The sex shop—or, as it is often called, the adult bookstore or novelty store—is a store that sells products, occasionally referred to as marital aides, designed for the promotion and enhancement of sexual activity. Sex shops typically sell personal vibrators and dildos, anal plugs, masturbation aides, herbal aphrodisiacs, condoms, lubricants, nipple rings and clamps, various bondage and discipline and sadism and masochism (BDSM) accessories, instructional and sexual self-help books, and pornography.
The world's first sex shop, opened by the German sex industry group Beate Uhse AG, opened in Flensburg in 1962. Founded in 1946 by Germany's first female stunt pilot, Beate Uhse-Rotermund, Beate Uhse AG began as an organization that created and circulated family planning pamphlets. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Beate Uhse AG was the sex industry's most lucrative chain.
While the sex industry continues to be a lucrative business, sex shops meet with reactions from open acceptance to violent hostility. Laws regulating the sex shop industry have tried to simultaneously acknowledge factions that accept the public sex shop while catering to groups that do not. For this reason zoning laws are typically used to regulate and close sex shops, usually stating that sex shops may only be open in areas located a considerable distance from schools and churches. Zoning ordinances are occasionally manipulated in order to force sex shops out of commercial areas and into off-ramp zones and rural areas.
Many traditional and typically geographically marginalized sex shops provide viewing rooms, or video booths, for pornographic material. Users purchases coins, good for one to three minutes of viewing time each, which are used to access pornographic films. Most of these viewing rooms are private, enclosed spaces, and these spaces may be used by individual users; however, it is not uncommon for couples or groups to use these viewing rooms as semi-public spaces for group viewings or sexual encounters.
In one wall of some video booths, glass partitions (partitioned booths are called buddy booths) or glory holes (small apertures) connect two rooms. In a buddy booth users in separate rooms may simply opt to watch each other masturbate or engage in other autoerotic behavior. In the case of glory holes, users may simply watch one another through these fist-sized holes, but, as is typically the case, users may also engage in various types of sexual activity through these holes. Glory-hole etiquette dictates that if a male user wishes to perform sexual activity on another man's penis through the glory hole, the man making the offer should stick his finger through the hole long enough for the other man to see it. At this point either man might put a condom in the hole, indicating that they desire or are willing to offer oral or anal sex.
In the 2000s women-focused sex shops are becoming more prevalent and are being met with higher levels of social acceptance. Sex shops for women are typically viewed as a more tasteful and aesthetically pleasing response to the male-centered, masturbation aide shops that are typically housed in seedier districts. Women-owned shops have functioned to promote a shift in social views of sexual enhancement products, bringing sex toys closer to the forefront of mainstream social awareness. Joani Blank founded Good Vibrations, the oldest women-owned, women-run sex shop, in 1977 in San Francisco. In 1993 Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning followed suit by creating Toys in Babeland, opening their first store in Seattle and their second five years later in New York. The store was renamed Babeland in 2005. In 2001 Searah Deysach opened Chicago's Early to Bed, also known for its dedication to female clientele. In the United Kingdom David Gold's Ann Summers chain, purchased in 1972, likewise focuses on female clientele and on presenting a more tasteful approach to the sex toy industry. Such shops are often credited for promoting a healthy and socially responsible approach toward sex education and sexual tolerance. The Good Vibrations web site, for example, states that "[w]e look forward to the day when talking about sex, shopping for sex toys and teaching our kids about sex is so easy, so comfortable and so common that we take it for granted".
The Internet has broadened the range of clientele and bolstered the availability of sex products while pushing them into the mainstream conscience. Babeland's owners, for example, opened the store's virtual online incarnation in 1996; the virtual version, as with many of its kind, offers discrete service and women-centered information (such as how to choose the right vibrator) while protecting the buyer's anonymity.
Although the Internet has certainly augmented the privacy of purchasing sexual-enhancement products, it has not replaced the traditional sex shop. Some Internet sex shops might offer the opportunity to view segments of pornographic material, but they certainly cannot offer an equivalent to the video booth described above. The online sex shop's greatest asset may be that it provides discretion and anonymity for buyers of sexual-enhancement products. Moreover, by facilitating access to sexual aides and by fostering availability and demand of such products and services, online sex shops have helped make such products easily accessible and affordable for the general public.
Although many online sex shops exist as virtual manifestations of physical spaces, including Babeland.com and goodvibrations.com, there is an ever-increasing number of web-exclusive shops offering to satisfy the full range of sexual desires, offering products that appeal to more than just the vanilla appetites of mainstream buyers. Such shops, in addition to offering an array of vibrators, dildos, clitoral stimulators, anal plugs, and other products referred to as penetralia, sell BDSM products such as sex harnesses, bondage beds, wrist cuffs, nipple clips, spanking devices, and so on.
The sex industry represents the Internet's oldest and most lucrative sales industry. Porn sites and Internet sex shops have set the standards for online sales, usually developing software and platforms that inform more traditional online stores, such as Amazon and eBay. In 2001 Forbes magazine estimated that the online sex industries generated billions of dollars per year in revenue. Although it is next to impossible to pinpoint an exact figure and to allocate these funds to various types of services—such as porn sites, dating services, and novelty stores—it is safe to say that the online sex shop has been and continues to be a lucrative venture for online sellers.
Although the online sex industry has certainly helped foster an increasing acceptance of healthy, consensual, and autoerotic sexuality, it is most often criticized for enabling minors to access sexually graphic materials. Many online sex shops offer advertisements and links to online sex chatrooms as well as to sites that offer pornographic material. Additionally, the online sex industry has come under fire for exposing minors and adults alike to sexually deviant tastes, such as bestiality and coprophilia, and thereby promoting sexual views that objectify women or encourage the viewer to develop more "unusual" tastes and desires (Fisher and Barak 2000, p. 578-579). In response, a host of Internet nannies, or web-based mediation services, have developed in order to regulate the accessibility of such materials.
Beate Uhse AG. Available from http://www.beateuhse.ag/index.html.
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Good Vibrations. "Who We Are." Available from http://www.goodvibes.com/Content.aspx?id=45.
Howlett, Debbie. 2003. "Sex Shops Infiltrate Small Towns." USA Today (4 December 2003): 3A.
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