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When Ky Hoyle went to Soho in the early ’90s to explore the sex shops, she found nothing that catered for female pleasure. She decided to take things into her own hands and launched Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium, the country’s first sex shop specifically for women. Since then, she’s spent the last 28 years developing a safe space where women can explore their sexuality, learn about their own bodies and ask positive questions.
I started Sh! in 1992 after a trip to Soho. As a young, liberated woman, I wanted to explore my sexuality. I was shocked at how intimidating and alienating the shop I went into was. I ended up going to so many, thinking the next one would be different, but there was nothing for women.
There was so much hate around sexuality at the time. In the early ’90s, the government banned the teaching of LGBTQ+ life and the Aids epidemic was still prominent. The tabloids were saying things like: ‘Don’t sit on a public toilet seat or you’ll catch Aids’, so there was a stark difference between that and anyone who was vaguely conscious. It really felt like ‘us’ and ‘them’.
There’s a huge pressure on women in terms of how they look and the kind of pleasure they should feel. It’s only recently that things are changing.
We were the first ever women-focused shop in Europe. For a long time, our policy was that men were only welcome as guests of women. We were trying to level the playing field and make sure that any woman who walked into the shop felt comfortable. We stopped that recently because, of course, trans men and women are welcome and gender is so fluid.
I never had a business plan. I just always thought that women needed to be empowered to explore their sexuality. Now, we run lots of classes in the shop to help with that.
I started the shop on £700. Then I had the problem of finding stock. Most things in the warehouses were just 18 inches of throbbing Mr Big John, but it was in one of those warehouses that I found the Rabbit. In the late ’90s, Cosmo asked us what toy we’d recommend for women, and we said the Rabbit. This was before anyone had heard of it. The next day we had 600 orders.
I couldn’t find many toys that weren’t dick-shaped or huge so we started making our own products. I moulded the first lot on my breakfast bar: silicone is a sensitive material that’s dependent on the environment, so a lot of them went wrong and ended up being dog toys at the start, but now we’ve got it right.
We’ve been open for 28 years but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not very long. We’ve got to battle centuries of not having permission to own our sexuality. We’re still fighting.
Talking to people is so important. One woman came in with a list of products. We gave her a cup of tea and got her to relax and it turned out her husband had said she was boring and wanted her to pep things up. She said she just wanted a cuddle. We told her to go away and think about it. We didn’t make a sale that day but that wasn’t the point.