Men really don’t like to be excluded from spaces. The suggestion that here or anywhere is a door, a line they may not cross, seems in many instances to act as red rag to the bully, an invitation to much petulance. I’ve written a lot about this phenomenon in respect of online/virtual space.
A week or two back I encountered it in the, er, adult sphere, as I earwigged on one guy who was decidedly unhappy about not being allowed unconditional access to women’s sex store, Sh!
When women do it for themselves
Let’s start with some potted background. Sh! are, as it says on the wrapper, a women’s sex store. That’s a bit like the rather more blokey version of the “adult store”, but totally different.
Of course, you’ll find some of the same products. Its just the emphasis that’s changed: a large proportion of the shelving is dedicated to a range of the more aerodynamic and up-market vibratory gadgets. Another few shelves are given over to lubes and massage oils and scented things. Downstairs, there is a library of erotic publications – mostly novels and short stories.
Absent is the crassly sexist: the crude pictorial. Absent, too, something more indefinable, but I’d distil it as an attitude and an ethos that see’s sex as something men do TO women. This is a place run by women for women and it is very much focussed on what women want. Whisper it low, but its not just for women who are straight!
A central plank to that ethos is that it is almost, but not quite, a women only place. Men are welcome – so long as they are accompanied by women (or during special “Men’s hours” that take place at set times during the week). Otherwise, Sh! are very clear: if you’re a solo guy looking for somewhere to grow your sexual fantasy, there are plenty of other places where you can do that. Most of Soho, for starters, which is full of “sex shops” that are mostly very unfriendly places for women to enter.
It’s a place where intimate conversation – often over a cup of tea – may take place. Again, because sex is not just “something you do”, but something you experience, awkward, embarrassing questions can and do get asked, answered, discussed.
It is, too, rather more than a shop, playing host to a variety of events that range far and wide, from sexual technique to personal health and safety. It also plays host to the occasional erotic reading and poetry slam. Which is how this story comes about: why I happened to be down at Sh! a couple of weeks back talking to the store manager about reading at their next event.
The phone went. A one-sided and increasingly heated conversation followed, with her repeating, several times in quick succession: “No you won’t!”.
After she put the phone down, I asked what was going on. She explained. The caller was a single guy. He had phoned to ask about opening hours: she told him. Also, told him of the store’s policy about unaccompanied guys and that he would need to be with a woman if he wished to visit.
“No, he wouldn’t!”, he told her.
“Yes, you will”, she explained politely.
“No, I won’t. I will come in unaccompanied.”
At which point the conversation shifted to pointless, him repeatedly asserting that he would be down to browse the store unaccompanied, her politely but firmly telling him he would not. It was bizarre, not to mention creepy and ever-so-slightly threatening.
Women need to define their own space
The store manager also told me that calls like that happen from time to time: from men so pissed that there is in London ONE sex shop where women reign supreme that they have to phone and demand admission. To date, thankfully, threat has never turned to actual violence.
I’ve written a bit recently about how a part of the online abuse thing seems to have its roots in a real dislike that men have at being excluded from certain spaces. That’s a complicated discourse. For while men have happily tolerated – nay, encouraged – exclusion of women from a whole range of spaces, from parliament to board room, there have nonetheless been spaces from which men have been excluded.
Mostly, and interestingly given this episode, “women’s spaces” seem to be places where women are themselves defined by biological function and “modesty”. Toilets and changing rooms (where the merest flash of flesh may be presumed corrupting influence). Mother-and-child spaces, where the defining factor is fertility and temples (the Roman Temple of the Vestal Virgins springs to mind) where chastity is the thing.
So, while women’s spaces have been limiting and private, men’s spaces have been enabling and public: places where power and business happen. Excluding women from the latter “makes sense”, because women are seen as having no right to be participating in decision-taking: resistance to women reclaiming public space is therefore deeply patriarchal
And a women’s sex store? I guess that similar considerations are at work. Sex, or – let’s be crude about it – fucking has been heavily constrained by heteronormative presumptions. The prevailing discourse remains male, with women, only in the last couple of decades, making any headway in asking awkward questions and suggesting there may be alternatives.
Which is why, for all the baggage attached to the idea of a “sex shop”, I believe that what Sh! are doing is enormously important and why , perhaps only dimly, some guys sense that and resent it. Because, women doing it by themselves, for themselves? Heaven forfend!
Update: this was actually written a while back…August…and for some reason it got lost! Since then, i read at their summer event, think the audience enjoyed it. A little. And am now down to repeat the trick at their poetry and reading slam on the evening of Friday 13 December