A few months ago, my boyfriend and I went on a tour of Dublin’s sex shops, making our way through most of the adult stores Dublin has to offer. We were met with identical stock, disinterested staff and the lingering scent of PVC. It was clear from the outset that these were not comfortable experiences for anyone involved due to the overwhelming amount of low-quality stock, dark interiors and constant aversion of eye contact or interaction. Most striking was the fact that the only difference between each shop was the name plastered on the storefront. It felt like stepping into every viscerally awkward and unpleasant VICE article on sex all at once. My only realisation that day was that Dublin’s sex shops are overpriced, grimy and not fit for human consumption.
However, the face of the adult store industry in Ireland is changing. Shops like Sex Siopa and Playblue are evidence of a shift from the back alley, neon-lit adult stores that are commonplace in Dublin. Instead of the dingy, covert shops of days gone by, today’s retailers are taking a more positive approach to selling sex toys. With other cities seeing the rise of consumer-focused and sex-positive sex shops, Ireland is slowly catching up to this quickly evolving industry.
It felt like stepping into every viscerally awkward and unpleasant VICE article on sex all at once. My only realisation that day was that Dublin’s sex shops are overpriced, grimy and not fit for human consumption
Sex shopping in Dublin retains a sense of under-the-counter dirty dealing, with most suppliers offering a monotonous shopping experience of seedy blister-packaged insertables in an environment that prioritizes discretion over forging a sense of community. Shoppers are often met with a disorganised wall of sex toys, ranging from black double-ended dildos to graphic sex dolls, perhaps tapping into the shock factor. The fronts are often blacked out, allowing for no natural light to filter through the windows and creating a dark and discouraging atmosphere. Walking into a shop is often a harrowing and unwelcoming experience, filled with uncomfortable silence and avoiding eye contact with other shoppers. Staff are often uninformed on the merchandise being sold and have little to offer in terms of advice.
Sex toys aren’t one-size-fits-all. To paraphrase the internet’s rule 34, if you can think of it, someone’s probably into it. In a standard shop, you’ll find everything from handcuffs to dragon-inspired dildos to bondage rope and pornstar-inspired sex dolls. While talking about sex isn’t something many societies and cultures are good at, seedy shops and blacked out facades appear to reveal something about Ireland’s attitude towards sex. There is a certain sense of discretion when walking into one of these shops – it’s gloomy, the shop assistant likely won’t engage with you and the clientele keep to themselves. Almost any other hobby has a strong community support – be it cycling, board games or lock-picking – and yet sex, one of the most broadly enjoyed hobbies, is is bereft of such a support system. The sex shops in Dublin offer a solitary experience with no sense of community and minimal interaction. It’s unfortunate that this is the standard of the sex shop industry in a city like this – a major European capital that has otherwise made so many strides forward in such a short space of time.
Turning our gaze across the Atlantic Ocean to New York’s famous Babeland store, we find the answer to Dublin’s sex shopping culture in a refreshing and sex positive retail experience. Speaking to The University Times over email, Claire Cavanah, co-founder of US-based sex shop Babeland, explains that her and Rachel Venning opened their first shop, Toys in Babeland, in 1993 after “[they] realized there was no sex toy store in Seattle where we would shop”. Babeland now has four stores, one in Seattle and three New York-based locations, and along with retailers like Good Vibrations in San Francisco, California and She Bop In Portland, Oregon, they are at the forefront of a sex shop revolution that is slowly making its way to Ireland.
Sex toys aren’t one-size-fits-all. To paraphrase the internet’s rule 34, if you can think of it, someone’s probably into it
The experience of walking into a store like Babeland is the antithesis of browsing some of the stores in Dublin. In Babeland, the shelves are stocked with carefully selected and high-quality items. Rainbow coloured dildos and vibrators in all shapes and sizes are available to touch and get hands-on with, instead of being displayed behind a glass case or in plastic packaging. Buttplugs in different colours and geared towards different people line the store. There’s a section dedicated to BDSM that doesn’t seem intimidating or scary. The space isn’t overwhelming, and natural light is abundant. While visiting New York, one friend even remarked that she initially thought Babeland was an upscale candy store as a result of their colorful and bright window display. It was only when was walked in that she realised it was the legendary Babeland. Cavanah describes the store as as having a “boutique feel”.
