Over the next few months and with a bunch of talented guest writers, The Mental Attic will be looking at some of our society’s taboos, exploring them from several angles and trying to determine what is it that makes them taboos, topics only spoken in hushed tones and with surreptitious sideways glances. At the end of each of our articles, we’ll offer our own point of view on the subject, whether it should still remain a taboo…or not.
As founder of The Mental Attic, Kevin will take the first turn, speaking of the subject behind the start of this new series: Sex Shops.
Table of Contents
Sex Shops, as their name implies, are retail stores for the sale and distribution of adult toys, lingerie and other sex-related products. There are thousands of stores worldwide and even more online. Every city has them but depending on where you live, you might rarely see anyone going in our out. If you do happen to see someone, you’ll notice they act rather nervously, almost self-conscious of what kind of store they were in and especially so if they’ve purchased something.
In general, Sex Shops are a curiosity. People give them sideways glances but they won’t admit their interest in them. It takes people an enormous and sometimes disproportionate amount of effort to walk into one, and when they do, they’ll make sure no one they know is around to see them.
It’s a taboo to speak of sex shops and the products they sell, at least in a serious conversation. People will never freely admit to having gone to one. After all, why would they go there?
Why is going to one of these shops such a delicate topic?
I admit to personally having a fascination with Sex Shops and every time I find one, I have to go inside. I like to feel the vibe in them, and see the people looking for their toys and study how they behave, and I do the same with my own behaviour.
I’ve studied and researched this topic, from looking at laws to going to actual shops and asking the employees for their opinion on the subject. This has led me to three points: Legality, Morality and Generation.
A Matter of Legality
Perhaps its taboo status stems from illegality. Though it varies greatly from country to country, we’ll look at the laws in the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom and my home country of Venezuela for this article.
The United States pose a bit of a quandary when it comes to the study of Sex Shop legality as every state has the right to pass its own set of laws. Overall, Sex Shops are legal in the US though it’s illegal to sell any product to anyone under the age of 18, the age of adulthood (and consent). Historically, shops in the US would have L-shaped entrances so passersby could not look inside, thus respecting their client’s privacy, but that has changed over the years.
Having said so, there are states where it is illegal to sell sex toys (Nevada), illegal to own more than a set amount of dildos (Arizona, Texas) and there’s even a town in New Jersey where the mere act of flirting will get you in trouble. The study of legality of sex shops in the US is a topic in itself, as you would have to sift through the laws of every state and township in the country, finding some alarming and frankly ridiculous laws on the way.
Canada on the other hand has a legal dilemma. The age of consent is 16 and there is no age prerequisite for the purchase of sex toys, but most shops also sell pornography, which is illegal to sell to anyone under 18. Because of that, most Sex Shops won’t sell to anyone under that age, even if they are legally consenting adults. In terms of storefronts, Canada’s stores are much more open and you can often find them proudly displaying their wares in the middle of the cities’ main streets. Two perfect examples, and drawn from my own experiences, are the Stag Shop and the Condom Shack in downtown Toronto, the latter having signs such as “Masturbation Month – Ask inside!” and the former having a large billboard with a passionate couple. The Condom Shack is in fact unique in that it often indicated that it would sell 16-year olds, or at least educate them.
In the United Kingdom, because of the Indecent Displays Act of 1981, which covers “indecent” materials from being show to the public, it’s forbidden for Sex Shops to have their products on display and which is why you will often recognize a shop for the large blinders covering their storefront and why they’re usually tucked away in a side street. Having said so, there are a few Sex Shops proudly opening their doors on the high streets while at the same time complying with the laws, such as the Ann Summers chain and the Harmony Store in London. These shops display only their lingerie to the public, which isn’t illegal, keeping the rest of their stock further inside.
Finally, in Venezuela it’s illegal to sell adult products to anyone underage (<18), but historically not many clerks bother about it, nor do the authorities for that matter. And yet, there is a strong taboo with Sex Shops in that country.
Overall, Sex Shops aren’t illegal. There are regulations of course, but unless we’re talking about Nevada, Arizona and Texas, they are not illegal. But that doesn’t stop people from acting as if they were.
Perhaps Legality isn’t the best way to look at it, so how about Morality.
A Question of Morality
Are Sex Shops immoral then? It’s a difficult question considering that for the most part morality and decency, much like beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder. But while the concepts may change from one person to the next, there is a way of studying this aspect of the problem, and that is Religion.
For good or ill religions have shaped our societies, our belief systems, what we think is right and wrong. Even with the secular nature of (most) governments, religion still has an impact on the people running them. It’s not uncommon to hear American politicians mention their faith as the key factor in all of their decisions.
Every major religion (and by that I mean Catholicism, Judaism and Islam) prohibits any sexual act outside of marriage. Buddhism on the other hand states than any sexual act hinders your progress towards enlightenment, but it is only monks that are required to be celibate.
Masturbation is seen as a waste (in Judaism it is literally a waste of semen, in the male case at least) and therefore a punishable sin, though intriguing enough—as it is famous for its strictness regarding sex—Islam is traditionally undecided on the subject. In old days it was seen as the lesser of two evils, a way to stave off fornication and a way for soldiers to remain chaste while away from their wives. Nowadays, it depends on each Muslim or Imam to decide what their thoughts are on the subject.
