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Thinking Kink: A Visit to the Sex Toy Store

"I have thousands of dollars worth of toys, and I still don't have everything I want." Estrella, interviewed in Margot Weiss' Techniques of Pleasure.

As soon as Bitch gave me the go-ahead for this blog series, I went into overdrive getting together books, DVDs, articles, and interviews for research into the culture surrounding BDSM. But as any good writer knows, sometimes you've got to get out on the streets and do some actual legwork. And so I found myself doing a trans-Atlantic tour of sex shops (ahem, sort of).

I'm no wide-eyed newbie when it comes to visiting sex shops, sex toy stores, or adult stores. Few British women are since Ann Summers brought whips, lingerie, and vibrators into the UK mainstream, and this woman-friendly chain of "erotic boutiques" can be found on most British high streets. There are no shameful blacked-out windows or buzzer-operated doors, and the staff are female and friendly.

Seasoned kinksters may sneer at the mainstream commercial products sold by the likes of Ann Summers, which are admittedly not going to be as high quality as the handcrafted bullwhips you might buy from independent retailers. I realized how truly expensive BDSM can get when, during a stay in LA, a friend took me to The Stockroom, a high-end BDSM-themed "sexcessory" store. A nice latex jacket from The Stockroom will set you back $395, but as I was doing an unpaid internship at the time, I had to leave their quality products on their shiny black shelves.

The costly nature of quality kink products does leave the community open to accusations of classism, as "if you wanted to be part of the fetish community, it would be extremely difficult to do without money"—leaving those without a large disposable income priced out of the market. However, a small budget can stimulate a big imagination. As Teramis, one of Margot Weiss's interviewees pointed out, "a tone of voice and a hand is more than sufficient for a scene that can last for days, and clothespins from the laundry bag. SM doesn't have to be expensive." Indeed, when a curious friend and I got up the courage to go to our first play party, we kept costs down by putting together our outfits from thrift stores.

Still, sometimes a girl's got to go to the naughty places to get that PVC skirt or leather paddle, and it's noticeable that some sex shops are a lot more female-friendly than others. At one shop I visited in San Francisco, the proprietor was extremely welcoming and eager to help me reach that roll of bondage tape that was placed on such a high shelf no 5'2" kinkster had a hope of grabbing it. However, I still felt a little out of place since all the other clientele were male, and I didn't quite know where to look with the pounding gay porn showing on the TV screen above my head.

SF's Good Vibrations, however, did not disappoint, with its fantastic frontage showing Rosie The Riveter brandishing a Hitachi Magic Wand, plush carpets, and classy merchandise. Women, men, and couples merrily breezed in and out of this long-established female-friendly sex shop, and I sat happily cross-legged on the floor flipping through S/M 101 while a couple next to me examined floggers.

Why all sex shops don't follow the Good Vibrations/Ann Summers model is somewhat baffling to me, since from a purely capitalist point of view, appealing to a female audience just makes more sense. To perpetuate an annoying generalization for a moment, women do like to shop, browse, and spend more than most men. And to debunk an annoying generalization, we like sex too. We like reading about it, watching it, and practicing it solo. Yet despite having plenty of Rampant Rabbits on the shelves, some sex shops still feel like they might as well have MEN ONLY plastered above the door. I visited one in London recently that was in a basement, dingily decorated and populated only by shifty-looking older men. As a young woman I felt out of place, more than a little intimidated, and didn't want to stay, let alone spend any money. What's the point of setting up a shop that alienates half your potential clientele?

Of course, a wonderful thing called Teh Interweb has made it much easier for the shy kinkster, male or female, to get what they want in one click. And there are some great kinky fairs that give BDSM practitioners a non-judgmental space to browse, and smaller retailers a chance to shine. Me, I'm quite happy to walk into a sex shop and ask to be shown how that ball gag fits, but I'm only human—and British!—and I'll probably always harbor a tiny suspicion that my mum might be watching.

Previously: Some Like it Rough, Moving Beyond Abuse with BDSM

Top image from Flickr user Orin Zebest.

Bottom image from Flickr user stagshop, whose Canadian adult stores can be found here.

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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

It was great to go through

It was great to go through your post. Thanks for sharing here. Keep up the good work.

Thanks!

It was a pretty fun post to research as well as to write! ;)

I found an online sex toy

I found an online sex toy store that now has their own 50 shades line of speciality bondage gear. Pretty hot stuff http://store.sextoyvibe.com/sphinx_search2.php?a=sex-toy-vibe&ser_key=50...

Thinking Kink: A Visit to the Sex Toy Store | Bitch Media

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Whole-heartedly agree!

My experience with sex shops has been much the same - dodgy, blacked out windows, seedy back-streets and mainly populated by slightly odd-looking old fellas.

Cost of decent gear is precisely the reason we set up our webshop - quality products without the hefty price tag. We also run parties in peoples homes (a la Ann summers style) so people who aren't sure about what's out there product-wise can see more than just rabbits, buzzing toys and cheaply made dressing up outfits. We bring real kinky toys, clothes, rope etc and actually show people how to use them safely: we talk about the different types of toys available, pros & cons of each (heavy floggers, light floggers, handle types, different rope etc) to help people make the best choice for their needs without spending a fortune on stuff that (lets face it) falls apart within a few months or gets left at the back of the draw because it doesn't do what it said on the tin.

50 Shades has brought kinky to the foreground for many people but lacks depth and information (obviously). I've seen all these '50 Shades' ranges of toys hit the virtual-shelves and predominantly, they are cheap tat being peddled on the back of a poorly-deserving "best seller". That in itself gives a false impression of kink & the implements used, but the vanilla crowd suck it up because they know no better. THAT is what we're trying to change!