Speaking to The University Times, Shawna Scott, founder of Dublin-based sex shop Sex Siopa, sees attitudes in Ireland changing and evolving, and shops like hers are a reflection of that. “I think Irish people are a lot more liberal than they give themselves credit for, and especially in Dublin. But I think that the problem is that we have issues about talking about it openly and maturely. Now, it’s getting better. Like everything else”, she attests. She uses Newstalk’s #PornWeek and her segment on sex toys on RTE 2’s Doctor Pixie’s Sex Clinic as examples, contrasting today’s attitude towards sex and sexuality with the occasion when Gay Byrne controversially completed a thorough demonstration on how to use condoms on The Late Late Show in the 1970s, a segment that was met with heavy criticism and shock. Scott explains that she believes examples like this have shown her “how much Ireland has changed in a short space of time”, though she confirms that she thinks “we still have ways to go”.
Scott emphasises that she feels like the displays in Babeland were more reminiscent of a “regular boutique” than having “a bunch of pegs in a wall hanging up stuff”, which can be overwhelming to customers. It’s this approach in design and display that creates a positive impact on customer’s experience with the sex toy industry. Creating a positive environment alone takes away the shame and taboo associated with purchasing a sex toy. Scott confirms: “Of course you’re going to feel a little bit embarrassed if it doesn’t make you comfortable being there”, highlighting one of the major issues with many Dublin-based stores.
These sentiments are central for Scott, who is originally from Washington but has lived in Dublin for 12 years. “Back in 2010/2011, I was in the market for a toy myself, and I didn’t really want to go to any of the shops in Dublin because they weren’t really comfortable shopping experiences for me.” This, coupled with research into the existing regulations regarding the materials used in sex goods, prompted Scott to launch Sex Siopa, which is online-only, in 2012. She explains that the response to her store so far very positive and that she “hasn’t really encountered anything terribly negative”.
Babeland, like other retailers, emphasises and offers workshops with titles such as “The Art of the Blowjob” and “Get Knotty: Easy Rope-Tying Tips”
Scott cites Babeland as an inspiration for her shop in terms of how they treat their customers. Informed employees are lacking in most Dublin sex shops, with most stores employing staff who are disinterested and lack the necessary knowledge about the products that are on sale. For shops like Babeland, however, education and creating a supportive and welcoming community is at the fore of their mission as a shop. Babeland, like other retailers, emphasises and offers workshops with titles such as “The Art of the Blowjob” and “Get Knotty: Easy Rope-Tying Tips”. Instead of apologising for sexuality, Babeland is a community where sex is more than tolerated: it’s celebrated as a positive aspect of human experience.
Experienced and attentive staff are key to pushing for an environment and community where sex is openly talked about and embraced as an integral part of daily life. Scott highlights Babeland’s staff as impressive, aware and interested in the customer’s individual needs and wants, saying “I was blown away at like how comfortable the staff made me feel. They really knew their stuff.” Robert Doyle, co-owner of Kilkenny-based sex shop Playblue, explains to The University Times that his staff are “experienced, so they’re able to do a lot more” in terms of helping customers find what they’re looking for.
