Sex Shopping, can you help?
Today we’re hosting a guest post from Rachel Wood, a researcher who is writing a PhD on sex shopping. Rachel is also looking for interviewees for her research, so if you’d like to help by discussing your sex shopping habits please contact Rachel via the information at the end of the post.
Sex Shopping, a PhD study
When I meet other researchers for the first time, or I am asked to introduce myself to a group at an academic event, I sum up my PhD research in one simple phrase: ‘I’m looking at women and sex shopping’. The response is almost always one of genuine interest, and is normally followed by a flood of questions. That this subject is an important and relevant one for academic enquiry has never yet been questioned.
Perhaps this is a virtue of being at a university like Sussex, particularly being based in a media and cultural studies department where trashy TV and pornography are taken seriously. But I think it is also being recognised more and more, both inside and outside the academic world, that the way sex shops and their products are marketed at women is an important and significant marker of women’s position in society today.
Sex shopping has gradually been feminised over the past twenty years, and according to the Hewson report the majority of sex toys are now bought by women. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly it is to do with regulation; a ‘sex shop’ does not have to have a licence if less than 10% of its stock is explicitly designed for sexual use. Unlike a licenced sex shop with its associations of blacked out windows, dodgy back streets and men in raincoats, Ann Summers is unlicensed and can sit on the high street opposite Marks and Spencer. So there has been a shift to a more feminine, open, couple or women oriented sex shop aesthetic, with a higher quotient of lingerie and novelty accessories.
There has also been a shift in retail culture more generally to selling aspirational ‘lifestyles’ to the consumer, rather than just presenting shelves of products. This could explain why, in the case of sex shopping, names like Coco de Mer and Lelo, synonymous with sexual indulgence and taste, have become so popular. The rapid rise of online shopping probably has something to do with it too, with Lovehoney being a notable success story. Then there are cultural shifts spurred on by media events, such as the featuring of the fun and girly Rampant Rabbit in Sex and the City in 1998; and now, love it or hate it, the huge success and influence of 50 Shades of Grey, which has inspired thousands of women to buy jiggle balls, nipple clamps, floggers and restraints.
All these changes I can observe, but what I really want to know is how women think and feel about them; how women respond to sexual consumer culture. How does the way a shop is designed make you feel when you are shopping in it? Do you feel comfortable, confident, embarrassed, amused, or turned on? Do you shop alone, with friends or with partners? Do you give or receive products from sex shops as gifts, and how does that make you feel? What kind of things do you consider buying, and what would you never buy? When you get the sex toys, lingerie or accessories home, how do they make you feel about yourself, about your body, your relationship? Are these products a big part of your sexuality and your sex life, how important are they and what effects do they have? The answers to these questions are absolutely fascinating to me.
I have been asked a few times recently, what brought me to this subject for my PhD? It certainly wasn’t easy to settle on a focus for my thesis, but in the end a number of academic and personal influences have come together in this study. l have been a fairly regular sex shopper myself for the past ten years. Particularly living in Brighton and London, I have noticed the way things have changed and become more oriented to me as a shopper; from my first giggly teenage visit to Ann Summers, and my first vibrator with its horrible soft porn packaging, to inviting, women friendly shops that I cannot wait to visit again, like Sh! in London and Tickled in Brighton.
As an academic however, I also take a critical view of these changes. Influenced by feminism and gender theory, I am interested in how spaces represent women through the way they are arranged and experienced. So what kind of femininities are being represented, promoted or excluded through these ‘women friendly’ boutiques or fun, feminine high street stores? At the same time, theory from the field of cultural studies has fed into the way I understand women’s responses to sexual consumer culture. Cultural studies looks at how people are positioned in contradictory ways by culture. Often culture can restrict or exclude particular identities. However, audiences and consumers are not passive, simply taking up the identities and values promoted and shown to them without question. Instead consumers have strong views of their own, and often they take up what they are offered by culture in a critical and unpredictable manner.
With this in mind, my aim in interviewing women about this topic is to give credit and respect to their own accounts and experiences of sex shopping culture, and conclusions remain very open at this stage. I will be back on this blog in a few months to update you on what kinds of things women have been talking about in my interviews.
If you would like to take part in my research please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. If you are over 18, live in the UK, identify as a woman, and have anything to say on the topic of sex shopping, I’d love to hear from you. Participants’ anonymity will be protected in the study.
Rachel grew up in Brighton. After doing a BA in English Literature at the University of Warwick she moved to London to take an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture. Three years ago she returned to the seaside and started a part time gender studies PhD at the University of Sussex, where she also teaches undergraduate media and cultural studies. Outside of university Rachel enjoys, among other things: shopping, crafting, cooking, dressing up and drinking.