Everything seems to be in order at Pitfield Café in East London. Two people are discussing Boris Johnson while eating carrot cake; an elderly man shovels down a Mediterranean salad while reading the paper. Nothing unusual, save the green velvet curtain drawing a trickle of tentative-looking women in and sending them back into the world with heads held high, smiles stretched wide, carrying little satin bags of joy. Yes, sitting behind the curtain is Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium (the first and only sex shop in the UK for and by women). Open every day, it is designed like a Madame’s boudoir: all deep purples and golds, Chesterfield chairs, flickering candles, and feather masks.
There’s a mahogany cabinet containing diamond-topped butt plugs and 24 karat gold couple’s vibrators. On the other side of the room is a gold globe bar filled with sex toys for trans men. Further inside, is a cornucopia of paddles, whips, (vegan) leather harnesses, nipple clamps, bamboo canes, corsets, and countless other tools for women to reach new realms of pleasure.
Though already convinced that this is the best store in the country, what really sets Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium apart is the workshop out back. Here, a group of women are wearing aprons and making strap-ons by hand. Erin, a sex educator from Montreal who recently started at Sh!, is understandably “living the dream,” or so she says as her colleagues mold dildos and sew harnesses behind her while discussing “Olympian-level squirting.”
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T O D A Y has been all about strap-ons and pegging 🍆🍆 After handling pretty much every dildo in the building, we’re ready to get our own groove on so we’re going to bid you a very good night – hope to see you all again tomorrow! 💋💋 • • • • #Sh! #Pegging #StrapOn #SexGoals #Kink #ProstatePleasure #Pspot #ShesOnTop #FemDomme #ColourfulKink
“Like a Prayer” plays in the background. The store’s soundtrack is generally women of pop, from Lizzo to Whitney, Kylie to Shania. The playlist is gratifyingly shared with Pitfield Café, which means there’s a couple of pensioners eating a quiche to the same Pink track you’re fondling through a jar of yoni eggs.
Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium attracts a lot of queer couples; there’s often an orderly line of lesbians queuing for the strap-on section on a Saturday afternoon. “The best part of my job is when people ask what colours we have, so I go out the back, lay them all out on a tray and present a dish of dildos,” ays Lauren, who’s been at Sh! for five months. She says it’s like the Reginald Jeeves of sex toys.
These aren’t any old dildos; they are pieces of art, worthy of a (dykonic) mantelpiece or car dashboard. They specialise in dreamy marble designs in emerald, or blue, black, or purple, and come in a host of different shapes and sizes. Cupid is for the G-Spot — so is Honey. Wirly Girly is ribbed. Some are teeny-weeny, others are massive, and the savvy team uses an IRL spaghetti portion measurer to help people determine their fit.
“Shopping online isn’t the same as coming into the store,” says manager Renée. “When you come to Sh!, you have all of these friendly team members offering you a drink, ready to answer your questions.” She talks while I sip tea from a “Vagtastic” mug.
“We all remember how it was the first time we went into a sex shop,” she says. “The first time I visited Sh!, I couldn’t even speak, and now here I am, talking about vaginas every day. We’ve made sure to create a very comfortable safe space for women who are exploring their sexuality.”
And she’s right, the atmosphere is relaxed and warm, people have space to ask questions if they want or browse butt plugs in peace if they don’t. It’s such a far cry from the seedy, subversive, often-claustrophobic atmosphere that can develop in sex shops that aren’t rooted in women’s sexual empowerment.
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We’ve had a great evening listening to @immanilove talking about the importance of taking time for masturbation 💦 To help you get in the mood for some self-love, we’ve got copies of the her book *Adventures in Eroticism: Workplace* for only £12! 📘 (Show this post and we’ll slip some free lube in with your book to help your “reading”) • • As part of this year’s #RainbowTour Immani will be performing @barwot on the 20th of August – get yourself a ticket coz it’s going to be F I E R C E 🔥🔥 • • • • #Performance #MeTime #MeTimeGoals #SoloPlay #SelfPleasure #Exploration #SexPositive #SexEducator #SexEd #Lesbian #LGBT #LGBTQIA #Author #EroticPoetry #Workplace #Adventures #Eroticism #AdventuresInEroticism
This was why founder Ky Hoyle opened Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium 27 years ago. She was toy shopping but found that stores only catered for the male gaze, fantasy, and pleasure. So she stomped home, rustled up £700 ($870), and within a few months, the UK’s first women-owned sex shop was born.
There is (apparently) more to life than excellent orgasms, and Sh! is a big proponent of the role sexual wellness plays in overall health. The whole team are conscious of the prolific benefits of having a fully realized and embodied sexuality, and all seem grateful to be playing a role in helping women to discover this.
They run countless workshops and talks: On Fisting, Lifting your Libido (Menopause & Mindfulness), Orgasmic! (The Art of Female Orgasms), Spanking, Bedroom Bondage, Strapping/Pegging, and the like.
“We did do a lesbian class,” says Renée while I ponder how know-it-all us dykes can be, “but we found that most lesbians don’t want to come to a class like that.”
“Most of the women who came were those who’d generally been with men but wanted to build up their confidence,” she says, before we discuss how safe sex and consent are immensely important for queer women to fully understand, not just hop over as if its inherent knowledge.
Sh! also runs Café V, a safe space for survivors of sexual violence to talk about reclaiming their bodies and enjoying sex again and make game-changing products for those who suffering from vaginismus. It’s a very special, generative place, for all people, from baby dykes to lesbian know-it-alls. Somehow it’s possible to leave Sh! with a new rampant rabbit, newfound community, a wealth of knowledge, and a new sense of yourself.
Until 2014, Sh! had a strict door policy: men were only allowed in if they were accompanied by a woman. Though there are some weird people still out there, like the guy who calls regularly to say he works in a sperm bank and needs advice, Sh! is now happily open to everyone (maybe not the sperm bank guy).
This means that really adorable things happen, like the man who bounded in wearing a green polo neck and squidgy dad trainers to explain in hushed tones to Sh!’s Marlena that his wife had just reached menopause and wanted to know if there were any organic substances to help her. He left with a big smile and a little pack of aloe vera lube.
Long story short, next time you’re in town, cut all the crap and beeline it to Sh!. Who needs Big Ben when you’ve got Ben Wa Balls? Madame Tussauds when you’ve got Clone-A-Pussy casting kits? The River Thames when you’ve got (excruciatingly effective) clitoral arousal drops?
Here’s to Sh!. Here’s to more women-owned sex shops, places where women take the reigns of their own pleasure and facilitate others to do the same.