Scott explains that she wants to be the face of her company and mentions how she “wanted to be the one to show people ‘hey, I’m okay with talking about sex openly’, and it gives them permission to do that as well”
Central to to creating an open dialogue about sex is welcoming and relatable marketing strategies. Scott explains that she wants to be the face of her company and mentions how she “wanted to be the one to show people ‘hey, I’m okay with talking about sex openly’, and it gives them permission to do that as well”. Leading by example, Scott has become somewhat synonymous with sex positivity and talking about sex in Dublin. She regularly speaks at colleges and has even participated at debates at Trinity College’s Historical Society (The Hist). She highlights the importance of being part of a community and that being present at markets, like the Burlesque Market in The Liquor Rooms and the Geared Ireland Market, offers an opportunity to engage face-to-face with customers, which is crucial in breaking down the stigma associated with talking about sex. “Basically anywhere where I can set up a stall and like actually show off the product. That’s my version of doing a retail shop”, she explains, “it’s way more cost effective”. Additionally, Scott’s presence is felt everywhere from the Irish Times to Image and she has also appeared on TV and radio, creating a visible and accessible platform for these discussions that will hopefully invite others to speak more openly on such topics without shame or fear.
While Scott’s online collection is on the smaller side, the toys and accessories she offers are high-quality and body safe. She boasts more famous brands like Lelo, We-Vibe and Fun Factory but also sells goods from independent retailers, like Madrid-based company, BS Atelier. Her focus is on suppliers she trusts and that create high-quality goods. When looking to add toys and accessories to her growing collection, she explains that she will often look at reviews from bloggers she’s familiar with and investigates which have gained popularity and which toys have received negative reviews. She adds that there are specific companies, like Fun Factory, that are almost always guaranteed to produce quality and popular toys that she feels comfortable selling on Sex Siopa.
The difficulties of owning a sex shop in Ireland actually begin before you own the shop, however. If most people are deeply uncomfortable even looking at sex toys, just try to imagine the next-level awkwardness of applying for a bank loan to set up your sex shop. With palpable frustration in his voice, Doyle explains: “We could never get a bank loan or go for grant money, and we have struggled to expand on the high street as we have found it incredibly hard to get a landlord to let to us.” Babeland’s founders faced similar issues. When setting up their business, Cavanah and Venning struggled with getting bank loans because of the stigma attached to the sex industry: “Even though selling sex toys is perfectly legal and we run our business with integrity, Babeland still has a bit of a stigma attached to it as a business. Banks aren’t known for taking a lot of risks, and that goes double for supporting a business like ours, so we don’t have the typical financial support another type of small business might take for granted.” Doyle founded Playblue with Richard Cullen in 2011 after noticing the poor effort put into the online presence of sex shops across Ireland. “With my IT skills and Richie’s industry knowledge, we formed Playblue as a brand new venture”, and he explains that they “have grown like a weed since” despite some of the issues and prejudice they have faced.
Last year, Cullen and Doyle had plans of opening a new shop in Drumcondra but were met with heavy criticism and protests from TDs and local residents due to its proximity to a school. Cullen explains that “they really just did not want an adult store in the area” and that after negotiating with the property’s landlord, they decided not to go ahead with the shop. Gaining national attention, the proposed opening saw local councillors like Fine Gael’s Noel Rock vocally disagree and rally against Playblue. The event raised issues concerning the locations of adult stores, with talk around implementing restrictions about opening sex shops within a kilometre of a school or church, Cullen mentions. This was their fifth or sixth attempt at opening a Dublin branch of Playblue, but they soon realised the difficulties in finding a landlord that would rent a space to them.
Cullen and Scott both mentioned the benefits of running a sex shop online, considering the high costs associated with a bricks-and-mortar store. Running a sex shop in Dublin is an expensive feat. Due to considerable rent costs, city centre-based sex shops are forced to sell sex toys, DVDs and magazines at higher prices to make a profit. Cullen mentions that a lot of the Dublin-based adult stores are marketing themselves to the wrong clientele, with many stores still emphasising the sale of magazines and DVDs, which no longer sell as well as they used to with the advent of the internet and free porn websites.
