When an interview opens with a cup of tea, and closes with a friendly hand job demonstration, you know you’re writing an article for Verbal Remedy.
I absolutely love writing about genitals on the internet. Very few things make me happier, other than when my fuchsia decides it can be bothered to grow, or when I find a rogue digestive in my desk drawer. Plus family, friends, sunshine, other varietals of biscuit, etc.
So when Bridget “Mother of Verbal Remedy” Hamilton asked me if I’d like to write an interview about a feminist sex shop on Hoxton Square, I jumped at the chance. It would be a veritable cornucopia of cock jokes! A plethora of clitoral puns. But, as it turns out, talking about Sh! Women’s Store as just a sex shop would be to do the venture a massive disservice.
Sh! may just appear to be a beautiful boutique of nocturnal frivolities with a wall mounted lube dispenser, but in reality it is so much more. Before chatting to Renée Denyer, who has been working in the store for the last ten years, I had a little browse of the various sexy offerings at my own comfortable speed, wondering what specifically makes this shop feminist.
Okay, so there’s no pornography. Or very sweaty people with suspiciously full pockets. Or dodgy looking curtains to duck behind. But other than that, it just looks like a rather swish sex shop, or a subtly phallic Oliver Boner. I mean, Bonas. So I amble around, cuppa in hand, merrily looking at more strap ons than you could shake a stick at (ahem).
But that’s just it: try to imagine a woman in an ill-fitting cardigan and spectacles wandering around a sex shop “merrily” and “in comfort” twenty-five years ago. It just wasn’t a thing. So in came Kathryn Hoyle, determined to shake things up. She opened Sh! in 1992, and was one of the first sex shops to be aimed at women.
“First, it was only open for women, and men could only come in as a guest of a woman,” explains Renée. “We then started introducing a men’s night so guys could buy toys for their partners, but they thought it was a gay thing so they didn’t come. They wanted to come when there were women here!”
Renée looks at me sternly, “This isn’t a place for looking at women. If you want to look at women, there are places you can go, but it isn’t here. This is a safe space.”
“Try to picture everyone who wouldn’t feel comfortable in a run of the mill sex shop, and I’ll bet Sh! has already figured out how to cater for them”
Now everyone is welcome here. Try to picture everyone who wouldn’t feel comfortable in a run of the mill sex shop, and I’ll bet Sh! has already figured out how to cater for their varied sexual intricacies: new mums, women with vaginismus, lesbian couples, those who would like to try pegging, divorcées and widows, survivors of sexual assault, victims of FGM, women who are HIV positive, sixth formers, curious elderly people… the list goes on.
“One of our customers is a woman in her eighties who wanted to try anal sex,” Renée explains. “Her husband had died more than ten years ago and she had a new lover. So we helped them try it safely! It’s her choice; we can celebrate her choice and make her feel good about it. We talk about sex all day, and there’s really nothing that could shock us. But we also know it’s much harder for a customer to ask questions than it is for us to answer them.”
Every member of the staff is female, and for the hour that I’m there I overhear snippets of conversations about any number of toys, tips and tricks, all explained in the same friendly and enthusiastic tone. But there have been times Renée can remember when people have come in with an innocuous question, and ended up revealing they had been sexual assaulted.
“And that’s okay too – we’re never here to judge or tell you how you feel. We’re just here to listen, to understand and to help. We run a coffee morning called Café V every six weeks in association with the My Body Back project. It’s a time for survivors to talk openly about their experiences, and get on track to reconnecting with their physicality and sexuality.”
What’s the future for Sh? More workshops. More transparency. More conversations.
“Especially for young girls, there’s still a big stigma around sex being a bad thing, and if you have sex you’re immediately going to get pregnant or catch an STD. If you want to have sex that’s fine, if you don’t want to have sex that’s fine,” says Renée. “The aim is to demystify it.”
As I’m waiting by the counter at the end of the interview, I clock a lurid purple tabletop penis, topped with what can only be described as a sticky silicone egg. One of the sales assistants pops up brightly, “This is fab! It’ll be the easiest hand job you’ve ever given in your life,” and gives me an enthusiastic demonstration. It’s not sexy or crass; it’s self-aware, informative and a little bit funny. I walk away with a smile on my face, a spring in my step, and a well lubricated right hand.
EJ Stedman is a feature writer and critic for The London Economic, Litro, North Four and Verbal Remedy. Her speciality is entertaining and irreverent Reviews of Things (theatre! film! food! art! travel destinations!) and lifestyle features.
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