For western societies, however, it’s Catholicism that has had the most influence in how we behave. While there is nothing in Catholic scripture against the purchase or use of sex toys for a married couple, acquiring them for your own pleasure (masturbation) or with a partner (fornication) is a sin, and strictly forbidden.
If religions do form the basis for this taboo, then it’s tied to upbringing, from the way those values and prohibitions influenced how you were raised. The simple belief that the products inside, be it the toys or the pornography (though not all Sex Shops carry adult films), are sinful or shameful, then the greater the difficulty in speaking of them or worse, visiting them. On the flipside, the curiosity will be that much greater.
Religion is but a part of it, as most societies are only partly shaped by their religion (again, despite their secular nature). Each generation has its own intrinsic values they pass on to their descendants, who may live by these values or disregard them. It’s not a secret that before our generations—before the internet and before we were all so connected with each other—sex was an incredibly private subject. You wouldn’t talk about your sex life unless it was with very intimate friends. Nowadays people share a lot, arguably a bit too much.
It’s clear how going inside a Sex Shop might have been a terrible thing, as it meant having your private sexual life be brought to the light, to public scrutiny by every person who saw you. Worse still, because of the religious and societal aspects, Sex Shopkeepers—as ‘members’ of the Sex Industry—were often labeled as perverts, as were you by associating with them.
Then there is the fact of how that generation’s society viewed the use of sex toys in general. It’s not uncommon for men to be viewed as less masculine and women as frigid or the complete opposite should people know they frequented Sex Shops, and for both judgemental and self-conscious people, even one visit meant you ‘frequented’ these shops. To explain how a previous generation’s perception might affect a current one, I use myself as an example: When I lived in Venezuela, there was one very close to my work and as much as I wanted to go in and see what all the fuss was about, a part of me dreaded the thought of people discovering me, of what they would think of me. Over time I’ve clearly gotten over that but it helped me realize just how many things previous generations put in my mind as taboo, even if my parents themselves were very open minded. It more than just parents, but every person leaves the mark of their views on you.
But as an employee of Private Shops UK, in Southend-On-Sea, Essex, told me while interviewing him, the generational and societal issues are lessening and his shop is seeing more female clientele, something that according to him was previously unheard of. He’s also seeing younger people come in, couples interested in trying new things and open about their desires.
“That old image of the shop being the place for Uncle Perv in a trench coat to come in and say ‘Gimme all yer porn!’ is changing, we get all sorts here nowadays!” He said, and there was something in his voice when he said it, hopefulness.
Employees at Ann Summers scoffed at my question about it being taboo, commenting: “Not anymore. I mean, maybe before, but nowadays we get people right off the street.”
The internet itself is partly if not wholly responsible for these changes. Online Sex Shops and the ability to purchase products with guaranteed anonymity slowly help people build up the courage to go out and physically purchase what they want, to walk into a sex shop and out with their heads held high and without worrying about what others might think.
In terms of legality, it’s my belief that both the sale of adult products, including pornography, should be restricted for those above the age of consent. If you’re ready to legally have sex, you should be allowed to acquire any of these products.
From a personal standpoint, one of the big things for me when I visit a Sex Shop, and especially so while researching for this article, was the vibe in the shop, no pun intended. The atmosphere inside said a lot about the store and how it’s viewed.
The first one I entered was the Stag Shop in downtown Toronto, and it might have been my own apprehension, or the rainy weather or just the day of the week, but the atmosphere inside was sad, empty. There were rows of products but it didn’t seem as if the salespeople had it in them to be excited about their products. This led to a very bad first impression. But then I went to Halifax and its Venus Envy and it was the complete opposite. This one had a “we’re just another shop, come on right in!” atmosphere that wasn’t only refreshing but frankly quite exciting.
It was the same with the UK shops I visited. The Private Shops UK store had a shameful vibe to it, which matched its blinds covered storefront, but both the Ann Summers and Harmony store had relaxed and fun environments. And I was even witness to a girl coming in, looking at a rack of vibrators and buying one without worry, completely relaxed and with no self-conscious shame.
And there is no reason to be ashamed, it’s just sex. Sure, it might be my opinion and it’s one that has evolved over the past year, but I don’t think Sex Shops should be considered taboo, as they sell nothing that is wrong, and in the end much like the vibe in Venus Envy: it’s just another shop.
But the truth is Sex Shops are still considered taboo by many.
But that’s changing, and it’s a good thing! There’s nothing wrong with them, and to prove to you that there isn’t, I’ll let you in on a little tidbit: I haven’t only gone to these shops but I have also purchased in them, and the first time was scary as hell, but now I can freely speak about it and I’m here to answer any question you might have.
Take the first step with me and let’s take them off the Taboo List!
- Sex shop – Wikipedia
- Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 – Wikipedia
- The Complete List of Weird Sex Laws in the U.S.A. (17 December 2013) Observation Deck
- Islamic Sexual Jurisprudence – Wikipedia
- Judaism and sexuality – Wikipedia