Sex shops in the UK have traditionally been viewed as masculinised consumption spaces, visited in the margins of both the city and the clock (in decaying urban zones, hidden from view and visited under the cover of darkness). But in recent years, more and more new sex shops are appearing on our high streets – such as Ann Summers and Coco de Mer – which are constructed as ‘feminised sexual consumption spaces’. Rather than being seen as seedy spaces in dangerous back streets, they are presented as light, fun, acceptable and safe, and above all spaces for females to explore their sexualities.
The positioning of sex shops on the high street has occurred due to changes in the sex shop licensing system. A proliferation of sex shops in Soho from the 1960s to 1970s, alongside a massive rise of sex shops in the rest of the UK was met with concern over the ability to control sex shops’ locations and proliferation. This concern, alongside resistance from local communities (especially in Soho) led to the creation of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 , which meant that by law sex shops had to have a license to continue trading. However, a loophole in the licensing act, which states that a sex shop is only a sex shop if a ‘significant degree’ (usually considered to be 10%) of its stock is sex related, meant that shops could continue to trade unlicensed if they reduced the proportion of sex articles they sold and increased the proportion of non-sex articles sold. So for example, Ann Summers shops contain no more than 10% of stock which consists of sex books and aids, meaning that most Ann Summers shops are not technically sex shops, thus in 1995, only two Ann Summers shops were actually licensed.
This led to what I have called the ‘feminization’ of sex shops as retailers reduced the quantities of pornography and sex toys being sold and increased the quantities of lingerie. This ‘feminization’ of sex shops also occurred by companies aligning their shops with a more design led and fashion orientated style. For example, Ann Summers shops were made light, playful, fun and sexy as opposed to seedy, dark and dangerous which helped position Ann Summers on the high street without sex shop licenses.
Unlike the traditional male sex shop, the feminised sex shop is often celebrated, as opposed to protested against, and are often viewed as a form of female liberation. However, it is important to question whether these shops are actually a form of female oppression. This is because the feminised sex shop embraces an overt, female, empowering sexuality, but one that is based on aestheticised ideals of female beauty. The shops produce lingerie advertising images of the ‘perfect’, yet unattainable, female sexual body, which encourage women to feel like they must look a certain way in order to feel sexual. This then results in female anxiety, and encourages women to buy the products on offer in order to obtain this advertised ‘perfect’ female sexual subjecthood. So, feminised sex shops claim to be transforming women into sexual subjects, but actually they help construct women as sexual objects.
Overall, this shows that there is a heavy irony attached to the sex shop licensing system. Firstly, the ambiguous definition of the term ‘sex shop’ has allowed sex retailers to position themselves on the high street by selling smaller quantities of sex toys and pornography and larger quantities of lingerie; highlighting how the regulatory licensing system has paradoxically allowed sex shops to proliferate and become more visible. Secondly, this shift towards shops selling lingerie has encouraged the development of the feminised sex shop, which has meant that rather than women being objectified by men in the traditional sex shop setting, women are now being encouraged to objectify themselves.