“Even though selling sex toys is perfectly legal and we run our business with integrity, Babeland still has a bit of a stigma attached to it as a business. Banks aren’t known for taking a lot of risks”
On the Playblue website, there is even a video of Doyle demonstrating and explaining how purchases are wrapped and shipped to ensure anonymity for worried customers. The amount of packaging is excessive, and if the products were already non-descript, the bulky packages practically undoes that. In addition to the box the toy comes in, Doyle shows how it’s placed into regular envelope or box and then wrapped in a black plastic. This deep-rooted fear of purchasing sex toys can only highlight our society’s perceived attitudes towards sex. I’ve had friends ask if I would be embarrassed to be seen in an adult store, and I’ve had friends who have never stepped foot in a sex shop for fear of being recognised. For many, discretion is much sought after when shopping for these goods. Doyle explains: “The biggest question we get is ‘is it discreet? Will the postman know? What will it say on the back of the thing?’.” This is echoed on Scott’s website, with “Discreet Shipping” a front-page headline along with a link to her blog and a page explaining the importance of body safe toys.
While perceptions surrounding the use of sex toys are changing, there is a distinct gender divide in the acceptability of purchasing these goods, with female’s use of sex toys seen as “sexy” and considerably more normalised. A man using a tex toy, be it a sleeve, sex doll or butt plug, has negative connotations. Doyle elaborates: “Male toys are less of a taboo but still nowhere near acceptable, which is one thing we really promote.” Scott explains that “guys who own sex toys are seen as creepy or weird or can’t get a girlfriend. And that needs to change”. And there’s the extreme of a Christian Grey-type character whose elaborate sex toy chamber is lined with whips and chains and even contains a leather bed. She also emphasises the limit in the types of sex toys available to men: “There’s not that much. You have masturbation sleeves and anal toys and cock rings and that’s about it.” It’s this lack of diversity further stigmatizes men’s use of sex toys.
Scott also highlights a lack of inclusivity and diversity in the sex toys for sale in most Dublin-based stores. The Irish sex shop scene is monotonous, with little geared towards women or the LGBT community. “There are no spaces that are really geared towards people like me or my friends or the queer community, and I think sometimes when you see ‘this is like the gay section’ of a shop, it’s like hardcore BDSM stuff, and not all queer people are into that either. I wanted to like create an online space that was inclusive for everybody.” Cavanah echoes this: “Places like Babeland offer women a safe place learn about sex, and about their bodies.” Following in the footsteps of retailers like Babeland, Sex Siopa is successful in catering to a wide range of shoppers in an inclusive and non-judgemental environment.
“There are no spaces that are really geared towards people like me or my friends or the queer community, and I think sometimes when you see ‘this is like the gay section’ of a shop, it’s like hardcore BDSM stuff, and not all queer people are into that either”
While sex positivity, quality goods and a supportive experience are emphasised by Scott in her business, she also seeks to raise awareness about body safe toys. Currently, the sex toy industry is unregulated, which allows for the use of potentially unsafe materials in the making of goods. Scott offers the US as an example, where certain plastic softeners, or Phthalates, were banned from being used in larger amounts than .1 per cent in children’s toys in the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act under President George W Bush. Sex toys, however, were not covered in this act, and there’s nothing stopping manufacturers from using Phthalates along with other harmful chemicals in the production of sex toys. Scott further explains that she is the “only shop in Dublin that sells exclusively body safe toys” and that she doesn’t “sell anything made from jelly or PVC or anything”. Very little attention is paid to this issue, and most shoppers aren’t aware of the use of harmful chemicals and lack of regulation in the making of sex toys.
“At Babeland we try to deliver the message that good sexual self-esteem and self-awareness leads to better sex with yourself, with others, and to a healthier and even happier life”, Cavanah reiterates. Retailers like Sex Siopa and Babeland emphasise the importance of sex as a positive experience and are eager to spread this message. With Dublin seeing the advent of more progressive and sex positive-focused sex shops that follow in the footsteps of Babeland, it’s clear attitudes towards sex and sexuality are changing. These stores have the ability to initiate a dialogue about sex toys and break down taboos. This is only the beginning of a sex positive revolution, and Dublin’s sex shops need to catch up.