changes repositioned the industry of pleasure-inducing toys into something fun and approachable that is now inclusive of women. And Sh! is an excellent example. Opened in 1992, and based in Shoreditch (London), is a sex shop created by women for women. 

I had the opportunity to interview for LAPP Renee Denyer, award-winning manager at Sh!, to better tackle this topic.

Sh! website

Miriam: You’re the first women sex shop not just in the Uk but in all Europe. Can you tell please me a bit of the story and how all this started?

Renee: Our founder, Kathryn Hoyle, and her and her friends went out in Soho, almost 28 years ago, looking for some fun play things for them. But at the time – as pretty much now but definitely at the time – it was very male focus. All the staff in the shops were male. The toys were horrible, and they were made to feel very unwelcome. So she didn’t buy anything, she went away and she thought “you know what, I can do this much better”. So here we are, three months later, she opened Sh!

Miriam: What has change from 28 years ago to now?

Renee: Oh, so much has changed and Sh! has been at the forefront of that. If you look around, it’s very well lit, and a lot of other shops are now trying to catch up a little. We only have female staff and body safe materials on the toys. Which is something most people forget, but still very, very important. We don’t sell anything that’s not body safe. All the modern toy designers do understand the importance of body safety and they are creating their products more for women.

Miriam: How?

Renee: Well, women shop differently from men. When it comes to sex toys, men tend to assume that he needs to be dick shaped with balls, and he has to go inside. For women, this isn’t actually the case. We sell far more of the smaller toys just for clitoral stimulation. So when you look at the toys that we have on display, they don’t see anything that look like penises. They’re very bright colors and beautiful shapes. They’re rechargeable and quiet because it’s very important if you have children to be discrete – again, something that more men forget. So yeah, for women it’s important that it’s not only beautiful to look at, but there are other necessities.

Miriam: How the fact that women shop differently compared to men is impacting the industry?

Renee: Businesses are finally picking up on this but small step at the time. It starts with the way in which sex toys are presented. If you look at the way we lay out toys here it’s then easy to understand that customers can look at them but they can touch them. Women are very tactile, when they’re shopping. They want to pick things, they want to see how it feels in the hand and if they like the material. It’s important that things look attractive to them. Men tend to shop big. They like the coolest gadgets, latest iPhone, the most expensive watch etc. Women don’t really shop like that. Women shop emotionally.

Miriam: What is your best seller product?

Renee: We sell a lot of lubricants, probably our best selling item. Just after, clitoral vibrators. But we are also selling a surprising amount of anal toys, because a lot of our clients recently became interested in anal sex. And we always give workshops, so women also come to us, maybe out of curiosity, to understand how a particular item work and then they decide to buy it.

Miriam: Do you think that the industry of sex toys has empowered women?

Renee: Yes. But I also think that here in the UK, and especially in London, we live in a cosmopolitan city, and I find that women in London tend to be more empowered or at least they’re more curious compered to other cities or states. There are definitely countries in the world where women are not encouraged to be empowered or explore themselves through sex. But thinking about where we are, I can say we are very lucky that we are in in such a vibrant city. And there is a very big wave of sex education happening at the moment. So I would say that any sex shop that is awake will have sexual educators on staff. This job is not just about selling a product but you need to teach the customer what the items are and what they are used for. And women have a lot of questions, so a lot of what we do is also about education. Through education comes the empowerment that then will teach the customer or the woman that she has a choice and that her body is her body. She can choose to use a sex toy or she can choose not to, she can choose the kind of sex toys to have and the kind of pleasure she wants to explore.

Miriam: You said that education means empowerment. But what kind of role our society and our pop culture have played in this regard?

Renee: Vital. For example, I think that the trilogy 50 Shades of Grey was great for business. It open up the idea of playing with sex and playing with sex toys to a lot of people. After 50 Shades of Grey, we saw a huge influx of new customers who never thought about using this toys before. They’ve come in and said I’ve read this book I’ve read about steel balls, I’ve read about spanking, and they wanted to know everything.

Miriam: And what do you think about the increase? Since you opened did you see an increase of women wanting a sex toy or wanting to know more about that?

Renee: Well, it’s difficult to say because when she first started, I know the shop became very popular straightaway. For example Kathryn Hoyle, the founder, discovered the rabbit vibrator. So long before it was a Sex in the City, Kathryn was actually selling rabbit vibrators, and there has been plenty of articles and stories about this. We always had a female focus and women themselves appreciated that since the beginning. However, what may have changed is that the younger generation now they can talk about sex toys as well. 28 years ago this wasn’t a well-talked topic, not as openly as it is now.

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