North American sex shops are generally repellent to women. They’re usually badly lit and messy, hawking wares that are either grotesquely shocking or humorously puerile. However, this week's MacLean's (in "Good vibrations? More like Fabulous") indicates this may not be the case for long. Some sex goods entrepreneurs have realized there’s now a whole generation of young professional women out there with more money than shame or discernment, and they're changing the industry to target them.
This change may not be toward the well-lit, cheerful, organised “sex supermarkets” found in many European cities, which tend to be as simple and welcoming as your neighbourhood grocer, right down to the turnstiles and shopping carts. Nor is it likely to head toward the ‘feminist’ aesthetic that emerged in the 1970s (exemplified by Toronto's Good For Her and San Francisco's Good Vibrations), whose mandate of female sexual liberation mixes the personal and the political in a very intimate way.
Instead, the change in direction may be a steep climb upmarket. Behold: the ‘erotic salon’.
This new breed of sex shop has a vastly higher percentage of women in its customer base than has been traditional. Marketing efforts seem to focus on the thirtyish female professional demographic. The salons’ pricey wares have high design values; stock is geared sharply away from traditional sex shop fare like garish fluorescent dildos and animal-shaped vibrators.
"There's no empowerment in toys that are so objectifying. They're so overly phallic, or they're shaped like dolphins," carps Andrew Pollard, the co-founder of Kiki de Montparnasse, a new erotic salon in New York. "The colours are disgusting and the packaging reflects an uneducated perception of what a man thinks a woman should be in a sexual sense.”
Conversely, Kiki de Montparnasse has a very interesting perception of "empowerment" and what a woman should be, or at least want, in a sexual sense. And it looks like overpriced pretension.
Kiki doesn’t sell, for example, dildoes. But it does sell “dilettoes”. Specifically, it sells a hand-sculpted obsidian glass “diletto” for USD $1,750. The cheapest toy in the diletto’s Instruments of Pleasure category (the blanket term “Sex Toys” no doubt also reflects an uneducated perception of sexuality) is the Motif Multi-Speed Personal Vibe at USD $125.
Kiki also sells pasties, either hand-beaded or Swarovski-encrusted (USD $395 and $150, respectively), and a wide selection of lingerie, wherein panties start at over USD $100. (There is a heart-shaped G-string for USD $75, but it's so ugly I refuse to count it in the same category.)
Kiki’s competitors in the erotic salon field, like Myla and Coco de Mer, don’t lag in terms of quality or price. They employ big name designers and sculptors like Tom Dixon of Habitat and Mari-Ruth Oda, the Japanese sculptress. American designer Scott Henderson scored a coup for Myla with a swirl-shaped vibrator called the C-Shell – a steal at USD $130.
Coco de Mer (the creation of Samantha Roddick, daughter of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick) takes sexual opulence one step up by selling sex-enhancing furniture. My favourite example is the Tally-ho Chair: starting at USD $5,800, it claims to be ‘perfect for spanking.’ Because heaven knows, spanking is usually such an ergonomic nightmare.
Now, I'm a free market capitalist pig of the filthiest order. I honestly believe if somebody will buy a thing, then, by God, someone else should sell it. The founders and operators of Kiki de Montparnasse, Myla, Coco de Mer, and their ilk are entrepreneurs, and if they do well for themselves, power to them.
However, at the moment, I’m irresistibly reminded of an old history teacher. Close to the end of my high school career, as he taught us about how the various North American governments acquired legal deed to land from native populations through what seemed like wildly unbalanced trade-offs, he suddenly paused and smiled.
“Sometimes I think women are the new Indians,” he remarked, with more candour than tact. “You can sell them on anything.”
I know there are women out there whose lives have been improved with sex toys. And I’m glad to belong to a generation that has both the money and the social freedom to explore sexuality in ways others couldn’t hope to.
But to any ladies who think they need to drop a few G-notes to hit their G-spot – to anyone who thinks high-end sex toys will make it easier to spank, satisfy, or simply savour a sweetheart – and most of all, to any woman who thinks such expenditures will "empower" her: please, step back and think through your options. Consider whether those thousands of dollars wouldn’t be better spent on psychotherapy and a good gigolo. You can get a surprising amount of time for that kind of money.